By Saumya Rastogi
BU News Service
Content warning: this story contains descriptions of rape and sexual assault that might be triggering to some readers.
INDIA – A 19-year-old Dalit woman was gang-raped in Hathras district, Uttar Pradesh, on Sept. 14. The woman, of a lower caste, named her alleged attackers before she died as a result of her injuries. All were upper-caste men.
“They come from the Valmiki community, those who are forced to clean human excrement,” said Manjula Pradeep, an activist who works for Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network and a lawyer, in regards to the victim’s background. “If somebody rapes a woman from this community, people can’t even believe she could be raped because they think that she is the most defile person on this earth.”
The lethal attack came six months after four men were hanged for raping a young Delhi college woman who also died of injuries from her attack.
The Uttar Pradesh police cremated the Hathras victim without the families’ permission. A number of protests took place across India to demonstrate against the illegal cremation.
The Aligarh Muslim University Hospital allegedly fired the doctor who examined the victim. His forensic statement showing rape contradicted the Additional Director General (Law and Order) Prashant Kumar’s statement. Kumar’s statement said the forensic report showed no sperm traces; therefore the rape did not happen.
Pradeep, who works for Dalit rights, said that caste plays a very important role in sexual violence because a woman’s caste identity increases her vulnerability.
“Even intensity of sexual violence increases,” she said.
Pradeep said the local government organized meetings (Khap Panchayat) in reaction to the Hathras case, but with leaders (Sarpanch) from the upper caste. She noted the power and authority the upper castes have to organize meetings in the first place, when Section 144, which prohibits assembly of more than four people, was invoked to curb the protests and demonstrations in support of the Hathras victim.
This is not an isolated incident. According to the 2019 annual report by India’s National Crime Records Bureau, 32,033 rape cases were registered in India that year. In 2019, 2,386 lower caste women were raped across the country. According to the National Family Health Survey, 99.1% of sexual violence cases go unreported in India.
Delhi lawyer Kanti Mohan Rustagi said two laws protect women from sexual assualt and rape in India: the Indian Penal Code and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, or POSH Act.
Despite the laws, Rustagi, a partner at Patanjali Associates, said the courts are overloaded with murder and terrorism cases that take priority over sexual harassment cases.
He added that there are not enough police officers and judges in the country to handle the high number of cases which come in because of the increase in population.
Rustagi also said that the system is burdened by corruption and that political powers are at play in the Hathras case.
Pradeep, who defended a Dalit rape victim in 2008, said in the Hathras case, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh protected the accused who were from similar caste backgrounds.
Human Rights Watch has documented the use of sexual abuse against Dalit women as tools by landlords, who are often upper caste men, and the police to inflict political lessons, crush dissent, and labor movements within Dalit communities. Their report revealed a pattern of impunity in attacks on women.
Pradeep said that there is a provision for fast track courts and immediate trial of the case in writing, it does not happen.
“As per the law the investigation of the Hathras case should have been over within a month and the trial should have started,” Pradeep said. “The investigation is still going on and is getting delayed because of the political nature of this case.”
She added that not long ago, Indian doctors still performed the two-finger test on sexual abuse survivors, where two fingers are inserted into the vagina as they try to determine if the girl is accustomed to sex.
“Women felt violated even after rape,” Pradeep said.
Jan Sahas, a social development society, studied the records of 200 group-rape trials and found that the two-finger test was used to determine rape in 80% of trials, even after laws were implemented to change investigation techniques.
Rustagi said the laws need to change to allow for faster prosecutions of accused sex offenders.
“The system is still archaic,” he said. “The investigation process is still the same from 100 years ago.”