Anger was mounting in 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 and caste prejudice in the country.
The girl was found dead near a Delhi crematorium on Sunday night, Ingit Singh from Delhi Police told NBC News over the telephone. Her whole body was burnt apart from her ankles and feet, he said.
The child victim, who has not been named by authorities, came from the Dalit community, one of Hinduism’s most oppressed castes
Four men, including the crematorium’s priest, were arrested early on Monday on suspicion of gang rape, murder and destruction of evidence, Singh said.
Protesters have been gathering in the capital of New Delhi since news first broke of the child’s death.
Even though caste prejudice is outlawed by the constitution, it is rife in Hindu-majority India — and the violence perpetuated against those at the bottom of this hereditary social hierarchy, often causes outrage in India and disbelief in the rest of the world.
“The brutality of 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.”
Dalit women are further marginalised, 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 if it’s a Dalit victim.”
The girl’s parents make a living by begging outside a Sufi Muslim shrine located just across from the cremation ground in Delhi’s Nangal area. The girl was their only child.
Her mother told the BBC she had sent her daughter to fetch water from the crematorium, just a few metres from their shanty.
“When she didn’t return for over an hour, I went searching for her. At the crematorium, I found her lying on the ground. Her lips were blue, there was blood under her nose, she had bruises on her hands and arms and her clothes were wet.”
She said the priest and the three men advised her not to call the police, saying “they would insist on an autopsy and steal her organs and sell them”.
The child’s father said that by the time he, along with about 150 villagers, reached the crematorium, their daughter’s body was mostly burned.
The villagers said they called the police and doused the pyre with water, but could only retrieve her legs – which means a post mortem exam to confirm rape would not be possible.
Delhi’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, called the “brutality” against the child “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 on 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 have spoken openly about the incident, Sambit Patra, the party’s spokesman, 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” at the protest.
“Dalit women are among the most powerless and oppressed in our society,” said Menon. “And rape against Dalit women is used as a tool to further caste wars. I hope justice against this atrocity is served.”