NEW DELHI— The rape and murder of two young girls in northern India has highlighted the sexual oppression of low caste women in the country, particularly in its vast rural areas. The case also demonstrates the serious risks faced by women living in homes without indoor plumbing, which was a campaign issue for the country’s new government.
The grisly images of two 14 and 15 year old cousins hanging from a tree in Buduan district of India's Uttar Pradesh state, after they were gang raped and strangled last week sent shock waves through the nation.
But a retired police official in the state, S.R. Darapuri, was not surprised at the horrific crime, which targeted teenage girls from a low caste family of farm laborers. That is because during his 32-year-stint in the poor and backward state, he has witnessed first-hand many such incidents of exploitation of “dalit” community, members of India's lowest caste.
“The higher castes they have been exploiting the women of the dalits and the weaker section just as a matter of right. And sometimes rape is used as a weapon to suppress these sections of society," said Darapuri. "And these sections they are not able to resort to self defense. The main reason is that they are dependent on the land owning caste and as such they are very vulnerable.”
Victims from low caste
Darapuri, is now an activist working with the Indian human rights group People’s Union for Civil Liberties. He says his analysis of rape cases in Uttar Pradesh in 2007 showed 85 percent of the victims were low caste, minor girls.
Four of the five men arrested for the crime belong to the politically powerful Yadav community. They include three brothers who have been charged with rape and murder, and two police officials for attempting to cover up the crime. The Yadavs are also designated as a backward caste, but are much higher than dalits in the complex caste hierarchy of Hindus.
Faced with outrage, India’s new government is resolving to act quickly. Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, has pledged to set up a national helpline for women and rape crisis centers.
“There is nothing that any ministry or any government can do to prevent people from being violent to each other except give them strong protection and give strong deterrence," said Gandhi. "It is the aim of this government to provide deterrence and protection and we will do that as effectively as we can.”
But activists like Darapuri question where such protection will come from. The latest incident exposes police indifference to the plight of lower castes.
When the father of one of the victims went to seek police help for the missing girls, he was questioned about his caste. He says he was abused. Police did not register the complaint until the next day when angry villagers held protests under the tree where the girls had been hanged.
Darapuri says radical efforts are needed to alter the mindset of those in charge of law and order. He says police refusal to register criminal complaints from low caste people is common, especially in rural areas.
“I have seen all such malpractices of police and anti-common man attitude of police. I have seen it very closely," said Darapuri. "The police in India is also very much a replica of the society. The police organization has a culture which suffers from caste prejudices. Not only in this case, but almost in every case, it is mostly caste-based. Unless there is a major effort to change the set up and change the attitude of the bureaucracy, their actions are highly influenced by caste and other such considerations.”
The focus is also turning to the state's highest officials. When questioned about the gang rape, Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav told a reporter, “you have not been harmed, have you?” Some months ago his father, former chief minister Mulayam Yadav, opposed the death penalty for gang rape, saying “boys will be boys.”
Law and order is particularly poor in Uttar Pradesh. In recent days, the media has reported at least four more brutal cases of rape in India's northern and most populous state.
The gang rape of a 23-year-old student in the Indian capital in December 2012 first put the spotlight on the prevalence of sexual violence in India. Laws were tightened following public outrage. But as the latest case reveals, the problem is more complex.
The sanitation issue
The two cousins found hanging from the tree were kidnapped when they had gone out into the fields to relieve themselves. Like three-quarters of rural homes in Uttar Pradesh, their house lacked a toilet.
Bindeshwar Pathak heads a non-governmental group called Sulabh, which has pledged to build 100 toilets in the village. He says the lack of sanitation routinely exposes women to risks, including harassment and assault.
“The problem for them to go outside for defecation, they can go only in darkness, either before sunrise or after sunset," said Pathak. "So women are vulnerable to such types of problems and rape, many cases are reported from different parts of the country.”
The gang rape and deaths of the young cousins is an early wake-up call for India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came to power on the promise of development. He has pledged to bring sanitation to every home, saying “toilets first, temples later.”
Minister Gandhi says building toilets is a top priority of the government. It is not an easy task. Approximately half the country - about 620 million people, do not live in homes with indoor plumbing. A majority of them are in rural areas.
And even when they are built in Buduan, the mother of one of the girls who was killed tearfully says it will be too late for her daughter and her niece.