Raped, murdered, burnt to ash: story of a Dalit girl, 9, in modern India
- India abolished discrimination on the basis of caste in 1948, yet every day 10 Dalit, or untouchable, women and children are raped – and the problem is getting worse
- In the case of Asha, her body was forcibly cremated in an apparent move to hide the evidence. Campaigners allege that in many cases, even the police prefer not to know
Asha, 9, left her tiny, second-floor illegally constructed flat in Old Delhi’s Nangal Village on August 1 to find drinking water. She never returned.
Her mother found Asha’s bruised corpse in the grounds of a crematorium. “Her eyes were open but no light in them,” the grieving mother recounted.
She said a priest appeared and “told me Asha had been electrocuted while taking water from the crematorium’s electric water cooler. But I didn’t believe him. If she was shocked then why were there so many bruises on her body?”
The priest told Asha’s mother to “keep quiet and let it go”, that “what has happened has happened”. Then she saw that the priest and three other men had prepared a funeral pyre.
Asha’s mother suspects – as do Delhi police – not only that her young daughter was raped and murdered by the men, but that, like an increasing number of female victims of violent crime in India, she was targeted for her caste.
Coming from a family of ragpickers, Asha – who had often taken leftovers from the crematorium and run errands for its priest in the past – was considered an “untouchable” or Dalit (a word meaning oppressed or trampled on).
While discrimination on the basis of caste was banned in India in 1948, it remains rife, particularly in rural areas where the upper castes own about 80 per cent of agricultural land despite accounting for a fraction of the workforce. (Dalits, who account for nearly 90 per cent of the agricultural workforce across India and near to 100 per cent in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan, own just 12 per cent).
Indeed, if anything the discrimination and even hatred is getting worse.
A study this year found there had been a 46 per cent increase in violence against Dalit women since 2014. Not only that, but during the same period conviction rates dropped.
“As per the National Crime Records Bureau data in 2019, 10 Dalit women and girls are raped every single day, but only 29 per cent of those accused are convicted for their crimes,” the report by the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, a platform for Dalit women, said.
Asha’s death follows the gang rape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras village of Uttar Pradesh in September 2020.
Campaigners claim both cases highlight a further problem – that police forces are loathe to act in cases where caste is a possible motivation.
In the Hathras case, the young woman’s family alleged that police cremated the body without their consent or knowledge.
Asha’s case also involved an enforced cremation, though it occurred before the police arrived.
Asha’s mother said that the priest and the three other men told her they would give her daughter a proper cremation, “and if I kept quiet, they would give me food, water, money,” she recalled.
Still in shock, she began to shout and tried to run from the crematorium to seek help. But the four men closed the massive iron gates before she could get away.
“I cried, shouted, begged them, but they put my baby’s body on the pyre and lit it before my eyes.”
Her screams attracted several residents of Nangal Village – where Asha’s family had been living for the past seven years – to the crematorium to investigate.
On forcing open the gates they saw the grieving mother, Asha’s burning body and four men: the priest Radhey Shyam, Kuldeep Singh, Laxmi Narayan and Salim Ahmad.
“It was immediately obvious something terrible had happened there,” said Amit Dayal, 19, who reached the scene at 7.30pm.
“The mother was crying, the gates were locked, a body was burning on the pyre, and the mother said the men had done some wrong with her child.”
By the time police arrived it was late evening, and most of the girl’s body was ashes. Only a leg and foot, pulled from the fire by one of the residents, remained.
Amit and others at the scene claim the police prevented them from putting out the fire, though Delhi police have denied this.
Asked about the claim, DCP Singh told This Week in Asia: “There was commotion in the place and some confusion, but why would the police do that?”
Police arrested the men. A source said the case was initially registered as murder, then as a sexual offence against a child, and later as a crime against a caste.
“There was a lot of confusion in the matter. As you see we didn’t have any proof of rape as there was no body,” a police source said.
Swabs from the men and their clothes along with what precious little remains of Asha have since been sent for forensic analysis.
“We have followed all procedure in the matter,” said Southwest Delhi’s Deputy Commissioner of Police Ingit Pratap Singh.
A Delhi district court on Monday directed the Delhi Legal Services Authority to release an interim compensation payment of two and a half lakh rupees (US$3,365) to the girl’s family. Earlier this week, the Capital’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced an ex-gratia payment of 10 lakhs rupees as well.
Whatever the truth of what happened to Asha on August 1, activists say increasing violence against Dalit women is shocking not only for the attacks themselves, but for an almost casual acceptance of it among the wider public.
“In the case of atrocities against [the caste], public recognition of their trauma is rarely granted. Expression of collective guilt for [such] atrocities is rare, both at the local and national levels. Society just does not stop its normal activities to find time, however short, to worry about the absence of any such guilt,” wrote professor of education at Delhi University Krishan Kumar regarding another case.
Kumar was referring to the murders in Bhaukhedi, Madhya Pradesh, in September 2019, of a 12-year-old Dalit girl and boy who were beaten to death by two upper caste men after defecating in the open.
But his words could apply equally to countless other cases recorded every day, the number of which are on the rise.
“The reason for this is pretty clear, which is that essentially the regimes we have in some of the worst offending states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are not even ashamed of the fact that crimes against Dalits are happening,” said Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association.
“They are protecting perpetrators as we saw in the Hathras case, which is why we also see a fall in convictions because evidence is destroyed or not investigated.”
Added Krishnan: “On the whole, the regimes are indifferent towards crimes against the Dalit.”
Asha’s name was changed to protect the family’s identity