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India nun rape: 'No religious angle to it'

The gang rape of an elderly Indian nun in eastern India has raised the question: was it a law-and-order incident, a result of communal tension, or simply gender violence? DW speaks to rights activist Saswati Ghosh.

The 71-year-old Sister Superior of the Convent of Jesus and Mary in the Indian town of Ranaghat was discharged from hospital in the early hours of Friday, March 20, after the medical board had examined her and found her to be physically and mentally fit.

On March 14, six men allegedly broke into the convent, ransacked the premises, tied up a security guard and gang-raped the nun, before escaping with cash, a laptop and a mobile phone, police maintain.

The West Bengal state government has entrusted the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) with the investigation. No persons have been arrested so far, albeit 15 persons have been detained in connection with the incident, police have said.

The incident has prompted Hindu nationalist Prime Minster Narendra Modi to crackdown on religious violence after a spate of attacks on churches.

In a DW interview, women's rights activist Saswati Ghosh says that in the heavily politicized and polarized climate of the state, the conspirators – not the perpetrators – behind the crime possibly had "political protection."

Saswati Ghosh

Ghosh: 'I don't think rapes are crimes of passion or crimes of sex; it is a way to show your power'

DW: How do you evaluate the incident?

Saswati Ghosh: What has happened in Ranaghat is primarily an armed robbery. As the local people are saying – political activists and people from the school itself – since November 13, 2014 there had been warnings that (certain miscreants) wanted a share of the donations that have reached the school. And they (the school authorities) asked for protection in writing from the police. Even after that, they were not given adequate protection.

Secondly, just seven days prior to the incident, some notorious local miscreant called up the Convent of Jesus and Mary, threatened the administration and asked for money. Maybe the people who were actually involved (in the robbery and the attack on the Sister Superior) were hired goons from other states, but those who designed the whole operation are likely in West Bengal. I don't think, in this particular incident, that there is any religious angle to it.

Why did it have to end in the brutal attack on an aged nun?

I don't think rapes are crimes of passion or crimes of sex; it is a way to show your power - "Look who I am" - that kind of thing. Assaulting an aged woman like her, it was just to give her a lesson that "we won't spare even you, if you dare to protest or if you do not comply." On the other hand, violating a nun may be perceived as being more severe than violating any other woman. As a women's rights activist, I believe that this has definitely a (male) power angle (to it)... asserting the power asymmetry.

Will the Ranaghat incident tarnish the image of West Bengal which was – and perhaps still is – considered to be a state where Christians as a minority are not just safe but also liked and admired, for instance for the way they run the so-called "missionary," English medium schools?

Due to media coverage as well as the rise in incidents of violence against women, the perception of West Bengal has been quite badly tarnished in the past two to three years. But I still think Christians as a community are safer here.

Saswati Ghosh is a well-known women's rights activist based in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal. She is also the Head of the Department of Economics of City College, Kolkata.

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