Priyanka Reddy: Will Justice Ever Truly be Served? BY ELIZABETH BRATTON

December 9 2019 - Editorial

WARNING: Explicit descriptions of rape and murder.

On November 26, Priyanka Reddy, a veterinarian from Shamshabad in Hyderabad, was gang-raped, strangled to death, and then burnt under a bridge, a devastating crime that has become yet another statistic in India’s alarmingly high rates of female abuse. But this time, the tragedy didn’t stop there. Over the past few weeks, Reddy’s case has sparked both nationwide and global outrage, with large-scale protests and outspoken citizens exposing the Indian authorities’ failure to secure justice for the women of their country.

On the night of the crime, Reddy had parked her scooter close to Tondupally Toll Plaza before taking a taxi to a dermatologist appointment. In her absence, two lorry drivers and their two assistants, who had been consuming whisky, allegedly punctured one of her tires. The vet returned to her vehicle at around 21:15, and, upon discovering the deflated tire, made a phone call to her sister. The four men are then said to have offered Reddy help. Rather than doing so, they pushed her into a hedge nearby, shut her phone down, and forced whisky into her mouth to silence her calls for help. The men then raped her, rendered her unconscious, and smothered her - eventually to death. In an attempt to hide the evidence, the men wrapped Reddy’s body in a blanket and burnt it under a bridge, using petrol as fuel. According to the Washington Post, a white scarf and necklace found near the crime scene enabled Reddy’s remains to be identified.

The police’s response to the situation been widely condemned by both the public and Reddy’s family. Reddy’s father reported his daughter missing at around 11pm on the 27th of November. However, a search party wasn't sent out until about four hours later. Officers also took hours to report the case to their seniors or to the centralized control room. Furthermore, the victim’s father explained that the police force rationalized his daughter’s disappearance by suggesting she’d eloped, rather than assuming she was in danger. He went on to say: "the police kept delaying the matter. They kept us waiting for three hours. Two constables went looking for my daughter but failed. The police apathy costs us our daughter.” Three police officers have since been suspended for negligence.

Public figures were quick to weigh in on the issue, some whose comments only further supported arguments that the callous approach taken during Reddy’s case signified a bigger issue regarding India’s outlook and approach towards female victims of violence. Home Minister Mohammed Mahmood Ali suggested that Reddy had made a mistake in contacting her sister about the puncture, rather than the police. He argued: “she was an educated woman, and yet she called her sister instead of 100 [police helpline]. “Had she called 100, she would have been saved.” When such statements resulted in accusations of victim-blaming, the minister was quick to clarify that he was “deeply saddened by the mishap”.

Additionally, Indian film director Daniel Shravan stated in a since-deleted series of tweets: “rape is not a serious thing, but murder is inexcusable,” adding that “the government should legalize rape without violence for the safety of women.” He went on to suggest that women cooperate with rapists and even carry condoms, as to avoid their rape ending in a murder. Meanwhile, MP Jaya Bachchan argued the rapists should be lynched. Similarly, Binoy Viswam, a member of the Indian Communist party, said, "I do not believe in death penalty but these accused should be hanged for such a heinous crime.”

On November 30th, thousands gathered outside a police station near Hyderabad, demanding the perpetrators face the death penalty. Meanwhile, a candle march took place in Sagalee, as Debia Lalum, Vice-Chairman of a local school, condemned the act as “inhuman” and “beyond imagination”. That Saturday, tens of thousands took to the streets of Hyderabad during the suspects’ hearings. As tensions between protestors and police rose, crowds began throwing slippers at police officers, and blocking their way. One of the suspects’ mothers even believed that her son should be hanged if he was found guilty, saying, "if my son is wrong, burn him the same way she was burnt. Isn't the victim also daughter of a mother?”

Four men named Mohammed Arif, Chintakunta Chennakeshavulu, Jollu Shiva, and Jollu Naveen allegedly confessed to the brutal crime. On Friday, police returned to the site of the crime, where they shot and killed them. The shootings were supposedly the result of one of the suspects attempting to grab an officer’s gun, however there has been some skepticism surrounding this claim. Approximately 300 people gathered around the site in Shadnagar to thank the authorities for their work, some chanting “long live police,” and others throwing flower petals in celebration.

Policemen being celebrated after shooting rape suspects. (Mahesh Kumar/Associated Press)

However, the killings were not welcomed by all - many believed that the police should not have taken such matters into their own hands. Maneka Gandhi, MP for the Bharatiya Janata Party, stated, “if you’re going to kill the accused before any due process of law has been followed, then what’s the point of having courts, law and police?” Meanwhile, others argue that the extrajudicial killings (known as encounters) prevent criminals from facing the full wrath of the law, and are nothing more than “a ploy to shut down our demand for accountability from governments, judiciary and police, and dignity and justice for women,” as Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association, has stated.

Though it has not been proven, many individuals have seen the killings as a means of attempting to please (and silence) activists, while preventing a tragedy that has already sent a lot of negative press the Indian police’s way from becoming a very public court case, opening Indian authorities to even more criticism. Either way, the event flipped the narrative about the police’s initial negligence for many citizens. In response to the news that his daughter’s murderers were dead, Priyanka’s father stated: "it has been 10 days to the day my daughter died. I express my gratitude towards the police and government for this. My daughter's soul must be at peace now."

And yet only a few days ago, another victim of rape was burned to death by a gang of men, including her former abuser. She had kerosene thrown over her, before being set alight. Having suffered burns to 95% of her body, and her lungs filled with “hot and toxic fumes," the woman died in the hospital. The victim had filed a complaint against one of the perpetrators of this attack in March, when he had allegedly raped her at gunpoint, and was on her way to court to testify against him, when he murdered her. The woman is thought to have been “beaten, stabbed, and set on fire” by five men - two of which she had previously reported.

In 2017, Indian police recorded 32,500 cases of rape, which is an average of approximately 90 incidents a day. However, it is estimated that this figure could be far greater, as victims often do not report sexual assault. And yet, despite the statistics, the government is still deemed as overwhelmingly unresponsive to the victims of these crimes.

While Reddy’s case directed long overdue attention to the issues of rape and femicide in India, the end result has done little to promise longterm change. With this, the core question remains unanswered: can justice ever truly be served to Priyanka Reddy?

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REUTERS/Vinod Babu, Mahesh Kumar/Associated Press