Rape by the powerful
The international #MeToo movement, which began spreading last year, is taking on new dimensions with the unfolding saga of a 44-year-old nun in Kerala — a state on India’s southwest coast — who is struggling to achieve justice after accusing Catholic Bishop Franco Mulakkal of repeatedly raping her over a two-year period.
The narrative in the anonymous nun’s case mirrors that of so many others who have stepped forward to say “me too.” A powerless victim is exploited by a rich, powerful, and influential predator who, when allegations of abuse are leveled against him, dismisses all charges as baseless lies while simultaneously attempting to blame and shame his accuser. Meanwhile, those in positions of influence frequently leap to the defense of the accused; in some cases, accused abusers even defend accused abusers.
In the United States, where the movement began, victims have identified abusers in every field, ranging from entertainment to news, sports to the military, and politics to religion. Some of the biggest names include film producer Harvey Weinstein, TV host Bill O’Reilly, and comedian Bill Cosby. Within politics, the accused hail from all partisan persuasions. Republicans include failed Senatorial candidate Roy Moore and Congressman Pat Meehan. Democrats include Senator Al Franken and Congressman John Conyers. Since 2017, at least half-a-dozen members of U.S. Congress have resigned or retired amidst sex abuse scandals.
Yet the accused don’t always fade away into obscurity. The more powerful they are, the more likely they are to double-down and fight the accusations. And in America’s political scene, no one more perfectly illustrates this than President Donald Trump.
In 2017, three women accused Roy Moore of sexually assaulting them (including two who said it happened to them as teenagers). “He denies it,” said Trump. “He totally denies it.” Trump then strongly endorsed Moore’s campaign for Senate. Moore lost. Earlier that year, Bill O’Reilly faced sexual harassment charges from six different women. Days before O’Reilly was fired from a 21-year career at Fox News, Trump remarked, “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”
Perhaps Trump’s eagerness to brush aside the allegations of victims, however, is linked to the long string of accusations he faces. In October 2016, as he was running for president, an audio recording surfaced in which he bragged that, as a celebrity, “you can do anything” to women and get away with it. Afterwards, over a dozen women came forward to accuse Trump of harassment and even assault. In response to the charges, Trump painted himself as a political martyr.
“I am a victim of one of the great political smear campaigns in the history of our country,” he declared. “I am being viciously attacked with lies and smears.” Attacking his accusers, he suggested they were making allegations because “they get some free fame.” Calling them “phony accusers,” he singled out one specific accuser as a “horrible woman.” Insinuating that she wasn’t attractive enough for him, he said, “She would not be my first choice, that I can tell you.” As the clincher, he implied that accusing him of sexual misconduct was tantamount to an anti-national activity, stating, “They are coming after me to try and destroy what is considered by even them the greatest movement in the history of our country.”
While it’s deeply troubling when a presidential candidate — who is now a sitting president — is accused of being a sexual predator, it’s far more disturbing when spiritual leaders face similar allegations. Within the realm of religion, one of the groups most frequently accused of abuse is the Catholic priesthood. And, over the past year, the scandals which have dogged the Church for decades appear to be coming to a head.
Beginning in the 1990s, victims started coming forth to reveal how they’d been abused — usually as children — by their own priests. Thousands of victims across all continents have spoken out, many alleging that they were subjected to rape. Last year, Pope Francis admitted that the Church, which processes cases internally, has a 2,000 case backlog.
Most recently, over 300 priests in Pennsylvania were accused of molesting approximately 1,000 child victims. The case inspired at least eight other U.S. states to launch investigations. They’ve also prompted Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, Josh Shapiro, to report, “We have evidence that the Vatican had knowledge of a cover-up.”
This adds insult to injury. The accused are guilty of profaning the innocence of youth, violating the most sacred trust, and exhibiting rank hypocrisy as they publicly preach Catholicism while secretly breaking their vows of celibacy. Yet the highest authorities in the Church are sheltering the accused instead of their victims.
The Pope has spoken out against sexual abuse as recently as August 2018. In an open letter, he stated, “The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet, or silenced.” Speaking of “shame and repentance,” he admitted, “We did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.” He even called it an “abuse of power.”
