Thousands sign petition to stop rape of low-caste Indian sisters

Thousands have signed a petition seeking protection for two Indian sisters, allegedly threatened with rape by a village council.

NEW DELHI, INDIA (AUGUST 31, 2015) (REUTERS) – An online petition seeking protection and justice for two low-caste Indian sisters allegedly threatened with rape by a village council has gathered over 175,000 signatures in a week, Amnesty International India said on Monday (August 31).

The human rights group began the petition last week after 23-year-old Meenakshi Kumari, her 15-year-old sister and their family were forced to flee their northern India village in May after their brother eloped with a higher caste, married woman.

“They threatened us by saying they will claim honour for honour. ‘What has been meted out to our woman (from the ‘Jat’ community), will be done to yours (low-caste ‘Dalit’ community). Since you have two girls in your home, we will rape both of your girls too’,” said Kumari.

An un-elected village council, dominated by upper caste “Jat” men, in Uttar Pradesh state on July 30 allegedly ordered the two “Dalit” sisters be raped and paraded naked with their faces blackened as punishment for their brother’s actions.

Himanshi Matta from Amnesty International India said the petition called on the government to take all steps to ensure the safety of the family so they can return home and for an investigation into the rape order and prosecution if necessary.

“Amnesty has already appealed to the Chief Minister and our millions of supporters have written to the Chief Minister, we’ve signed thousands of petitions. We’ve had 25,000 signatures on our petition asking the Chief Minister to ensure that the family members are given safety and security. Not just that, a thorough investigation is ordered into the case and the facts of the case are brought to light. And if there is existence of a Khap Panchayat (village council), or if there is an existence of such dominant groups trying to threaten people, then they are brought to book,” she said.

The petition to Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has so far attracted the attention of over 176,000 people, mostly on its British website since it was launched on August 24.

Only 17 people had signed Amnesty’s India site, said Matta, attributing this to the family getting more international media attention than local media coverage.

Kumari’s lawyer, Rahul Tyagi, alleged the family had been subjected to threats over the petition.

“About seven or eight days back, somebody who claimed to be from Baghpat Police came to their house and asked for the copy of the petition. And while he was going, he told them not to pursue the case. Otherwise, it may so happen that he (the petitioner’s brother) will be involved in a case of rape. Immediately, we lodged a complaint with the Delhi Police secretariat, and in a day or two, we started receiving those threats that we should compromise,” he said.

Diktats issued by kangaroo courts are not uncommon in rural regions and caste-discrimination remains widespread, despite being illegal.

In northern parts of India, these village councils known as “Khap Panchayats” act as de-facto courts settling rural disputes on everything from land and cattle to matrimony and murder.

But they are coming under growing scrutiny as their punitive edicts grow more regressive, ranging from banning girls wearing jeans and using mobile phones to supporting child marriage and sanctioning the lynching of couples in “honour killings”.

Police in Baghpat district dismissed the Kumari case, saying there was no evidence a diktat being passed.

“No Khap Panchayat nor any such diktat has come to the fore (in our investigation). But still, since the matter involves two sides, security arrangements have been made to prevent any untoward incident. Two days earlier, orders came from the Honourable Chief Minister to provide security to the family, and accordingly, we have increased security there,” said Sharad Sachan.

But family members claim they are being influenced by the council members, whose caste wields considerable political and economic power in the region.

The family has also petitioned India’s Supreme Court seeking protection to return their village. The court has ordered the Uttar Pradesh government to reply by September 15.