New Delhi: On 29 March 2016, a little over two months after the suicide of Rohith Vemula stirred national debate on institutional caste oppression, a 17-year-old Dalit student died under suspicious circumstances in Nokha, Rajasthan, her body found in a water tank at a residential teacher’s training institute.
While the training institute claimed that the victim’s death was suicide by drowning, her father alleged that she had been raped and murdered.
As per the father’s police complaint, on the evening of 28 March, at around 8 pm, his daughter called and told him she had been raped by her physical education instructor, Vijendra Singh, when she had gone to clean his room after being told to by her hostel-warden, Pragya Shukla. Naming Singh, Pragya Shukla and college principal Prateek Shukla in his complaint, the father alleged that his daughter had been murdered in an attempt to cover up the rape.
The institute’s administration insisted that the girl died by suicide after she was “caught” in a compromising position with her physical education instructor. They even claimed that they received a written apology from both the victim and Singh with a statement that the physical interaction was with “mutual consent”.
However, the institute’s attempt to abdicate liability by alleging consensual sex was bound to fail. Statutory rape laws in India presume coercion, the rationale being that a minor is incapable of giving consent to the act.
The contentious trial ended on 8 October 2021, when district and sessions judge Dhirendra Singh Nagar found all three guilty for abetment of suicide under section 305 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC), and section 3 of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (SC/ST Atrocities Act).
Singh was also found guilty of kidnapping (sec 363 and 366), raping (sec 376) and aggravated penetrative sexual assault under sections 5 and 6 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POCSO). Pragya and Prateek Shukla were also convicted under section 21 of the POCSO Act for failing to report the case to the police.
Despite the conviction, this case and the manner in which criminal procedure took its course stands as testimony to a harsh fact: When Dalit voices learn to challenge historically determined power relations, they become targets of oppression and administrative persecution. As with Vemula’s suicide, those who gather the courage to challenge the status quo are targetted and forced into silence.
Further, the Nokha rape case epitomizes the significance of gender in caste violations. For Dalit women, knowing its chilling effect, sexual violence is systemically used to reinforce caste and gender heirarchies.
The fear of young girls meeting the Nokha victim’s fate led an entire village to pull out their daughters from school.
A Father’s Lone Battle & Partial Victory
The victim’s father told Article 14 that his struggle was ridden with difficulties. He had to travel approximately 1,000 km from his home (a 24-hour journey) to appear before the court on each hearing date. Each time he ended up spending nearly Rs 15,000. He also said that he had to spend more than Rs 20 lakh and took a loan to stay in the fight.
The father is circumspect about the conviction. “Isko victory kehtey hain? Sazaa mili, bas aur kya.” (Is this called victory? Punishment was given, what else.)
He said that he did not want to disrespect the judiciary, but a piece of paper in the form of a judgment could never take away what he had been through. “I haven’t thought of my health or my children’s future at all," said the father. "I did not attend any marriages or functions. Hell has broken loose and that can never be changed.”
He sees the judgment as a partial victory. The state is now considering appealing the court’s decision to challenge Pragya and Prateek Shukla’s six year sentence.
Abysmal Conviction Rates
As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) Report of 2020, conviction rate in cases of ‘abetment to suicide of women’ was 16.8% and their pendency percentage stood at 95.3%. For cases of ‘abetment of suicide of child’ conviction rate was 20.7% and pendency percentage 96.8%.
Due to lack of direct evidence in cases of abetment to suicide, the charge is typically hard to prove and conviction rates thus remain abysmally low.
The NCRB report also shows that over 43,000 investigations relating to rape cases were initiated during the year. Courts convicted the accused in only 3,814 or 8.9% of cases.
A March 2021 report tabled by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs in the upper house of the Parliament indicated that there had been a 15.55% rise in crimes against women and children from SC/ST communities over the three years to 2019. Rape cases rose 22.14%.
The parliamentary committee report also found that the conviction rate under Prevention of Atrocities Act over the same period was 26.86%, with 84.09% of cases pending trial.
The committee explained that the major reason crimes against SC/ST women and children in recent years rose was “due to the poor implementation of the existing laws and the apathetic attitude of the law enforcing agencies”.
“Moreover, the high acquittal rate motivates and boosts the confidence of dominant and powerful communities for continued perpetration,” said the committee.
The committee also suggested that in many cases law enforcement agencies failed to include the provisions of the SC/ST Atrocities Act while registering cases of rape, sexual harassment, etc., committed against women from marginalised communities. Indeed, due to disproportionate socio-economic burdens and power imbalances, most cases of rape involving Dalit women continued to go unreported.
It was then significant that the perpetrators in the Nokha rape case were convicted. However, those that the minor girl left behind continue to live with their loss.
Nokha Victim & Vemula: Drawing Parallels
Significant parallels can be drawn between the incidents that drove the Nokha rape victim and Rohith Vemula to deaths by suicide.
Both young students, ambitious and vocal about their ideologies, were victimised on account of caste prejudices and exclusionary cultures on campus. One dreamed of becoming a teacher, the other a science writer.
Vemula was suspended and stripped off his stipend (a critical source of money for his education) due to his involvement with the Ambedkar Students Association on campus.
