India’s federal investigators will take over the probe into the alleged gang rape and death of a young Dalit woman that has sparked nationwide outrage and days of protests.
A special team of the Uttar Pradesh state police that has been investigating the incident will soon be handing over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), a spokesman for the police said on Sunday.
The 19-year-old – who belongs to a marginalised group formerly known as “untouchables” – was assaulted in a field outside her village in the northern Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district on September 14.
She was severely injured and died two weeks later at a hospital in the Indian capital, New Delhi.
The attack on the teenager was the latest case highlighting sexual and other forms of violence against India’s 200 million Dalits, who are on the lowest rung of the caste system and have historically faced discrimination despite laws to protect them.
Four village men, who belong the privileged and influential Thakur community, have been arrested in connection with the crime.
Five senior police officers, including the district police chief, have been suspended over the investigation amid criticism of law enforcement’s actions – including the cremation of the woman’s body in the middle of the night against the wishes of her family.
Local authorities barricaded the village after the cremation to block opposition politicians and media from meeting the victim’s family. The decision was reversed on Saturday after widespread criticism.
Meanwhile, a controversy has erupted over a government forensic lab report that backs the Uttar Pradesh police’s claim that the young woman was not raped.
Doctors who treated the woman, however, reject the report, saying the samples had been sent to the lab 11 days after she was assaulted.
The woman’s death has sparked protests by members of Dalit communities, rights activists and opposition political parties across India.
The decision to hand the investigation over to the CBI was announced by the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister’s Office late on Saturday soon after opposition Congress party leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi visited the victim’s family in Hathras.
Uttar Pradesh is governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which also runs the federal government.
The incident came months after four men were hanged for the 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a bus in New Delhi, a case that shook the nation.
An average of nearly 90 rapes were reported in India every day last year, according to data by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), but large numbers are thought to go unreported.
In 2019, more than 500 Dalit women were raped in Uttar Pradesh alone, according to the NCRB data, while the nationwide figure for the same year was more than 3,500.