New Internationalist

Marginally speaking

Rape is just a part of life

Uttarkhand. At the foot of the Himalaya mountains. The scenery is Sound of Music. The location of  hundreds of Bollywood films. I’ve only read about the region. Maneaters of Kumaon, Corbett Park, Musoorie, Dehradun, basmati rice. Garhwali (hill)people are so gentle, loyal, honest, simple.

But for dalits in the state, life is definitely not paradise.

For the first time I am seeing a totally different picture. Like an unpredictable kaleidoscope, the perspective changes sharply. I'm visiting a dalit village in Uttarkhand. Manargaon, 125 kilometres from Dehradun.

From the emerald green hillside, I see a tiny figure herding a cow home. I think it’s a little boy. I’m wrong. It’s a little girl, eight-year-old Leela. Hair cropped absolutely short like a boy, tattered jeans, grubby shirt. Not anywhere close to a Garhwali girl even now when you meet the weirdest Western clothes in the remotest villages of India.

On 6 June 2010, Leela was watching the vegetable field, guarding the tomato crop from monkeys. Her aunt Sangeeta had gone to fetch water. From the hill nearby, 18 year old Kailash saw the child alone. He lured her to the tiny hut above the cattle shed. Then began tearing off her clothes. Leela fought, kicked, struggled, screamed. Hearing her screams, Sangeeta raced back thinking maybe a snake had bitten the child. She pounded on the door of the hut and Kailash pushed past her, naked, grabbing his clothes as he escaped. The traumatized child was sobbing on the floor. Leela was saved from actual rape.

The news of a sexual attack on a child shocked the entire village. Yet nothing happened. Because Leela is merely a dalit child. And the perpetrator a dominant caste Pandit. Kailash’s parents arrived with sundry relatives screaming expletives, threatening to finish off the insolent dalits who dared to complain about their boy. The village pradhan (head) stopped them attacking the family. ‘This is a terrible sin’, the outraged pradhan decreed. ‘If this was my son I would have killed him with my own two hands.’ The next day Leela’s grandfather Govinda phoned his son Vineet who contacted Sanjay Khatri, the local BSP(political party) leader. Khatri submitted a petition to the Chief Minister. The attack became a major local issue. Newspapers flashed the story. Pressure to arrest Kailash mounted. The police went to the village but did not arrest him. Rumours of bribes circulated. Vineet recounts: ‘For three days, a major pooja [religious ceremony] took place with the  perpetrator’s family worshipping in the policeman’s house. Dalit leaders held a press conference in Musoorie. But nothing has happened. Charge sheet but no arrest.’

The story emerged in pieces from Leela’s grandfather Govind and her uncle Vineet. The anger in the younger man is palpable. The old man is fatalistic, resigned. For him rape and violence are inevitable, a part of life. He has lived with violence all his life, as have generations of his ancestors for hundreds of years.

Unbelievably, the story is even more shocking than I expected. I have to curb a rising irritation with the old man. He grumbles, or so I  think. But it’s just his way of talking, a subservience born of  centuries of  feudalism. His wife Kamla has a beautiful face. Lined and careworn by years of hard work. Life in the mountains is hard. Fetching water and firewood up the hill. Eking out an existence from subsistence farming in tough, unyielding terrain.

I remark on her beautiful face. The old man laughs: ‘Beautiful, yes. An old woman is beautiful?! She’s like a monkey. We are all animals, buffaloes and monkeys here. Look at our life. In my old age I can barely manage to feed myself. But I have to feed this child. Is it easy? No, but what can I  do, we just carry on. My daughter is married and gone. She cannot help it, she had to leave this child here. Which husband will accept a bastard child?’

I am puzzled.

Vineet begins to narrate the story. And slowly this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale unravels.
‘My sister Sarla was a young girl, about 19 or 20 [in 2002]. She was about to be married when she was raped by two upper-caste boys. I was only a boy. It was 9 or 10 years ago. [Vinod is about 18 years old now.] My father tried to protest. Went to the patwari (revenue inspector). The patwari talked to people and said to my father, ‘It’s done. What’s the point of creating trouble now? Making a fuss will be bad for the girl.’ The patwari effected a compromise. The villagers said: ‘If you create a fuss we will drive you out of the village, beat you up; you will learn your lesson then.’ My father was not happy. But he is old, poor, illiterate, a dalit. What could he do?

Sarla was married off and in seven months she gave birth to a child. The in-laws were furious. They said: ‘She has brought shame on our family, on the entire village.’ They began abusing her, she was not given food, beaten up, ill treated. They told her’ ‘you should go and jump in the river, better you die than live in shame.’

Sarla sent a message to her father, he pleaded with them to keep her. But they abused him too. ‘What kind of girl is this? Have you and your family no shame? She should go and drown herself in the Jamuna(river) rather than disgrace everyone. So my father brought her back home with the baby.’

From Sahranpur, there was a Gujjar man, about 10 years older, unmarried. He agreed to marry Sarla. She was very beautiful. But without the baby. Obviously. He wanted to start life with a clean slate. So little Leela was left with her grandparents. 

And eight years later history repeats itself. Leela was too young to get pregnant. And she just managed to escape getting raped. But for dalits in Uttarkhand, rape is practically inevitable, just a part of life. 

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