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India: Suspected rape puts spotlight on caste violence

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
August 11, 2021

The alleged gang rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl from India's oppressed Dalit community has once again brought into focus the rampant sexual violence and caste prejudice in the country.

A protester holds a placard during a demonstration after the death of a rape victim, on a street in Mumbai
Rights groups say that Dalit women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and other attacksImage: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

The alleged rape, murder and forced cremation of a 9-year-old girl in the Indian capital recently has once again put the spotlight on the gruesome sexual crimes against women in the country, as well the treatment of those on the lowest rung of the nation's rigid caste system, from which the girl hailed.  

According to authorities, the girl told her mother on Sunday that she was going to fetch water from a crematorium near her house in southwestern New Delhi.

About 30 minutes later, police said, the crematorium's priest called the mother, who was told that her daughter had been electrocuted.

Her family said that when the girl did not return, they went looking for her. The mother said she saw her daughter's body on the floor of the crematorium with bruises all over. She said the priest and three other men at the crematorium told her not to call the police and threatened her.

The suspects then incinerated the girl's body against the family's wishes and without calling authorities, police said.

Police say four men, including the crematorium's priest, have been arrested on charges of rape, murder and criminal intimidation.

This is the latest in a series of brutal sexual crimes against women in India that has drawn international condemnation.

The gruesome incident is a throwback to last year's alleged gang rape and murder of a Dalit teenger by upper-caste men in the town of Hathras in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

It also caused widespread outrage after police forcibly cremated her body despite her family's protests.

'Caste dictates every facet of life in India'

Rights groups say that women from the lowest level of India's rigid Hindu caste hierarchy — known as Dalits — are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and other attacks.

They say men from dominant castes often use sexual violence as a weapon to reinforce repressive gender and caste hierarchies. Activists stress that police frequently fail to investigate such crimes and survivors and the families of victims struggle to get justice.

"Caste dictates every facet of life in India and these crimes like in Delhi are nothing but a manifestation of this ugly and unfortunate truth. The worst part is that the perpetrators get away because of political clout," Beena Pallical, an activist from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, told DW.

Despite the existence of strict laws to protect Dalits — like the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act — enforcement remains weak.

And caste-motivated killings, social exclusion and other abuses are a daily occurrence. Many crimes against the community also go unreported.

"Justice is still a far cry. But despite social tensions, consolidation of the Dalits is also happening to assert their rights and have their voices heard," activist Cynthia Stephen told DW. "We are also seeing more women now in higher education and in the media," she added.

Promoting gender equality in India

Widespread discrimination and insecurity

India's National Human Rights Commission points out that a crime is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes and on average three Dalit women are raped and two are murdered every day.

Data shows that 11% of reported rape cases in India in 2019 pertained to victims from the Dalit community.

NGOs like the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, the National Federation of Dalit Women and other local organizations have been active in campaigning for the cause of the Dalits and raising awareness about their human rights situation.

"The system is designed to subjugate women belonging to the Dalit community. What we are witnessing is nothing but discrimination, and this must stop. Protection must be given to vulnerable persons," Ruth Manorama, widely known in India for her work in Dalit activism, told DW.

Poet and caste activist Meena Kandasamy has also been vocal about Dalit issues and the fight against caste. Soon after the Hathras gang rape last year, she wrote a powerful poem titled "Rape Nation," which was widely circulated on social media and captured the imagination of many Indians.

"In a land where Dalits cannot rule, they cannot rage, or even mourn. This has happened before, this will happen again," she told DW, recounting the last line of the poem.

Tackling violence against women in India

A major political issue

The safety of women and girls in India has been a key political issue since the 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a bus in Delhi.

There were more than 32,000 rapes recorded in India in 2019, according to the latest government data — almost four an hour — though experts say the actual figures are likely significantly higher due to the stigma attached to sexual offences.

There were more than 100,000 kidnappings of women over the same period, data show, a third of them with the aim of forcing the women into marriage.

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11