Kanpur Dehat/ Kanpur Nagar: Neha*, 15, has barely spoken or eaten since 23 September 2021.
Every day, Neha cycled along with her friend from their village of about 200 homes in the Akbarpur block of eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur Dehat district to a school and junior college located in a neighbouring village 4 km away, where she is a class 10 student. The journey along the deserted road made her uncomfortable, but she looked forward to school. Now, she shudders at the thought of stepping out of home. She never wants to attend school again.
As the two teenagers returned home that day, a 21-year-old man who had been following them for a month intercepted them. He struck Neha’s friend off her bike and warned her against shouting for help. He gagged Neha, tied her hands, and raped her, Neha said.
“My friend’s sister was passing by. She rescued me,” she told Article 14, her gaze towards the cemented floor. Sitting across the room in a relative’s house, her mother told her to speak louder. “You do not need to be ashamed, my child,” she said.
Neha’s parents, daily wage labourers, said they are uncertain of the road ahead—as Dalits, fighting the accused, who belongs to the Nishad caste (categorised as an Other Backward Class or OBC), will be difficult.
They considered themselves luckier than many—the Siuli police station registered an FIR the same day; Neha’s medical examination was conducted the following day. “Dalit families cannot file an FIR here for days,” said Neha’s uncle. “We are aware that pressure will start building up on us to settle.” He said the family will not give up the fight.
The only other time Neha spoke is on being asked if she likes watching movies. “Chintu Pandey’s movies,” she said, smiling faintly. Pandey is a popular film actor in the Bhojpuri cinema industry.
At a recent workshop of party spokespersons at the BJP state headquarters in Lucknow, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said that women, buffalos and bulls were safe in the state.
“Today, buffalos, bulls or women... can they be picked up forcibly? Isn't this a difference?” said Adityanath.
During the year 2020, however, 604 cases of rape of Dalit women were registered in Uttar Pradesh. Of them, 122 victims were minors, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau. In 2019, there were 545 cases of rape in UP in which victims were Dalit women, and 526 in 2018.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, caste-based violence continued unabated in Uttar Pradesh. The state recorded the highest number of atrocities against Dalits among all states, accounting for 25.2% of the total crimes against SCs in India in 2020, showed government data. Dalit women attempting to file cases of sexual violence have struggled to navigate the justice system, stigma, caste slurs, hostility from accused’s families, and the constant pressure to ‘settle’ cases.
Raping Dalits is a tool to silence a community when they are trying to access their rights, said Beena Pallical from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR)—a coalition of Dalit rights activists and academics. “It is a conscious decision to push Dalits further to the margins. Following a rape, a family is intimidated. In most cases, the girl loses access to education, and the family its livelihood opportunities,” she said.
According to Pallical, UP’s ongoing caste-based violence must be seen in the context of other policy decisions in the poll-bound state, including the proposed two-child policy, and how these affect marginalised communities.
Dalit women would bear a disproportionate burden of poor reproductive health and a possible rise in incidence of female foeticide, she said. The policy will also severely impact beneficiaries of reservation or quotas for Scheduled Castes (SCs), as those with more than two children would not be permitted to hold government jobs if the proposal is implemented.
Crimes against Dalits increased in 2020 across India as compared to the previous year, according to data from the NCRB. A total of 50,291 cases were registered for committing crimes against people belonging to the scheduled castes. This was an increase of 9.4% from 2019’s 45,961 cases. The data also showed that the crime rate, calculated as crimes committed against per lakh SCs in the state, registered an increase from 22.8 in 2019 to 25 in 2020.
‘I Put A Knife In My Daughter’s Bag’
On the evening of 29 September, in Rasoolpur village of Sarbankhera block in Kanpur Dehat, women and children gathered for a candlelight vigil for the Hathras gangrape victim. It was her first death anniversary.
As slogans of justice and ‘Jai Bhim’ filled the air in the village, women conversed among themselves about the constant fear they felt.
“I put a knife in my daughter’s bag when she goes for tuition. She should feel safe while going out of the house,” said Pushpalata, a woman in her mid 40s. The pre-teen goes to Akbarpur for tuitions, and must take a poorly maintained road with no streetlights along that stretch.
“Which mother would not be scared? We feel relatively safer when there are more Dalit families living around us,” she added.
Another woman in her early twenties said the lack of adequate toilets near their households, the absence of a school nearby, and the poor roads made women more vulnerable. “The government should focus on improving the basic living conditions of Dalits. Every other day we hear of sexual assaults on Dalit women,” she told Article 14.
Vimal Thorat, national convener of the NCDHR, said that historically, Dalit colonies had been relegated to areas outside the purview of government’s development plans. “A Dalit basti is difficult to reach by road. Secondly, there are no systemic developments in these areas—water, sanitation, street lights reach here last,” said Thorat.
