Amid all the talk about unleashing animal spirits, better roads, bridges, flyovers, highways and so on, one persistent worry cannot be wished away. Even if the spirit soars and the economy surges, what happens to that slice of young, aspirational India at the bottom of the social structure which is currently cowering in fear?
Many are afraid to step out of their homes; many are dropping out of school. How do they get a bigger slice of the pie if they are effectively denied mobility?
That this is not alarmism is borne out by last week’s savagery in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, and a string of similar incidents in the state over the past few days. The two cousins, aged 14 and 15, who were abducted, gangraped and left hanging from a mango tree in Katra Sadatganj village of Badaun district also had aspirations. They were smashed. “She was always studying and working. That’s what she liked best. She wanted to be a doctor,” the father of one of the girls told a reporter.
The victims did not have a toilet at home, like 665 million out of India’s 1.2 billion people, and were forced to step out in the dead of night. Clearly, toilets for all are vital. But alongside access to sanitation, we must stress the importance of access to basic justice. This is not a given for everyone in this country. The father of one of the girls sought police help to find them, but for hours the policemen on duty refused to investigate or even register the complaint. The suspects are from the politically powerful Yadav community to which the chief minister belongs. Now under intense pressure, the Uttar Pradesh government is talking about fast-track justice. Arrests have been made and bureaucrats transferred. But what happens once public attention fades and the media is on to the next story, the next atrocity? Who guarantees the safety of the families under the scanner and of the villagers who are being brazenly threatened?
As mother of a teenage daughter, my initial feelings were of revulsion and outrage. Then came anger. This has happened before, many times. There have been marches, protests, debates and new legislation. Delhi had its Nirbhaya moment. Today, the focus is on Badaun and Uttar Pradesh. And yet the culture of impunity continues. Asked about her wish for the future, my 15-year-old says “a safe city”, without blinking.
How will the aspirational India story take off if young girls do not feel safe in many parts of the country? Why does much of the political class not see this as a serious problem?
Law and order is a state subject and Uttar Pradesh is justifiably in the dock for the brazen callousness of the administration. Chief minister Akhilesh Yadav wondered aloud why journalists were so bothered about Badaun when their own personal safety was not compromised. His father Mulayam Singh Yadav told a recent election rally that he opposed death penalty for rapists. “Boys will be boys… They make mistakes,” he said. Since Katra Sadatganj jumped to headlines, many similar horror stories have been reported, including another gangrape at Azamgarh, the constituency of Mulayam Singh Yadav.
Clearly, what happened in Katra Sadatganj is not an isolated instance. It is only the latest illustration of the violent sexual assault and murder of young girls from the poorest and most marginalised communities. Dalit women have been targeted in Maharashtra, Haryana, Rajasthan and many other states.
Women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi has promised to set up Rape Crisis Centres. That is good, but a lot more needs to be done to avert such crises. What will the Centre do to prevent such violence? What are Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s thoughts on the matter?
There is a shared anxiety among women across India. But those at the bottom are the most insecure. Dalit women and girls face the triple burden of gender, class and caste. Several dalit activists I spoke to over the past week were unequivocal in their views.
“This is revenge violence. A war is being fought over the bodies of dalit women. Every time dalits have tried to inch forward a little, we have seen the backlash. There is acute fear of dalit aspiration. Violence strikes when there is dalit mobility,” says Asha Kowtal, the general secretary of the All-India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch.
Khalid Chaudhry, who oversees NGO ActionAid’s interventions in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, argues that though the victims were from the Shakya community — not included in the list of Scheduled Castes in Uttar Pradesh, their lives were as harsh as that of the dalits with whom they lived cheek by jowl.
With 11.9 million children (ages 6-13) not in school, India has a mammoth challenge ahead. “The situation is exacerbated by the violent and sexual attacks on girls. One of the immediate impacts of savagery such as the one in Badaun is further restrictions on mobility. When something like what happened in Badaun takes place, there is further pressure on girls to drop out and stay at home,” says Mr Chaudhry.
Thirty-five-year-old Smita Devi from Bhagana village in Haryana’s Hisar district, now camping in Delhi, tells me that dalit girls in her village do not want to go to school and want to move to the town where they think they will be safer, especially since four young girls from the community were abducted and raped by five men from the Jat community. The story grabbed headlines earlier this year. The victims were dumped near Bhatinda railway station in Punjab after the crime. As in Badaun, the families of the victims say they have had enormous problems getting justice. At the heart of the conflict in Haryana is the struggle over land. Dominant castes are trying to grab land owned and used by poor dalits.
Middle-class girls won’t be asked to drop out of school but many forego opportunities because they don’t feel safe to move around.
What should be done?
The Central Bureau of Investigation is likely to probe the savagery at Badaun. It is important to make sure that the correct provisions of the concerned laws are applied so that the case is not weakened and those being pressured know their legal rights. It is equally important to follow up as the case wends its way through the tortuous layers of the Indian justice system. It is vital to keep talking about Badaun and similar incidents so that the Centre and various state governments work together to protect India’s women and girls. That will truly respect the spirit of aspirational India.
The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org