The gang rape and death of a woman from the lowest rung of India’s caste system sparked outrage across the country on Wednesday, with several politicians and activists demanding justice and protesters rallying in the streets.
The attack of the 19-year-old is the latest gruesome case of sexual violence against women to rile India, where reports of rape are hauntingly familiar.
The teenager from India's marginalised Dalit community suffered serious injuries in a brutal sexual attack two weeks ago, according to her family and police, and died at a New Delhi hospital on Tuesday.
The case has sparked widespread anger across India that was further fuelled on Wednesday by accusations that police seized the woman's body and cremated it against the wishes of her family.
On Tuesday night, clashes between police and protesters appalled by the killing erupted outside the hospital, before a large group of officers escorted the hearse back to her native village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Her family told local media that the corpse was seized by police upon its arrival at the village in Hathras district, despite resistance from relatives and villagers, and was cremated in the middle of the night.
Police did not offer an explanation but multiple relatives protested against the 3am cremation, saying they wanted the body to lie at the family home for a time so absent loved ones could return to pay their respects.
“We begged them to let us bring her body inside the house one last time, but they didn't listen to us,” the woman's brother was quoted as saying by the Indian Express daily.
Hathras police then ordered that the cremation go ahead and family members were forced to join, relatives told local media.
“Her mother kept asking the police to allow her to see her face one last time. Do those officers not have daughters? Why did they not understand our wish to see her one last time before we bid her farewell?” questioned the woman's aunt, according to The Wire.
Police chief Vikrant Vir denied the allegations, saying the cremation took place with the consent of the family.
“The police provided the firewood and helped the family in the cremation. Most of the family members were present at the cremation. We did not want any outsider to create law and order disturbances,” Vir told AFP.
On September 14, the victim was found lying in a pool of blood and was paralysed from injuries to her neck and spine after she went missing while heading to fields in the village.
The tragedy has sparked uproar and lit up social media in India, with politicians, Bollywood personalities, cricket stars and women's rights activists condemning the attack.
On Tuesday, hundreds of people including the victim's relatives gathered outside the Delhi hospital to protest against the attack before authorities deployed riot police forcing them to disperse.
Officers detained Chandrashekhar Azad, a Dalit politician, as he led demonstrators demanding the death penalty for the accused men.
Another protest was due to take place in Delhi on Wednesday as well as in Uttar Pradesh's capital Lucknow.
Police said the suspected four men, all from an upper caste, have been arrested.
Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, on Wednesday ordered a special investigation team to handle the case and said it will be tried in a fast-track court.
Dalits — formerly known as “untouchables” and at the bottom of India’s unforgiving Hindu caste hierarchy — are victims of thousands of attacks each year. According to human rights organisations, Dalit women are particularly vulnerable to caste-based discrimination and sexual violence.
Last month, a 13-year-old Dalit girl was raped and killed in Uttar Pradesh. In December last year, a 23-year-old Dalit woman in the same state died after being set ablaze by a gang of men as she made her way to court to press rape charges. Both cases are pending in court.
The latest assault comes months after four men were hanged for the brutal gang rape and murder of a student on a bus in Delhi in 2012 — a case that came to symbolise the nation's problem with sexual violence.
Women in India continue to be subjected to alarming levels of sexual abuse. An average of 87 rape cases were reported every day last year, according to the latest data released on Tuesday by the National Crime Records Bureau, but large numbers are thought to go unreported.
The bureau reported an increase of more than seven per cent in the number of crimes against women in 2019 compared to the previous year.
In New Delhi, police detained several female activists after they tried to march in the street shouting slogans against Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The demonstrators carried placards that read, “Stop rape culture.”
Maimoona Mullah of the All India Democratic Women’s Association said Uttar Pradesh, which is ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and ranks as the most unsafe state for women in the country, had become the “rape state of India.”
“We do not accept rape culture in the name of new India,” Mullah said.
Earlier on Tuesday, hundreds of protesters from the Bhim Army, a party championing the rights of Dalits, thronged the hospital premises in New Delhi and jostled with police. Party leader Chandra Shekhar Aazad urged Dalits across the country to flood the streets to demand that the perpetrators be hanged.