There are some incidents where words are difficult to choose. That was the response of the United Nations spokesperson to the gangrape and murder of two teenage Dalit cousins in the Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh, in which the bodies were left hanging from a tree. All countries have their horrors, but India exposes to the world, with fearsome regularity, its gruesome treatment of women, each incident of which is complicated by caste hatreds, class rages, gender aggressions and a brand of conniving lawlessness peculiarly its own. It is not as if there has been any let-up in the war against sexual violence; it has intensified since December 16, 2012 gangrape. But the country is yet to feel the change. True, law and order in UP is a mess, but that cannot explain the cruel glee of crimes such as the one in Badaun, something that is often matched by crimes against women in other states. The numbers may indicate the need for better policing; they cannot uncover the dark heart of the problem.
The new government at the Centre has responded promptly and practically. Not only will the case go to the Central Bureau of Investigation — two of the seven accused are policemen — but the prime minister’s promise of “toilets first, temples later” will also find a dramatically relevant inaugural moment. Given the number of women raped when going to the fields, toilets would be a hurdle for would-be rapists. But will that stop them? Reportedly, the rape-and-murder in Katra was meant as a message of intimidation — from the dominant Yadavs to the Mauryas, the caste the girls belonged to. The girls’ agony and humiliation were being portrayed as enjoyable. Hanging them was not just an expression of this contempt, but also a wounding of the whole community equal to physical blood-letting. Although the violence here is sexual and the aggression gendered, the attitude behind such an act plumbs far murkier depths. The girls were ‘used’ in a message of caste domination, just as they will also be useful to politicians both in UP and Delhi. The war against sexual violence must keep expanding its fronts.