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INDIA: Savage rape & killing of Dalit family a wake-up call for India

December 17, 2006
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On September 29, four members of a poor peasant Dalit (non-caste Hindu) family in Khairlanji village of Bhandara, in the northeast of the state of Maharashtra, were brutally killed in planned mob violence by caste Hindus. Four members of the family were paraded naked before almost the entire village, and tortured and savagely assaulted with sticks and axes on their genitals, and sodomised.  The mother and daughter were raped. Only the father, who was working away from home, escaped.

The incident took place for no apparent reason other than the fact that the 19-year-old daughter, Priyanka, had completed secondary studies in a village with a very low average level of education. The perpetrators were reportedly jealous, and with close connections to the local police felt that they could get away with anything. Priyanka had also reportedly stood as an eyewitness in another criminal case against members of the gang that attacked her family. 

That it the attack was provoked by little more than jealousy over schooling reveals the extent to which caste-based discrimination and atrocities are resurging in India. Rapists and murderers of Dalits seem to be more confident than ever that they will get away with their acts. The absence of punishment for those responsible for the attempted genocide of Muslims in Gujarat, along with countless other incidents where alleged perpetrators have escaped liability, has done much to build this confidence.

Not only Maharastra but the whole of India has been shaken by the outraged reaction of Dalit, women's and human rights organisations. But how has the state government responded? Not by responding aggressively to this incident and chalking out policies to root out caste-based discrimination and prevent further such hateful incidents, but rather by brutal repression of legitimate protest: ordering the arrest of human rights defenders, assaults on demonstrators and house raids. Meanwhile, the police have attempted to play down the crimes, by saying that the women had not been raped. And while 44 villagers have been detained, there is a lack of witnesses and the community is spreading rumours to mitigate the charges, claiming that the family was involved in prostitution and sales of alcohol: standard responses from extremist Hindu groups whenever accusations of such brutal crimes emerge.
The Asian Human Rights Commission has for many years made clear that such brutal incidents persist in India because of the combination of deep caste-based discrimination and the lack of the rule of law there. Neither the central government, nor state governments, are serious about addressing either of these overwhelming obstacles to the enjoyment of human rights and the establishing of a genuine, rather than imitation, democracy.

What can be done? For one thing, the Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 can and must be applied far more effectively than it is at present. To do this, a specialised agency must be set up to operate within the area of each police station and register cases of violence against Dalits and other minority groups. Specialised courts should be established in each district, starting with the areas with the greatest numbers of Dalits and other minority groups, for the speedy hearing cases of atrocities. Special criteria must be laid down concerning the persons to staff such units and sit as judges in these courts, and attention paid to avoiding them simply becoming tools for further violence by caste Hindus.

The laws of evidence also need to be reviewed for application in cases such as the killings in Khairlanji, as no one from the community is likely to come forward as a witness, either because of fear or because of being complicit in the attack. Special attention and resources also need to be directed to the gathering of material evidence in such cases.

Above all, far greater attention needs to be paid to India's failing institutions for the rule of law: court delays, corruption, impunity and pitiful performance of state officers all make themselves felt to a far greater extent on Dalits and other minority groups than the rest of the population. Yet neither union nor state governments have taken steps to address these grave obstacles to enjoyment of basic human rights. As the Asian Human Rights Commission wrote in its International Human Rights Day message for 2006, the effect of all this is deeper and deeper alienation of the people of India from their institutions:

"Courts and public prosecutors depend upon the local police in order to ensure the successful prosecution of a human rights violation case. The fear that the local police have injected into ordinary persons, through the widespread use of torture and violence, allied with the ineptitude of the public prosecutor's office to conduct a proper prosecution, and decades of delays in courts, have alienated such persons from the justice dispensation mechanisms in the country."

Not only have they alienated the victims of gross abuses, but they have also alienated the perpetrators. For the rapists and murderers in Khairlanji, the institutions of the state and notions of justice were so far removed from their lives as to be meaningless. The time has come to prove that this is not so: the state has an obligation to respond by addressing caste-based atrocities with determination and sincerity, rather than responding to the legitimate response of others who are tired at the inaction of government and the fraud of democracy, justice and development in India promoted by its government abroad, none of which they have ever known in reality.

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