By Anant GuptaMarch 4, 2024

NEW DELHI — Police in eastern India say they have arrested three men and are pursuing four others in the gang rape of a Brazilian tourist, a case that has drawn cries of fury and shame from those in Indian society who say sexual violence against women remains a stubbornly endemic problem.

The attack on the Brazilian travel blogger and her Spanish partner took place in a forest late Friday, as the couple were camping while traveling by motorbike across eastern India to Nepal.

Struggling to fight back tears and showing bruises on their faces, the couple said in an Instagram post Saturday morning that seven men held knives against their throats and took turns sexually assaulting the woman while beating and restraining her male partner.

5 years after the gang rape that shocked a nation, reporting assault in India is still ‘a nightmare’

Local police in Jharkhand state said in a news release that they had taken the victims to a nearby hospital and confirmed the outlines of their account. All seven men have been identified and a special investigation team has been set up to arrest the four still at large, police in the Dumka district said.

While cases of rape targeting Indian women from lower castes and Indigenous tribal communities are rife, and often receive little notice and aren’t prosecuted, this incident involving a foreigner — who went public on social media to her more than 200,000 followers — focused national attention to an unusual degree.

National newspapers covered the case, and women’s rights activists, politicians and even Bollywood celebrities weighed in on social media to condemn what they described as an intractable problem despite efforts at cultural and legal reform.

Karanjeet Kaur, a writer who published an op-ed Monday about her outrage over sexual violence against Indian women, said the case sparked so much discussion because the survivor stood out by sharing an experience all too common for Indian women.

“We have become so inured to violence against women that only when the contours of a case are very different does it make a dent in our conscience,” she said in a phone interview. “Otherwise our bodies, our minds, our autonomy does not matter at all.”

In December 2012, thousands of Indians took to the streets to protest the gang rape and death of a 22-year-old student, a case that prompted the Indian government to expand the legal definition of rape and introduce the death penalty as a possible sentence for rapists.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi first ran for the office in 2014, women’s safety featured prominently in his outreach to female voters, and nearly a decade later, his administration remains sensitive to any potential political blowback from controversies over crimes against women.

Yet violent crimes against women continue to rise, according to national statistics, and high-profile rape cases continue to surface with alarming regularity, largely as a result of what many say is a culture of downplaying sexual harassment and violence — and of giving impunity to the perpetrators — in a patriarchal society.

Last year, India’s Supreme Court criticized the Gujarat government, led by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for the early release of 11 men convicted of gang-raping a Muslim woman, Bilkis Bano, during riots in the state in 2002. Upon their release, the convicts had been garlanded with flowers by well-wishers and praised by a BJP lawmaker as good Brahmins, the highest Hindu caste. In January, the Supreme Court canceled their release and ordered them returned to custody.

India’s female wrestlers staged demonstrations starting in January last year against the chair of the wrestling federation, accusing him of repeatedly groping women over the previous decade. But the powerful BJP politician faced no consequences until a court ordered police to investigate the case in April 2023

The chief of India’s National Commission for Women, Rekha Sharma, was herself accused of downplaying sexual violence soon after the Brazilian blogger’s experience became public.

When an American journalist retweeted the couple’s account of their assault and told of experiences of his own, saying he had never witnessed so much sexual aggression as in India, Sharma took him to task for “defaming” India.