Sonia Gandhi visits rape victim's family, rejects khap panchayat's stand

Jind, Haryana: Congress president Sonia Gandhi spent 10 minutes today in a small, one-storey home in Haryana's Jind district visiting the family of a Dalit girl who committed suicide after she was gang-raped over the weekend. "She hugged me and said 'It wasn't just you who lost a daughter...she was my child too'," said the mother of the teen who set herself on fire after being raped in a home near her own, reportedly with a police constable making sure she could not escape her captors.

In the last 30 days, 11 rapes have been reported from Haryana. Mrs Gandhi's visit ended just as news arrived of another two rapes.

The drive from Delhi to Jind is about 3.5 hours. The family Mrs Gandhi visited lives in a village named Sacha Khera. She spent time today with the victim's mother, four sisters and two brothers.  As she was leaving Jind, she said, "I criticise in the strongest terms these kind of incidents. The guilty should get the severest punishment."   

She also rejected the recommendation of a khap panchayat in Haryana which said that to check rapes, young men and women should get married very young so that their "sexual desires find safe outlets." "We have democratic systems here. We have a judiciary. The law is in the hands of the judiciary and nobody else," she added. Khap panchayats are a group of village elders who exert huge control over social norms and traditions in rural areas. Their word serves as law.

Today, Mrs Gandhi was accompanied by Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, whose response so far to the spate of crimes against women in his state has been frustrating and inadequate. Gang rapes have been reported with alarming frequency from Haryana, many of them involving Dalit teens, with some filmed on cellphone cameras and distributed among villages, adding to the trauma of the victims and their families.

Minutes after Mrs Gandhi exited, the mattresses and cots borrowed for her visit today were hastily removed from the home of the victim's mother, who said, "She promised me that I will get justice...I have hope now."

On Tuesday, the Haryana Congress chose to call the rapes a "conspiracy to malign the government." Phool Chand Mulana, who heads the state branch of the Congress, said that the spate of rapes, many of them involving Dalit minors, was being sensationalised as "a political conspiracy."

A Dalit teen was raped last month in Hisar by 12 men, and an MMS of the assault was circulated in the village. Unable to cope, her father killed himself. The victim and her mother refused to collect his body from a local hospital till a police case was registered against the attackers.

But the fact that it took his death to propel the police into registering a case of rape is a grim reflection of the condition of Dalits in the state.

How seriously rape is taken locally is evident from the recent reaction of a khap panchayat - in Rohtak, the chief minister's home district, a panchayat member said that rapes can be checked if young men and women are made to marry earlier." When girls and boys go through puberty, they start having sexual desires which attract them to do unethical things. These things can also lead to rape, which is why I think there shouldn't be an age limit to marriage. When a girl is young, and a boy is young, they should just get married," he said.