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Chandrashekhar Azad, leader of the Bhim Army, a party advocating for the rights of Dalits, speaks during a protest against the gang rape and killing of a Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh state, in New Delhi, India, October 2, 2020.
© 2020 AP Photo/Altaf Qadri
The rape, torture, and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman allegedly by a group of dominant-caste men in the village of Hathras, in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, has sparked widespread outrage. People across the country are protesting, demanding justice and more effective government responses to sexual violence.
But not all protesters have sided with the victim. Others, some backed by supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are defending the alleged assailants, a reflection of discriminatory attitudes based on caste, religion, and gender. Sadly, this is not unusual. When an 8-year-old child was raped and killed in Jammu and Kashmir in January 2018, some BJP leaders publicly backed the perpetrators – who were later convicted.
In Hathras, the police delayed registering the complaint. Despite severe injuries, the woman named her attackers, who were from the area. After she died on September 29, the police hurriedly cremated the body without her family’s consent and denied her rape allegations. A government minister described the assault as a “small incident,” and authorities initially stopped media and opposition leaders from meeting with the family.
As members of the victim’s Valmiki community and other Dalit groups protested the authorities’ apparent efforts to cover up the case, the Uttar Pradesh government recommended a federal investigation, arrested suspects, and suspended some police officers.
However, the state’s chief minister, Ajay Singh Bisht, from the BJP, who prefers to use a Hindu religious title, Yogi Adityanath, claimed that protesters calling for justice “want to incite caste and communal riots” and alleged “conspiracies” by “some anarchists.” The police said they had uncovered an “international plot” inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. The Uttar Pradesh police have filed cases against protesters for alleged sedition, criminal conspiracy, and promoting enmity, the government’s now-predictable response to counter peaceful protests instead of addressing grievances.
After the United Nations’ highest official in India expressed concern, the Indian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying “any unnecessary comments by an external agency are best avoided.”
Indian authorities should stop targeting those outraged by an outrageous crime and misdirecting the public discussion away from those responsible. The latest government data show an increase in crimes against women and Dalits, including rape of Dalit women. Authorities should work to break entrenched barriers that survivors of gender-based violence – especially those facing caste-based discrimination – face in reporting crimes and obtaining justice.