NEW DELHI — The grieving mother sat in protest on a busy road in India’s capital and, undeterred by the heavy monsoon rains, repeated to anyone who would listen: her only child, a 9-year-old girl, had gone out to water from the cooler at the nearby crematorium and ended up dead.
Telling her daughter had been electrocuted, she rushed to the crematorium to find signs of abuse on the girl’s body. Despite her protests, men at the site quickly cremated her daughter’s body even before the girl’s father could get there — and destroyed the evidence, she said, of the rape she believed she had committed.
The case has sparked a new wave of protests in New Delhi over rampant sexual violence, particularly against women and girls who are low-caste Dalits, such as the girl and her family.
The girl’s parents say their child was raped and murdered by four men, including the chief priest of the crematorium. They accuse the Delhi police of failing to stop the men from destroying possible evidence, then detaining and pressuring them to only file a complaint that echoed the priest’s version of what happened. – that the child was electrocuted after stepping on a wire.
Police say an investigation is underway and they have arrested the four accused men, who are now charged with rape, murder and wrongful detention. Police denied the family’s allegations of negligence and assault.
“The priest said, ‘Don’t make noise, don’t yell, or you’ll face a lengthy lawsuit,'” the child’s mother said in an interview with NewsMadura. “If she died of electric current, why did he rush to cremate her without a criminal record?”
(Indian law prohibits the publication of names or identifying details of rape victims or their families.)
Opposition leaders have raised questions about the actions of the New Delhi police, which are responding to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s central government. Opposition groups, Dalit activist groups and youth and gender rights activists have held candlelight vigils and protests near the country’s parliament demanding “justice for the nation’s daughter” – a slogan that has become famous and is repeated after each brutal attack.
The young girl’s family has set up a protest tent on the main road of the Delhi Cantonment, just a few hundred meters from the crime scene and not far from a shrine where mother and daughter would beg for alms.
Two dozen security forces guarded the crematorium on Thursday, the gates closed. Both the water cooler and the funeral pyre where the cremation took place were sealed with police tape.
The young girl’s family had moved to a one-room apartment in a narrow alley off the main road less than a month ago. She had quickly befriended the neighborhood kids and played Carrom pool with her downstairs neighbors.
“She was so sensible, so well-mannered.” Suman, a downstairs neighbor, said. “And she was tough.”
The apartments have no source of clean drinking water, and residents normally get it from a pump near the sanctuary on the main road. The girl would go the extra mile and cross the street to the crematorium, which had a water cooler.
She never came home from her running water on the evening of August 1. Her mother began to worry, but then the crematorium priest announced that the girl had been electrocuted.
But when she ran there, she found signs of abuse on her daughter’s body, she said.
“Her hands were bruised, the skin on one side was peeling off. Her lips were blue and black. I opened her mouth a little, her teeth turned blue and black. Her eyes were closed, her hair was spread, her clothes were wet. She was on the couch in the crematorium,” she said.
The mother said that despite her protests to wait for the girl’s father to arrive and determine what had happened, the priest and the three other men rushed through the death rituals and set the body on fire. When her husband arrived and a crowd gathered, some police officers were already there, but they did not stop the forced cremation, two witnesses said.
“The priest said, ‘You are beggars, how do you want to fight in court and at the police station?'” she said. “I went crazy. Her father wasn’t there, he hadn’t even seen her face, and the priest said, “I’ll cremate her here.” I told her not to be cremated! The priest forcibly cremated her.”
Some in the crowd grabbed the priest and started beating him and accusing him of rape, witnesses and the family said.
The mother said she and her husband were then taken to the police station where they stayed until early the next evening. She said they were kept in separate rooms, beaten and intimidated by a police informant, who was allowed in and told them to accept the story that the child had died of electrocution, not to mention rape.
Ingit Pratap Singh, the Deputy Police Commissioner for Southwest Delhi, said the reason why the parents stayed so long at the police station is that they were brought in after midnight and it takes time to file a complaint and inform the family for a magistrate when the court proceedings begin the following morning. He denied allegations that the police had been at the crematorium or that the family had been mistreated.
Mr Singh said the couple had not filed the rape charge in the first complaint when they came before the magistrate. That charge was not added to the file until a day later, after the two met officials from a committee investigating allegations of abuse and discrimination against members of lower castes.
“But for the metropolitan magistrate there was no police,” said Mr Singh. “Why didn’t they mention rape to the metropolitan magistrate?”
Rights activists say that local authorities often try to hide things like this. In a similar case last year in the state of Uttar Pradesh, police delayed reporting the alleged gang rape of a 19-year-old Dalit girl, despite the victim’s video statement at the hospital, where she later died of her injuries. Law enforcement’s bias increased after the family accused police of rushing the body to cremation in the dark of the night. The family is still awaiting trial.
“You see a similar pattern – the police have failed to file a proper investigative report, leaving many rape offenders free,” said Ranjana Kumari, the director of the Center for Social Research, who previously ran the intervention center for the rape crisis in Delhi. “The conviction rate for crimes against women remains at a dismal 24 percent.” She said police bias is strong when the victims are Dalit.
“The police unfortunately side with the ruling or the elite class,” Ms Kumari said. “This is a pattern in policing in India.”