An open letter to our deaf daughter from Palwal

Characters that spell out the word ‘STOP’ in Indian Sign Language. Crimes against deaf and mute people, particularly sexual crimes against deaf and mute children, are common in India. Activists argue they can be avoided if the government gives accessible education in sign language to deaf and mute people. Illustration by Sukruti Anah Staneley
09 October, 2020

On 25 August, a ten-year-old deaf girl was kidnapped, raped and murdered in Haryana’s Palwal district. Her mother, sister and brother are also deaf. The Times of India reported that when her family tried to register a complaint with the police, they were turned away. Crimes against deaf and mute people, particularly sexual crimes against deaf and mute children, are common in India. In the past year alone, such cases have been reported in Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Jammu and Kashmir, among many others. Deaf and signing activists argue that the government’s failure in providing easy access to specialised teaching techniques for deaf and mute people keeps them unable to communicate effectively and stop such crimes. Saudamini Pethe, a law student and activist for the deaf community, who is Deaf herself, writes an open letter to the minor who was murdered in Haryana. 

My dearest deaf daughter,

I am left with nothing but a feeling of helpless anger and an abyss of sadness, due to the cruel incident of rape and murder of an innocent soul such as yours.

I, as an empowered Deaf woman, cannot accept this fate for you, given the fact that you were raped and killed by unabashed predators. What am I to do? I know of your vulnerability, your inability to protect yourself, which these rapists have exploited through their act, by demonstrating a manifestation of the pure patriarchal and criminal mentality that tells them they can get away with it. A deaf child who cannot express or communicate was an easier target for them to rape and murder, and still roam scot-free.

When I reflect on what could be and what should be, I am left in awe of the enormity of the issues underlying such an incident. My mind is overrun with innumerable unanswered questions of how and why, and the means of preventing anything like this from happening ever again. I am writing this letter with a ray of hope that all the concerned stakeholders—parents, educators, local administration, police officials and Indian society at large—will understand the dire need for early intervention, prevention and empowerment of a deaf child, regardless of gender.

You were living with your parents in the slums in a small village in Haryana. You probably had no street lamps, no CCTV cameras or any other facilities that ensure the security of women, securities we enjoy in some metropolitan cities. These men, who lured you into the nearby fields to commit this heinous crime, lived next door. You ventured out into nearby fields with a young man whom you knew for years, whom you saw on a daily basis, not knowing that his friends were already waiting there to exploit your trust and innocence.

You were not able to hear the conversations happening around you. You were not able to communicate even with your own parents, not having access to a language in which to converse with them. Were you supposed to know, on your own, the existence of demons behind their friendly faces?

Your mother, also a deaf woman, was herself cocooned in her world with no access to sign language. Your family, and society at large, could not teach you to beware of such happenings. For years, unable to express herself or have any say in the matter, your mother sat there, veiled, without words or signs. Your siblings—a deaf sister aged seven and a brother aged three—roamed around, with no awareness of the tragedies that could occur.

Where does that leave us? Are we, as members of the deaf community, supposed to take this incident as just another happening and move on? Could your family learn from this and take care of your siblings by introducing them to the signing community? Could they enrol them in an education centre for deaf children? Or should we also raise our voice, protest, publish and advocate a change in this society? How many of them will be able to hear us? Will society ever understand the gravity of the situation, the complexities underlying this horrendous crime?

I wonder what could have changed had you been enrolled in a Deaf education centre all along? Would you have learned more, communicated more? Maybe you could have gained confidence watching more Deaf individuals like you communicating with ease. Maybe you would have become aware of a lot more. And maybe, just maybe, you might have been able to save yourself from the clutches of your attackers.

If you had a hearing mother, maybe she could have made you more aware. But then how did a similar incident take place in Chennai, where 22 men raped an 11-year-old deaf girl? Why was she unable to communicate to her mother for six long months when she went through this? Could the family have helped teach her to be able to communicate better? Will other families expose their children to the deaf and signing communities, instead of keeping those like you cocooned and overprotected? Wouldn’t that make you more aware, wouldn’t it empower you?

The whole situation is related to how deaf people are perceived in society. How long will deafness be perceived as a taboo and kept hidden from society, or answered with quick-fix short-term solutions? Will these solutions truly empower the likes of you? Or could a peer-to-peer environment, meeting Deaf signers and releasing you are not alone, have made you confident and improved things for you? When will your family, your educators, doctors and society at large accept this truth and make the changes that we so desperately need? How many more daughters like you have to be victims for society to realise the necessity of finding and implementing peer-to-peer environments as a solution?

The what “should be” done aspect of this whole situation makes me dizzy. When I imagine the numerous perspectives that we as educators hold, the differences of opinions about the correct ways and methods to educate and truly empower a deaf person, I feel completely exhausted. The clashing perspectives on learning sign language and gaining identity, or learning to speak and merge with the hearing community are complex and tedious. The voice of Deaf and signing activists are rarely heard in making such decisions.

We live at a time when in this country, a new National Education Policy has been announced. Indian Sign Language is going to be “standardised” the policy says. The real need of the hour is to accept the variety and richness of Indian Sign Language, its dialect and its grammar. We, the Deaf and signing community, need to create wide spread awareness about the strength and usability of ISL, and to the fact that it gives an identity to the Deaf.

The education system is undergoing drastic changes even for those with hearing and without disabilities. Should we stop at giving you cochlear implants and speech therapy and say you have been empowered, or should we go further? Should we give you bilingual education in ISL and a spoken language? What about accessibility of awareness campaigns meant for the disabled community? Will these be providing true access to information on prevention of rape and self-defence training to disabled children and women? Will the media understand the issue and provide equally accessible information for all by abiding accessibility guidelines when broadcasting important news?

It wrenches my heart, my dear child, to say goodbye to you, with our future still blurry. This has shocked the entire Deaf and signing community deeply. We are organising, we are fighting, so that there has to be no woman who suffered what you did. This gives me a ray of hope that your spirit will get the justice it deserves. I hope the criminals get the harshest punishment for their crimes, so much so that no one in the future dares to see any deaf person as vulnerable. This injustice has happened because innumerable deaf women like you lack access to empowerment, and are still vulnerable to such inhuman crimes. I hope against hope, that the fight for justice, for empowerment and independence will rage on, against all odds and create a brave new world for our Deaf community someday!

Till then, may you find peace in the thought that your tragic and humiliating death might awaken Indian society’s humanity and your life will not go worthless!

With deepest love,

Saudamini Pethe.