For the first 10 days after she was savagely assaulted and raped by eight men, 16-year-old Reshma (name changed) shuttered up her heart and mind, hoping silence would kill her memories of the violence, wrenching physical pain and the waves of shame, anger and fear.
The men had threatened to circulate photographs of their crime if she complained, and sworn to kill her family.
Now, everyone knows Reshma and her story — and is telling it their particular way. Dalit groups have camped outside her home, using her case to illustrate caste iniquity and violence in Haryana.
Leaders of the powerful Khap panchayats, or caste panchayats, have used the case to call for rolling back progressive reforms that made it illegal for women to be married before the age of 18. Sonia Gandhi, Congress president, chose another Dalit rape victim to express solidarity during her recent visit to Haryana — but other leaders have made a beelinefor the modest two-room home Reshma shared with her parents and brother.
Even a western television crew has arrived, recording her story — a task for which she was equipped with a broom, perhaps to appear an authentic Haryana villager.
Her voice, though, still isn’t being heard — and neither is that of dozens of other women, Dalit and upper caste, young and old, fair and dark, who have been sexually assaulted across Haryana.
Police records tell the bare bones of Reshma’s story. She was kidnapped, blindfolded, gagged and later sexually assaulted on September 9, while she was on her way to her grandmother’s place.
It was only on September 18, though, that her family, the village and the police came to know what had happened. Reshma’s father, a gardener, had been shown a photograph of his daughter being raped, which the perpetrators had circulated using their mobile phones. He committed suicide, and the story came out into the open.
Inside of hours of the crime being reported, though, many versions began to emerge from the community — each placing pressure on Reshma. Her recorded statement, key to the eventual prosecution, had to be amended several times.
For Pradeep Ambedkar, a student activist who has camped out in Dabra since the news broke out, Reshma’s story is principally about caste.
“Our [Dalit] women in this region have always been sheltered and fearful,” he says, “and this incident has scared everyone. Parents don’t want to send their girls to school anymore. Women don’t want to step out alone.”
Pradeep says the police recorded Reshma’s “correct statement” only after he and other activists put pressure on them.
Lawyer Rajat Kalsan, who is representing Reshma, says the police were compelled to take action, after the family, backed by Dalit organisations, refused to carry out the last rites of Reshma’s father.
Their argument on caste oppression in Haryana springs from experience — but the police insist caste isn’t the only factor driving rape. Senior Superintendent of Police B. Satheesh Balan says that “of the 38 cases that we registered in Hisar, six were found false, in 26, the accused and the victim were from the same caste, in three cases the accused were from the dominant caste and in two cases the victims were from the upper caste.”
Mr. Balan’s figures appear consistent with criminological data, which shows that rapists are most likely to be men known to the victim — family members or close friends. “This isn’t about caste,” says Mr. Balan, “it’s about gender.”
For upper caste residents of the area, though, neither caste nor gender appear to be issues. Instead, the problem is attributed to social change. “What these boys have done is truly terrible; they have ruined several lives, caused indescribable misery and brought disrepute to the entire village. They should be punished to the maximum extent possible,” says Puran Singh Dabra, a former MLA from the area.
However, he goes on to ascribe the perpetrators’ conduct to “social problems.” “Parents allow their children too many liberties. They lose the sense of right and wrong and when that happens, these cases occur.”
Sube Singh, spokesperson of the Khap panchayats, is vociferous in arguing that the answer to rape lies in lowering the age of marriage and blocking purportedly-obscene television and film content.
Like Mr. Dabra, though, he has only gentle words of rebuke for the perpetrators. “Parents try to teach their boys the right things,” he says, “but what can we do when they learn wrong things from TV and films. In such a situation it is better for parents to marry off their girls early.”
He can’t explain why married women get raped and why rapists are not always unmarried men. Two of the accused in the Reshma rape case are married.
Mr. Singh argues that the real problem is the government’s hostility to the Khap panchayats. “If the government had not taken on the Khaps and labelled them Taliban, we would have dealt with these boys more sternly.”
Long battle ahead
Even as Reshma struggles to reclaim her life, long battles seem certain to lie ahead. National crime data shows that just a third of rape prosecutions end in a conviction, a stark reminder of her chances of justice. Her mother says she is focussed on this one objective; other relatives, though, have already started speaking of seeking jobs or cash as compensation — pressures that could influence her eventual testimony.
“Life is hard for her, she has seen the worst,” says sub-inspector Saroj, who is now charged with Reshma’s security. “Even her friends have turned their back on her.”
“I have to move on, maybe leave the village,” Reshma says. “I have to study; I have to become an Indian Police Service official.” She does not once look up.