Caste Dynamics Make Survivors More Vulnerable
Whenever the sequence of events of 9 March plays out in her head, Naveena*, 16, suffers severe stomach cramps and a splitting headache. The thoughts paralyse her. “I feel pain. I can’t sleep when I think about it. The incident lasted around 15 minutes. I remember the bleeding, and what followed,” Naveena told Article 14.
A resident of a village of about 600 homes in Sikandra block, Kanpur Dehat district, Naveena remembers the details of the crime clearly.
It was around 9 pm. She was forcibly taken away on a motorbike while she was tending to their goats. Her mother was on the phone with her father, who was away on work in Surat at the time, nearly 1,200 km away. A religious sermon playing on a loudspeaker drowned out her screams.
She was forced into a house on the outskirts of the village. "There was nobody else in the house… I tried to scream. He threw me on the bed and raped me," she told Article 14, adding that her attacker belonged to the Thakur caste.
She escaped a little while after the assault, but not before being threatened. “He told me he would kill us if I spoke about it…He threatened to kill my family.”
Eventually, she broke down and told her mother the truth on 1 April, almost three weeks after the crime, upon being questioned at length. “I just wanted to die. I think a lot these days...I cannot focus on anything. I am always tense,” she told Article 14.
On 9 April, Naveena’s father rushed back from Surat where he had gone looking for work. They registered a first information report (FIR) on 10 April at the Mangalpur police station.
But for the next few weeks they kept running around to get the medical examination conducted.
For several days, the girl’s father said, the family would rent a car to take her to the district hospital as no other transport was available during the lockdown. On three occasions, no doctor was available at the hospital.
Finally, the family was referred to Ursala Hospital, a government facility in Kanpur city. The medical examination could not be completed there either. “We again came to the district hospital and the report was finalised in May,” said the girl’s father, who does odd jobs to earn a living.
A nurse and a doctorat the district hospital in Akbarpur on Mati Road, who did not want to be named, told Article 14 that other services, including attending to survivors of sexual violence, were hit at that time due to the deluge of COVID-19 cases.
Though the accused was arrested from a bazaar in the Sandalpur block on the day the FIR was registered, the family faced extensive threats from his family members, and pressure to settle the case ahead of the next hearing on 1 November. Naveena’s mother questioned how justice can be done when the system “belongs to the upper castes and Thakurs”.
She said the family of the accused continued to threaten them for weeks, confident that they would succumb because they belong to the Chamar caste.
“This oppression from Thakurs will continue… I have three other children. I am scared, yes,” she said. The mother has been trying to tell the survivor to focus on her studies instead.
Multiple aspects of discrimination affect Dalit survivors in cases of sexual violence in a specific way, said Thorat. That most Dalits barely own any land means they continue to be dependent on Thakurs and other upper castes for their livelihood, which almost precludes their ability to seek justice independently. “This is where a power struggle between OBC men and Dalits also comes in. A Dalit woman is at the last step of the ladder,” said Thorat.
Apoorva Srivastava, a lawyer with Association For Advocacy and Legal Initiatives Trust, a Uttar Pradesh-based woman’s rights organisation, told Article 14 that the support system to ensure that survivors of sexual violence are often subjected to further trauma while filing a police complaint collapsed in UP during the pandemic.
In their interactions with survivors, they found that many rape victims were asked not to report the crimes, and the justice system was more inaccessible to Dalits. “While you are pitching the idea of online FIRs, you have to first think of people on the margins,” Srivastava said.
Interviews with survivors of sexual violence and their families showed that families struggled to walk long distances to police stations amid the lockdowns, were regularly turned away from hospitals, and often met with hostility at police stations.
Sitashree, 35, who was molested by her neighbour, belonged to the Yadav community, an OBC, in front of her two daughters in May 2020. She recounted how she walked to the police station for nearly a month everyday during the lockdown even though an FIR had been registered a day after the incident.
In her house in village Khajuri, Sitashree narrated how the accused who is still scot-free pressured them to settle. “The trauma has not ended… Every time we step out of the house, the accused and his family members hurl abuses at us. I am more scared of my daughters going out. Who knows what will happen to them?” Sitashree told Article 14.
She said she walked to Dehrapur police station every day, summoned by the police to record her statement or for other procedures. Her husband had found work as a watchman. “I keep thinking justice is the only answer now. But it is not easy to think about justice when you are struggling to manage two meals for your children,” said Sitashree. She recently received an interim compensation of Rs 75,000 from the state government.
The story of 24-year-old Arkita*, a mother of two children, is no different. Arkita alleged she was raped on 24 August. The accused—a Thakur—lives across from her house in a village of less than 250 homes in the Maitha block of Kanpur Dehat district.
The police refused to lodge an FIR and asked her to get a medical examination done, which she did independently. The FIR was finally lodged on 4 September. “Every day I would go to the police station with my three-month-old son and sit there all day. My daughter, almost three years old, would also accompany me at times,” said Arkita.
Her husband has been in hiding since the day of the incident. “The accused has told me they will slap a case of loot on me the day I return to the village,” he said over the phone to Article 14. He said he is worried for his wife and two young children.
