Attitudes About Rape Have Been Slow to Change in India‘s Vast Hinterland, Creating Problems for Lower-Caste Women


DALAN CHAPARA, India—Lalasa Devi says that before her attacker grabbed her by the throat, he snarled “Chamar,” the name of the so-called untouchable caste into which she was born. “What can you do to me?”

Then he threw her to the ground and raped her, she says.
Rape Allegation Upsets Indian Village


Vivek Singh for The Wall Street Journal

Lalasa Devi, a woman belonging to a caste once considered ‘untouchable,’ says she was raped in March by an upper-caste man from her village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

Ms. Devi, a mother of four in her mid-30s, says authorities treated her poorly when she registered a complaint against her alleged assailant, who belongs to a high caste in this small northern Indian village. Nine months after the alleged rape, the man she accused is free on bail, and it isn’t clear when a trial will begin.

“I’m dying of shame,” she said in a recent interview, covering her head with the corner of her sari. “All I had was my honor…you lose that, you have nothing.” She authorized The Wall Street Journal to use her name.

Women across India face daunting obstacles in pressing sexual-assault allegations. An unfriendly justice system and fear of social stigma make many reluctant even to report such crimes, women’s rights advocates say.

Rural, lower-caste women such as Ms. Devi also face pervasive and deeply rooted discrimination against those once called “untouchables”—now known as Dalits, or oppressed people. “It’s the mind-set of the dominant castes,” says Deepika, a Dalit-rights activist in New Delhi who uses only one name. “To them, raping a Dalit woman is not a sin.”

A court in the western state of Rajasthan in 1995 acquitted five men of rape, saying upper-caste men couldn’t have raped a Dalit. The state has asked a higher court to review that case—a request that is still pending.

Attitudes toward Dalits have improved since the 1990s, and a wrenching national dialogue now is under way about sexual assault. The fatal gang rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi a year ago has prompted new laws against sexual violence and efforts to improve the justice system.

In cities, more victims are stepping forward to report crimes. But in the vast hinterland, where the majority of India’s women live, change is coming much more slowly.


Kailash Nath Singh, the police officer now in charge of Ms. Devi’s case, says police did the best they could. They have arrested an upper-caste resident of Ms. Devi’s village in Uttar Pradesh and charged him with rape. “We have tried to do justice to the victim and have taken her case to the court,” he says.

The accused, a cattle trader named Santosh Singh, denies having anything to do with the alleged attack.

Ms. Devi’s home village, Dalan Chapara, has a population of about 1,250, nearly all members of Ms. Devi’s Chamar caste, whose forebears were leather tanners, and of the accused’s Rajput caste of traditional landowners.

A gravel road running through the village divides the castes. For the most part, the Rajput houses are built from concrete and the Dalit houses have thatched roofs. There is no marriage across caste lines.
Earlier Coverage: A Rape That Shocked the World

The WSJ profiles the victims and the accused in last year’s death in New Delhi, and examines the deep-seated problem of harassment of women in India.

A selection:
“False promise” complaints , refer to a growing trend of rape cases brought against men who promise marriage in hopes of persuading a woman to agree to sex. (11/29/2013)
For the wife of one of the convicted rapists , the misfortune to be married to a convict is not extraordinary: Her basic difficulties are a way of life in the Indian countryside. (9/23/2013)
Some conservative quarters of society push back against change, even as four men are convicted. (9/11/2013)
To wed your rapist, or not? Sexism pervades the Indian legal system, a WSJ examination shows. (5/17/2013)
Sharp finger nails for defense: Women describe running a gauntlet of harassment in their daily lives. (9/27/2013)
The victim’s close friend describes the young couple’s complex love story. (1/30/2013)
The bus helper with a singsong voice: New details emerge about the accused and their alleged intentions the evening of the attack. (1/10/2013)
“Wake up, wake up,” she urged her friend. How the fateful day began. (1/9/2013)
Victim’s body is flown home as grief and outrage sweep India and the world. (12/30/2012)

Villagers said Dalits aren’t allowed in the homes of higher-caste neighbors. At community events, there is segregated seating and separate sets of glasses and tableware are used. Rajput visitors to Dalit homes won’t eat or drink.

“Constitutionally, everyone has equal rights,” says Bipin Chand, a Dalit primary-school teacher who lives in the village. “But socially there is no equality.”

None of the Dalit homes in Dalan Chapara has a toilet. After nightfall on March 20, Ms. Devi says, she was feeling sick to her stomach and went outside to relieve herself in a field.

A group of villagers was gathered under a giant fig tree, singing Hindu hymns to celebrate the approach of the spring festival Holi, accompanied by drums and clanging cymbals.

Ms. Devi says a lone man approached her. She pointed her flashlight at him and told him to go away. Instead, she says, he put a hand over her mouth, choked her and raped her. Ms. Devi says she passed out.

When she didn’t return home, her brother-in-law and her mother-in-law went looking for her, found her unconscious and carried her home. They say her neck was badly bruised.

Ms. Devi says when her husband saw her, he cried. Her husband, 38-year-old builder Ramesh Prasad, called the police.

When nobody came, says Mr. Prasad, he and his wife and a group of villagers went to the police station. Officers there asked them to provide a written statement, per police procedure.

Ms. Devi can neither read nor write. Her husband says he can but was too shaken to do so. Mr. Chand, the schoolteacher, and Rajesh Kumar Yadav, a village leader, drafted the account.

Ms. Devi, who was having trouble speaking, didn’t reveal right away that she had been raped, but Mr. Chand says he suspected it. In India, being raped often is considered shameful. He says he thought: “If all this is put on paper, the whole family’s reputation will be tarnished. It will be difficult for the family’s daughters to be married off.”

What they wrote, he says, is that Ms. Devi had been attacked by Mr. Singh.

