In an Indian village, a woman’s killing and alleged rape opens caste divides

Hindunagar (Reuters) – When the young woman limped towards shopkeeper Ravindra Prakash, pleading for help on a dark and foggy morning in the northern Indian village, her body was so charred that he thought she was a witch. He grabbed a wooden stick and tried to shoo her away.

As she came closer, under the dim light of his shop, it took Prakash a few minutes to realise she was from his village, Hindu Nagar, in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh.

He called the police. In a shaky voice, the 23-year-old woman narrated her ordeal to an official on the other line. She said she had been beaten and set ablaze in nearby fields by five men from her village – including two she had accused of having raped her last year.

That morning of Dec. 5, the woman had set out early to catch a train that was due to depart around 5 am to meet her lawyer to pursue her rape case, according to her statement in a police report. After she was burnt, the government ordered her moved to a hospital in New Delhi, where she succumbed to her injuries late on Dec. 6.

While her death has sparked nationwide outrage, her village stands divided over it, largely over caste lines.

The woman belonged to a lower caste of blacksmiths. The five men accused of her murder are from Hindu Nagar’s dominant landowning caste. Many upper-caste villagers defended the men and questioned the woman’s character, some dismissing her death as a love affair gone wrong. Others accused her of falsely trying to implicate the men, whose families insisted on their innocence.

“She had big plans for herself,” said her father, who makes chisels, shovels and other farm tools on a road outside the village. Sitting with his head bowed on a chair outside his mud home, as villagers gathered around to watch, he said: “I want justice for my daughter. I want her killers hanged.”

Reuters is withholding the name of the woman and her family members because India’s Supreme Court bars revealing the identity of sexual assault victims, including through their families.

The divisions in Hindu Nagar, a village of roughly 2,000 people surrounded partly by yellow mustard fields, illustrate India’s challenge in addressing a rape problem that women’s rights groups say is common across the country, particularly in rural areas. A rape occurs every 20 minutes, on average, in the country of 1.3 billion people, according to federal data.

The brutal gang rape and murder of a young physiotherapist on a Delhi bus in 2012 provoked such widespread revulsion that India enacted some of the world’s toughest anti-rape laws, including the death penalty in some cases.

But it has had little impact, women’s rights experts say. Cases are reported, but government data shows that conviction rates are low.

In another attack this month, a 27-year-old veterinarian was raped and murdered near the southern city of Hyderabad. Police shot dead four men who had been arrested for the attack, claiming that they had tried to escape.