Badaun gangrape: Grisly murders highlight social strains in Narendra Modi's India

Jun 02 2014, 12:47 IST
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SummaryOne of Narendra Modi's biggest challenges will be making a break from ineffectual responses of govts to heinous crimes like rape.

When a farm labourer in this hardscrabble village in northern India went to the police last week to report that his daughter and her cousin had gone missing, a constable slapped him in the face and sent him away.

Hours later he found the two girls, hanging by their necks from a mango tree. A post-mortem found they had been raped.

Five men, two of them police officers, were arrested for a crime that underscored the enduring culture of sexual assault in India and the capacity for appalling violence between Hindu castes.

In India - where a rape is reported every 21 minutes on average - the story has slipped off the front pages already. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi, serving his first week in office, made no public comment on the case.

One of Modi's biggest challenges will be making a break from the ineffectual responses of governments to heinous crimes like this and the gang rape and murder in December 2012 of a young woman in the capital, which provoked a rash of street protests, much of it over the authorities' apparent indifference.

"When these incidents occur, like the one in Delhi in 2012, there is public outrage," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "Then the state responds, but it gets left behind at the level of rhetoric."

Four of the five suspects arrested in last week's case are from the powerful Yadav community, a land-owning Hindu caste that holds significant political clout in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Police declined to confirm reports that three had confessed.

The victims were, like Modi, from a lowly caste. They were Shakyas, by tradition peasant farmers who are often vulnerable to exploitation by the Yadavs.

"The nature of it shouts out caste atrocity," said Kavita Krishnan, a prominent women's rights activist and left-wing politician. "It's meant to have a terrorising effect."

Caste divisions, baked into society over generations despite official efforts to remove them, could be as much a problem for the prime minister as the tensions between Hindus and minority Muslims that critics fear he could inflame.

Critics fault Modi, a Hindu nationalist, for pursuing a majoritarian agenda: More than two-thirds of his cabinet ministers belong to a powerful Hindu grassroots movement, raising doubts that he can close social rifts and govern in the interests of all Indians.

While inter-caste violence is an age-old symptom of social oppression, it is also a sign of social change

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