In September 2018, however, he delivered a sermon with a message that appeared to suggest victims who level charges are siding with Satan. “In these times, it seems like the Great Accuser has been unchained and is attacking bishops,” said the Pope. He seemed to imply that exposing abuse is the work of the Devil, saying that “[the Great Accuser] tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people.”
Was one of the bishops to whom the Pope referred Bishop Franco Mulakkal? While the Catholic Church’s sex abuse drama plays out in America, the scandal surrounding Mulakkal is unraveling on the other side of the world. It stretches across the whole of India, from Kerala in the deep south to Punjab in the far north, and contains echoes of so many other abuses of power.
Mulakkal, who oversees the diocese of Jalandhar, Punjab, was accused in June of raping a nun in Kerala 13 times between 2014 and 2016. The bishop’s response was a page from Trump’s playbook. He cast himself as a martyr, declaring, “Derogatory statements are being made against me…. Though I am an accused, but that does not give anyone the license to tarnish my character.” He spoke of his great pain, stating, “I suffered it silently. This is a time of crisis… I am going through painful agony.”
Flatly denying the allegations, he called them “baseless and concocted” and accused the nun of attempting to blackmail him for personal gain. Filing a case with the police days before the nun leveled charges against him, he accused her relatives of sending him death threats. One of the people investigated, however, told police the bishop intimidated him into sending fake threats.
The Church closed ranks around the bishop. In July, the vicar-general of Jalandhar (the bishop’s deputy) stated, “It is all planned and timed to blackmail the bishop from taking punitive action against her.” In September, the nun’s congregation came out against her, arguing, “The victim was seen laughing with the bishop a day after when the rape was supposed to have happened.”
Undeterred, however, the victim continued her struggle. On September 8, in an open letter to the Vatican, she warned, “They are arranging people to attack us, and Bishop Franco is using his political power and money to get higher authorities of the investigation and the government to bury legal proceedings that I have filed against him.” On the same day, a coalition of five nuns began an agitation in Kochi (Kerala’s most populous metropolis) to demand Mulakkal’s arrest. Every day since, they traveled to Kochi’s Vanchi Square to sit in silent protest.
One of the protesting nuns, Sister Ancita, spoke out at the home where she lives with the victim. “Our sister — we call her amma (mother) — isn’t safe here,” she said. “We can never be sure of what they might do. Our amma has taken on one of the most powerful people in the Church.”
The level of power Mulakkal possesses was illustrated when a Kerala state legislator leaped to his defense by viciously attacking the victim.
“No one has a doubt that the nun is a prostitute,” said Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) P.C. George on September 9. “Twelve times she enjoyed it and the thirteenth time, it is rape? Why didn’t she complain the first time?” After his comments sparked outrage, he retracted the “prostitute” allegation, but simultaneously continued his attacks. “According to me, she isn’t a nun,” he said. “To refer to any woman as a prostitute is wrong. I shouldn’t have used that word. But I strongly stand by other statements that I made regarding that woman.”
George has a habit of assailing sexual abuse victims and siding with accused abusers. In 2017, a local actress was abducted by a gang, bundled into a car, and sexually assaulted for hours while her assailants filmed her abuse. As the police investigated, they concluded that Dileep, a well-known actor, may have organized the attack.
The MLA first denied the victim’s claims, asking, “Where is proof that she was attacked?” Then leaping to the defense of the accused, he declared, “Superstar Dileep has been targeted and the case against him is fabricated.” Painting the actor as a martyr, he added, “Dileep is also a victim.” Arguing that the real victim was “men,” he stated, “This is not a case of harassment of a woman; this is the harassment of a man.” After the Kerala Women’s Commission denounced his comments, they reported that he responded by sending them threatening letters accompanied by packets of feces.
The victimized actress did not remain silent. Speaking out against the MLA, she demanded, “What do people like PC George think?” Speculating as to how he thinks she should have responded, she asked, “I should have committed suicide? Or should I have been dumped in a mental asylum? Or should I hide myself somewhere by not appearing in public? Can someone tell me what wrong I did?”
The suffering of the Kerala nun and the responses of religious and political figures exemplifies the situation of Indian women in the 21st century. While the West has become all too familiar with issues of abuse in Europe and the Americas, far less attention is paid to the East. India, in particular, is the site of not only some of the most extreme examples of abuse of females but also of the most pervasive impunity for abusers.
