x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

India gang-rape puts caste discrimination in the spotlight

“That was the first question they asked me: ‘What caste are you?’” said the father of one of the victims, who said police did not act on his pleas for help because of prejudice.

Protests continue in Lucknow on June 2, 2014, a week after the gang-rape and hanging of two teenage girls. The incident has highlighted the caste divide in Indian society as one of the fathers of the girls accused police of not helping because of his caste. Pawan Kumar/Reuters
Protests continue in Lucknow on June 2, 2014, a week after the gang-rape and hanging of two teenage girls. The incident has highlighted the caste divide in Indian society as one of the fathers of the girls accused police of not helping because of his caste. Pawan Kumar/Reuters

KATRA SADATGANJ // Nearly a week after two young girls were found hanging from a mango tree, lynched after being gang raped, the residents of their village continue to simmer with rage over the extreme prejudice experienced by people of their caste.

The girls, aged 14 and 12, belonged to the Maurya community, a subcaste belonging to the Dalit – formerly known as “the untouchables” – caste group. The suspects, three of whom are in police custody, are Yadavs, a subcaste that is higher and more powerful than the Maurya.

“There were often fights between the two groups in this village,” said Baburam, who uses only one name, and who works as a labourer in the farms surrounding Katra Sadatganj, in Uttar Pradesh state.

“If drinking was involved, you could be certain there’d be a fight.”

It was Mr Baburam who saw four men abduct the two girls last Tuesday night. The girls had gone into the fields to relieve themselves when the men set upon them. When Mr Baburam tried to intervene, he said, he was threatened with a gun.

Hurrying to the house of the father of one of the girls, Mr Baburam relayed the news. The father and his family spent nearly the whole night trying to persuade the police to investigate. But the policemen were also Yadavs, he said, and only swore at him and told him to go home.

On Monday, the father sat on the threshold of his small, white stucco house, surrounded by relatives, looking exhausted and careworn. Still, he replied courteously to the sundry visitors.

Even though the afternoon was a sweltering one, Katra Sadatganj was a hive of activity. Television broadcast vans were parked under trees. Police squads hunkered down in corners of the village. People from villages nearby had come to watch the news as it unfolded.

The father said no one had said anything to him about compensation for the deaths or for police negligence. “But I don’t want money. I want my daughter back.”

The 12-year-old who was raped and killed was the youngest of his three children; her name, and the name of her cousin, cannot be revealed under Indian law.

The father owns a small tract of land on which he grows vegetables and garlic. But to earn enough to support his family, he works for other landowners as a farmhand.

He said the two police officers to whom he complained last Tuesday night – who have since been fired and arrested – did not act on his pleas because of his caste. “That was the first question they asked me: ‘What caste are you?’”

When he named the Yadav men who had been seen dragging his daughter away, the officers – both Yadavs – grew only more obdurate, out of caste loyalty.

This was not the first incident in which the police of Katra Sadatganj have turned a blind eye to the behaviour of local Yadav men.

Rammurthi Sakey, a mother of two in her late 20s, told The National she had often been turned away from the police station.

“Once, I was at the crossroads near the village, and 16 or 17 Yadav men surrounded me,” she said. “Some of them were on motorcycles. They harassed me and tried to grope me, and I fled with great difficulty.”

When she went to the police station, however, the officers would not register her case. Ms Sakey said they asked her “Why are you troubling us?” and told her “Get out of here.”

Mr Baburam saw political muscle behind the fearless troublemaking of the Yadavs. The state is ruled by the Samajwadi Party, which is controlled by Yadavs.

“So the Yadavs have been telling us: ‘Give the Samajwadi government a few more years, and we’ll ignite a Mahabharat here,’” Mr Baburam said, using a colloquial phrase that denotes a fierce and bitter war

But another villager, who declined to give his name, pointed out that such political empowerment went in cycles.

“In the previous government, when Mayawati was chief minister, it was the reverse,” he said. “Then, the Dalits felt braver and more protected, and believe me, they caused their fair share of trouble also.”

Both communities are poor, although the Yadavs are better off. Pappu Yadav, one of the three men arrested for the rapes and murders, is wealthy enough not to have to work his farm himself. Instead, Mr Baburam said, “he was free to roam around harassing women”.

Whether Mr Yadav and his cohorts are guilty of this crime is yet to be determined. One of the policewomen stationed at the house of the 12-year-old victim, brought in from a neighbouring police district, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said cryptically: “It’s important to make arrests, but it’s more important to make the right arrests.”

But she was less guarded in her anger towards the police officer in charge who refused to take down the complaint. “Because of that one man,” she said, “none of the villagers trust any of us any more.”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae