India is reeling after it was revealed two low-caste teenage girls were gang-raped and murdered and their bodies left hanging from a tree. It has been alleged two police officers refused to investigate the incident after the girls’ families reported them missing.
Officers in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh say the two cousins were attacked by five men, who killed them and then hanged their bodies from mango trees early on Wednesday morning. The girls were aged 14 and 15.
In the aftermath of the assault, the relatives of the two girls refused to allow police to collect the bodies from where they were left and blocked a nearby road by means of protest. Television channels showed the bodies slowly swinging while the villagers sat beneath them. Eventually, officers recovered the corpses and they were sent for post-mortem examination.
“We have registered a case under various sections, including that of rape, and one of the accused has been taken into custody. There were five people involved, one has been arrested and we are looking for the others,” said Man Singh Chouhan, a senior police officer.
The Reuters news agency said Mr Chouhan had confirmed that two constables had been charged with conspiracy and that they had been suspended. The families of the girls said the police were shielding the attackers and had refused to investigate the case when they reported that the teenagers had disappeared.
It appears the attack happened after the two girls had gone to the fields early on Wednesday morning as they – like hundreds of million of Indians – had no lavatory in their home.
Reports said the two girls were members of the Dalit community, previously called untouchables, and which has traditionally stood at the very bottom of the Hindu caste system. Campaigners say Dalits are often the victims of sexual attacks and rapes and that often police are slow to respond.
Beena Pallical of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, said members of the community suffered in many ways when attacks like this took place. Firstly there was assault itself and then there was often the unwillingness of the authorities to investigate the matter.
“This is a never ending circle. The violence keeps coming no matter what we do,” she said. “Every institution in this country is biased, so where do we go?”
The attack on the two girls has also highlighted another major problem confronted every day by millions of Indians – an absence of sanitation. India notoriously has more cell phones than lavatories and during the country’s recent election campaign, now Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the building of toilets should come before the construction of more temples.
The international charity Water Aid said around 300 million women and girls in India were still obliged to practise open defecation, exposing them to risk of harassment and assault. Lower caste women were especially at risk, it said.
“This vicious, horrifying attack illustrates too vividly the risks that girls and women take when they don’t have a safe, private place to relieve themselves,” said the charity’s Barbara Frost. “Ending open defecation is an urgent priority that needs to be addressed, for the benefit of women and girls who live in poverty and without access to privacy and a decent toilet.”
The alleged incident, which took place in the Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh, around 140 miles east of Delhi, follows the December 2012 assault upon a Delhi student who was raped and killed after boarding a bus.
In the aftermath of the attack on the 23-year-old, the government toughened the laws relating to sexual assaults and introduced fast-track courts to deal with offenders. Four men and a juvenile were convicted of the attack.