Every morning for the past two weeks, more than a thousand residents of a small village on the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar border had been gathering at the local Shiva temple, to pray for the well-being of the 23-year-old gang rape victim battling for her life in a New Delhi hospital.
On Saturday, the temple looked deserted.
By 7 a.m., as news of the death broke, men, women and children braved the biting fog and cold to assemble outside her ancestral home. While some wailed, others mourned in silence the death of “Ballia’s daughter.” Infuriated, young men cried for immediate justice and threatened violence. Elders, however, restrained them. For the most part, the grief was directed inwards: some villagers even refused to light their stoves.
The tiny, impoverished village — whose precise location The Hindu is withholding to protect the family’s privacy — received the news early. Lalji Singh, the woman’s uncle and a primary school teacher, says he received a call from her brother in New Delhi.
Mr. Singh was overcome with fury. “This village will not forgive the men who did this,” he said. “Cut their limbs and set them on fire!”
Family members described a woman driven by a passion to acquire a medical education, who — unusually in rural India — had the full support of her parents. “She had made up her mind very early that she wanted to become a doctor,” Mr. Singh said. He said the woman’s parents, who belong to the Kurmi backward-caste community, made many sacrifices to educate their two sons and daughter. Her father, who works in a private company in Delhi, sold three bighas of land in Bihar, bit by bit, to fund her medical studies. The one acre his family owned in this village was also mortgaged.
“My brother’s entire salary was spent on educating his children so that their aspirations were fulfilled,” Mr. Singh said. “We are four brothers and our childhood was very difficult too. Just like my brother did for his children, our parents sold land and struggled to get us educated.”
Though the girl was not born in her paternal village and spent most of her life in the capital, she visited it during marriages, holidays and festivals. “She was a mild person and was only interested in academics,” says Suresh Singh, another relative. “We have lost a brave daughter today.”
It is possible the violence that claimed the woman’s life could deter others from sending their daughters outside for an education — thus destroying other lives, too. “The government talks about equality and promises that girls and boys will both get opportunities to study and progress. But what facilities has it ensured for the safety of our girls? How do we know such things won’t repeat?”
Women seemed particularly scarred by the story. “We are in shock that something like this could happen to someone from this village, someone we know,” one resident said.
For many in the village — women and men — education and migrating to cities has been the only means of escape from grinding poverty. The village, in one of Uttar Pradesh’s most backward districts, has a mixed population of upper castes and OBCs. However, they share the brunt of poverty and a struggle for livelihood. While most inhabitants engage in the cultivation of wheat, chana and other grains, others labour for daily wage in nearby Buxar, which falls under Bihar.
There is not a single government bore-well, nor any pump canals. The villagers depend upon self-funded engines for irrigation. While the administrative map shows a canal, on the ground no such thing exists.
Hari Shankar Rao, president of the Gadanchal Vikash Manch, says the farmers are often asked to pay up to Rs. 30, 000 just to get tube-well connections. He also recalls seeing a helpless pregnant woman stranded on the fields while trying to cross it during a flood. “During floods we ferry across the fields on boats and in the dry season our fields crack open. We face both extremes.”
The nearest medical facilities are at least 15 km away and nearest motorable road, six km. Like much of Ballia district, better known as the home of the former Prime Minister, Chandra Shekhar, the village and its adjoining areas also played a significant role in the independence movement and the socialist movement post-indepe ndence.
By noon, as the initial shock settled in and the anger subsided, SUVs and vans started pouring into the village. Upendra Tiwari, Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Phephna, who recently met the victim’s brother outside the Safdarganj Hospital in Delhi, also rushed to the village.
“We, as inhabitants of this village and Ballia, demand that the family be paid Rs. 25 lakh as economic assistance and her brothers be given jobs,” Mr. Tiwari said. He also demanded “death by hanging for the rapists, to prevent such incidents in the future.” Since the incident, at least eight rapes had taken place in Ballia, and the administration had not done anything about it, he said.
Activists from the Ballia Students’ Union also arrived in the village, demanding “death sentence” to the accused, staged dummy hangings of them.
Late in the evening, police vehicles were seen surveying the village in possible preparation for the girl’s cremation there on Sunday, according to a source.
(With inputs from Atiq Khan in Lucknow)