In June 2018, the Thomas Reuters Foundation ranked India as the most dangerous country in the world for women. In February, the Indian government released a National Family Health Survey in which not only did 31% of married women report experiencing abuse by their husbands, but 52% of all women agreed that violence by their spouse was sometimes justifiable. Last year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, which evaluates women’s equality by examining their access to health, education, the economy, and politics, ranked India 108th out of 144 countries. According to their report, India’s severe gender gap is actually widening.
“A girl or woman, within the Indian cultural context, is regarded as a family’s property,” reports Indian feminist Rita Banerji. “She does not have the ownership of her own body.” In her writings on the relationship between sex and power, Banerji collates data on, in her words, “systemic and mass-scale violence on Indian women and girls.” She is especially known for founding the “50 Million Missing” campaign to raise awareness about the results of sex selective abortion and female infanticide. Describing a “virulent patriarchy,” she says Indian society “essentially views women as sexual commodities to be used and discarded at will.” Consequently, she explains, “daughters are routinely discarded before or soon after birth.”
Females who survive beyond birth often face cradle to grave harassment. India has been claimed as the country with the lowest number of rapes per capita, yet even the nation’s own National Crime Records Bureau admits that perhaps 70% of rapes go unreported. Tolerance for rape extends deep into the political system as, according to a 2017 study by the Association for Democratic Reform, major political parties fielded at least 26 rape-accused candidates in the previous five years.
Meanwhile, huge numbers of Indian women are taking their own lives. A Lancet study released in September reported that nearly 40% of female suicides in the world occur in India. Researchers linked the statistics to an entrenched patriarchal culture and the prevalence of male violence against women.
Many of India’s female victims of violence are found within the flocks of spiritual leaders and in the halls of churches, convents, ashrams, and temples. They face unique challenges in holding their abuser accountable. More so than a great many other countries, religion and politics are deeply intertwined in India. When weighing whether or not to reveal their abuse, victims often must not only consider the repercussions from the religious community but also the possibility that the State apparatus will side with their abuser. Furthermore, religious leaders are often deified as “godmen,” and charges or even convictions rarely impact the popularity or reputations of the accused.
In short, India is the location of one of the most uphill battles in the struggle for women who are exploited by powerful men to achieve justice.
One of the most recent examples of the confluence of political and religious forces is the gang-rape of a 17-year-old woman in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh (UP).
In June 2017, the victim was seeking employment in the house of Kuldeep Singh Sengar, an MLA from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), when she says that the MLA and some of his aides raped her. A few days later, the same person who introduced her to Sengar introduced her to another group who gang-raped her before selling her. Police tracked her down, set her free, and took her statement, but initially refused to allow her to name Sengar as an attacker.
In April 2018, after the family spent nearly a year attempting to file charges against Sengar, police finally arrested not the politician but rather the victim’s father. He was beaten in jail. Days later, the victim unsuccessfully attempted to burn herself alive in front of the residence of Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk who currently serves as the state’s Chief Minister. The next day, her father died in police custody.
“I was raped,” the victim told media afterwards. “I have been running pillar to post for the last one year but no one is listening to me. I want to see all of them arrested, otherwise I will kill myself.” After her attempted suicide shone an international spotlight on her case, Sengar and others were finally arrested. But the drama didn’t end there. After the arrests, the family lived in fear of retaliation from their fellow villagers. “No one in the village will dare support us,” said the victim’s mother. “No one will raise voice against the MLA and his family. They hold all administrative posts in the village.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of residents of Unnao and the surrounding area staged a rally in defense of Sengar. The head of the city council, Anu Kumar Dixit, led the rally. “It is a political conspiracy to defame our MLA,” said Dixit. “He is innocent and being framed in false charges.” His political party also backed him up, with a spokesperson stating, “Sengar had told senior BJP leaders that the rape charges were concocted.”
Adityanath, who simultaneously serves as the head priest of Gorakhnath monastery and the Chief Minister of UP, represents the religious angle in the case. The monk, who ignored the Unnao rape case for months, finally spoke about it after the victim’s attempted self-immolation. “We will firmly deal with criminals, however influential they might be,” he promised. Nevertheless, the delay in his comments and the position of his party sheds some doubt on the veracity of his statement, while his public position on women’s rights fully validate those doubts.
