Gang-rape, killing in India stirs faith leaders and advocacy groups to action

The “United For Justice Rally: Against the Rapes in India,” was organized by Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus. The rally was held in Union Square in Manhattan, April 16. Faith leaders and advocacy groups from around New York City gathered in front of the Mahatma Gandhi statue to condemn the recent rapes that have sparked another wave of protests and backlash in India. (Paresh Gandhi)

NEW YORK — Holding placards and shouting slogans like “Justice for Asifa” and “Enough is Enough,” Indian-Americans joined faith leaders and advocacy groups from around New York City in front of the Mahatma Gandhi statue in Union Square to condemn the recent rapes that have sparked another wave of protests and backlash in India.

Speakers and participants of diverse faiths, cultures and backgrounds came together at the April 16 “United For Justice Rally: Against the Rapes in India,” to stand in solidarity with the young girls who were brutalized and tortured in Kathua, Unnao and Surat.

Posters with photographs of 8-year-old Asifa Bano, the Muslim nomad girl who was gang-raped by eight men, all Hindu, and then murdered in Kathua in Jammu & Kashmir, lined Union Square, as people expressed outrage. Participants and activists protested Asifa’s violent fate along with that of a teenage girl in Unnao in Uttar Pradesh and a girl in Surat believed to be between 9 and 11 years of age.

“We want to demand justice for every family,” said Sunita Viswanath, board member of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, and one of the main organizers of the rally. “We want to call out the complicity and hypocrisy of our political and religious leaders,” she said amid applause. “Some actions are so vile that it becomes necessary for people to come out and condemn them in public, just as we are.”

Gang-rape, killing in India stirs faith leaders and advocacy groups to action

Sunita Viswanath, board member of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, speaks at the rally. (Paresh Gandhi)

Organizers told India Abroad that the rally is an attempt to drive home the message that these atrocities will not happen to women and girls. Viswanath said it’s important for organizations like Sadhana to take lead and stand up against these crimes “because so many Hindu and BJP-affiliated men are involved in these atrocities; both are perpetrators of these horrific rapes and or as supporters of the rapists.”

She said the Hindu Ekta Manch, formed to support the perpetrators, is an insult to Hindus and all that they stand for. “Ekta is word that’s very important to the Hindus — it means oneness, it means unity, and we will not let such words that are sacred to us to be co-opted by hate mongers and rapists,” she said.

Hicksville resident Quddus Mohammed came to the rally from Long Island because he said it was the first step towards compassion. It is imperative that we make our voice heard, Mohammed told India Abroad. “If it can happen to one person, it happens to all of us,” he said.

Representatives from more than 20 advocacy and civil rights groups, including Sakhi for South Asian Women, Women for Afghan Women, Turning Point for Women and Families, South Asian American Womens Alliance, Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality and the Jhahajee Sisters.

Also in attendance were representatives from several Hindu temples and diverse faith groups like Shakti Mariamma Temple, Shri Lakshmi Narayan Mandir, Shaanti Bhavan Mandir and ISKCON.

Other speakers echoed Viswanath’s sentiments. Kavita Mehra of Sakhi for South Asian Women said she was “sick” with the growing “epidemic” of rapes and crimes against women.

“We are sick and tired of what we have to go through for equity and justice,” she told the crowd.

“What we need is justice every single day and what we are not getting is justice every single day. We must resist, it is our time to resist and our time to fight back,” Mehra said.

Kashmir-born and raised Daisy Khan, of Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, said she’s “heartbroken” over Asifa’s rape and murder. Noting that the system failed women and girls, Khan said it is “heartbreaking that religions are being used as weapons to incite fear and hatred instead of connecting people to God.” A minor’s death should unite the country, instead of dividing it, she said.

Gang-rape, killing in India stirs faith leaders and advocacy groups to action

Representatives from Shaanti Bhavan Mandir at the protest rally. (Paresh Gandhi)

Two days later, several from the community gathered at the Union Square steps to protest, this time under the aegis of the South Asia Solidarity Initiative and Equality Labs. In a press release issued before the March 18 vigil, the group said that “understanding the nature of this horrifying crime, we cannot ignore the critical context of the brutal occupation of Kashmir by the Indian state.”

According to the group, “the occupation normalizes the use of sexual violence as a war tactic and provides impunity to those who commit these acts of violence”While gathering to demand justice for Asifa and her family, the group says it stands in solidarity with all victims of sexual violence, and recognize the long history of sexual violence faced by Kashmiris under a military occupation.

The group said: “We stand in solidarity with the Kashmiri people’s right for self-determination and join the demand to end the occupation.”

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