Sohan Lal’s tiny bird-like frame shook with emotion as he fumbled a series of passport-sized images from a pocket to show us. The first were simple portraits of his daughter Murti and niece Pushpa, I asked him to hold them in his scarred, stained hands that spoke eloquently of a hard life as an agricultural labourer at the bottom of India’s caste system and took six frames quickly. The next images showed the same girls, one dressed in green, the other in vibrant pink, hanging from a tree on the edge of the village. The girls’ heads tilted slightly downwards where the nooses fashioned from their own scarves dug into their throats. It was truly shocking and by far the most disturbing image I’ve seen during my 7 years in India.
One can only guess then what Sohan had felt shortly before sunrise on Wednesday 28th May 2014 when he was taken to the orchard of 13 mango trees and shown what had befallen his daughter Murti and niece Pushpa.
“We had gone there at 4.30am,” said Sohan. “The police had said they were dead and hanging. The police would not let us take the bodies down. We did not get them until 4.30pm.”
India is once again reeling. Eighteen months after the gang-rape and murder of physiotherapy student in Delhi reverberated around the world and set in motion an unprecedented debate about the safety of women, the country is confronting more horror.
At around 7pm on Tuesday 27th May, Sohan’s daughter, Murti, and his niece Pushpa, the two of them aged between 12 and 14 though the family said they could not be precise, had gone to the fields to relieve themselves. This was the usual practice, said the family; like hundreds of millions of Indians, Sohan’s family had no proper lavatory and they visited the surrounding land under the sliver of privacy provided by darkness. A woman would always be accompanied by a sister or friend. But on Tuesday, the two girls did not return. When the family reported them missing to the police, they were told to go away and may even have been abused about their low-caste status. Finally, they were directed to the spreading mango trees a few hundred metres from their home. The girls had been seized, gang-raped and hanged. A post-mortem examination concluded they had been alive when the nooses were put around their necks.
The village of Katra Sadatganj is located in Uttar Pradesh (UP), about 150 miles south-east of Delhi and it took us around 7 hours to drive there from Delhi due to the (mostly) poorly constructed and maintained roads. We arrive in the 45 degree heat of the middle of the day to witness a full-blown media circus and to swell its ranks. Dozens of mobile broadcast vans from India’s numerous TV news channels encircle the grove of mangrove trees where the girls had died while seemingly the entire (mostly male) population of the village milled around in their thousands generating a choking cloud of dust as they watched the TV anchors doing pieces to camera.
The community of farmers in Katra grows vegetables, wheat and mint, there are almost no amenities and the village receives just one hour a day of electricity. During the week of the attack the transformer was broken so there was none.
Sohan’s family belongs to the maurya caste, which sits close to the very bottom of India’s traditional social structure. By contrast, the three accused attackers – brothers Pappu Yadav, Awadhesh Yadav and Urvesh Yadav – and members of the police force, are from the Yadav caste. While technically also a lower caste, the Yadavs are powerful across large swathes of northern India and in Katra Sadatganj they are considered the dominant group. Lower-caste villagers said whenever there was a dispute with a Yadav, the police would always side with the Yadavs. The Yadavs have powerful patronage from the party which runs the state government in UP, the Samajwadi Party. During India’s recent election campaign, the head of the party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, sparked controversy by saying rapists should not receive the death penalty because “boys will be boys”.
An uncle of the two girls, Babrao, said he had been in the fields when the girls went out and heard them screaming. Flashing a torch in the direction of the noise, he said the beam fell upon the face of Pappu Yadav, who was one of several men grabbing the girls. He said he scuffled with him until Mr Yadav raised a pistol. At that point he ran home and raised the alarm.
“They are Yadavs. They are the dominant community. They are goons,” he said.
The attack has drawn attention to the dark reality of life for millions in rural India – a place where caste still remains the dominant determiner of how someone will live, work and marry. Like the family of Sohan, an estimated 620m Indians – around half the population – are every day obliged to participate in so-called open defecation because of the lack of proper sanitation. Campaigners point out the huge social and economic costs to a country where girls are dissuaded form going to school because there are insufficient lavatories and the stigma and dangers confronted by those obliged to squat in the dust. They say lower caste families are even less likely to have a toilet.
“The [lack of] toilets is a problem We have to go outside,” said Om Vati, a mother of six from a lower caste family, who lived close to the home of Sohan. “Only the upper castes have toilets.”
The very next person we speak to is from the Yadav caste and when asked if his family has a toilet, says “We have two bathrooms.”
Beena Pallical of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, said police routinely refused to investigate cases of sexual assaults against lower-caste women. Often, she said, attacks would take place after a young woman from a lower caste community took up a place in college or something else a dominant caste considered inappropriate.
Down narrow alleys and past open sewers we navigate to Sohan Lal’s humble home that he shared with his wife and extended family. There, after battling through a press of onlookers we find Atul Saxena, a senior police officer telling the still-stunned family that two officers had been fired and were being investigated for both negligence and conspiring with the accused. He said he had never before handled such a brutal case.
Yet asked if caste had played a role, in either the crime itself or the response of his officers, he said it had not. He claimed that according to India’s constitution, caste discrimination had been outlawed. “Everyone is equal.” However Sridevi, mother of Murti and Sohan’s wife tells a different story.
‘When we went to report our daughter missing the first thing the police wanted to know was what caste we were, when we told them they sent us away and told us to stop bothering them’
Five men were quite quickly arrested for the crime, three from a local Yadav family and the two policemen. Recent reports say defence attorneys are now making counter-claims accusing the girls’ family’s of some involvement.
Later, after the crowd dispersed a little and we could sit with the family members quietly, I noticed a fan made by Pushpa that she’d written her name on.
All to soon we had to think of leaving but in the last five minutes I noticed a rare group of women standing in quiet vigil below the mango tree in which Murti and Pushpa had been hanged.
On a personal level it was one of those intense and eventful days that will linger long in the mind. The heat, the dust, the raw grief and the crowds - everywhere we went in the village we were trailed by a minimum 30 or 40 men and boys interested to watch us. Though it was not threatening the fact that they were wondering what all the fuss was about spoke volumes about what had happened. On our long, slow return journey to Delhi we encountered the same storm of biblical intensity that had swept through Delhi earlier killing several people. Strong winds whipped up a blinding dust storm, downed trees fell onto the road like skittles then thunder, lightning and heavy rain followed. Coming upon a motorcyclist badly injured by a fallen tree we ferried him to a hospital for treatment.
This assignment was commissioned by The Independent and appeared on the front page of their Sunday issue on the first of June and I am indebted to The Independent’s Asia Correspondent Andrew Buncombe for his kind permission allowing me to borrow heavily from his excellent report for this blog post. My images from this story have been used by many other publications since, most notably Time magazine who ran a slideshow of images online as well as featuring an image in Time’s Best Pictures of the Week on June 6th and in the hard copy of the magazine on the 16th June in the World Briefing section.