Mr. Singh, 33, said in a recent interview he had been framed. He said he had spent that evening buying mutton for his family and helping a friend to retrieve a motorcycle impounded by the police.

When Ms. Devi and her husband returned home, Ms. Devi confided to him, in whispers, that she had been raped, both of them recalled recently.

Ms. Devi and her husband say they decided to seek out the superintendent of police the following morning in the district seat of Deoria because the local police still hadn’t come to investigate.

They provided Keshav Chand Goswami, a senior police officer there, with a new written complaint. This one accused Mr. Singh of rape.

A local TV reporter captured the ensuing conversation on tape.

“How many children does she have?” the police officer, Mr. Goswami, asked Ms. Devi’s husband.

“Four,” he replied.

“What’s the age of the eldest one?” the officer asked.

“Fourteen or 15,” he said.

“Who would rape such an old woman?” the officer asked. He added that he would look into the matter, and walked away.

The TV reporter who captured the exchange, Uma Shanker Bhatt, says when he got onto his motorcycle, he said to himself: “He’s given us a very big news story.”

Back in Ms. Devi’s village, police investigator Ram Murat Yadav had arrived. Ms. Devi’s 55-year-old mother-in-law, Samdei Devi, says the investigator told her Ms. Devi and Mr. Singh must have had a clandestine relationship.

In rural India, police and women’s rights activists say, cash payments and other extrajudicial agreements between families of accused rapists and their alleged victims are common practice, used to protect reputations and avoid publicity.

Ms. Devi’s husband says the investigator pressed him to drop the case in exchange for 200,000 rupees, or about $3,200, from Mr. Singh. Her husband says he refused.

Both the investigator and Mr. Singh deny making such an offer, and the investigator says he never insinuated that Ms. Devi had a relationship with the accused. The head of the local police at the time says he didn’t think Mr. Yadav would have insinuated such a thing about Ms. Devi or pressed the couple to accept a payment.

Ms. Devi’s husband, Mr. Prasad, says he returned to the local police station about 24 hours after the attack to submit the new written complaint—the one alleging rape. Officers registered a complaint of sexual harassment—not rape—against Mr. Singh.

Police there say they never received a written statement mentioning rape from Mr. Prasad. A neighbor who says he accompanied Mr. Prasad on both visits said police told Mr. Prasad on his second trip that they already had a copy of his statement.

The next morning, March 22, video footage of Mr. Prasad’s exchange with Mr. Goswami, the police official at the Deoria police headquarters, hit TV channels across the country, bringing national attention to her case. A senior police official apologized to Ms. Devi on behalf of the police force.

Mr. Goswami, who has since been transferred because of his comment, says his remarks were “distorted and falsely presented.”

The comments were cast as evidence of official apathy toward protecting women—just one day after Parliament’s upper house had approved tougher sex-crimes laws and harsher punishments for rapists.

A new police officer, Kailash Nath Singh—no relation to the defendant—was assigned to handle the investigation. He upgraded the charge against Mr. Singh to rape, and charged him with the Indian equivalent of a hate crime under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989.

At that point—three days after the alleged attack—Ms. Devi was sent to the district hospital in Deoria for a medical examination. Doctors there concluded that “no definite opinion about rape can be given.”

By then, the sari Ms. Devi was wearing the night of the attack had been washed by her daughter, which the police say rendered it useless as forensic evidence. The police officer who upgraded the charge to rape says forensic evidence wasn’t collected because the police initially registered the case as sexual harassment, not rape.

On March 23, the day of the medical examination, Mr. Singh was arrested. He could face life imprisonment if convicted of rape and caste-motivated violence charges.

In September, a state appeals court ordered Mr. Singh released on bail after his lawyer, M.K. Singh Baghel, argued that Ms. Devi was a “consenting party” in any sex act with his client. Mr. Singh’s bail petition, filed by his lawyer, also cited Ms. Devi’s caste, saying she was seeking “illegal gain” by “harassing and defaming” Mr. Singh.

Although the court ordered a trial to be concluded within six months, proceedings have yet to begin. Vijay Kumar Yadav, the head public prosecutor at the Deoria district court, says it is unlikely to start soon, given the number of cases on the docket. Cases involving Dalits are all heard in one court, he says.

Mr. Baghel, the defense lawyer, says the lack of physical evidence and the discrepancies between Mr. Prasad’s first and second statements would bolster the defense. He says that Ms. Devi’s leaving her house after dark “shows consent, doesn’t it?”

He adds that Mr. Singh didn’t have any sexual contact with Ms. Devi and that his statements were part of a legal argument based on what he says are “weaknesses” in the prosecution’s case.

While they wait for the court case to start, Ms. Devi and her family are trying to rebuild their lives.

Ms. Devi says news reports about rapes around India, an almost-daily occurrence since the New Delhi gang rape last year, often trigger flashbacks to her own assault. She says she paces while replaying the attack over and over in her mind.

“How did this happen to me?” she asks. “We stayed within our caste. From the tree to the road, it’s our caste,” she says, referring to the field where she was raped.

She says she feels ashamed. Her neighbors laugh and make mean-spirited comments, she says, and her children are taunted at school.

Ms. Devi’s eldest daughter, Bina, says she has been asking her father to build a toilet in the house because she is afraid to go outside. Mr. Prasad says he plans to build one soon.

When speaking of the assault, which he calls an “unthinkable and shameful thing,” his eyes well with tears. He says he tries to comfort his wife the best he can. At night, when they are in bed together, Mr. Prasad says, Ms. Devi tells him she feels impure and often sobs uncontrollably.

“Why are you crying?” Mr. Prasad says he asks. “We didn’t do anything wrong.”

Write to Krishna Pokharel at kri[email protected] and Tripti Lahiri at [email protected]



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