At the capital’s Safdarjung Hospital, where I first met the victim’s family, her younger brother Sandeep told me: “We have struggled alone. My sister had just gone to fetch fodder for the cattle at home. We found her lying in a pool of blood with no clothes on.”
She fought valiantly to live. She had been lying strapped to a hospital bed for 14 days. Her limbs had been broken, and she was paralyzed. Her attackers used the scarf she was wearing to strangle her, and her tongue had been cut. The daughter of impoverished daily wagers, she was moved from town to town and from hospital to hospital. “Take me home” were her last words.
Her killing and its aftermath have shamed us into confronting all that is rotten in India’s system.
Initially, the media had mostly overlooked the horror, as it was fixated on the coverage of a movie star’s suicide. The tabloid “Fox-ification” of broadcast news in India makes it so that only populist or inflammatory stuff gets on air. In this case, the 19-year-old victim had to die to be noticed. Her death sparked protests around the country.
The police’s response has been utterly shameful. The victim was a Dalit, born into the Valmiki subgroup, the bottom of the caste hierarchy. The four men reportedly charged with rape and murder in the crime belong to the Thakur community, a dominant or “upper” caste that wields force and influence over the historically oppressed Dalits. Claiming fears of a caste riot, the police forcibly cremated the victim in the middle of the night, without allowing her father or mother to be present. Then, a senior police officer claimed the woman was not raped. He based his assertion on a forensics report on the absence of semen in the samples sent to the laboratory. I met the doctors who attended to the victim, who unequivocally said that the report does not rule out rape, but rather noted that the swabs were tested too late for sperm to still be alive.
The police have also tried to block the media from getting the story out. The media was held back at a one-mile distance from the victim’s village for 48 hours. Two days after her death, on the first of several visits to Hathras, I thought I’d try and make it to her village on foot. I walked through the expanse of rice and millet fields off the highway, only to be picked up by the cops. They politely placed me in a police van and threw me out of the village. As we stood on the highway, a teenager came running through the fields, desperate to meet a journalist. “My uncle has sent me,” he said, explaining that he was the victim’s cousin, while looking over his shoulder to see whether the police were tailing him. “We are locked in, our phones have been shut down, and the police have warned us not to speak to the media.”
We progressives like to say that we do not believe in caste. But caste supremacy is real. In the upper-caste quarters, I met several men who alluded to a consensual relationship between the victim and one of the accused. “Let her family explain how she was killed,” I was told. Protests have been organized to support the men accused of the crime. Their impunity comes from the clear intersection of caste and state power. In Uttar Pradesh, “Thakurwaad,” or the ascendance of the caste elites in key positions of government, is no coincidence. Meanwhile, the victim’s family members say it is no longer safe for them to stay in the village. “They will kill us,” the slain woman’s mother whispered to me, on another of my visits to the village, her face consciously hidden by the drape of her sari. From behind it, she spoke, sometimes firmly, sometimes through tears as she sat on the mud floor in one corner of her home’s tiny courtyard. A small, two-plate gas stove, a cylinder and a handful of steel plates and glasses lay messily around her. An infant, oblivious to the horror, played by her side. “The Thakurs have sent us a message. They said, if any harm comes to one of our boys, we won’t let you live.”
This case has jolted us into admitting that for all our superpower aspirations, medieval caste identities still stratify and punish millions of Indians. It has brought home the fact that women are almost never believed — poor women born into the very bottom of the country’s hierarchical system fare even worse. The story is becoming an opportunistic political circus. Most shameful of all, the woman at the heart of the tragedy is reduced to merely a footnote in her own story.
“I have been offered 2 million rupees by their men to settle this case,” said her mother. “I don’t want a penny. I want justice for my daughter. Just that.”