India gang-rape: The relentless anguish of a village bereft after attack and murder of two teenage girls

From Katra Sadatganj, Andrew Buncombe reports on the cousins whose murder may have been the result of India’s brutal caste system

The horror that fell like darkness upon Katra Sadatganj was contained within the photograph that Sohan fumbled from his pocket. It was an inch square and showed two young girls, one dressed in green, the other in vibrant pink, hanging from a tree on the edge of the village. The girls’ heads tilted slightly downwards where the nooses fashioned from their own scarves dug into their throats. One of them was Sohan’s daughter, the other a niece.

Sohan, 55, is a tiny bird of a man and his frame shook as he sobbed. No words could explain what he had felt shortly before sunrise on Wednesday when he was taken to the orchard of 13 mango trees and shown what had befallen the two cousins.

“We had gone there at 4.30am,” said the agricultural labourer. “The police had said they were dead and hanging. The police would not let us take the bodies down. We did not get them until 4.30pm.”

India is once again reeling. Eighteen months after the gang rape and murder of a physiotherapy student in Delhi reverberated around the world and set in motion an unprecedented debate about the safety of women, the country is confronting more horror.

At around 7pm on Tuesday, Sohan’s daughter, Murti, and his niece Pushpa, the two of them aged between 12 and 14 according to the family, although they said they could not be precise – other reports said they were 14 and 15 – had gone to the fields to relieve themselves. This was the usual practice, said the family; like hundreds of millions of Indians, Sohan’s family had no proper lavatory and they visited the surrounding land under the sliver of privacy provided by darkness. A woman would always be accompanied by a sister or friend.

But on Tuesday, the two girls did not return. When the family reported them missing to the police, they were told to go away and may even have been abused about their low-caste status. Finally, they were directed to the spreading mango trees a few hundred metres from their home. The girls had been seized, gang raped and hanged. A post-mortem examination concluded they had been alive when the nooses were put around their necks.

The village of Katra Sadatganj is located in Uttar Pradesh (UP), about 150 miles South-east of Delhi. The community of farmers grows vegetables, wheat and mint, which gives the village a toothpaste smell. There are almost no amenities and the village receives only one hour a day of electricity. Last week the transformer was broken so there was none.

Today it was reported that five people had now been detained over the attack – the three suspects and two policemen. The farm building owned by the family of the three suspects is locked shut and armed police stand guard. The case has been passed on to India’s federal investigative agency. India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has set up a rape crisis unit.

Sohan Lal, father and uncle of Murti and Pushpa, the two girls who were raped and hanged in Katra Sadatganj in Uttar Pradesh, is comforted by his mother Sohan, father and uncle of Murti and Pushpa, the two girls who were raped and hanged in Katra Sadatganj in Uttar Pradesh, is comforted by his mother (Photo Simon de Trey-White) Sohan’s family belongs to the Maurya caste, which sits close to the very bottom of India’s traditional social structure. By contrast, the three accused attackers – brothers Pappu, Awadhesh and Urvesh Yadav – and members of the police force, are from the Yadav caste.

While technically also a lower caste, the Yadavs are powerful across large swathes of northern India and in Katra Sadatganj they are considered the dominant group. Lower-caste villagers said whenever there was a dispute with a Yadav, the police would always side with the Yadavs.

The Yadavs have powerful patronage from the party which runs the state government in UP, the Samajwadi Party.

During India’s recent election campaign, the head of the party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, sparked controversy by saying rapists should not receive the death penalty because “boys will be boys”.

Meanwhile, when his son Akhilesh Yadav, who is chief minister of UP, was asked about the attack in Katra Sadatganj and elsewhere in his state, he responded by telling the reporter: “It’s not as if you faced any danger.”

An uncle of the two girls, Babrao, said he had been in the fields when the girls went out and heard them screaming. Flashing a torch in the direction of the noise, he said the beam fell upon the face of a man, one of several men grabbing the girls. He said he scuffled with him until the man raised a pistol. At that point he ran home and raised the alarm.

Murti’s brother Veerendar Murti’s brother Veerendar (Photo Simon de Trey-White) The attack has drawn attention to the dark reality of life for millions in rural India – a place where caste still remains the dominant determiner of how someone will live, work and marry. Like the family of Sohan, an estimated 620 million Indians – around half the population – are every day obliged to engage in so-called open defecation because of the lack of proper sanitation.

Campaigners point out the huge social and economic costs to a country where girls are dissuaded form going to school because there are insufficient lavatories, and the stigma and dangers confronted by those obliged to squat in the dust. They say lower-caste families are even less likely to have a toilet. “The [lack of] toilets is a problem We have to go outside,” said Om Vati, a mother of six from a lower-caste family, who lived close to the home of Sohan.

“Only the upper castes have toilets.”

Kawal Tiwari, whose wife is the elected village head, said Katra Sadatganj had a population of around 6,000 yet he estimated only 300 to 400 homes had lavatories. Mr Tiwari, who belongs to a higher caste, claimed they had been asking for government funds to build more, but had received none. Asked if his family had a toilet, he said: “We have two bathrooms.”

Meanwhile, groups that represent lower-caste communities and Dalits, which were once called untouchable and were considered outside the Hindu caste system, have collected mounting evidence of just how vulnerable women from these castes are to sexual attacks.

Beena Pallical of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, said police routinely refused to investigate such cases. Often, she said, attacks would take place after a young women from a lower-caste community took up a place in college or something else a dominant caste considered inappropriate

Murti's mother is briefed by the local Senior Superintendant of Police Atul Saxena Murti's mother is briefed by the local Senior Superintendant of Police Atul Saxena (Photo Simon de Trey-White) Among the flurry of visitors on Friday afternoon making their way past the open sewers and narrow alleys to the shack Sohan shared with his wife and extended family, was Atul Saxena, a senior police officer.

He told the still stunned family that two officers had been fired and were being investigated for both negligence and conspiring with the accused. He said he had never before handled such a brutal case.

Yet asked if caste had played a role, in either the crime itself or the response of his officers, he said it had not. He claimed that according to India’s constitution, caste discrimination had been outlawed. “Everyone is equal.”

Campaigners who criticised the police’s slow response are now demanding the attackers be dealt with swiftly. “The government should take proactive measures in recognising and addressing particular vulnerabilities of women and girls from marginalised communities,” said Sehjo Singh of the charity ActionAid.

Katra Sadatganj has been besieged by politicians, among them Rahul Gandhi, who headed the Congress party’s recent failed campaign, who endorsed the demand for a federal investigation. Television vans are parked next to the mango orchard while reporters file live updates, watched by crowds of villagers, from beneath the tree where the girls were hanged.

Sohan hopes for justice for the daughter he lost, the fourth of five children. He said he had paid for Murti to go to a local privately run school where she studied Hindi, English and Sanskrit.

“She liked studying English,” he said. “And when she completed school she wanted to get a job.”

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