Following the claim that a village council in India had ordered the rape of two sisters because their brother ran off with a higher-caste woman, Amnesty International launched a petition to demand that ‘the local authorities intervene immediately’. The petition has attracted 322,364 signatures and has caused a storm on Twitter and in the media. Nadhim Zahawi, a Conservative MP and member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, ‘condemned the Indian ruling as “disgusting” and urged the Foreign Office to intervene’.
However, it turns out that there is little evidence that the council in Sankraud, Baghpat, passed any such sentence. Reuters has investigated the case further; it found that the family’s lawyer ‘said he had never visited the village, nor spoken to any members of the council who supposedly issued the rape order’. Amnesty based its petition on another petition drawn up by the accused’s family and submitted to India’s Supreme Court. The claims in the petition might be true, but, until they are verified, Amnesty has no grounds to assert that ‘this disgusting ruling’ actually took place. And the claims are far from having been verified. Serious doubts are now being raised about this story.
A spokesperson for Amnesty admits to me that no one from Amnesty had actually spoken to the council or the villagers in person: ‘In this case, we made a judgement that we were able to gather enough facts by conducting interviews remotely.’
The idea of an Indian village council issuing brutal sentences feeds into the narrative that people living in Third World countries are either the victims or the perpetrators of heinous crimes. The Sankraud petition is fuelled by the prejudice that India is full of backward, misogynistic men, a prejudice that flourishes in the rape-culture-obsessed West. When the BBC visited the village in question, reporters spoke to residents who said ‘we are so ashamed that our village is in the news for something that did not even happen’. There is still no evidence to suggest that the two Indian sisters were officially sentenced to rape. However, Amnesty tells me it will not remove or amend its petition until a ‘full and impartial investigation into the orders allegedly issued against the sisters’ is carried out, and the ‘safety [of the sisters] and that of their family’ is ensured. So the petition is still online, with the statement ‘Two sisters to be raped as punishment’. To those who might think this story were too horrific to be true, the Amnesty petition says: ‘Your eyes do not deceive you.’ But it seems our eyes may well have been deceived by this unproven story. And in leaving its petition intact, and refusing to address the new doubts about this story, isn’t Amnesty now deceiving us too? It is encouraging rumours, and prejudiced commentary, about India - is that really what a human-rights outfit should be doing?
It is right to call out the injustices we see in the world. But it is wrong to use a possibly fabricated story in order to raise awareness of injustices that may not even have happened. After all, what is Amnesty raising awareness of? How awful Indian people are? That’s the problem here. Amnesty is not really raising awareness at all; it is feeding into and reinforcing Western prejudices about the backward ways of dark-skinned people; especially men. Its petition added credence to the fact-lite story that these sisters had been sentenced to rape, and it spread like wildfire around the world, being shared by hundreds of thousands of people. Yet now Amnesty won’t even openly clarify the latest developments in this possible non-story. Is its reputation more important than the truth? It seems so.