Rape continues to be a weapon of oppression against Dalits in Uttar Pradesh, despite the state having a Chief Minister who is herself a woman and a Dalit
By Shobhita Naithani, photographs Vijay Pandey
BADHANA VILLAGE in Sultanpur district is just 150 km from Lucknow. One muggy September afternoon in 2006, 17-year-old Sarita told her parents that an upper-caste boy had been teasing her. When the girl’s parents, Meera Devi and Sukhdev Harijan, approached the boy’s family, they rubbished the charge.
Sarita’s harassment only intensified. One morning, the teenager went missing. Her parents, Dalit landless labourers, filed a report with the police, but did not name anyone, though they suspected 23- year-old Dileep Singh, a Thakur. Days later, Sarita’s bloated body was recovered from an unused well.
Sarita’s waist-long hair had been stuffed in her mouth and her tongue was jammed between her teeth. The police arrived the next morning, conducted the post-mortem and cremated the body while the family was still in shock.
Since the post-mortem cited drowning as the cause of death, the police declared it a case of suicide. By the time Sukhdev Harijan gathered his wits and summoned the courage to question the probe, the police said it was too late to register a complaint
In backward eastern UP, no statistic on rape or murder comes as a shock. But when the chief minister is a Dalit woman, stock must be taken. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the number of rape cases involving Dalit women in Uttar Pradesh was 375 in 2008, the highest in the country. In 2007, the year Mayawati took charge as CM, 318 rapes were reported; the year before, the rape tally was 240.
These are official figures — numerous cases never make it to the police register. In fact, the latest report of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes claims that cases of atrocities against Dalits are highest in UP, followed by Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.
Some would say it is unfair to blame Mayawati for not knowing what’s happening in remote corners of the large, populous state. But Sukhdev was not just any landless labourer. In the 2002 Assembly elections, he was a foot soldier of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Sukhdev had campaigned “day and night” for Bhagelu Ram as MLA — his distraught wife says “He was Bhagelu Ram’s bhakt (devotee).” But Ram disappointed the family when he arrived belatedly, condoled quickly and left.
“Worse, it didn’t matter to the BSP that a member of the community they claim to support, represent and fight for was left in the lurch,” says Ram Kumar of the Dynamic Action Group, a Dalit organisation that Sukhdev later began to work with. “Even if we are to believe that Sarita wasn’t raped and committed suicide, the police should have registered a complaint and investigated the cause,” points out Kumar.
In 2007, Bhagelu Ram was re-elected for a second term from Kadipur. But Sukhdev’s life took another twist. He was arrested in February this year for the murder of the youth, Dileep Singh, whom he suspected of raping and killing his daughter in 2006. Interestingly, Sukhdev had not even been named in the FIR filed by Dileep’s father: instead, 70-year-old Gaya Prasad, a school teacher, told TEHELKA that he suspected two men related to him, who had threatened his son a few days before the murder. Besides the two named in the FIR, the police arrested two others, who “confessed” to killing the youth at Sukhdev’s behest. While the police let off the first two suspects, Sukhdev remains in jail. The school teacher, meanwhile, is unhappy with the probe.
The state administration gives two arguments for the rising number of Dalit rapes in the state. First, that it is proportionate to the high percentage of Dalit population — 21 percent. The second reason is the “empowerment among Dalits to speak out ever since Mayawati has come to power”, says Karamveer Singh, the state Director General of Police. So, regardless of the CM belonging to their community, Dalits still get beaten up, raped or eliminated as “punishment” for their acts of self-assertion.
The Supreme Court has ruled that if a woman claims she has been raped, her statement must be taken at face value until proven otherwise. Thus it should be easy to get a conviction in cases of rape and sexual harassment. But TEHELKA found the police to be blatantly prejudiced. “They not only try to hide the grave nature of the crime, but at times deny the crime itself,” says SR Darapuri, a Dalit and former state Inspector General of Police who now works with Dalits. Indeed, going by the statements of policemen at the tehsil and block levels, all Dalits are liars, no Dalit is raped, Dalit women are characterless, the men lazy and their children both.
TO UNDERSTAND the role of the police, TEHELKA reconstructed the horrific journey of a rape victim. We started at the Primary Health Centre (PHC) where 25-year-old Mansa Devi was taken in March this year. A mother of two boys — Suraj, 5, and Chanda, 3 — Mansa had alleged that she and her husband were beaten up by the village Thakurs who then gangraped her because her family had defaulted on a loan. She claims the perpetrators also forced the barrel of a gun in her genitals.
