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Human Rights

Violence against Dalit women 'not taken seriously'

Indians are outraged over police handling of a case involving teenage girls who were gang-raped and hanged from a tree. Legal expert Indira Jaising says the problem lies in a lack of legal and political accountability.

The two sisters, aged 14 and 15, had gone missing from their home in a village in Uttar Pradesh's Budaun district after going into the fields because there was no toilet in their home, according to the police. Indian TV footage showed the villagers sitting under the girls' bodies as they swung in the wind, and preventing authorities from taking them down until the suspects were arrested. Police arrested two police officers and two men from the village late Wednesday and were searching for three more suspects.

The villagers accused the chief of the local police station of ignoring a report by the girls' father the night before the girls went missing. The victims' family belongs to the low-caste Dalit community that often faces discrimination in India. Authorities have faced public anger since the December 2012 gang-rape and murder of a young woman on a moving New Delhi bus, an attack that sparked national outrage over the treatment of women.

In a DW interview, Indira Jaising, a senior lawyer in the Indian Supreme Court, says the 2012 outrage over crimes against women seems to be confined to the cities and has had no impact in rural districts.

In your opinion, what are the reasons behind violent acts like this one?

The first thing to be noted is that these women and many others are deprived of the most basic of all amenities required for the dignity and modesty of a woman. They were in the fields because they had no other toilet facilities.

Indira Jaising, a senior lawyer in the Indian Supreme Court and founder of Lawyers Collective

Jaising: "The problems begin with the denial of basic human rights"

It is also important to know that the constituency where this took place is represented by a relative of the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav. The problems begin with the denial of basic human rights in the heart of a state governed by a macho chief minister who has been unable to control criminal gangs in his own state. How can one expect anything from a state where the most prominent politician and the father of the chief minister says: "boys will be boys?," when it comes to rape.

So the problem also has to do with politicians who get away with such remarks with no political or legal accountability. In any other country, these remarks would be considered unlawful and inciting violence against women.

The family belongs to the Dalit community, or "untouchables." What role is India's centuries-old caste system playing when it comes to crimes against women?

Caste plays a big and important role in violence against Dalit women. This is why the former chief minister of the state, Mayawati, who is a political champion of India's lower castes, has demanded an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation, rather than by the local police. This also makes sense since the accused are also policemen.

Mayawati has also demanded that the government be dissolved and the state be placed under the president's rule, meaning under direct control of the central government. I think this demand is also justified, as it reflects the state of the complete breakdown of law and order in Uttar Pradesh.

However, Mayawati lost her political clout in the last election without gaining a single seat in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, and she thus can be ignored by the central government. I think this will also be a test for the new BJP-led central government which now has a substantial presence in the state.

Police arrested two police officers and two men from the village and were searching for three more suspects. Villagers accused the local police station of ignoring a report by the girls' father the night before the girls were missing. What is your view on this?

Issues relating to violence against Dalit women are not taken seriously by the administration as they are at the bottom of the social economic and political ladder. These are massive structural issues in the nation, which show that the poor still have no claims to justice and security of bodily autonomy. According to the latest media reports, the rapes were committed by gangs of men allegedly including members of the police.

What sentences could the police officers arrested be facing, according to the new stricter laws on sexual violence?

Officers can be indicted for failing to register a crime of the highest order, such as rape. Under the newly enacted Section 166A of the Indian Penal Code, a police officer disobeying the law is committing an offense and can be punished with jail time ranging between six months and two years. Moreover, if police officers are found guilty of taking part in a rape they could be liable to a sentence of life in jail, or even death in the case of a gang rape.

What impact are India's new laws against sexual violence having on legal proceedings?

Students hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against the recent killings of two girls, in New Delhi May 30, 2014.

"The national outrage over violence against women seems confined to the cities," says Jaising

The national outrage sparked in December 2012 by the death of a young woman brutally raped on a New Delhi bus seems confined to the cities and has had no impact in rural districts. Sadly it is not by law alone that these issues can be tackled. What is clearly missing is the political will to finish police lawlessness. Politics and the police seem entangled in a mutual interest of protecting each other.

What more must be done to prevent incidents like this one from happening?

It is a sad day for India, but perhaps the only silver lining is that the women's movement is no longer silent on these issues and that people all over the country are protesting against this atrocity. What I would like to see is political and legal accountability and the resignation of Uttar Pradesh's chief minister.

Indira Jaising is a senior lawyer in the Indian Supreme Court and founder of Lawyers Collective, an India-based non-governmental organization that promotes human rights. She became the first woman to be appointed additional solicitor general of India.