The Nokha victim’s warden, Priya Shukla, often asked her to clean the physical education instructor’s room, something she had complained of to her father several times. Such demeaning tactics were evidently used as weapons for harassment and humiliation of the two students.
In both cases, the college administration was quick to deny allegations of caste discrimination and blamed the victims. Claiming that Vemula’s stipend was withdrawn due to a “delay in paperwork”, the administration attempted to absolve itself from any criminality.
Likewise, the minor in Nokha rape case was accused of being “caught” in a compromising position with her teacher even though she had been instructed by the warden to visit his room late at night. In an attempt to draw a veil over their own dereliction, the college went to the extent of pressurizing her to write an apology letter.
Both Vemula and Nokha rape victim’s deaths were marred by further loss of dignity and their caste identity continued to haunt them.
In the aftermath of Vemula’s death, the state questioned his ‘Dalitness’ in order to avoid the application of the SC/ST Atrocities Act. Senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, including the then human resource development minister, Smriti Irani and external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, (here and here) also asserted that he was not a Dalit.
These allegations were made even though legal experts maintained that the question of whether a person’s caste could be contested and changed posthumously had no precedent in law.
On the other hand, hours after finding the Nokha rape victim’s corpse, the college administration neglected to inform the police or her family. “When I called the school’s owner he told me not to call him again and again, since he was busy,” the victim’s father told The Hindu Business Line.
“What is more urgent than a death?” he asked.
Later, the police transferred the Nokha victim’s body to the morgue in a municipal garbage van without first videographing the scene as per procedure. Ramkesh Singh Meena, the investigating officer in the case, reportedly said: “We don’t have a dedicated vehicle in Nokha for such uses, so we decided to use the municipal garbage dumpster.”
Both Nokha victim and Vemula’s cases exposed criminalities that were a result of pervasive casteism in higher educational institutions and the law enforcement.
In his incisively prophetic suicide note, Vemula had written: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living”. His words continue to ring true.
Such cases were neither the first of their kind nor will they be the last.
Many similar cases continue to occur and often escape the public eye (here, here, here and here). In May 2019, Payal Tadvi, a young medical student from an Adivasi community too met the same fate as the Nokha victim and Vemula. Despite having broken barriers of social discrimination to become the first doctor and post-graduate in her family, she faced casteist abuse and harassment by her seniors who forced her to take the tragic step.
A September 2021 report titled ‘The Steady Drumbeat of Institutional Casteism’ referred to such incidents as not cases of sucide or abetment to suicide, but as “institutional murders”.
While highlighting the culture of victim-blaming and apathy towards the victims, the report found that casteism is not only prevalent but also institutionalised in higher educational institutions.
The constitutionally guaranteed right to education continues to be a dream for many Dalits.
“Better Alive Than Educated”
The Nokha victim’s case explains why the role of gender in caste-based crimes cannot be overlooked.
Hailing from Dalit-dominated Trimohi, the last village ahead of the India-Pakistan border in Barmer, the minor girl was one of the first girls from her village to opt for higher education. In the hopes of becoming a teacher like her father, she moved nearly 400 km from home to pursue a Basic Teachers’ Training Course at a residential college in Nokha.
The Nokha victim was a squad leader at her college and was often vocal about caste discrimination. “She was an ambitious and talented girl who always led our school in cultural events and was the star of our village,” her brother Ashok Kumar told Hindustan Times.
Her father told the newspaper that she was named because of her multi-talented persona. “Just like a river that gets distributed into different streams, leaving beautiful patterns in the earth,” he said.
He held her up as a beacon of hope and an example to his students.
However, following her tragic and mysterious death, her father’s resolve to encourage more girls to pursue education was crippled. Accused of giving “too much freedom to girls”, the high-spirited primary school teacher who used to go door-to-door urging parents to educate their daughters further, now began to discourage the practice.
Fearing for his younger daughter’s safety, he pulled her out from school even as her brothers continued their education. “If you want to keep them safe, make them sit at home after Class 8 or Class 10. At least you’ll be able to see their faces when you breathe your last,” he told the Hindustan Times.
His words conveyed the extent of his dejection: “You seek education to clear your foggy vision, but if you lose your eye in the process, why would you want it?”
Once an inspiration and role model to the girls of the village, the Nokha victim was belittled as a template of ‘why not to send girls to school’. According to a Hindustan Times report, when Ganesharam, another primary school teacher from the village personally requested parents to send their children back to school, he was ridiculed by the villagers who asked if he wished for their kids’ death as well.
Worried, Ganesharam also explained that the minor girl’s demise had given the villagers an opportunity to marry off their daughters quickly.
Years after the incident, people from the village of Trimohi and adjoining villages continue to keep their daughters away from school.
In April 2021, the Rajasthan government renamed her village to honour the minor victim’s passion to study and create awareness about education amongst girls.
Her father hopes that the government will do more. “They should introduce a scholarship after her name for SC/ST girl students or set up a girl's school in the village,” he said.
The recent final verdict convicting the Nokha victim’s perpetrators would, at the least, serve as an assurance to villagers and encourage them to return to education as a tool for fighting caste and gender biases.
*The identity of the victim has not been disclosed in accordance with Section 23(2) of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offence Act, 2012; Section 74(1) of Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015; and Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
(Mani Chander is a lawyer based in New Delhi.)