Akeli Protest: Candles in the wind?

Akeli Protest: Candles in the wind?

Patna: On Saturday evening (27 August) Some 300 people, mainly students and staff of the St Xavier’s Colleges (the organisers)  and (among others,) a small group representing the cabinet of Patna Women’s College and St Xavier’s College of Education, speechified,  sang songs and lit candles in a token ‘protest’ to draw attention to the alleged statutory rape of a minor (mentally challenged) girl from Samastipur that a Hindi newspaper dubbed ‘Akeli’. The gathering took place at another Jesuit institution, the famous St Xavier’s School, bang opposite the ‘historic’ Gandhi Maidan in Bihar’s Capital.

The case did not draw much attention in the local press, perhaps because it wasn’t a particularly gruesome incident that could have ‘shock value’. However, the facts are unsettling. The 12 year old girl, from an impoverished family, and an orphan, it is reported, is mentally challenged, and a local boy tool advantage of her. She apparently wasn’t aware of anything, until her stomach started to show, and when an unsuspecting relative took her to a local hospital for a check up it was discovered that she was pregnant.  Childline Samastipur and the local Child welfare committee were proactive, and not only did they ensure that the girl received good treatment and that she and the baby actually survived the caesarian operation, they have also brought the girl and her baby to a place of safety within Patna. A local court, however, has granted the alleged perpetrator bail, and thus the fellow is still at large. However, thanks to the doggedness of Childline and the Child welfare Committee, a DNA test will soon bring to light who the father of the child is, and thus, justice will take its own course. The girl’s family has already been earmarked for a Rs 3 lakh government compensation.

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The programme consisted of songs (some beautifully rendered by the amateur singers from the colleges), and speeches (actually platitudes and the usual desultory noises), while the participants sweltered in the humid August evening.

Campaign against sexual assault of minors: St Xavier's Colleges Patna
Campaign against sexual assault of minors: St Xavier’s Colleges Patna

The message that the event sought to convey, however, was that civil society at large should be more sensitive to these cases of child-molestation and rape and should feel sufficiently outraged. It is an important message. However, Patna largely ignored it. And that is the tragedy.

Unfortunately, the event lacked proper finesse and planning. It appeared more like a hastily put together PR exercise. There was talk of a memorandum being sent to the Governor, but isn’t this an exercise in futility? The CWC and Childline are already working on the legal angle. A source has said that the appeal was to transfer the rape survivor and her baby to a better facility than the government run ‘remand home’ that she is currently put up in.

For an event being organized by two Jesuit colleges,   one would have expected a much bigger turnout, with leading women’s organisations and NGOs, as well as public figures known for their support to be there. Where were stalwarts like Sudha Verghese, Daisy Narain, Sister Sujitha, members of PUCL, and other women’s groups? Did the organisers invite the internationally known child campaigners such as Sanat Sinha of Bal Sakha, or  MLAs and prominent people like Dr Diwakar Tejaswi, Kiran Ghai, and others would have been only too happy to give their support?

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Could not St Xavier’s have drummed up more support and made this a truly important civic event? Held this event a week later on a grander scale? It is not clear why the twin St Xavier’s Colleges, who share a campus and a dynamic Principal held this half-baked and hasty candlelight procession which really wasn’t a procession. The programme ended with a whimper, with the participants holding their candles briefly along the sidewalk in front of St Xavier’s School. It was too dark for the whizzing traffic to take note of their placards anyway!

A telling comment was overheard: surely the two organizing colleges had more than 300 students!

Such a lot of effort the students have put in, and undoubtedly the professors and Principal as well. We only wish that the energy could have been better directed, that some more time and thought had gone into the planning and presentation.

If the St Xavier’s Colleges are to achieve the iconic stature they aspire to, then they must avoid knee-jerk, shabby PR gimmicks, which is a trap they appear to have fallen into. The public expects more of a Jesuit run St Xavier’s College than having ‘flex parades’.

 

The question remains: was the ‘Akeli’ protest, just a candle in the wind?

 

 

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