Who killed the girls? In India, a forgotten crime
On May 28, 2014, most Indian newspapers ran stories on their front page about two teenage girls, cousins, who had been hanged in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh after being allegedly gang-raped. Some papers also printed the disturbing image of the girls’ bodies hanging from a mango tree in the middle of a field in their village.
The public display of the young girls, wearing blood-stained clothes and riddled with thorns, caught India’s attention. Media stories snowballed. Television broadcast vans arrived at the scene. Reporters did live updates from the very mango tree where the girls were hanged. Politicians made a beeline for the girls’ home, sympathizing with the family and drawing political mileage from an incident of national shame. The police swung into action and made some arrests.
But the gruesome and brazen act failed to stir public emotion beyond an initial reaction. It also could not push the system to expedite justice as it had in the case of the Delhi gang rape in 2012 when a paramedical student was assaulted in a bus. Four were sentenced to death in connection with that attack.
Today, more than four months later, it seems that the girls’ deaths have lost out to other stories and have met the fate of most reports on crimes against women. The girls’ families, however, are not quite ready to let the story end here.
The fathers of two girls hung from a mango tree in May girls are still waiting for justice. (Chitranjan Singh)
‘She loved going to school…’
“I will hang myself from the very same tree if I don’t get justice for my girls,” Sohan Lal, the father of the younger girl, told me. “She was just 13 years old. She was in the sixth class and loved to study. Every time I look at her books in the house, I break down.”
Lal said that his daughter and her 15-year-old cousin had gone to the field at night to relieve themselves. Their house, similar to many other rural households in India, had no toilet. “I wasn’t in the village that night,” he recalled. “I was about 15 kilometers away for work. A relative called me at night and asked me to come urgently. He said the girls had gone out to the fields and hadn’t returned.”
As he recounted what happened—almost mechanically—his voice was emotionless. “On the night of May 27, when I couldn’t find my daughters, I, along with my community members, went to lodge a complaint at the police station,” he said. “The cops were relaxing on a charpoy [bed]. When I approached them, they abused me, calling me of a lower caste.” He says he ignored the abuse and begged them to find his daughters, but they blew him off, saying the girls will return in the morning. He says he spent the whole night at the station begging them to help. At 4 a.m. he got the call: the two girls had been found—but dead and hanging from a tree.
That night, before his wait at the station, Lal rushed back to his village to find the men from his community already searching for the girls. Babu Ram Nazru, Lal’s neighbor, claimed he had seen a group of boys dragging the girls. “It must have been around 10 p.m.,” Nazru, a day laborer in his 20s, told me. “I don’t know the exact time. I saw them dragging the girls and managed to catch Pappu Yadav and got into a scuffle with him before he ran away.”
Pappu Yadav, the main man accused, and his two elder brothers, Avadesh and Urvesh, were arrested two days after the girls were found. So were Sarvesh Yadav and Chatrapal Yadav, no relation to the brothers and both police officers who were at the station that night.
Almost a week later, the Uttar Pradesh state government reshuffled the district police department. The superintendent of police was suspended, and 42 police officers, 28 district magistrates, and 66 officers with the Indian Administrative Service were transferred.
Fighting the system
Until recently, the village, Katra Saadatganj, in the Badaun district of India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh, had almost no public toilets or toilets in people’s houses. Some activists and reports have drawn a correlation between toilets and rape, saying that the lack of toilets fuels sexualized violence in India. Others have been critical of such reasoning, saying that social change—not just the presence of toilets—will stop crimes against women.
Jeevan Lal, Sohan Lal’s brother and the father of the older girl, said that if a toilet is all that was needed to save the life of his only child, his 15-year-old daughter, he would have built one a long time ago—except that he was too poor. Bathrooms are seen as a luxury in his village.
“We went many times to the village head, asking him for toilets for our women,” he said. “But every time we went, he turned us away, saying he didn’t have enough funds.”
The village head or the pradhan, Kamal Kant Tiwari, put the blame on the government. “The government gave us just Rs. 10,000 (approximately US$165) per toilet,” he said. “It is impossible to build one with such [little] money. In 2007, we did manage to build 70 toilets in the village, but because of [not enough] money, poor-quality toilets were built and they broke within two years.”
Yet Sohan Lal said he believes that the village head’s attitude toward them is driven by caste discrimination. “He belongs to a high caste,” Lal said. “His children go to the city to study. They have toilets at home. Why will he worry about us and our girls?”
Tiwari is a Brahmin, a higher caste in the village, while the girls belonged to another caste, the Shakya Mauryas. Although the caste system was abolished in India (after independence in 1947) under Article 15 of the constitution, in the village of Katra Saadatganj, a person’s caste remains a key factor in any discrimination they face.