The police also refused to add the section under SC/ST (PoA) Act as Arkita belonged to the OBC category before marriage. She belonged to a Rathore (OBC) family before she married a Dalit man. “After raping me, the accused called me a lower caste woman, a Dhobi (SC). How can the police refuse to recognise me as a Dalit?” She had to present a caste certificate when the police refused to cooperate.
Academic Sukhdeo Thorat, former chairperson of the University Grants Commission, pointed out a pattern in delay in registration of FIRs in rapes of Dalit women across the country, using milder provisions of the SC/ST (PoA) Act, using counter FIRs on the survivors’ families, and using the loopholes in the law to favour the accused.
A parliamentary standing committe report on Home Affairs submitted in the Rajya Sabha in March observed that Dalit women faced difficulties while registering atrocity cases against them as there was ‘poor implementation of the existing laws and the apathetic attitude of the law enforcing agencies’.
The high acquittal rate boosted ‘the confidence of dominant and powerful communities for continued perpetration’, observed the panel headed by Congress leader Anand Sharma.
Earlier, Adityanath had claimed that Dalits, farmers and the poor are the government’s priority. Last year, the chief minister launched ‘Mission Shakti’ campaign which promised ‘zero tolerance’ towards crimes against women.
However, activists said the ground reality is quite different.
Alka Devi, regional coordinator, Kanpur, All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, said, “We have seen caste-based atrocities on women under all regimes. But what is going on under the BJP government is different… We have not seen this scale of impunity before.” She said the power play between the upper castes and Dalits was deepening, with the pandemic serving as an “excuse” to keep people from seeking justice.
Absence Of A Support System
In two villages of Kanpur Dehat in Patara block, located about 40 km west of Kanpur city, the stories of Vidya*, 8, and Shobha, 6*, are similar in many ways. But the two grappled with the aftermath of sexual violence in their own ways.
Both the girls faced sexual violence during the pandemic from men belonging to higher castes—Vidya in August and Shobha in December. Their cases were registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012 which aims to protect children from sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography.
Their families struggled to get their medical examinations done at a government health facility.
Shobha’s family was told a medical examination would ‘spoil the child’s life’—they were taken for a medical check-up 15 days after the FIR was lodged. Vidya’s first medical report ruled out rape. A second examination was conducted, according to Vidya’s mother, who works as a day labourer. These instances are not uncommon.
“Imagine a Chamar family fighting a couple with a Yadav husband and a Pandit wife. Imagine the power politics here, and the pressure on the administration,” the mother told Article 14.
Seema Misra, a Delhi-based lawyer, pointed out that the Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that rape is a legal term, a crime, and not a medical condition. “The absence of medical evidence does not mean rape has not occurred. But there has been little change in the mindset of the legal community and medical evidence is still insisted upon,” said Misra.
A 2017 Ministry of Women and Child Development report noted that the effects of gender-based violence can be ‘devastating and long lasting’. It recognised that such violence can scar a survivor ‘psychologically, cognitively and interpersonally’.
Pallical pointed out that Dalit women faced multiple barriers when it came to accessing healthcare, access to judiciary, amid the absence of a support system. She said a systemic bias works against Dalit women while families of accused belonging to dominant castes often have political clout. “The state needs to exercise its power to ensure Dalit rape survivors can access the systems of justice and are not victimised further,” she said.
EIght-year-old Vidya said the wife of the accused in her case had lured her and taken her to a hotel room where her husband was waiting. “She held me down tight,” Vidya said, about the wife of the accused who raped her.
The woman told her she would shoot her dead with a gun, the girl said. “I used to go play with their son often. They stay right across,” said Vidya.
The model guidelines under Section 39 of the POCSO Act highlight the need for a counselling service, the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS). But a support system is lacking at the ground level. The provision of Section 39 requires state governments to prepare guidelines for use of NGOs, professionals and experts to be associated with a child during the pre-trial and trial stage.
Srivastava, the lawyer, said that even where a support system exists, there is lack of awareness about such programmes among survivors, especially those from the marginalised communities. She said the pandemic led to a further setback for these programmes.
“It is worse for Dalit survivors as they also face severe repercussions from the dominant caste if they try to access these services,” said Srivastava.
As Shobha’s brother recounted the day’s events on how the child faced sexual violence while she went half a kilometre away from their home to the open space that serves as a toilet, her mother who works in a brick kiln said her daughter was terrified for months after the incident. “I push her to go to school. Maybe she will feel better,” said the mother, as Shobha curled up next to her.
As an afterthought, she repeated a comment that echoed through all the interviewees’ anecdotes. “The problem is the accused think a Dalit will always settle. They think that is the norm,” she said
* Names have been changed to protect identities of survivors and their families. The villages they live in and educational institutions they attend have not been identified for the same reason.
(Ritwika Mitra is an independent journalist based in New Delhi.)