Anger was mounting in parts of India on Wednesday after four men were arrested for the alleged rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl, whose death has brought into focus both rampant sexual violence as well as caste prejudice in the country.
The girl, who has not been named by authorities and belonged to the Dalit community, one of Hinduism’s most oppressed castes, was found dead near a Delhi crematorium on Sunday night, Ingit Singh from Delhi Police’s South West District told NBC News over the telephone.
Her whole body was burnt apart from her ankles and feet, Singh added.
Four men, including the crematorium’s priest, were arrested early Monday on suspicion of gang rape, murder and destruction of evidence, he said.
Protests have been gathering momentum in the capital of New Delhi since news first broke of the child’s death. Hundreds of people, including students, activists and human rights watchers, gathered near the city’s historic Jantar Mantar monument in a display of indignation against the incident.
Even though it is outlawed by the constitution, caste prejudice is rife in Hindu-majority India — and the violence perpetuated against those at the bottom of this hereditary social hierarchy, has once again caused outrage.
“The brutality from this incident is barbaric beyond words,” Yogita Bhayana, founder of women’s rights group, People Against Rapes in India, told NBC News. “And the saddest part is incidents like these are not rare. We see cases where Dalit women are killed, raped, and tortured daily… only a few come to the limelight.”
There are 200 million Dalits in India, out of a population of 1.3 billion, according to the most recent government census.
According to a 2018 report from the National Crime Records Bureau 42,793 cases of crimes against Dalits took place that year — in other words, a Dalit was a target of crime every 15 minutes in India on average.
But activists believe the real figure is much higher, as many go unreported out of fear. Dalit women are further marginalized, owing to the social stigma that victims of sexual violence face.
“We are seeing a level of ‘rape apathy’ because cases like these are so common,” said Srishty Ranjan, 24, a Dalit rights activist. “It doesn’t get the coverage it deserves and often if it’s a Dalit victim.”
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Delhi’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, called the “brutality” against the nine-year-old girl “shameful.”
“There is a need to improve law and order in Delhi. The culprits should be given capital punishment at the earliest,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
The leader of the opposition Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi, visited the victim’s family Wednesday.
“The mother and father’s tears say just one thing — their daughter, India’s daughter, deserves justice,” he wrote on Twitter. “And I am with them on this path to justice.”
While no senior leaders of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have spoken openly about the incident, Sambit Patra, the party’s spokesperson, has accused Gandhi of using it to further his own political agenda.
Pritish Menon, secretary of the Students’ Federation of India, called the government’s silence “sad.”
“Dalit women are among the most powerless and oppressed in our society,” said Menon, who was at the protest. “And rape against Dalit women is used as a tool to further caste wars. I hope justice against this atrocity is served.”