Ultimately, the rape and hanging of two minor girls in Katra, Badaun, that has provoked worldwide outrage, is the result of a systemic rot. It has happened before—maybe not in this defiant and intrusive way that challenged every civilized norm and mocked every law ever made—and it will continue to happen, unless the caste divide disappears, laws change, education imparts what it is meant to impart, politicians care enough, our rural areas begin to permeate into the active conscience of a society consisting of people like us, who think that it is made only for us, and till the time we see all of India as one, without this great divide, and understand at a seminal level that this country belongs, in equal measure, to all of its citizens, at all times. How much of it really means anything to urban India, we do not really pretend to understand. No one has held candle light marches against the breakdown of law and order in Akhilesh Yadav-ruled Uttar Pradesh. No one has sat in silent sorrow at the stark reality of this possibly being a purely casteist crime. Mothers (belonging to the Muraon community) repeated the horrific story of their girls disappearing around 10.30 at night on May 27 and the helplessness they felt at the subsequent inaction of the constables when they reported them missing to the local police chauki that night. The story got a bit garbled when the other women chimed in. Somewhere there are two versions. One that states that the girls went to defecate in the fields and were picked up by the Yadav men, another that says the men, drunk and looking for women, went to the house and took them away at gun point.
“Yeh chauki nahi theka hai. Gunda raj ka adda hai (this is not a police post but a den of miscreants’ rule). When we went there last, the police got us to sit on the floor and the offender (who came from a stronger community) sat next to the head constable.” —-A villager from Katra
The point is, it doesn’t matter much, the manner in which they were abducted. What matters is that there was no one to listen, and no one to stop it from happening. Those who were meant to deliver justice seemed sympathetic to the criminals. The parents and the local villagers spent the entire night searching for the girls by torchlight, since there is no electricity in the village. No one thought to cross the fields and walk to the orchard 10 minutes away. And when day finally broke they were told by the chauki constables to go look in the orchard; the girls would be found there. And they were. Hanging from a mango tree, raped, killed and displayed. In Katra village, we were received with open arms. The stories came pouring out—of eve teasing, harassment of girls, violence against women, kidnapping and sometimes rape. Most go unreported. Girls being married off by the time they are 12 and 14 are common. Why? How else do you keep your girl safe? Besides, what else does one do with a post-pubertal girl? There is no education; there is no way for her to earn any money. And the minute she reaches the age of sexual maturity she becomes the cynosure of male eyes, looking for easy prey. It is the classic syndrome of the strong versus the weak, the rich versus the poor. Land grabbing, crop stealing, gunda gardi by the strong-armed, dominant-caste Yadavs are the norm. The local politicians support the criminal elements; the criminal elements support the politicians. The local police turns a blind eye, sometimes aiding and abetting, earning their haftas, cozying up to the powers-that-be, for the little push up the rung of the ladder. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, and together we’ll ensure that not one voice is raised in protest.
“We have never seen so many cars come into our area. Mayawati came with about 100 cars yesterday. It’s the biggest event ever in our area.” — Kripal Yadav, Resident, Trilokpur, on the VIP and media circus
A classic and sorrowful example was Phoolan Devi (namesake), another Muraon, who, amidst heaving sobs, told us of the horrific story of her little boy, kidnapped last year and whose remains were found a week later, tied up in a sack and thrown into a ditch. In some pagan ritual to a fertility God, the little child had been used as a bali (sacrifice). The case was eventually registered but it turned out that the perpetrator of the crime was yet again a Yadav. The family was coerced into accepting a sum of `10,000 and made to leave Katra village. The case was closed and Phoolan was left with nothing but the images of her limbless child wrapped in a sack. She had returned to the wretched village to weep with her friends, to share their tragedy, and to relive her own horror yet again. Katra is perhaps a case in point of what the Dalits suffer. We visited other villages nearby and far off. Perceptions differed with different communities.
“Unfortunately justice is not swift. Hardened criminals are enjoying state facilities in jails. Speedy disposal of such cases is an absolute essential. Investigating officers must be held responsible for their submissions, and any officer found guilty of admitting false information must be severely punished because there is also the danger of misuse of laws.— Shahid Azad, advocate, Delhi
At nearby Trilokpur, a tiny but rich hamlet of Yadavs, the village elders had a different perspective. They spoke of leading a decent and fearless life, with full bellies and zero crime. Living a bare 10 kilometers away from Katra, they may well have been living abroad. The Katra tragedy hadn’t touched their lives. They had never witnessed a media circus before and it was entertainment for them, as they sat in their comfortable way-side chaupal, with hookahs, snacks and cups of tea watched the VIP cars whizz past. Their take on the tragedy was rooted in old beliefs: “It can’t be the fault of one person alone. Even a dog does not come sniffing for food to a house that does not throw him morsels. These people are known to be of loose character. Why should a mother not keep her daughter safe?”
