Hisar, Haryana: “They were drunk… I pleaded with one of them. I said, ‘You are from my village. That makes you my brother.’ He said I was not his sister and that he had no sisters,” recalls 16-year-old Seema (name changed), the Class XI student raped by 12 men on a Saturday afternoon in early September. Four of the 12 men who attacked her were from her village.
“They threatened to kill my family if I told anyone,” Seema tells Firstpost, and so she remained silent until her father, Kishan, got wind of an MMS clip doing the rounds in the village. He killed himself that very same day (18 September).
In the last month, 17 cases of rape have been reported in Haryana, prompting Sonia Gandhi’s high profile visit to the state, where she visited a victim’s mother in the village of Sacha Khera in Jind district, but not Seema in Dabda, a village in Hisar. Some have suggested that Mrs Gandhi’s choice may have been prompted by caste calculations. The Sach Khera gang-rape was a Dalit-on-Dalit crime, unlike Seema who was attacked by upper caste Jat men.
What would Seema like to tell Sonia Gandhi? “Dalit families and members of Jat community should have equal rights so that the stronger community does not pressurise the lower community. The issue is not only about boys. The Dalit families live in fear, they don’t speak out. Crimes like this have happened before, but at that time no one dared speak out.”
Seema faces journalists and activists, who visit her at their police-guarded two-room brick house with extraordinary courage and grace, even as Dalit girls in her village have stopped going to school for fear of a backlash.
“I feel I should not let my father’s sacrifice go to waste. I want those who did this to my family punished,” she says.
Is she afraid? “I’m not worried for myself. But I am afraid for my family. The Jat community is very powerful. They have money and influence. I’m scared that they might attack us or misbehave with other girls. The fear does not go away.”
Haryana has the lowest child sex ratio in the country — 830 females for 1000 males (2011 census) — and is notorious for its practice of female foeticide. Brides are brought from Nepal and Kerala to make up for the skewed sex ratio. The existence of strict codes for women is apparent in the veiled faces of women on the streets.
Speaking of life in her village, Seema says: “Girls can’t go out alone, they can’t be seen outside their houses. They are married off by the time they finish Class V — for reasons of ‘izzat’.”
On the Khap’s proposal to lower age of marriage to stop incidents of rape, Seema says: “Rape is not committed on minors alone. It happens against married women too. But they cannot speak out because of fear…A politician has said that 90 percent of the rapes are consensual. Day before a one-year-old girl was raped. What consent could there possibly be of a one-year-old child? A girl might have a relationship with one boy, but how can she be with eight men?” (Public outrage over the khap position has forced them to backtrack, with a Khap mahapanchayat held on Saturday calling for longer discussion on the issue.)
“It is the boys on whom restrictions should be placed. They should be punished for their crimes, that will send the right signal. And political leaders should be warned that if they support criminals, they will be removed from their post. Then they too will be scared.”
Dalit leader Virender Bhagoriya from Bhagana village labels the khap prescriptive as “extremely dangerous thinking. They are saying that to escape from rape, marry daughters off at 15. This is lowest level of thinking. To marry and at what age is a personal choice. If a person wants to remain single, it does not mean she should be raped.”
Seema seems remarkably brave given the society she lives in. “What is unique about our home is that my mother is educated. She has studied up to Plus 2. She trained in stenography in Hindi and English. And papa, even though he didn’t study as much, he spoke like an educated man,” she explains. The only time, Seema’s mother, Vimala, sitting next to her on the cot, eyes pinned to the floor, spoke, it was to say: “In the villages girls are not encouraged to study. But girls should be allowed to study.”