After Adityanath was elected, Amnesty International took the exceptional step of issuing a statement directly targeting a democratically elected leader. Noting that he is “given to hateful rhetoric,” Amnesty pointed out that “he faces criminal charges in multiple cases, including attempt to murder, criminal intimidation, rioting, promoting enmity between different groups, and defiling a place of worship.” Among the rhetoric highlighted was a speech in which the monk declared that, if Muslims “take one Hindu girl, we’ll take 100 Muslim girls.” On another occasion, he was filmed listening to a supporter call on people to dig up the graves of Muslim women and rape their dead bodies.
Furthermore, in an article hosted on his personal website, he articulated his perspective on women. Roughly summarized, he insisted that women should remain eternally subjugated to men and bound by their authority from birth to death. He argued, “Energy left unchecked can go to waste. A woman doesn’t need independence, but needs to be protected.” Expanding his views on the nature of gender, he claimed that men who acquire “female traits” are “more godly,” but that “if women become masculine, they turn into demons.”
Reactions to the Unnao rape case mirrored those to an even more savage gang-rape incident in northwestern India which, in this case, was committed not only by a spiritual leader but at a religious site.
In January 2018, an eight-year-old girl from a nomadic Muslim community took her family’s horses out to pasture in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir. Hours later, the horses returned without her. A week later, her body was discovered in a field. She had been drugged, gang-raped, and strangled to death with her own scarf.
As the investigation unfolded, police discovered that the child was taken to a family-owned temple — which was closed to the public — and secretly abused there for several days. The temple’s priest and owner, Sanji Ram, was accused of concocting a conspiracy to scare off the nomadic community. Ram’s son, his nephew, and four police officers were all accused as co-conspirators. One of the accused police officers, Deepak Khajuria, reportedly oversaw the actual murder. Before killing the child, he insisted on raping her one last time.
In February, the situation grew even uglier when a group called Hindu Ekta Manch staged a rally in defense of the accused. Vijay Sharma, who heads the Manch, also serves as the BJP’s State Secretary. Speaking at the rally, Sharma argued that charges against the rapists were intended to “destroy us.” Portraying the whole affair as an attack on Hindus, he declared, “They have hatched a conspiracy against us.” Referring to the police officer, Khajuria, Sharma claimed, “He has been falsely implicated.”
“More than 5,000 people participated in the rally,” said Sharma. Among them were two state ministers from the BJP, Choudhary Lal Singh and Chander Prakash Ganga. In the following weeks, after their presence became international news, the resulting outrage forced their resignation. As he resigned, though, Ganga explained, “We went there on the party’s instruction.”
Even asking for justice for the child was a perilous pursuit. In April, the attorney for the victim’s family reported receiving constant rape and death threats. “I don’t know till when I will be alive,” said Deepika Rajawat. “I might be raped, my modesty may be outraged, I may be killed.” She said her fellow attorneys were pressuring her to drop the case. Not only did they pressurize Rajawat, but when police went to the magistrate’s office to file charges against the accused, a mob of attorneys attempted to block their entry.
Time will tell what happens to the priest in Kathua, the politician in Unnao, or the bishop in Kerala. Yet these three events from the past year — in the south, center, and north of India — demonstrate at least three things about the treatment of women in India. First, religion and politics are dual elements in many cases of sexual exploitation. Second, achieving justice can be an Herculean task. Third, this holds true all across the country.
Getting justice for Indian women exploited by spiritual leaders is not always, however, an impossibility. In September, “godman” Ashu Bhai and his son were arrested for raping a woman and her underage daughter. In July, “godman” Amarpuri was arrested for raping approximately 120 women who had come to him for treatment. In June, “godman” Daati Maharaj and several of his associates were charged with raping one of his disciples. Meanwhile, more politically-connected figures who are have been arrested and convicted include Asaram and Ram Rahim.
Asaram, who cornered the market on the swami business when he registered ashram.org as his official website, has hundreds of ashrams all across the world. For decades, he has wielded tremendous political influence. He got his start in Gujarat. Throughout the 1990s, he solidified his base in Gujarat when state governments from both major political parties — Indian National Congress (INC) as well as the BJP — allotted him tracts of land to expand his ashrams.
