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Hathras, India – The gang rape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit girl in a village in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh last September had caused a public outcry and weeks of protests.
But a year on, the family of the victim has told Al Jazeera that their hopes for justice are fading as the case has dragged on. Of the 104 witnesses only 15 have deposed in the court so far, said Seema Kushwaha, the victim’s lawyer.
The case made it to global media headlines after the body of the girl was cremated in Hathras, about 200km (125 miles) from the national capital, New Delhi, in the early hours of September 30 last year without the family’s consent.
The police were also accused of initially refusing to register the first information report (FIR or police compliant) and did little to support the vulnerable family.
The family say they will not immerse the victim’s ashes until the perpetrators are punished. “We will not perform the last rites before justice is served,” the victim’s mother, Rama Devi, 50, told Al Jazeera. Immersion of the ashes completes the Hindu funeral ritual.
The slow pace of the legal proceedings has concerned the family belonging to the Dalit community – the lowest in India’s Hindu caste hierarchy.
“We are poor but we will fight this till the end. It’s the least we have to do for our child,” the father of the victim, Om Prakash, 53, told Al Jazeera.
Slow pace of the case
The four accused – Sandeep, Luvkush, Ravi, and Ramu – are on trial. They are all upper-caste men from the Thakur community and belong to Boolgarhi, the same village where the victim’s family lives. Three of the accused are also extended relatives.
The already slow legal process has been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.
The prosecution is yet to conduct its proceedings – a sign that little has changed despite the unprecedented national and global outrage after the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder case. That case caused countrywide protests and forced the government to enact stringent rape laws.
The case of the Hathras rape victim is still being heard in the regular district court known for delays. An astounding 40 million cases are pending in India’s lower courts as of September 2021.
The victim’s family lives in fear of retribution as all the accused belong to the dominant upper-caste Hindus, and they have tried to convince the villagers, most of whom are upper-caste Hindus, that this case was an honour killing.
Of nearly 250 homes in Boolgarhi village, only four belong to Dalits, who face social ostracisation.
“What do you want to do? Get those kids hanged?” said an elder male in the accused’s house located opposite to the victim’s family.
“It’s the media that has put them in jail. Please leave,” he said angrily, refusing to share his name.
‘Home has become a jail’
The district court has ordered round-the-clock security for the victim’s family. Entry to and exit from the victim’s house is monitored by more than 30 personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force posted there and security cameras installed inside and outside the house.
The victim’s family members have to seek permission even to buy groceries, while anyone entering the house, including journalists, has to register themselves.
“We live at home, but home has become a jail,” said the victim’s elder brother, Satyendra Kumar, 30, who represents the family in court hearings.
During a hearing in March, the victim’s brother and the lawyer, Kushwaha, were heckled on court premises by lawyers sympathetic to the accused. This happened despite Kushwaha and Kumar being provided with police protection.
“They were trying to intimidate us,” Kushwaha said.
“The defence argues that this was an honour killing, not rape. If proven, this would implicate the younger brother and potentially the mother too,” she said, adding that by accusing the victim’s family of honour killing, “the brother has become an accused too”.
Five policemen involved in the burning of the victim’s pyre in the dead of the night were suspended. Authorities justified the burning of the pyre saying delaying the funeral could have caused violence and societal tension. The district magistrate claimed they had the consent of the family. However, the family denies the claim.
Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh which is governed by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had announced a compensation of Rs 25 lakh ($33,685), a job to a member of the victim’s family, and the allotment of a house.
“We got the money but not the job or the house,” the elder brother said.
‘Historic caste-based carcerality’
The victim’s lawyer pointed out that the government promise to fast-track the case was not followed through.
“The law in cases involving Dalits says justice should be served in a fast-tracked manner,” said Kushwaha.
“But in reality, this does not happen. There is no fear for law and order because time-bound justice is just not delivered. While we were promised hearings in a fast track court, this has been a normal pace proceeding, which as we know in India, can be gruesome for justice,” she said.
Nikita Sonavane, a lawyer who researches on policing in marginalised communities, said despite the egregious nature of the case and the outrage it generated “nothing has changed” and this is “historic caste-based carcerality”.
“I have no hope for speedy justice in the case either. If justice is served it will be an aberration and not the norm. I don’t know if five years later people will remember this. The only people who remember are those communities at the receiving end of such violence,” said Sonavane, who is a co-founder of the Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project.
But BJP spokesman Nalin Kohli defended the government’s handling of the case.
“We must recognise that the courts are overburdened with a large backlog especially during the pandemic,” Kohli, who is also a lawyer at the Supreme Court, said.
“And from the perspective of every victim they all deserve a fast trial,” he told Al Jazeera.
Dalit activists point out that sexual violence against the community is part of caste oppression. It is not just an instance of violence against women but also a crime against a woman from an oppressed caste group, they say.
Between 2016 and 2019 for which data (PDF) is available, crime against women went up by 66.7 percent in Uttar Pradesh – the highest increase in any state of the country – while rape cases against women from the Scheduled Castes – the legal designation given to Dalits – went up (PDF) by 20.67 percent in the same period.
Dalits, who still live on the margins of society, say they continue to be discriminated against and treated as “untouchables” – a practice outlawed after India’s independence in 1947.
“Violence, including rape and gang rape, have been systematically utilised as weapons by dominant castes to oppress Dalit women and girls and reinforce structural gender and caste hierarchies,” said a report by Equality Now, which works on women’s rights, and Swabhiman Society, a Dalit-led grassroots organisation in India.
In India, the caste system is such that “sexual violence is encrypted against women from oppressed caste groups”. “The perpetrators, in this case, wouldn’t view it as an act of violence but as a way of exercising their right over the body of a Dalit woman,” said Sonavane.