Sohan Lal went to the police station in his northern Indian village around midnight, desperate to find his 12-year-old daughter after his brother saw her abducted at gunpoint. He said the two officers on duty mocked him, ripped up his complaint and told him to come back in the morning.
Sohan Lal persisted, begging them to act. Hours later, the head constable of the village told him that his daughter and 14-year-old niece were hanging from the branch of a mango tree in a field about a kilometer (0.6 mile) from his home. Worried that the police would say the teens killed themselves, hundreds of villagers prevented the officers from taking down the bodies for 12 hours until they arrested the suspects.
“I have no faith left in the police -- they’ve brought me nothing but grief,” said Sohan Lal, who later found out the girls were also raped, recounting the incident while hunched over on the floor of his roofless home in heat of 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius). His last name is being withheld under a law that grants victims anonymity. “Just like the public saw my daughters swinging from that tree, I want to see those men hanged in the exact same manner for everyone to see,” he said, referring to the alleged perpetrators.
The latest rape case to shock India and draw outrage from across the political spectrum shows how the poorest and most marginalized in the nation of 1.2 billion people must battle to get justice. Even as lawmakers tighten penalties for sexual assault, a male-dominated police force with a reputation for corruption remains an obstacle to women’s safety in India.
“This is a case that has disgusted people because of the brutality of what they did but also because it highlights how the police treat people,” said Naresh Saxena, who advises the United Nations on governance in India and is a former senior government official in Uttar Pradesh, the state where the attack took place. “Generally in India the police look down on the poor or those from a lower social status.”
India’s police are the most corrupt institution in the country after political parties, according to Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometer report, which surveyed 1,025 people in the nation. Only about 5 percent of police officers are women, according to data from India’s ministry of home affairs.
On average, a woman in India is raped every 21 minutes, with police records showing the number of reported rapes has risen by almost two-thirds in the last decade. In northern India, where Sohan Lal’s village is located, six out of 10 women said they don’t feel safe leaving the house at night, compared with 40 percent nationwide, according to a Gallup survey published last month.
Three brothers who lived in the same village have been arrested for the kidnapping, rape and murder of the two cousins, said Atul Saxena, the top police official in the district of Badaun, about 140 miles east of India’s capital New Delhi. The two police officers who failed to react to Sohan Lal’s complaint have been fired and arrested on grounds of dereliction of duty and conspiring with the accused, he said.
“They were totally indifferent to the criminal activities,” Saxena said in an interview. “We are investigating whether these cops were aware that these girls were dragged away by these culprits.”
All three men accused of the gang rape said they were in relationships with the girls and denied the charges, Saxena said without elaborating. An autopsy confirmed that the girls had been gang raped and hung from the tree after they were strangled, he said.
Nobody answered the door on May 31 at the house of the accused men, and a family living next door declined to comment on the case. Police didn’t provide access to the men. Saxena said the officers who were arrested also couldn’t be reached, and he didn’t provide details of their version of events.
Politicians from all sides expressed outrage at the latest brutal attack, which follows others in the past few years that have stunned the nation. In 2012, a 23-year-old was gang raped aboard a bus in India’s capital in an ultimately fatal case that led to nationwide street protests. In January, a woman alleged that a village council ordered her to be gang raped for having relations with a man from a different religion.
Maneka Gandhi, Women and Child Development minister in Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s week-old government, said she plans to set up a special crisis cell to tackle sex crimes.
“Police laxity is equally responsible for the incident due to which two girls lost their lives,” Press Trust of India cited Gandhi as saying on May 30.
Rahul Gandhi, the descendant of three Indian prime ministers and whose party was trounced by Modi in elections that ended on May 16, visited the family’s home on May 30 to offer his condolences. He also stood for photographs with Sohan Lal’s family under the tree where the girls had been hanged.
“The people here all agree that the life of a woman doesn’t carry the value it deserves in this society,” Rahul Gandhi, a nephew of Maneka Gandhi, told reporters as he stood near the tree. “All they want is justice. Uttar Pradesh police can’t offer them justice.”
The two girls had gone out to a field to relieve themselves at about 8 p.m. on May 27 because they didn’t have a toilet at home, according to the police report. The uncle of one of the girls heard screams, and by flashlight saw four men dragging them away, the report said. When he confronted the group, one of the suspects put a pistol to his head and told him to leave, the report said.
After searching for the girls in the field, Sohan Lal and his brother went to the police station. He said the officers immediately asked the brothers about their caste, referring to India’s millennia-old social hierarchy.
One of the officers then called the brothers “filthy” and “street dogs” amid a litany of threats and insults, Sohan Lal said. At one point, he said he got down on his knees and begged the policemen for help.
Sohan Lal’s caste is a rung above the so-called “untouchables,” while policemen in that area typically belong to the “Yadav” caste. While technically lower caste, the Yadavs are powerful across large parts of northern India and are the dominant group in Sohan Lal’s village.
After dismissing Sohan Lal’s pleas for about an hour, the police officers agreed at about 1 a.m. to visit the home of the accused. One of the officers called the accused “good, honest men,” said Sohan Lal, who was present at the scene. When they were brought back to the police station for questioning, the police officers told Sohan Lal and his family to go home and come back in two hours, at which point he’d see his daughters. At 4 a.m. the police entered Sohan Lal’s home and told the family that the girls were dead.
“The police came into my home and said, ‘Go look, your girls are hanging from the tree in that field,’” said Sohan Lal, who received calls from other villagers saying the same thing. “They were out in the open on display for the entire district to come and see.”
As word spread of the deaths, people from six nearby villages sat under the tree so that police couldn’t remove the bodies and later deem the deaths a suicide.
“Stopping the police from taking the bodies down was the only way we could make sure they took action,” said a 45-year-old neighbor of the victim’s family who joined the community in the silent protest under the swinging bodies of the dead girls. “It could’ve been our children who were hanging there.”