Pappu Yadav and his two elder brothers—all of whom have been accused, arrested, and now released—belong to the Yadav caste, a higher caste than the Shakya Mauryas. The Yadavs have dominated central and parts of western Uttar Pradesh for decades. Now, with the ruling state political party’s chief being a Yadav and his nephew, Dharmendra Yadav, being an elected member of parliament from Badaun, the notoriety of the family has increased—as has the suffering of those in the lower caste, according to Kavita, a journalist with the all-women’s newspaper Khabar Lehariya in Uttar Pradesh who asked only to be identified by her first name.
“We carry a rape story every day in our paper, and most of the victims are Dalit girls (a lower caste),” said Kavita. Her paper, Khabar Lehariya, reports on gender, caste, and racial inequalities. “In most cases, even police complaints are not filed against the accused since the accused belong to a higher caste and are politically well connected,” she said.
According to data by the National Crime Records Bureau, at least four Dalit women are raped every day. Dalits are a category of people in India who were referred to as “outcasts” because they were considered the lowest in the social hierarchy. Yet despite these figures—which reflect only reported cases—very little is being done on the ground. Conviction rates, too, remain dismal in Dalit-based sexual assaults. A report by the International Dalit Solidarity Network, an international network of civil society organizations fighting caste discrimination, says the conviction rate in rape cases of Dalit women is less than1 percent.
Investigations: A dead end
After the arrest of the three brothers and two police officers, investigations soon hit a road block in the case. Two weeks after the murder of the girls, the state government, facing criticism for its inaction, transferred the case to India’s top investigation body, the Central Bureau of Investigation. Unsatisfied with the results of the post-mortem, the bureau decided to exhume the bodies of the girls.
“The medical board directed us to carry out another post-mortem, since there were discrepancies in the first one,” Kanchan Prasad, a spokesman for CBI, told me.
Villagers and police gather near the mango trees where the two girls were found. (Chitranjan Singh)
As the news of exhumation spread, the media returned with their broadcast vans. This time, the focus shifted to a spot near the banks of the Ganga—where the girls were buried. As heavy rains lashed through the region in mid-July, the peak of Indian monsoons, the rising river inundated the site and the graves went under eight feet of water. It was impossible for the investigators to exhume the bodies.
With this backdrop—rain, a failed exhumation process, and relentless live coverage—another theory surfaced in the village: Could the girls have been victims of an honor killing?
Chitranjan Singh, a local reporter from the region, told me that the villagers said the theory of honor killing came from the police, who were investigating the crime as an honor killing from the beginning, said Singh. “But the victims’ family and villagers believe that injustice is being done,” he said. “The accused were put through an interrogation of just one hour, whereas the family was repeatedly interrogated over many days.”
It’s an accusation that outrages the family. “Why will I kill my own girls?” Sohan Lal, father of the younger girl, said. “Pappu confessed to the crime in front of everyone.”
But a report by the Hyderabad-based Center for DNA, Finger-printing, and Diagnostics, one of India’s best forensic labs, found no DNA of the Yadavs on the girls’ clothes. The Yadavs were also cleared in a lie detector test. A CBI spokesman told me they found no “deviation from their earlier claim of innocence.”
Because the police were unable to file a charge sheet against the boys for lack of evidence, a local court ordered the release of the Yadav brothers. I spoke to Urvesh Yadav soon after his release.
“Do you feel vindicated now that you have been released?” I asked him over the phone.
“I am happy that justice is being done,” Urvesh replied. “My brothers and I are innocent, but we still spent three months in jail. God is helping us. He will give us justice.”
I pressed on. “Since the investigations are still on, do you fear being imprisoned again?”
“What should I fear?” he asked. “I didn’t do anything wrong. Why will I be sent back to the jail? Why are you asking me such questions?”
Then Urvesh handed the phone to his father, Veere Singh, a 60-year-old farmer.
“Can you imagine what it feels like for an old man like me to have his three young sons in the jail?” Singh asked me.
“What were your sons doing that night?” I asked him.
“All my sons were at home,” he said. “I was at the fields. They are being targeted. … My boys never even knew the girls, but because my youngest son, Pappu, got into a scuffle with Nazru (Sohan Lal’s neighbor). That’s why they are putting the blame on us. But I know the truth will win.”
There is a different truth for each side. The real truth—and, with it, any hope of justice—has been lost in the stories of what happened on the night of May 27. The investigation into the murder of the Lal girls continues.
More articles by Category: Girls, International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Rape, Sexualized violence, Asia