The City Sessions Court in Kolkata, on November 7th, 2017 sentenced Nazrul Islam alias Naju – a Bangladeshi national – to life imprisonment till death for raping a 71-year-old Christian nun at the Convent of Jesus and Mary at Ranaghat in West Bengal’s Nadia district on March 14, 2015. While Nazrul was held guilty in the rape case and five others convicted for robbery, one accused remains on the run.
The senior nun was sexually assaulted by a group of anti-social elements, including four Bangladeshi nationals who had broken into the school compound of the Convent in an attempted case of robbery. The accused were arrested by the West Bengal CID. The nun, who moved out of the state after the assault, travelled to Ranaghat and identified the accused from a police line-up by touching his hand.
This news was published across India’s newspapers and the World’s as a crime that has finally been detected and its perpetrator ‘a Bangladeshi’ nabbed. In the swarm of articles that made headlines across the world at the time of the offence in 2015, the ‘gang-rape’ was symbolised as a failure of India’s polity in stopping crimes against women, the case drawing parallel with the Delhi gangrape and a direct threat to Christian rights and community safety at risk in ‘Modi’s India’, a phrase that is used almost religiously now to insinuate a newly-fangled ‘intolerance towards minorities’.
Why Reuter then reported reams in a story ‘Christians say under siege in Modi’s India after rape, attacks’ published after the ‘gang-rape’ of the nun wherein the writer maintains Christians in India said ‘the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi had not done enough to protect their religion, after a spate of attacks including the rape of a 71-year-old nun.
‘Christians prayed and held vigils across the country to protest against the rape during an armed assault on a convent school, the worst in a series of incidents that followers of the faith say are making them feel unwelcome in their own country.’
The article goes on to say, ‘The government banned the documentary, ‘India’s Daughter’, a decision which angered some Indians who said it should be aired to highlight the prevalence of gender inequality and sex crimes.’ The report conveniently remained silent on the fact the documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ had been banned by the government because it violated legal norms and conditions and was stopped by the Delhi High Court from being screened, even online. To squarely continue to blame the government for an act which was well within legal rights and suggests that there are attempts to muzzle ‘free press’ isn’t just excessive, it is flagrantly contemptuous and violative of the law of the land.
The article quoted Father Savari Muthu, spokesman for the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese and a national Church organiser, who said ‘the government had not taken concrete action to protect Christians…We have to raise our voice against the atrocities. Christians will not tolerate this humiliation’ adding ‘Modi has not done enough to ensure religious harmony in a country with a history of inter-faith bloodshed.’
Why even prominent retired police chief Julio Ribeiro had written in a column in the Indian Express soon after the West Bengal Nun rape, expressing worry. In the column he went on to write, ‘Today, in my 86th year, I feel threatened, not wanted, reduced to a stranger in my own country. The same category of citizens who had put their trust in me to rescue them from a force they could not comprehend has now come out of the woodwork to condemn me for practising a religion that is different from theirs. I am not an Indian anymore, at least in the eyes of the proponents of the Hindu Rashtra.’
When the esteemed former police chief, in the heat of the moment, put down his thoughts suggested that ‘Ghar Wapsi’ was responsible for the spate of attacks on Churches and its peaceful people, he probably didn’t consider the West Bengal Nun rape a stray, isolated case of crime which it did, ultimately turn out to be, underlining the ever-pressing need to exercise restraint in reportage and commentary that risk quashing the very basis of your belief. Religious and ideological differences don’t translate directly into conclusive evidence of guilt.
The RSS, on its part, had condemned the rape. ‘No attack should be tolerated on any woman in India. Be it a Hindu, a Muslim or a Christian,’ had said Suresh Joshi, RSS general secretary then. But it was lost in the sea of dissent and fear.
The Reuter’s report read: ‘The Opposition in the upper house of Parliament said the attack could damage the secular fabric of the country, where about a fifth of 1.27 billion people identify themselves as belonging to faiths other than Hinduism. The large majority of those being Muslims.
‘Since December, half a dozen churches have been vandalised, at the same time as conservative groups have campaigned to convert to Hinduism members of ‘foreign religions’ such as Islam and Christianity.’
The Guardian, on its part, in ‘Fear and anger grow in India after rape of elderly nun’ maintained that ‘Prayers are said across India after the brutal attack during convent robbery.’ It reported that ‘The assault on the 71-year-old is the latest in a high-profile string of rapes in India and follows a spate of attacks on churches that prompted the Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, to promise a crackdown on religious violence.’
It said, ‘The rape has added to the sense of fear and dismay among members of the country’s Christian minority, who have been deeply upset by recent attacks on churches. Modi had been heavily criticised for not speaking out earlier against religious violence and has also faced flak for remaining silent about a spate of mass ‘re-conversions’ of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism.’
‘Even if you call it an isolated incident, the background and the atmosphere for such an attack had already been there, so you cannot simply ignore it as a one-off incident, said Father Savarimuthu Sankar, a spokesman for the Delhi diocese to AFP.’
The BBC, true to its wont, went on to report on Indian Media and how it was worried about the surge in ‘intolerance against Christians’ and so on.
Now, the arrest and the concurrent conviction of the rapist ‘Bangladeshi’ Nazrul Islam is being reported ‘as is’ and without any commentary or generalisations towards his community or religious leanings in a drastic albeit selective demonstration of journalistic sensitivity. That the crime was one of attempted robbery and the rape (by Nazrul Islam) – not gang-rape as reported widely – was induced to silence the protesting nun, is being played down and conveniently so. That it was a crime in isolation and had absolutely no connections to the proponents of the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ or ‘RSS’ or the ‘Ghar Wapsi’ gang is not being written about in India, leave aside the World media which isn’t exactly interested in stray crimes unless they can be symbolic of ‘cracks’ in India’s robust democracy.
The State’s Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee, lending communal flavour and sensitising the crime, had requested the Centre to initiate a CBI probe into the issue which was immediately, and rightly so, turned down. Minister Firhad Hakim then blamed intolerance and religious fanaticism in West Bengal. ‘Religious intolerance in the name of Ghar Wapsi is at work sometimes in Odisha and sometimes in Bengal. This may be one of the reasons.’ Not surprisingly, the West Bengal Chief Minister, her protégé and ‘then-worried’ CPM leaders are now silent on the verdict.
Few politicians, religious spokespersons and self-styled proponents of peace now publicly acknowledge that the crime was misread and the fears regarding persecution unfounded. Crimes, in India, as the rest of the world does, have to be treated with a sense of objectivity. Instead of politicising them and dressing them with communal flavour only to make headlines and suit an agenda causes more harm to the nation and her interest than good. The West Bengal Nun rape issue should teach New India lessons on ethical reportage, political mileage and generalisations.
The rest of the ‘developed’ World has been there, done that!
(Gajanan Khergamker is an India-based Independent Editor, Solicitor and Film-maker. This column has been published in an arrangement with DraftCraft)