Protesters take to the streets in Kolkata after the rape, torture and killing of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh. Photo: Debarchan Chatterjee/NurPhoto

MUMBAI – India has been outraged by the brutal death of a 19-year old gang-rape victim in a case that has renewed focus on the use of crime to settle caste and class differences.

The assault in Hathras, 180km south of New Delhi, highlighted the vulnerability of women despite new laws providing for severe punishments, including the death sentence, for such cases.

The latest case has attracted outrage by women of all hues out on the streets. Comments of outrage, shock and grief poured in from politicians and Bollywood actors. The state government set up a special investigative team.

India registered an average 87 rapes each day in 2019 and crimes against women last year rose 7.3% over 2018, National Crime Records Bureau said.

The bureau released its annual “Crime in India-2019” report on the day the lower caste girl succumbed to injuries inflicted by four young men of higher caste from the same area. According to NDTV television news, the victim’s family believes the attack was planned. The same men had beaten up members of the family earlier, it reported.

The girl was dragged by a scarf around her neck to the fields on September 14. During the course of the crime her spinal cord was damaged and her tongue cut as she was being strangled. She was later found lying unclad in the fields by her mother. The administration, which initially put her in a local hospital, moved her to New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital.

Crowds protested outside the hospital, blocking streets as the girl fought for her life before succumbing on September 29.

The administration and the police took the body to her village after midnight and cremated it instead of handing it over to her parents, as is normal. Some suspect this may have destroyed evidence. Television channels showed a distraught village.

The girl’s alleged attackers are in custody pending inquiries.

The 19-year-old was one of more than 400,000 women who were victims of crimes including kidnapping, abduction, rape, assault with intent to outrage modesty, or cruelty by relatives, in 2019, of which 31,000 were rapes. As many as 4,900 victims were girls less than 18 years old, and 417 girls were under 12.

One hundred and forty girls under six were reported to be victims.

Age has been no consideration in such crimes. In Delhi outskirts, on September 9, an 86-year old grandmother was raped by a 35-year-old man. The man was arrested by passersby and the woman treated for bruises and trauma.

“There is a cataclysmic relationship between social class and caste, anger, power assertion, toxic masculinity and low self-esteem, all of which play on the rapist’s psyche to culminate in crimes like rape,” Tara Kaushal, author of Why Men Rape, An Indian Undercover Investigation, said in an interview with The Tribune.

“In the Indian context the phenomenon of rape entails a socio-cultural perspective as well. Rape not just harms the victim physically but also disgraces and tarnishes one’s soul with devastating effect on the victim,’’ according to a report posted by Radha Sharma on Researchgate.

Reasons given for the prevalence of the crime in villages and small towns vary from unemployed directionless youth taking advantage of poor law enforcement, corruption in the police force, and politicization of the police, where political influence or a bribe can help destroy evidence or buy witnesses.

In a similar instance in 2017, a legislature member a few hundred kilometers east of Hathras openly flaunted his political power to show he could get away with rape of a girl and alleged involvement in her father’s murder. Widespread publicity and pressure from the media became his undoing and he was arrested and is awaiting punishment.

A fast evolving society, greater freedom for boys and girls compared with the earlier generation, lack of sex education, ban on legalized prostitution, easy access to porn and steamy clips and raunchy Bollywood dances meant for mobile phone circulation could be an influence, observers say.

Increased reporting could also be a reason for higher numbers. And studies show that cheap tariffs for internet data often induces individuals to watch movies, including porn, on phones.

Perpetrators often use the recording facility on phones to film the act and leverage it to repeat the crime. Social taboos associated with reporting a rape and the news hindering a girl’s marriage prospects hold back some parents from reporting. Also, in the past many rapists often manipulated the law to escape or get off with light punishment.

This changed after a December 2012 gang rape by illiterate young workers on a New Delhi bus. One of the rapists caused severe damage to the girl’s vital organs. The brutality horrified the nation, and a concerned government sent the victim to Singapore in an air ambulance in an attempt to save her life.

The death of the girl named Nirbhaya or the fearless, triggered outrage, and pushed then prime minister Manmohan Singh to review the legislation. A committee headed by retired Supreme Court Chief Justice A N Verma toughened sex crime laws.

Amendments empowered judges to try 16-year-olds as adults if the case so deserved, limiting manipulation of the law. A convicted rapist can now be hanged.

However, despite being tried in a fast track court, it took until March this year for the Nirbhaya rapists to be executed.

Yet, the incidence of such crimes remains a cause for worry. Some sociologists attribute it to lack of proper and sufficient education at home and social circles. Many young parents still prefer a male child, as an example.

While the position of a girl child and women has improved dramatically over the decades through sustained education and campaign, society is is still at the cross roads. While illiterate women still suffer, educated and well-off women manipulate the law to arm-twist, blackmail, settle scores or make personal gains.

Cases of this nature abound in the courts and police stations and are regularly reported in newspapers and on social media. The MeToo campaign has suffered because of this. Courts so far have not punished any woman misusing the law, or knowingly filing a wrong lawsuit.

Steadily declining sex ratios, lack of sufficient avenues for education, sports or affordable recreation or easily available employment, all contribute to the youth going astray, observers say.

Cases abound where a skewed sex ratio is pushing men in Punjab, and Haryana to fetch brides from as far off as Bihar, where parents of girls have to pay high dowry to their own community boys, or Kerala which has India’s highest literacy rate and a favorable sex ratio.

Women in India have achieved almost all top positions including prime minister, defense minister, governors, judges, lawyers, bank chairpersons, and scientists, pilots of fighter jets, currency traders and nuclear scientists.

However, the number of women ministers in central government remains low. In 2017 it was 12%, the same as percentage of women elected to the lower house.

The parliament has over the past two decades debated but remained undecided on reserving a third of all seats for elected representatives to the parliament and states. Likewise, companies find it tough to fulfill a government-mandated condition that every company must have at last one woman director on its board.