By Hannah Ellis-Petersen South Asia correspondent
Case prompts nationwide protests and further highlights country’s endemic problem of sexual violence
Four men have been charged with the gang-rape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in India, a case that prompted nationwide protests and drew a fresh spotlight on India’s endemic problem of sexual violence.
In September in Hathras, a small village in Uttar Pradesh, the 19-year-old woman was working in the fields when she was pounced on by four older men who dragged her to a field, attacked her and then tried to strangle her with her shawl.
The charge sheet filed by the central bureau of investigation on Friday confirmed the girl was gang-raped and four men have been charged with her murder.
The girl was a Dalit, India’s lowest caste, formerly known as “untouchables”, while her four alleged attackers were from a higher caste. Sexual violence against Dalit women is regularly used as a tool of oppression and around 10 Dalit women are raped every day in India.
The 19-year-old was discovered by her family bleeding in the field, barely conscious and with her spine broken. The girl was taken to a local hospital and then transferred to a government hospital in Delhi, where she died from her injuries two weeks after the attack.
Her case initially barely attracted any media attention. However, after the Uttar Pradesh police came under pressure for not properly registering her case as a rape and faced accusations of not investigating the case properly due to the low caste of the girl and her family, anger and protests exploded across India.
Several policemen were later suspended for “negligence and lax supervision” in the case. The police deny any wrongdoing.
The police also began to downplay and deny reports that the girl had been raped, and the rightwing firebrand chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, claimed that the rape allegations were an invented international conspiracy.
The Uttar Pradesh police also came under fire after they allegedly cremated the girl’s body at night, against the wishes of the family. Officials said the cremation was done “as per the wishes of the family”. The police formed a blockade around Hathras village, preventing senior opposition politicians and journalists entering to report on the case.
One journalist, Siddique Kappan, was arrested trying to reach the village and allegedly tortured by police before being charged with sedition under the draconian terrorism law, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (Uapa). He remains in jail.
The case once again exposed the widespread threat of sexual violence faced by women in India, the country which remains the most dangerous place for women in the world. Outcry over the brutal gang-rape of a student on a bus in Delhi in 2012 led to new anti-rape laws and harsher punishments, but rape cases remain rampant.