Opinion: Amit Shah Silent On Horrific Crimes Against A 9-Year-Old In Delhi

Vandana Katariya, the brilliant young hockey player, was playing her heart out for India as part of India's Olympic team while back at home in her village of Roshnabad in Haridwar, her family were being abused with casteist slurs. Vandana belongs to a Dalit community. The upper caste men were blaming the inclusion of Dalits in the team for India's loss. Yes, they have been arrested and yes, others in the village condemned these casteist acts. But how did these criminals have the audacity to say this? The entitlement and impunity granted to them by a system based on caste hierarchies, which survives in spite of its legal abolition in the name of tradition, in the name of religion. Impunity also granted by a politics which nurtures and protects criminals who commit caste crimes as instruments to enhance their power. This is also why a crime against a Dalit child committed in the heart of the capital does not elicit even a word of sympathy leave alone action from those who rule India today.

She was just nine. An only child, an unexpected gift, born, her mother tells us, long after she had given up hope of ever having a child. All the more precious, all the more loved. I was meeting her with my comrades to express our solidarity and extend our support in this, her hour of grief. We saw around us scores of concerned citizens, mainly from the colony where the child lived, supported by others who had come from different parts of the city, out on the streets in protest against a barbaric crime. If not for them, and their collective voice, the crime would have forever been buried.

The crime is likely of rape and murder, most certainly of forcible cremation, illegal detention of the parents of the victim, casteist impunity and police culpability. The victim, a vulnerable Dalit child whose death has raised the critical issue of the continued or even intensified denial of the rights of citizenship to the poor and dispossessed of India leading to class and caste-based violence against them, even in the heart of the capital.

That Sunday, on August 1, mother and daughter were seated as usual near the shrine of "Syed Jalaluddin Sahib", seeking alms. This place was a shelter for them; the mother tells us the child and she spent most of their days here, cleaning the place too, earning a few rupees. The child's father, who earns his living as a rag-picker, was at a neighbouring market to sell the plastic waste collected during the day. The family belongs to the Balmiki Scheduled Caste community, and have been living in the colony for many years in precarious conditions. The child had never had the opportunity to go to school. Her mother says, "I thought now that we are a little more settled, when the schools open, I will get my daughter admitted."

At around 5 pm, the child went to collect water from a large water cooler placed within a cremation ground nearby. The priest in charge of last rites at the cremation ground was known to the family. Senior residents of the area say that there was a time when the electricity connection to the cooler was arranged so that it could be kept on the road to quench the thirst of passers-by, as is quite common in different parts of Delhi. No one can say why it was shifted inside the cremation ground. A small matter. Which, for the child, became the difference between life and death.

She had already made one trip earlier in the day to get water and had come back with the plastic bottle filled. The mother had no reason to be concerned. But after some time, the priest asked her to come to the crematorium saying her daughter was unwell. Unsuspecting, the mother went there alone. She says she was shown her child's lifeless body - "electrocuted" is what the priest said. There were four men present. They did not allow her to call anyone. She was in utter shock. They said they would make all arrangements and got her thumb print on a piece of paper. The father was sent the same message. When he reached, he says the gates to the crematorium were closed after him. Within minutes, the child's body was laid out on the wooden logs and the pyre was lit. It was only after the child's body was almost completely burnt that the parents were allowed to leave.

Residents of the colony on learning what had occurred from the heart-broken parents rushed to the crematorium and pulled what remained of the child's body from the burning pyre. The police arrived and arrested the men who had been caught by the alert citizens. But the parents were treated as though they were the criminals. According to people present, a notorious police informer of the area, in the presence of the police, pushed and slapped the father, using abusive language, alleging he had made false accusations. The family were put under great pressure not to file a police complaint. This is the reason why, incredibly, the grieving parents were detained by the police till the next evening. In other words, even the right to grieve, to mourn the death of their only child was denied. They were finally released because of street protests held by residents and media attention. But so far, no action has been taken against the guilty police personnel.

The village-like colony is next to one of the most well-guarded in the Delhi Cantonment, inhabited by defence personnel. It is two worlds, geographically a few kilometres distant from each other, but in real life separated by the distance created by poverty and caste. This is the world in which the child lived. We know that India, and Delhi specifically, have an increasing number of child abuse and sexual assault cases, and victims and also perpetrators of these heinous crimes are across communities and social groups. However, the vulnerability of a child from a poor, Dalit family is all the greater.

Recently, a report by the Parliament Standing Committee on Home Affairs on atrocities and crimes against SC/ST women and children was tabled in parliament. It showed that there was a 15.5 per cent increase in crimes against Dalit women and children (2017-2019). The panel report cited NCRB data to state that the pendency rate of crimes against Dalit women and children in special courts is high for all forms of violence against SC/ST girls and women. For cases of rape, it is as high as 88.9 per cent. According to the Standing Committee, this big increase in crimes against SC/ST women and children is "due to the poor implementation of the existing laws and the apathetic attitude of the law enforcing agencies...Moreover, the high acquittal rate motivates and boosts the confidence of dominant and powerful communities for continued perpetration."

In this specific case, we were told that the police refused to file charges under the SC/ST Act or under the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences Act. They also refused to give a copy of the FIR to the family. Again it was only the protests which forced the police to add the offences and finally give a copy of the FIR to the family. The child's remains were sent for a post-mortem but given the condition, the results are predictable. The charge of rape can obviously not be proved. Unless the police are committed to finding out the truth by interrogating suspects, justice will not be done. The police have already given public statements favoring the version of the accused.

It is as though Hathras is being re-enacted. In Hathras, the administration was open in its defence of the upper caste-accused. The most objectionable stories were put out about consensual relations and "honour killing", damning the 19-year-old victim and her family. In Hathras too, the body was forcibly cremated and the family put under tremendous pressure to come to a "compromise." It is only the intervention of the High Court which brought some relief. The context and circumstances in the Delhi horror crime are different. But what is common is the impunity with which the police have acted to favour the criminals and to eliminate the dignity and rights of the victim and her family.

Here in Delhi, the police are directly under the Home Ministry. Why is Mr. Amit Shah silent? Did we hear a single word of sympathy for the child and her parents? Did we hear a single word of condemnation of the forcible cremation of the child? Why has no action been taken against the police personnel guilty of harassment and illegal detention of the victims family? It is these double standards which people are protesting against.

The child's mother awaits justice.

Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.

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