The PHC does not have a lady doctor, only a midwife who is not qualified to conduct a medico-legal examination. Dr Kalicharan treated Mansa for wounds of “maar peet” (beating) when she was brought there. The policeman who brought her there did not mention rape. “When the doctor learnt that I was bleeding from my genitals, he advised me to persuade the police for a medical examination,” recalls Mansa. Dr Kalicharan admitted to TEHELKA that he had advised Mansa, but declined to say whether she was raped or not. “We don’t have the facility for an internal examination,” he said.
Mansa’s husband died soon after the incident. Though the family clams it was a result of the thrashing by the Thakurs, the cause remains unclear.
The next stop is the police station. Mansa points out Constable Jograj Singh, who took Rs 110 to register her complaint. When confronted, he denies the charge, swore under his breath and disappeared.
Next arrives Station Officer Hiralal Chaurasia, huffing and puffing. “Let me tell you about her background,” he says, targeting Mansa’s character, family and lifestyle. “But why didn’t you register a complaint for rape when the woman alleged so?” we ask him. “Because she wasn’t raped,” he retorts, adding, “She admitted she was lying when I asked her.”
Mansa is audacious and outspoken — qualities that the police don’t expect in the injured party. “I retracted only because you abused me and my character,” she snaps, recounting his abusive language.
We visited the State Human Rights Commission in Lucknow. It is a sanitised place; no complainants, only polite cops dot the cool corridors. Justice Vishnu Sahai, a retired judge of the Allahabad High Court, has files neatly stacked on his desk. He hints that a majority of the cases brought to his notice are fakes. “Dalits are trampled upon, oppressed, but there are other cases of human rights violations too,” he says. His records show that the number of complaints of Dalit atrocities has come down from 352 cases in 2008 to 209 the following year. “Most of them do it (file rape cases) to get compensation money,” says one officer.
Yet, most victims do not even know that under the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, there is a provision for granting compensation — between Rs 10,000 and Rs 1 lakh — to a Dalit victim of any crime. The few who file for compensation manage to do so with the help of local activists, who in turn take a “cut” for helping them.
IN ONE rare case in Hamirpur district, the state social welfare department gave Rs 25,000 compensation to Rekha, who was only six when an uppercaste neighbour who had known the family for nine years raped her. The police registered a complaint and a medical examination was conducted only because the local BSP MLA stays just two houses away. The medical report, however, ruled out rape as Rekha’s hymen was intact.
In Rekha’s case, the accused, a minor, was sent to a juvenile home for a month and then freed. The family moved soon after. When her parents go out for work, Rekha fends for herself dressed as a boy — cropped hair, trousers, no jewellery “Mayawati’s coming to power doesn’t mean things will change. The power structure remains the same at the village level,” says Sudha Pai, a professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and the author of The Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh (2002).
Lucknow-based journalist Sharad Pradhan disagrees with this line of reasoning. “Mayawati has risen to these heights on the Dalit agenda. She continues to harp on Dalits. Why shouldn’t she be held accountable?” Indeed, few would disagree that when the BSP was gaining force in the 1990s, it had a tremendous opportunity to change the political and social landscape. But its priorities are different. “The BSP is only consolidating its position,” says Pai.
Gokul Prasad, a landless Dalit farmer in Manjholi village of Hamirpur district, has stopped going to political rallies but rushes to help fellow Dalits in need. He understands their pain, for four years ago, his five-year-old daughter Radha was raped by an uppercaste neighbour after a family altercation.
Raping a child, it seems, is a way of settling scores. When villagers brought Radha home, the women of the house fainted. The child was soaked in blood, her legs and hips swollen. But the police abused them on caste lines and refused to lodge an FIR until Dalit activists forced them to do so, six days later.
It took the police over a year to arrest and jail the culprit, 35-year-old Lakhan Lodhi. But his family continued to pressurise Gokul for a compromise. A few months later, Gokul’s 70-year-old father was murdered and house burnt. Soon after, Gokul and his brother Shivpal were arrested on charges of murdering a woman. The victim’s son, a Lodh, the same caste as Radha’s rapist, had named Gokul and his brother.
Out on bail now, the battle has begun yet again for Gokul. “I hear about an atrocity in the area and I rush to the spot,” he says. Which means — by his own estimate — he is out at least four times a week. That tells a lot about a state where a Dalit chief minister clearly does not have her ears to the ground.
(Names of victims have been changed)
CASE STUDY 1
She was raped by an upper caste villager but she kept the incident a secret until her mother found out. It was only after she delivered a baby that the police registered a complaint
The issue gathered steam when the baby died and local activists heard about the incident. She continues to live with her mother and siblings in Sihari, near Lucknow
She was raped by a backward caste neighbour when her husband was out for a Holi party while she was looking after her blind father-in-law. No complaint was lodged, nor a medical examination conducted
At the time of going to press, she continues to visit the police station with her daily-wager husband in Orai district