It began as an innocent Sunday outing to see the movie The Life of Pi. By the time the night was over, it had become a grisly gang rape that shocked the world.
Five men went on trial this week, charged with the rape and killing of a 23-year-old woman who died of the injuries she suffered when she was attacked on a bus as it moved through the streets of Delhi — an assault that ignited public outrage over the violence against women in the Indian capital.
But sexual assault is also prevalent in rural India, where unelected, all-male village councils influence attitudes toward women and caste conflict contributes to violence against them.
Indian law makes it a crime to divulge the identity of a victim of rape. NPR is using the pseudonym Roopa to identity the wife and mother of four at the center of this story.
Roopa’s family lives in a one-room hut in a village in the north Indian state of Haryana, which borders Delhi.
They are Dalits, the lowest tier of India’s social strata once called “untouchables.”
Adjoining their hut is a stall that holds the animal fodder they raise to eke out a living as do their neighbors, who warily eye a visiting reporter.
What happened in this village is a source of tension and shame.
Seated on the woven rope bed from where she was snatched the night of Nov. 28, Roopa says she and her children had just fallen asleep when five men scaled the wall outside, pushed open the door and dragged her to an alcove past the family cows.
“They clamped my mouth shut and switched off the lights,” Roopa says. “Then the five of them raped me repeatedly. I couldn’t scream for help. I was very scared. So scared I didn’t know where I was. Two of them even had pistols.”
In the dark, Roopa says she lost track of what was happening as the men battered her petite frame. Her husband was at work. But her youngest children awoke and began to cry when they didn’t find her there.
“When they heard the children crying, these men ran for it,” Roopa says. Her children discovered her disheveled and disoriented. “They saw me and realized that something had gone terribly wrong. I held them and I cried and cried.”
Vivek Sharma, police superintendent in the nearby city of Rohtak, says that of the five accused in the gang rape, one is in jail, two have absconded, and two others allegedly jumped in front of a train and killed themselves within hours of being named, an unusual twist.
More commonly, rape victims have committed suicide, distraught over shame or callous treatment by the police. The stigma is such that experts say only a fraction of rapes in India are actually reported.
But even government records for 2011 show an average of 61 rapes a month in Haryana, a state of 25 million people. Eight other states have a higher rate of rape, but Savita Berwal, secretary general of the All India Democratic Women’s Association in Haryana, says gang rape there is common and becoming more violent.
“It goes beyond rape,” Berwal says. “Now, 5- and 6-year-old girls are being sexually assaulted by three or four men at a time. There are cases where 10 to 12 men have descended on one woman. In a double attack in a village nearby, the daughter was raped by a gang of men, who then raped and killed her mother.”
Roopa’s case is one in a recent string of rapes targeting Dalit women. She says she knows the two men who are at large: a distant cousin, Fauji, and a man named Kalla. Fauji is a Dalit. The other four were members of the powerful Jat caste that dominates politics and agriculture in Haryana.
Widespread Abuse Against Women
Author Prem Chowdhry has studied Haryana’s patriarchal social structure. She says Jats have historically abused Dalit women as a means of maintaining dominance.
“If she is raped, then it is the honor of the entire family and caste and community that is at stake. So it becomes a weapon to control the Dalits,” says Chowdhry.
V. Geetha writes on caste and gender and says caste inequities provide cover to men who sexually abuse women of lower standing.
“There is no sense of having crossed a line if a man from a dominant or upper caste assaults a Dalit woman,” Geetha says. “He thinks it’s his right. So that immediately sets her situation apart from any other women.”
Roopa’s case was filed under a sweeping 1989 Act known as the “Prevention of Atrocities of Scheduled Castes,” or Dalits.
Sharma, the police superintendent, says the law is automatically triggered if there is a “heinous” crime against a Dalit, as there was here, he says. But he says there is no caste conflict in this case.
Roopa herself fixes blames on the one Dalit in the group, Fauji. He phoned her shortly after the rape when he learned she had confronted his relatives over the attack.
“Are you trying to get me killed?” he asked.
“And I said, ‘Yes, I’m trying to get you killed.’ To which he replied there’s nobody in this village strong enough to have me killed,” Roopa recalls, adding that she felt “embarrassed and sick.”
Few Rights For Women
Haryana’s male dominated culture deprives women of their property rights and in some cases, even life.
The social preference for sons has produced the most skewed ratio of males to females in the country — 1,000 boys to 877 girls — as couples abort female fetuses.
All-male councils, known as “khap panchayats,” have prohibited intercaste marriages. The penalty for such unions can be an “honor killing.” More recently, some of these councils want to ban girls from wearing jeans or using cellphones.
Shishpal Beniwal is the general secretary of the Hooda Khap Panchayat, representing some 200,000 to 300,000 people in Haryana. He offers this analysis of sexual violence in the north Indian state.
“The general thinking in Haryana is that the number of rapes is negligible — 1 or 2 percent,” Beniwal says. “Girls and boys have a lot of freedom. And they engage in consensual sex. When girls go to boys’ dorm rooms, and something happens, half the fault is the girls’. It’s an unsafe place. With gang rapes, we usually find that both sides are to blame. It’s never one-sided. The belief here is that if the woman doesn’t encourage the man, he wouldn’t dare to say anything to her.”
It is in this climate that Roopa has pressed her case. She says the local police accused her of “making the story up.” It was not until police superintendent Sharma intervened that she says authorities registered her case. As for her own community, she says she’s been ostracized.
“Nobody is talking to me anymore,” says Roopa. “None of my women friends is talking to me. What they think is, ‘Why should I get involved in this mess? Wouldn’t my name be dragged through the mud as well?’ “
Her family members stand by her. They have encouraged her struggle in a system that is stacked against her gender, caste and class. Roopa says since the attack that has left her in continual pain, her family’s precarious existence on the bottom rung of Indian society has gotten even worse.
“For two months my husband has been sitting at home,” she says. “What will we eat? He’s not been able to find work. We’re poor people; we can’t afford to remain unemployed for more than four to five days.”
Roopa has received some $1,200 to defray the costs of her case under the law aimed at ensuring social inclusion of Dalits. But this young mother is feeling anything but included as she anguishes over legal delays. More than two months have passed since the attack, and no hearing in her case is on the horizon.
“If I don’t get justice, there is no point in living. It’s better to die than to live like this. At least I won’t be crying and suffering every day,” she says as tears stream down her face.
But in her despair Roopa is reminded of her family. “They are with me,” she says, “so I must live.”