Dalit child’s ‘rape’ in Delhi shows all that’s wrong with our country

Technology, economic growth, even education are not making a dent in either caste prejudice or patriarchy. Why?

WrittenBy:Kalpana Sharma
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In his engagingly written August 3 frontpage story in the Indian Express, about the Indian Women's hockey team at the Olympics, Mihir Vasavda wrote, “Each player has overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to reach this far: prejudice, poverty and patriarchy." Those three words encapsulate the story of Indian women, not just the remarkable lot wielding hockey sticks in Tokyo.

Prejudice, poverty, patriarchy. All three came together on August 1, when a 9-year-old Dalit girl, the only child of poor parents, went to a nearby crematorium to fill cold water from the cooler there. She never returned. She was dead by the time her mother saw her. Told that her only child had been electrocuted, the mother watched helplessly as the priest at the crematorium proceeded to cremate the child. “Don’t shout,” he allegedly told her.

This happened in India of 2021, in its national capital, in a week when the parliament was in session, when the most powerful politicians of this country were present in the same city where this little girl lived and died.

Can we then discuss the state of the nation or its politics, or even the state of India's media, without addressing what this horrific crime represents for India and what it reflects about our society?

There are many layers to the story of this alleged rape and murder in Old Nangli village in Delhi. One of the first, and so far the best, report on it was by Nidhi Suresh of Newslaundry who was on the spot, spoke to the parents, the police, and witnesses. Her reporting, including the video, is heart-wrenching and chilling, especially as it reveals that the priest, who allegedly forcibly cremated the little girl's body, is one of the four men charged with her murder and gangrape.

The report also brings out the sense of entitlement and impunity that men like this priest have that they could confidently instruct the family of the child to cremate her rather than go to the police.

This incident also brings back memories of January 2018, when an eight-year-old Bakerwal girl, the daughter of shepherds in Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir, was gangraped and killed. The crime took place in a religious place, and the priest was one of the men charged with rape and convicted.

The Kathua case led to nationwide protests. The court had to intervene to remind the media that neither the name nor the photograph of the child can be used when reporting crimes against minors under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. The media fell in line after the court's orders. By then, her name and face had already been splattered across publications.

This time, the media has followed the law, including ensuring that the faces of the girl's parents are obscured when they are interviewed on camera. In the past, even if the media did not name the victim, they gave away plenty of clues by naming the parents, identifying the exact locality where they lived and other such details. In other words, everything that would identify the victim barring her name.

As the girl was Dalit, inevitably comparisons are being drawn to the gangrape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, in September 2020. In both cases, the body was cremated without the consent of the family; in Hathras by the police and in Delhi by the priest.

Apart from the similarities between this crime and other cases in the past, there are several aspects that are notable, especially where the media and politics are concerned.

The site of the atrocity, the national capital, inevitably draws far greater attention in terms of both the media gaze and politics. Although Dalit women are raped and killed in numbers every year, the few cases that come to light are those that the media can access, or chooses to do so.

While this unequal media gaze distorts the reality of the extent of crimes against women, in the past it has been helpful. Media attention pushes governments to act, at least in the short term. We have seen this repeatedly in rape cases, and most dramatically in 2012 after the gangrape in Delhi. That led to the appointment of the Justice Verma Committee and substantial changes in the law, including the introduction of the death penalty (which incidentally was not recommended by the committee). The media focus following the rape and murder of the eight-year-old in Kathua also resulted in the death penalty being introduced for rape of minors under the POCSO Act.

Yet, the experience of the parents of the 9-year-old in Delhi reminds us yet again that, despite the changes in the law, the systemic problems in the criminal justice system remain. Not only were the parents treated insensitively by the police when they went to register the complaint, the police booked the four men accused of their daughter’s rape and murder under fairly minor provisions of the law. Only once the case was publicised did they agree to add the stringent provisions under the POCSO Act and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act.

The incident also reminds us yet again that despite the introduction of the death penalty for rape, the incidents of rape have not declined. The latest National Crime Records Bureau figures (available only up to 2019) show 32,033 rapes in one year. This figure is likely a gross underestimation as it is now well established that the majority of rapes that take place inside homes, or are committed by men known to the survivor, are never reported.

We have to wait and watch whether this time the media will focus on the crime or, as in the Kathua and Hathras cases, politics will dominate, making what happened almost incidental. This is already evident in some of the television talk shows since August 1 where the debate centres on whether this or that politician ought to have gone to meet the child's family and also whether her being Dalit is the trigger for their concern.

What then is the role of the media? To document. To get all sides. To try and fill holes in the narrative. But more importantly, to follow-up and not let the story die once the political spotlight moves from it. Many of these stories are multi-layered. Each layer tells us about our society, about prejudice, about patriarchy, about the criminal justice system and its constant failures, and about poverty.

The media must avoid falling into the trap of whataboutery: what about other rapes all over the country, why only this one, etc? Every crime of this nature is precisely that, a crime that must be acknowledged and addressed. In an ideal world, every such crime ought to be noted and reported. But if we can report, investigate, follow up even one like the August 1 incident, without giving more pain to the family of the victim, without reinforcing stereotypes, without obfuscating about the real issues of caste and the reality of child sexual assaults, we will have done a lot.

I have deliberately chosen to focus on only this issue in this column for several reasons, principally because it brings out so much that we fail to acknowledge about this country.

It shows us how technology, economic growth, even education are not making a dent in either caste prejudice and hatred or patriarchy. That despite the uproar that followed the 2012 Delhi gangrape, the changes in the laws, the subsequent change in the POCSO Act following the Kathua rape, our criminal justice system repeatedly fails the poor and marginalised castes. That even as we celebrate the few medals our athletes have won in Tokyo, mostly by women, we must remember the real face of the country we inhabit is represented by the struggles of these women in sports, and the death of girls like the 9-year-old.


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article image‘Don’t shout’: Dalit child ‘raped, killed, forcibly burnt’ at Delhi crematorium

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