Since then, politicians from both parties have repeatedly visited Asaram to seek his blessing. Some of the biggest names from the BJP include Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, current Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, current Cabinet Minister Uma Bharti, and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Those from the INC include former Cabinet Minister Kamal Nath, current MP Digvijaya Singh, and current MP Motilal Vora.
Asaram’s political supporters have never been shy in publicly showering him with praise. For instance, while Modi was serving as Chief Minister of Gujarat, he spoke at one of the swami’s Gujarati ashrams. “I pray on Bapu’s blessed steps. I bow to him,” he said. “Sacred Bapu’s love, his blessings, his best wishes will give me new strength. With that belief, I got the chance to come here. I consider myself lucky for it. I prostate myself before blessed Bapu.”
The swami, who is perhaps India’s most powerful spiritual leader, hold views on women’s rights which are arguably even more shocking than those of Yogi Adityanath. His views were best expressed in his response to the infamous December 2012 gang-rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi. Speaking to disciples in January 2013, he said, “The victim is as guilty as her rapists.” Rather than fighting her rapists, he insisted, “She should have called the culprits ‘brothers’ and begged before them to stop.” That, he declared, “could have saved her dignity and her life.” In separate remarks, he argued that “had even one” of the attackers been initiated into his teachings, “the crime would not have occurred.” Moreover, he warned, “After the Delhi gang-rape incident, an anti-men campaign appears to be on.”
Perhaps the swami’s warning about an “anti-men campaign” was an attempt to direct attention away from his own crimes. In August 2013, a 16-year-old disciple accused him of raping her at his ashram in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. In December 2013, two sisters accused him and his son, Narayan Sai, of confining and raping them at ashrams in Gujarat.
Like Bishop Mulakkal, Asaram’s first move was to flatly deny the charges in the Rajasthan case. His spokesperson called it “an entirely false case,” saying “It is yet another attempt to tarnish Bapu’s image.” Speaking about the victim, Asaram said, “Her parents are my disciples; that makes her my grand-daughter.” Next, he cast himself as a martyr. Referring to INC leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, he claimed, “I am not against any political party, but people are telling me that ‘madam’ and her son are behind the conspiracy.” He further attempted, unsuccessfully, to gag the press from reporting on his case, claiming, “The media is convicting me prior to the trial, and I will not get a fair trial.”
The rape occurred on August 15, and was reported to police on August 20, but he was not arrested until September 1. Rita Banerji says that the reason he was not immediately arrested was “because he had the protection of politicians who hope to garner the votes of the millions of Indians who worship Asaram.” Indeed, he had no difficulty cashing in on his political influence. Just as MLA George and leaders in the Church rushed to Mulakkal’s defense, so also did Asaram’s closest political allies close ranks around him.
“Rape charge against Asaram Bapu is a well-planned Congress conspiracy,” declared BJP National Vice-President Prabhat Jha. “Saint Asaram Bapu is innocent,” asserted MP Uma Bharti. “False cases have been lodged against him in Congress-ruled states. I am with saint Bapu.” She additionally commented, “I have a feeling that there might be some political motive behind the issue.” Such remarks apparently gave the swami hope for impunity. After the BJP won December 2013 elections in Rajasthan, the state where his case was being tried, he remarked, “It is the victory of truth…. Everything will be fine with the passage of time.”
Not all was fine for witnesses against Asaram, however. In 2014, one was murdered. In 2015, two more were murdered. Another four suffered murder attempts. In 2016, when police arrested a suspect who had been a disciple of Asaram since 2000, he confessed that four other disciples from different ashrams were giving him financial backing and directions.
In the meantime, politicians even rushed to provide legal defense for the swami. BJP MP Subramanian Swamy stepped forward as an attorney. “Asaram Bapu is a victim of a massive conspiracy,” said Swamy in 2015. He added, “I am now moving to bring out of jail on bail Sri Asaram Bapu because the rape case is bogus.” Later, in 2017, he warned people not to “slander Asaram Bapu as rapist,” claiming, “His ashram & Christian missionary patrons are against him.”
As politicians leaped to his defense and disciples murdered witnesses, the swami’s followers also repeatedly took to the streets to riot for his release. In 2015, stone-pelters injured approximately 20 police officers during riots in Gujarat. In 2016, as thousands rioted in Delhi, stone-pelters injured seven officers. And in 2017, the swami, his daughter, and several disciples were charged with inciting rioters.
