Social Justice Matters | What a Dalit girl’s rape trial tell us about caste
Years-long litigation is a common feature of the Indian justice system. Still, it is particularly extractive of Dalit victims and their families, who often lack the economic heft and social support to assemble a strong team
In the spring of 2016, Rajasthan’s far-flung Barmer district was in tumult. A young girl, 17 years old, had been found dead in the water tank of the institute she was studying in. The night before, she had called her parents to say that she had been raped by one of the teachers on the premises, her father later told the police.
The girl was Dalit. Her distraught father, a primary school teacher, had struggled to put his daughter through high school and then to college, roughly 400km away. She was the star of their family, the darling of her two brothers and a sister, and the star of her school, where she excelled in both studies and painting, becoming a role model for young women who still faced hurdles in pursuing education. Buoyed by his daughter’s aptitude in academics, her father took out a loan to finance her studies and sent her to a teacher training institute. Like her father, she wanted to be a teacher.
Her death, coming just two months after the tragic suicide of Hyderabad University student Rohith Vemula, ignited the anger of Dalit communities across the state. Under pressure, police arrested Pragya Prateek Shukla, the principal of the college where the girl studied, his wife Priya Shukla, the warden of the hostel where she resided, and Vijendra Singh, the physical education teacher who allegedly raped her.
In months, the high-profile case fell off the media radar, even as the trial in the case continued in the cramped chambers of the Bikaner district court. In October last year, Singh was convicted for abetment of suicide, abduction, rape, and under sections of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Pocso) Act. Pragya Prateek Shukla and Priya Shukla were convicted for abetment of suicide and under the SC/ST and Pocso acts.
In court, the prosecution argued that two statements signed by the girl and Singh, respectively, and addressed to the principal and warden, were coerced and pressurised the victim not to reveal the crime. The statements were written at the direction of the Shuklas after the girl and Singh were found in his room. In a phone call, she would tell her father later that he forced her to go to the room. Her statement, in which she sought an “apology” for her “mistake”, was considered proof that the Shuklas misused their authority and pushed the Dalit girl towards suicide.
But last week, the Rajasthan high court granted bail to the Shuklas, observing that the statements were not incriminating and that there was nothing abnormal in the duo making inquiries after the girl was found inside Singh’s room.
“Incidents are not uncommon where after deliberations, it is decided in a bonafide manner not to report such matters to the police, lest the reputation of the girl is tarnished. This aspect gains more importance because the hostel warden/higher ups would definitely have preferred to deliberate with the parents of the girl before taking any such action,” said the high court in its bail order, arguing that whether the incident warranted immediate reporting to the police – which the Shuklas didn’t do – would be determined later. Some legal experts have said that this line of argument runs contrary to the Pocso Act, which dictates the automatic reporting of crimes against children. At any rate, six years after their daughter died, the Dalit family is set for another lengthy court battle.
Years-long litigation is a common feature of the Indian justice system. Still, it is particularly extractive of Dalit victims and their families, who often lack the economic heft and social support to assemble a strong team. Think of the 2020 Hathras rape-and-murder victim’s family, who struggle for months before finding a competent lawyer and continue to battle caste prejudices and slurs in their village and the court premises. Or, of the families of the 58 victims in the 1997 Laxmanpur Bathe massacre who saw their father, brothers, mothers and sisters butchered by an upper-caste militia, only to see them get acquitted 15 years later for lack of evidence.
Of course, much of this is systemic. The National Crime Records Bureau reported in 2020 that the court pendency rate of cases under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act stood at 96.5%, and that at the end of that year, 177,379 cases under the special law were pending trial. Only 216 of the 50,000-odd cases of crimes against SCs resulted in a conviction that year.
In Rajasthan, there is an additional challenge: almost half the cases under the SC/ST Act don’t even reach the charge sheet stage - the worst such statistic among major states.
All this means that the girl’s father – who travelled the 400km distance between his home in a village near the India-Pakistan border and the district court in Bikaner about 50 times in the past five years, mortgaged his land and took out unsecured loans – must struggle more to ensure that his daughter doesn’t become a footnote in the long line of Dalit victims awaiting justice.
The views expressed are personal