“The promotion- hungry police officers will go to any extent not to register cases. They don’t want the crime record in their district to look bad, so the best thing is to dissuade people from registering cases.” — a social worker
The Lodhas of Athaiya, some 40 kilometers away from Katra, were foggy about the details of the crime. But when we enlightened them, the reactions were that of shock and horror. Women wept, some hugged their daughters close. Initially denying prevalence of crime in their protected Athaiya, a pretty little village with clean lanes, golden fields, and shady peepal and pakar trees, the villagers opened up about wife-beating, drunken husbands, petty thefts and lack of every conceivable facility. Het Ram, a village elder, shrugged his shoulders and grinned his semi toothed smile. “We’ve lived like this forever; nothing is going to change.” The Thakurs of Hazratganj, introduced to us by an old family friend and respected Thakur leader, Rajesh Pratap Singh, at his beautiful and timeless haveli, were vociferous, articulate and educated. They spoke of the breakdown of law and order, the laxity of the police, the brashness of the Yadav community, the lack of education, the negative impact of an explicit social media, and the availability of information and pornography on mobile phones and its impact on the uneducated, adolescent minds that could not differentiate between real life and reel life. From Hazratganj emerged my first glimmer of hope and understanding of the whole. However, across most communities and villages the message was unanimous, as far as this crime and others like it were concerned: “Castrate the bastards, hang them from the same tree and let them die a slow and horrible death. Let a strong message go out to the entire community, so that not one man will ever dare to do this again… . This cannot, and should not go unpunished. They have been caught and action should be swift….” But visits to police thanas across the district, first to Usait, where the crime was reported, and which is about a 15-minute drive from Katra, then to the district headquarters at Badaun and finally to Ujhani, told us a dismal story. At Usait there isn’t a single female constable; they have to be called in from Badaun, about 25 kilometers away, if and when required. The Usait station officer’s story was so flawed that novices like us could have picked holes in it. It was also at Usait that we met the chairman of the municipality. He was the one who helped cut the ropes to bring down the two girls and he was the one who reiterated that the rapists had been drinking at the police chauki at Katra and had asked the constables to provide women.
“In our area the Yadav community is in a majority. They think they are above the law. Why is it that over 60 percent of the police force in this area consists of Yadavs? There must be a cohesive mix of castes and more so at the senior levels, so that no one community feels it is protected by ‘biradari’.” — Ashok Verma, advocate, Badaun
The stories across the police thanas are the same. What they say and what they do are completely at odds. Villagers insist their complaints are not recorded unless you are ready to pay. The police of course insist that every crime is recorded and diligently followed up. But they also admit to a lack of resources, manpower, vehicles, and most importantly, of training. Traversing rural terrain is not easy; it often takes a police jeep in far flung village outposts almost 40 minutes to an hour to get to the scene of the crime, enough time for the perpetrator to cover his tracks and create an alibi. The local police chaukis in the villages are manned by two, or at the most three constables; most of them are on the rolls of the local goons, whose private force they become.
It is a story of neglect, complete lack of manpower, gross dereliction of duty, lack of empowerment and lack of sensitization. Above all what stuck in my mind was the fact that whichever name badge we looked at, read “Yadav”. Raminder Singh Yadav, Pappu Yadav, Sarvesh Yadav, Ashwini Kumar Yadav, and on and on, till I grew dizzy. Maybe our minds only registered the Yadav surname. In twisted ways, the BSP has manoeuvred the incident to its advantage. While ensuring that the family refused any relief offered by the central government, Behen Mayawati ji sent `10 lakh through the local BSP MLA Sinod Sakh and his cronies, because the Muraons happen to be their vote bank. And the two families had no choice but to accept the dole. It’s about 10 lakh to make up for the brutal rape and hanging of their daughters. Five lakh apiece. It’s about offering sops to make up for lawlessness. When we raised this issue with the BSP leaders, they shrugged their shoulders and blamed it on “SP’s gunda raj in the state”. They brushed the dust off their crisp white political kurtas and left us to deal with the hundreds of complaints that poured in. In fact they directed them to us, saying: “They are attached to ‘welfare organizations’ from Delhi and will be able to help you, we cannot do a thing because of the SP sarkar raj.” It’s also about passing the buck. That systems have broken down completely is a fact. Lack of education in the area is rampant. Apart from Hazratganj, in the other villages we visited, the education level of the girl child is zero. There are no schools, and if there are schools, there are no teachers. The “acceptable” scho-ols are many kilometers away and it’s not safe for girls to traverse these paths alone. Lack of sanitation facilities further make the girls vulnerable to the abductors on the prowl. There are no toilets anywhere in the villages we visited. But more dangerously, there is no electricity.
It’s not that these families are dirt poor. They have land, they have cattle, and they have poultry. But they have nothing else that India in the 21st century can be proud of. Roads are non-existent, drainage systems do not exist, and healthcare facilities are random and poor. Babies are birthed at home by the local dai. Violence against women is taken for granted, so is the demand for dowry and the fact that girls are often still sent back home if dowry demands are not met. And no one is listening. It’s all rather twisted and unreal. All the more so when you understand at a deep gut level that these really are the hands that feed India. In a country where Durga, Shakti, Kali, and an entire pantheon of goddesses are revered and feared, it is an anomaly that the goddesses that walk on land and live and breathe and procreate, have to live in a mute world. It is no longer enough that we the privileged count ourselves as equals; there is a far greater number that do not have a voice. It is time for us, to save our women.