“I knew the power of this man,” said the victim’s father. “I knew people madly follow him.” A former disciple of Asaram, the father described how the swami “was my god.” Recognizing the struggle ahead, he admitted, “When I was his follower, I did not believe that any allegation against Baba was true.” He spent years as a follower, even donating land in UP and constructing an ashram. “I made a big mistake by blindly following Asaram, but I want my daughter to get justice,” he concluded. Eventually, his commitment to never giving up was rewarded.
The treacherous path towards justice finally reached one of its goals when, in April 2018, Asaram was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the Rajasthan rape. The trial in the Gujarat case is still ongoing. In light of the violence surrounding the pursuit of justice, however, one wonders how many other victims chose to remain silent.
There are almost certainly other victims. In 2013, Amrit Bhai, a doctor who worked for Asaram for 16 years, reported, “It was in 1999 that I first came to know about the exploitation of young girls. This happened in all his ashrams.” He added, “Their parents have no inkling what they are subjected to.” Silence in the face of violence is a routine response by the victims. “Some girls accept their fate and stay back,” said Bhai. “Others leave but don’t register a police complaint because of the shame or threats by Asaram’s men.”
Over the past decade, despite the impediments, a number of victories have been won in the war to achieve justice for women sexually exploited by India’s spiritual leaders.
In 2017, Gurmeet Ram Rahim was sentenced to 20 years in prison for raping two of his disciples. Like Asaram, he has millions of followers, with communities known as “deras” spread throughout North America, Europe, and the Middle East. He also wielded significant political influence and would reputedly issue orders to his disciples to vote for one party or another.
His downfall began in 2002 after a female disciple made public an anonymous letter alleging that Rahim had raped her. Explaining that the world viewed them as “celibate disciples,” she described how Rahim ordered her to his room one night and proceeded to rape her. “There is no doubt that I am God,” he told her in response to her objections. Furthermore, he cited his political clout as the reason he could get away with the crime. According to the victim, he told her, “I have considerable influence in the governments. The chief ministers of Punjab and Haryana, and central Ministers touch my feet. Politicians seek my support and take money from me. They cannot take any action against me.”
Rahim’s pride went before his fall. The victim claimed, “If a probe is conducted by the press or some government agency, 40 to 45 girls — living in utmost fear at the Dera — if they are convinced, are willing to tell the truth.” Years later, she was proven correct and Rahim was imprisoned. Yet, as in the case of Asaram, the pursuit of justice for victims of sexual violence led to even more bloodshed. Immediately after Rahim’s conviction, his followers staged riots across large sections of northern Indian. Dozens died.
What is more, Rahim’s conviction didn’t destroy his reputation. Even politicians continued backing him. For instance, BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj (who incidentally represents the Unnao constituency which neighbors that of accused rapist MP Kuldeep Singh Sengar) termed Rahim a “noble soul” — after his conviction — and declared, “One person alleges sexual exploitation but crores [tens of millions] stand with him today. Who is correct? One crore people who are supporting Baba or that girl who was raped?”
A slew of other swamis have also been charged, arrested, or even convicted. In 2017, Swami Ichchadhari Bheemanand was arrested for running a prostitution ring. In 2008, Swami Amrita Chaitanya was arrested for rape, pedophilia, and producing pornographic films of underage girls. In 1997, Swami Premananda was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for rape, including of underage girls, oftentimes on the pretext that having sex with him constituted “service to God.”
However, not only do accusations of sexual exploitation often do little to even dent the reputations of the accused, but those accused frequently continue to be treated as heroes, authorities, or even deities. Sometimes they are even memorialized in statuary. There is no more prominent example of this than Mohandas Gandhi — nicknamed “Mahatma” or “Great Soul.”
Gandhi is the epitome of how the confluence of political and religious power can provide impunity for those who sexually exploit women in India. Known as the “Father of India” because of his role in India’s independence movement, he is also considered the world’s premiere apostle of nonviolence. Yet, unlike the bishop, no one ever protested on behalf of his victims; unlike the swamis, he was never taken to court.
