Enrico Fabian for The New York Times
One after the other, the men raped her. They had dragged the girl into a darkened stone shelter at the edge of the fields, eight men, maybe more, reeking of pesticide and cheap whiskey. They assaulted her for nearly three hours. She was 16 years old.
When it was over, the men threatened to kill her if she told anyone, and for days the girl said nothing. Speaking out would have been difficult, anyway, given the hierarchy of caste. She was poor and a Dalit, the low-caste group once known as untouchables, while most of the attackers were from a higher caste that dominated land and power in the village. It might have ended there, if not for the videos: her assailants had taken cellphone videos as trophies, and the images began circulating among village men until one was shown to the victim’s father, his family said.
Distraught, the father committed suicide on Sept. 18 by drinking pesticide. Infuriated, Dalits demanded justice in the rape case. “We thought, We lost my husband, we lost our honor,” the mother of the rape victim said. “What is the point of remaining silent now?” As in many countries, silence often follows rape in India, especially in villages, where a rape victim is usually regarded as a shamed woman, unfit for marriage. But an outcry over a string of recent rapes, including this one, in the northern state of Haryana, has shattered that silence, focusing national attention on India’s rising number of sexual assaults while also exposing the conservative, male-dominated power structure in Haryana, where rape victims are often treated with callous disregard.
In a rapidly changing country, rape cases have increased at an alarming rate, roughly 25 percent in six years. To some degree, this reflects a rise in reporting by victims. But India’s changing gender dynamic is also a significant factor, as more females are attending school, entering the work force or choosing their own spouses — trends that some men regard as a threat.
India’s news media regularly carry horrific accounts of gang rapes, attacks once rarely seen. Sometimes, gangs of young men stumble upon a young couple — in some cases the couple is meeting furtively in a conservative society — and then rape the woman. Analysts also point to demographic trends: India has a glut of young males, some unemployed, abusing alcohol or drugs and unnerved by the new visibility of women in society. “This visibility is seen as a threat and a challenge,” said Ranjana Kumari, who runs the Center for Social Research in New Delhi.
In Haryana, the initial response to the rape after it was disclosed ranged from denial to denouncing the media to blaming the victim. A spokesman for the governing Congress Party was quoted as saying that 90 percent of rape cases begin as consensual sex. Women’s groups were outraged after a village leader pointed to teenage girls’ sexual desire as the reason for the rapes. “I think that girls should be married at the age of 16, so that they have their husbands for their sexual needs, and they don’t need to go elsewhere,” the village leader, Sube Singh, told IBN Live, a news channel. “This way rapes will not occur.”
The most vulnerable women are poor Dalits, the lowest tier of the social structure. Of 19 recent rape cases in Haryana, at least six victims were Dalits. One Dalit teenager in Haryana committed suicide, setting herself afire, after being gang-raped. Another Dalit girl, 15, who was mentally handicapped, was raped in Rohtak, according to Indian news media accounts, the same district where a 13-year-old girl was allegedly raped by a neighbor. “If you are a poor woman who is raped, you cannot even imagine a life where there will be justice,” Kalpana Sharma, a columnist, wrote recently in The Hindu, a national English-language newspaper. “If you are a poor woman and a Dalit, then the chances of justice are even slimmer.”
Haryana is one of India’s most entrenched bastions of feudal patriarchy. The social preference for sons has contributed to a problem of some couples aborting female fetuses, leaving Haryana with the most skewed gender ratio in India, 861 females for every 1,000 males. Politically, the upper Jat caste largely controls a statewide network of unelected, all-male councils known as khap panchayats, which dominate many rural regions of the state.
Elected leaders are reluctant to confront the khaps, given their ability to turn out voters, and often endorse their conservative social agenda, in which women are subservient to men. Khaps have sought to ban women from wearing bluejeans or using cellphones. One khap member, Jitender Chhatar, blamed fast food for the rise in rape cases, arguing that it caused hormonal imbalances and sexual urges in young women. Mr. Singh, who suggested lowering the legal marriage age, is also a khap leader. “They are working the blame-the-victim theory,” said Jagmati Sangwan, president of the Haryana chapter of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association. “They are diverting attention from the crime and the criminals, and the root causes.”
Yet public anger is clearly bubbling up. Small protests have been staged across the state, including one this month in the town of Meham, where about 100 men and women picketed the district police headquarters over the rape of a 17-year-old girl. They waved signs demanding “Arrest Rapists!” and “Justice for Women” and chanted “Down with Haryana Police!” Here in Dabra, about 100 miles from the Pakistan border, villagers say there is no khap panchayat but rather an elected village council where the leadership position, known as sarpanch, is reserved for a woman under nationwide affirmative action policies. Yet the male-dominated ethos prevails. The current sarpanch is the wife of a local Jat leader, who put her forward to circumvent the restriction. During an interview with the husband, the official sarpanch sat silently in the doorway, her face covered by a gauzy scarf. “No, no,” she answered when asked to comment, as she pointed to her husband. “He’s the sarpanch. What’s the point in talking to me?”
The gang-rape of the 16-year-old girl occurred on Sept. 9 but remained a secret in the village until her father’s suicide. Dalits formed a committee to demand justice, and roughly 400 people demonstrated outside the district police headquarters, as well as at the hospital where the father’s body was being kept. “We told them that unless you catch the suspects, we would not take the body,” said a woman named Maya Devi. “We do not have land. We do not have money. What we have is honor. If your honor is gone, you have nothing.”
Since then, the police have arrested eight men — seven of them Jats — who have confessed to the attack. There are discrepancies; the victim says she was abducted outside the village, while the suspects say they attacked her after catching her having a tryst with a married man. “She was raped against her will,” said B. Satheesh Balan, the district superintendent of police. “There is no doubt.”
Officer Balan said villagers told the police that other local girls had also been gang-raped at the same stone shelter, though no evidence was available. Often, a girl’s family will hide a rape rather than be stigmatized in the village. Even sympathizers of the teenage victim doubt she can assimilate back into Dabra. “It will be difficult on her,” Ms. Devi said. “Now she is branded.” In an interview at her grandparents’ home outside the village, the victim said she believed other suspects remained at large, leaving her at risk. (Female police officers have been posted at the house round-the-clock.) Yet she has actively pushed the police and joined in the protests, despite the warnings by her attackers. “They threatened me and said they would kill my family if I told anyone,” she said.
Many Dalit girls drop out of school, but the victim was finishing high school. Even in the aftermath of the rape, she took her first-term exams in economics, history and Sanskrit. But she no longer wants to return to the village school and is uncertain about her future. “Earlier, I had lots of dreams,” she said. “Now I’m not sure I’ll be able to fulfill them. My father wanted me to become a doctor. Now I don’t think I’ll be able to do it.”