New Delhi, India – A nine-year-old girl belonging to India’s marginalised Dalit community has been gang-raped, murdered and forcibly cremated in capital New Delhi, her family alleges.
The gruesome incident sparked a fourth day of protests in the city on Wednesday, in the latest case of sexual violence targeting the former “untouchable” community, which falls at the bottom of India’s complex caste hierarchy.
The girl’s family alleges a Hindu priest working at a local crematorium and his associates raped her and then cremated her body without their approval on Sunday.
The family, along with other Dalits and activists, is camping on a road in New Delhi’s Nangal neighbourhood, demanding justice.
The police say they have arrested four accused and opened an investigation into the incident.
‘Your daughter is dead’
The girl, who cannot be identified as per Indian law, had gone to get drinking water from a water cooler at the crematorium, her mother told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
“Her father had gone to the market to buy vegetables. An hour passed but she did not return and I got anxious. So I rushed to the crematorium where the priest told me: ‘Your daughter is dead,'” she said.
“I was shocked and asked the priest to tell me how my daughter could die. I told him I wanted to take her to the police station and hospital but he refused, saying, ‘Don’t do that. I will give you money but let’s settle the matter here. You will not be able to fight the case.'”
The girl’s mother said Radhey Shyam, the 55-year-old priest, told her that her daughter died of electrocution while filling the water.
“But I felt he was lying,” she told Al Jazeera. She insisted on seeing her daughter’s body.
“She was lying lifeless,” recounted the mother, her voice breaking. “There were bruises on her body, her face was pale and her clothes were wet.”
The priest and his associates, meanwhile, locked the gates of the crematorium and forcibly cremated the girl’s body, despite protests from the helpless mother.
As soon as word of the incident spread, the girl’s father and their neighbours rushed to the crematorium. They caught the priest and the three others, who, according to local media reports, confessed to raping the young girl.
The police arrived a little later and took the accused into custody. Cases of gang rape, murder and sexual offences against a child have been registered against the suspects, while the crematorium has been sealed.
Since Sunday, hundreds of demonstrators have taken to the streets in New Delhi, demanding the death penalty for the four men accused of the crime.
The girl’s family and the residents of Nangal have blocked the highway outside an army cantonment in the area.
The protests are likely to snowball across the country, with some Dalit groups announcing demonstrations against the atrocities faced by the community, particularly Dalit women.
“This is not an isolated incident. It’s just that it came to light. Sexual violence against women, particularly those from backward classes, is common in this country and they have to struggle hard to get justice,” New Delhi-based women’s rights activist Suman Dixit, who has joined the family in protest, told Al Jazeera.
India is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Home ministry data from last year says a woman is raped every 15 minutes in the country.
An overwhelming number of sexual and other forms of crimes target the Dalits.
In September last year, the rape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in the Hathras district of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh shook the country, triggering fierce protests.
In that case, police were accused of forcibly cremating the teenager’s body in the dead of the night and against the wishes of her family, who were allegedly locked up in their house.
Despite India’s stringent anti-rape laws, activists and feminists say the situation on the ground has not improved.
A report published by the National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) in September last year said close to 400,000 incidents of violence were reported between 2009 and 2018, a 6-percent increase from the previous decade.
#Hathras horror repeated in Delhi | A dalit girl allegedly raped inside crematorium and cremated by a priest without consent of family | Police as usual trying to do all type of hush up | Are we going to be silent spectators to such horrific crimes again #Nangalbrutality
— Bezwada Wilson (@BezwadaWilson) August 2, 2021
Prithviraj Singh, a former director-general of Police in Himachal Pradesh state who also visited the protesters on Tuesday, told Al Jazeera the criminal justice system and policing in India need reform to prevent such crimes.
“The system has been turned to serve the rich and powerful. It has to change,” said Singh, who now runs a group for social justice.
Earlier on Wednesday, India’s main opposition leader Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party met the family in a show of solidarity.
“My responsibility is to help the victim’s family,” he told reporters after the visit.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also met the family on Tuesday and announced financial assistance of one million Indian rupees ($13,476) to the family as well as legal help in fighting the case.
Kejriwal tweeted that the incident was “barbaric” and “shameful”. “There is a need to improve the law and order situation in Delhi,” he posted.
The protesters say they are ready for an indefinite sit-in for justice.
“We will stay here with the family for as long as justice is not served. We want the culprits to be hanged,” said Suman, a Dalit neighbour of the victim in her 40s.
“Enough is enough. We cannot tolerate this every day.”