“It’s uncanny how similar he is to Gandhi,” remarked Banerji. “I’m talking about Asaram, the Indian spiritual leader.” Examining the similarities, she says, “Both Gandhi and Asaram commanded followers in the millions, who regarded them as saints, spiritual ‘guides,’ and called them ‘Bapu’ or Father.” She explains that both spiritual leaders “regarded sex as and sexual desire as ‘sins’” and that “both preached abstinence to their followers and the control of sexual desire as a form of self-‘purification.’” Moreover, she concludes, “Both Gandhi and Asaram, in hypocritical violations of their own preaching, indulged in sexual gratification of one kind or another, even when it resulted in the sexual abuse of girls and women in their flock.”
Gandhi famously took a vow of celibacy in 1906. By 1944, after the death of his wife, he began conducting what he called “experiments” to “test” his celibacy. Most infamously, the 75-year-old Gandhi slept naked with his 18-year-old grandniece, Manu, who came under his guardianship at the age of 12, as well as with 18-year-old Abha, the wife of Gandhi’s grandnephew.
Ramachandra Guha has spent the past 20 years writing a three-volume biography of Gandhi. He calls the spiritual leader “the greatest modern Indian.” Yet, reacting to Gandhi’s “experiments,” Guha says, “It was very strange.” Seeking to explain why the old man called his young female relatives to share his bed — naked — Guha says, “He was alone, lonely, without a guide.”
Gandhi himself offered a different explanation. He didn’t deny the abuse. Instead, he portrayed it as his moral obligation and cast himself (in the tradition of sexual exploiters everywhere) as a martyr. “Manu Gandhi, my grand-daughter as we consider blood relations, shares the bed with me,” stated Gandhi. “Sleeping with Manu is for me an inseparable part of the yajna (sacrifice).”
Elaborating on the sacrifice he was making, he wrote, “Manu’s sleeping with me is a matter of dharma (duty), and I am resolved to drive home the lesson that a person cannot give up what is a matter of dharma to him for the love of those who are dear to him or out of fear of anybody. If, in a situation like this, I give up what I believe to be my dharma through false regard for friends or fear or love, my yajna would remain incomplete.”
Justifying the experiment to Manu, he told her, “[We] must put our purity to the ultimate test, so that we know that we are offering the purest of sacrifices, and we should now both start sleeping naked.” His test, however, was apparently a failure. According to biographer Joseph Lelyveld, Gandhi confided in another woman that, while sleeping with Manu, “Despite my best efforts, the organ remained aroused. It was an altogether strange and shameful experience.”
Even if Gandhi’s test had produced the supposedly desired results, Banerji likely would have remained unconvinced. As it is, she says, “I saw Gandhi as a classic example of a sexual predator — a man who uses his position of power to manipulate and sexually exploit the people he directly controls.” She holds Gandhi’s followers culpable for the abuse and thinks Gandhi should serve, not as an example, but as a warning to the world. “Men in leadership positions can sexually prey on vulnerable girls and women because the people who honor their leadership also create the space and give them the power to do so,” declares Banerji. As a final word, she argues, “We are each responsible for the injustices of the men we place on pedestals.”
Gandhi was never held liable for his actions. More modern Indian spiritual leaders are being called to accountability, however. Ram Rahim was. So was Asaram. Perhaps Sanji Ram and Kuldeep Singh Singer will also face accountability. In a glimmer of hope, Bishop Franco Mulakkal is now being weighed in the scales of justice.
On September 20, the Vatican finally removed Mulakkal from his position. On September 21, the police finally arrested him. His arrest came nearly three months after charges were first filed on June 28, but it came nonetheless.
If other cases over the years are any evidence, however, the nuns who sat protesting in Kochi since September 8 may need to alter their demands. The arrest came, but Mulakkal has not been defrocked. And even if he is stripped of priesthood, prison may yet be a long way off.
The case of the bishop and the nun should, if nothing else, remind the world of the words of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar. An attorney and intellectual who is particularly renowned as a champion of civil rights for India’s downtrodden communities, Ambedkar noted, “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.”
In the modern Indian context, that’s a hopeful thought. From West to East, countless spiritual leaders are abusing their flocks. Prominent politicians boast of bowing and prostrating before these abusers. Yet, one after another, their victims are stepping forward to challenge the most powerful men in the world, proclaiming, “This will stop. We are not victims. We are survivors.”
These survivors are the dignified ones. The true heroes. The real Mahatmas whose stories — if not their names — should go down in history.