It was a February morning in 1988 when a horrified India woke up to pictures of three sisters hanging in their home in Kanpur. In a chilling recall 26 years on, two sisters, this time cousins, were found hanging from a mango tree in Badaun, also in Uttar Pradesh, just a short distance away from Kanpur. Then, it was dowry and suicide; now, it is rape and murder. But the underlying story is the same — of oppression, extreme violence and societal acceptance of gender biases that go back generations and show no signs of ending.
The grainy black-and-white photographs of the 1980s blur into an uneasy haze with the sharp, digitalised colour pictures of today, the overlapping realities telling you that the story of India’s women while different from each other is also an unchanging one in a changing India. The decades between the deaths of the urban literate women and the young Dalit teens fuse into one single reality. Society failed them all.
On the face of it, there are few similarities in the narratives — one unfolding in an urban household in Kanpur, the other in Katra Sadatganj village in Badaun district, less than 250 km away. The three sisters struck an anguished chord even before this era of 24X12 television. Unable to bear the humiliation over the dowry demands their father was being subjected to, the sisters, 22, 20 and 18, one morning served breakfast to their parents and siblings and then, after they had left the house, hung themselves from a fan and two hooks in the ceiling with their mother’s saris.
“They have left me to live with the ultimate shame for a father....I could not marry them off,” the father Gyan Prasad Sahu, an official in Life Insurance Corporation, had told reporters. The eldest, a postgraduate, had been paraded before at least eight suitors but repeatedly rejected, despite Sahu — who earned only Rs4,000 — upping the dowry to Rs80,000. “Stop showing didi (elder sister) around, they told me recently, but I did not know they had meant this,” he said.
Their story was what my mind snapped back to as television and newspapers began reporting the rape and murder of two cousins in Badaun. The medieval barbarity of two Dalit girls, no more than children, being pulled out of their homes, raped and then strung up from the sprawling branches of the only mango tree in the village should have no place in a modern India.
But it does, dovetailing all too neatly with Uttar Pradesh’s ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s indulgent assertion that “boys will be boys” in reference to the gang-rape in Mumbai’s Shakti Mills; in party leader Abu Azmi’s statement that women who were raped should also be punished and in Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s irritable outburst to journalists following the Badaun incident, “You are safe, why do you worry?”
Uttar Pradesh, and indeed India with all its contradictions, has long been the playground of politicians who have exploited caste and religious fault lines, using the police and administrative machinery to further their ends. And this was once again demonstrated in that dark, powerless night, when three Yadav brothers allegedly dragged away the two girls who had stepped out to relieve themselves.
Their uncle Baburam heard their screams and saw the girls — one being dragged by her hair — being pulled away. But he could do nothing. Nor could any of the other villagers, or the fathers. Hearing what had happened, they had rushed to the house of Pappu Yadav, one of those seen taking the girls away. And the door was opened by the head constable, Chhatrapal Yadav. “When I asked where our daughters were, he said they were inside and that they would be sent back in two hours,” the father of one of the girls told a reporter.
“I pleaded with them with folded hands... but he hit me, abused me and asked me to leave,” he went on, replaying a scene that should rightfully belong only in a regressive Hindi film of the 1950s and 1960s. The paralysis — borne of years of caste brutality and active endorsement of those who police our systems – was complete.
And so they waited, the dark hours of uncertainty deepening their dread. Until there was a phone call informing them that their children were hanging from the mango tree, a favourite of the children in the area who would swing from its branches.
How could this play out with such impunity? The publicity and the outrage that followed led to five people, the three Yadav brothers and two constables, Chhatrapal Yadav and Sarvesh Yadav, being arrested. Akhilesh Yadav effected a bureaucratic reshuffle at the top and said he would call for a CBI inquiry. And Katra Sadatganj received a flurry of VIP visitors, including Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. And even former Chief Minister and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati, who, if reports are to be believed, has not travelled to meet any individual or family since 2007. Could her decimation in the recent elections have anything to do with it?
Sulabh International has announced that it would construct toilets in the village. That would certainly make girls and women more secure, but do little to obviate the underlying contempt inbuilt into India’s complex caste structure. Till that happens, girls and women from lower castes will continue to be vulnerable. There has been talk of compensation but the heartbroken father has said he wants nothing, only justice for the two children.
Where would the other despairing father, Sahu, be today, I wonder? Still in Kanpur, still mourning the loss of his daughters who took their lives in a fatalistic acceptance that nothing would change for them? What would his thoughts have been as he saw the lifeless bodies of the two cousins dangling from that tree as curious crowds hovered around, the TV visuals carefully pixelated so the horror comes home, but not quite?
The recall is instant. And how can it not... the chilling visuals of 1988 stayed in the mind, it needed just a quick Google search to fill in the memory blanks. And so will this.
Dowry is still a constant, and so is caste and routine violence against women, each incident following the other with sickening regularity. Behind the two images are the countless untold stories of suicides, aggravated sexual assaults, dowry deaths, murders and more. It should not need the violence of the visual for us to react as a society and individuals. This acceptance... it must stop.
The author is consulting editor, dna