(Bloomberg) — A series of rapes committed on women from India’s lowest castes are making national headlines across the South Asian nation of 1.3 billion, fueling street protests and social media outrage that’s put Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration under the spotlight.
A 19-year-old woman from the Dalit caste — the lowest rung in Hinduism’s complex social hierarchy — died in a New Delhi hospital on Tuesday, two weeks after she was allegedly gang raped by upper caste men from her north Indian village. Her mutilated body was found by her mother in the fields of her village in Hathras, in Uttar Pradesh.
Anger was already simmering in the country over her death but it spilled onto the streets Wednesday and Thursday following news reports that local police cremated the woman’s body in the middle of the night without her family present. Network station NDTV showed her relatives pleading with officials to be allowed to take the body home.C
Caste rapes in other towns in north India, such as Balrampur and Ajmer, have also since come to light. More than nine Dalit women were raped every day in 2019, according to data released on Tuesday from the National Crime Records Bureau.
As pressure mounted on the state and federal governments, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said on Twitter the guilty will not be spared and announced the case had been handed over to a special investigating team with promises of a speedy trial.
The federal home ministry did not immediately comment and spokespeople for the Uttar Pradesh government did not respond to calls or text messages.
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India’s constitution outlaws caste-discrimination and enshrines affirmative action via laws designed to make up for centuries of marginalization of Dalits, who now number more than 200 million. Yet caste remains a significant factor in deciding everything from family ties and cultural traditions to educational and economic opportunities, especially in small towns and villages.
Rising crimes against lower caste citizens in recent years contrast sharply with Modi’s electoral promises of social justice and ensuring the safety of women. The burgeoning protests are drawing comparisons to the wave of anger that spread across the country in 2012 after a woman was fatally gang-raped in a bus in the capital New Delhi.
“The public outrage against the rapes makes it imperative for the establishment to ensure justice,” said Beena Pallical, director of economic and educational rights at the New Delhi-based National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. “Now the government has no excuse.”
Even as India seeks a place among the world’s developed nations with Modi’s promises of a $5 trillion economy by 2025, the shadow of caste discrimination lingers.
Last year more than 45,000 crimes were registered against lower caste citizens, an increase of 7.3% over 2018 figures, government data shows. A large number of crimes go unreported, according to the India Justice Report, with the criminal justice system heavily weighted in favor of more privileged castes.
”India is a casteist society,” said Kiruba Munusamy, a New Delhi-based researcher and supreme court lawyer. “Most of the authority and state machinery support the dominant castes for political benefits. The policemen are also not free of caste bias.”
India also has a poor record of successfully prosecuting rape cases. The data shows the conviction rate for rape stood at 28% in 2019, compared to 42% for murder cases.
A senior police official on Thursday said a forensic report had found no proof of rape, according to news reports. An autopsy concluded the woman died due to an injury to her neck and resultant trauma, the Indian Express reported a local official as saying.
Police in Uttar Pradesh also arrested Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the main opposition Congress party, as he tried to travel to the village where the attack took place.
India is facing a very difficult time with the coronavirus epidemic, said Pallical. “And yet, if these people think even in a tough time like this it’s okay treat Dalits and their women like this, what does it say about our Indian society?”
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