Bundelkhand: Sandhya Richariya was 18 when she was burnt alive inside her own home.
She was killed in March 2010, allegedly by four neighbours in her village in Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh. They wanted to punish her for falling in love with a man from a different caste. None of them are in jail.
After pouring kerosene on her and setting her on fire, the attackers left. Sandhya’s parents and the village sarpanch rushed her to hospital. Before she died, she identified the men who assaulted her. She gave her statement to the police.
But because the police did not get Sandhya’s doctor to testify that she was mentally alert when she made that statement, her testimony did not count in court. Sandhya died in hospital and the men arrested for her murder were released.
A month after that court verdict, we visit the small hut where Sandhya’s family lives. Her father works as a daily-wage earner. Her mother, a housewife, once looked after three children. Now there are two.
Speaking to us outside his home in a dusty, narrow street, Sandhya’s father checks repeatedly to ensure nobody is eavesdropping on our conversation.
Inside, her mother, Ramwati, explains that they have given up hope of ensuring justice for their daughter. ”The villagers said if we want to stay on here, we should not pursue the case.”
In Bundelkhand in Madhya Pradesh, Sandhya’s story is not an uncommon one. This is one of the country’s poorest regions, its poverty exacerbated by unforgiving drought that has staked its claim over the region in the last decade.
Bundelkhand has also become the home of the maximum brutalities against women in India – domestic violence and dowry deaths are the most prevalent crimes here.
In the last year, 13 young women have been burnt alive, either after they were raped, or because they tried to fight their attackers. Women’s rights activists who have been monitoring the cases say that the police have done little to prove the cases against the offenders, largely because of community pressure. Families of most of the victims are either threatened by the powerful or avoid approaching the police because of the stigma attached to rape.
”There are several rape cases in which no action have been taken. Soon after, the victims were either torched or they committed suicide. Timely police action could have saved them,” says Aruna Rao, the Inspector General of the Madhya Pradesh Women’s Crime Cell.
In a village not far away from Sandhya’s, we meet a father whose 15-year-old daughter was raped in November by a man known to the family. When the victim and her father went to the police, they allegedly took Rs. 400 as bribe to register their compliant. The accused and his family burnt the victim’s house in vengeful retaliation. But the accused was never arrested.
Another teen rape victim in the area was moved to a relative’s house so that she was not attacked. Her mother is seriously considering withdrawing the police case she once hoped would bring justice for her daughter.
The victim’s father explains that at the end of the day, he has to worry about how to feed his family. He has not worked in months. His wife earns Rs. 1,500 a month as a worker at the local aanganwadi. “He (daughter’s alleged rapist) sent a message that I can keep my job. He won’t trouble me or my daughter,” she says.