Rape, guns and murder in India’s lawless state

Uttar Pradesh, home to roughly 16 per cent of India’s population, accounted for a third of all crimes reported in the country in 2011.

KATRA SADATGANJ, INDIA // The rape and lynching of two young girls in this Uttar Pradesh village late last month not only reignited nationwide outrage over sexual violence against women, it also brought into focus the extent of lawlessness in India’s most populous state.

Anger at the killing of the 12-year-old and 14-year-old cousins on May 27 was compounded by the initial refusal by the local police to take any action because of caste prejudice, as well as by a string of other rapes in the state that followed.

In the most recent case, a 15-year-old girl was found hanging from a tree on Tuesday in the village of Benipur. The victim’s father claimed that she was raped and killed by six men, who have since been taken into custody.

Attacks on women have been on the rise in Uttar Pradesh for several years, according the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Between 2007 and 2012, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the number of such crimes rose 12 per cent from 20,993 to 23,569. Last year, 126 rape cases were recorded in a one week alone.

The overall crime rate in Uttar Pradesh is also high. The state, home to roughly 16 per cent of India’s population, accounted for a third of all crimes reported in the country in 2011. Of the 3,718 shooting deaths recorded in India in 2012, 1,720 were in Uttar Pradesh, according to the crime records bureau.

According to a retired state police official, the actual statistics may be even higher because both the state’s government and police force have had an interest in not recording all crimes in order to keep figures low.

The current state government, headed by Akhilesh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party, is seen to have let law and order slip even further after taking power in March 2012. It does not help that 189 out of 403 legislators in the state assembly have criminal charges against them, including for rape and murder.

Since the NCRB has compiled crime figures only until the year Mr Yadav came to power, much of the criticism of his government is based on reports of crime in the media. But NCRB figures do show that the incidence of crimes in 2012 in Uttar Pradesh jumped 15 per cent over the average for the previous five years.

The single biggest breakdown of law and order under Mr Yadav’s government came last September, when 62 people died and more than 50,000 were displaced in rioting between the Muslim and Hindu Jat communities in the district of Muzaffarnagar.

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, took aim at Mr Yadav’s record on crime while campaigning in the recent general election. “Has anybody thought about the law and order situation of the state?” Mr Modi said during a rally in February. “Women are scared of venturing out of their homes.”

Mr Yadav’s party has damaged itself further by reacting defensively to questions on crime. “The media only reports rapes in Uttar Pradesh,” he said on Tuesday. “If you just Google, you will see that rapes happen all over the world.”

In Katra Sadatganj, more stories have emerged about sexual attacks and other crimes going unregistered or uninvestigated as people from nearby flocked to the village hoping to find a ear for their complaints amid the scrum of media and police.

Wasim Khan, a farmer from the adjacent village of Vasauli, said that just last weekend, “a man watching over a field at night was shot dead. His body was found, but nothing was done. The police refused to even begin an investigation.”

Another woman, who withheld her name fearing police retaliation, said her 21-year-old son was shot dead in an argument with a fellow employee at a trucking company earlier this year. But because the company is owned by a legislator, the murderer was still at large.

“This kind of stuff just keeps happening,” Mr Khan said. “It’s only because of political reasons, because it suits politicians to play up this case, that the Katra Sadatganj murders are being talked about so much.”

Part of the problem is Uttar Pradesh’s anaemic police force. According to government figures, only 8,860 of the 49,290 posts of head constable, for example, are staffed at the moment. Uttar Pradesh has 74 policemen per 100,000 citizens, far below the national average of 130.

But SR Darapuri, a retired inspector general of the Uttar Pradesh police and now a human-rights activist in Lucknow, said other states also had vacant police posts. Police work is difficult and poorly paid, which does not make it a tempting career.

Mr Darapuri said the problem in Uttar Pradesh was compounded by the police’s reluctance to register complaints.

“Every chief minister here wants to keep the crime figures low, and this may be directly or indirectly communicated to the police,” he said. “The performance of police here is evaluated through statistics, so the police has an incentive to keep those statistics low.”

Further, no action is taken against police officers who refuse to register complaints, Mr Darapuri said. “The message goes out to criminals that they can do what they want and get away with it.”

The police force in Uttar Pradesh is also weakened by political and caste considerations, he said. In Katra Sadatganj, for instance, policemen belonging to the Yadav caste refused at first to register a complaint against the alleged murderers, who are also Yadavs.

“These things go in cycles,” Mr Khan said. “When the state was ruled by Mayawati [a politician of the Dalit caste], the police would go easy on crimes being committed by Dalits. Now, when the Samajwadi Party depends so much on the Yadav vote, the policemen are afraid of doing anything to the Yadavs.”

Some analysts have also linked the frequency of crimes against women to the state’s dismal economic situation.

The number of workers in agriculture, for instance, has dropped from 40.3 million in 2004-05 to 35.4 million in 2011-12. The manufacturing sector has slowed as well, and roughly 7.2 million youth across the state are unemployed, according to government statistics.

In his 2010 book Timepass, the Oxford development scholar Craig Jeffrey described the frustrations of young men in Uttar Pradesh waiting for employment.

“A type of hyper-masculine bravado characterised much of young men’s ostentatious hanging out,” Mr Jeffrey wrote. “Some ... referred to the importance of ... sexual harassment... A few Jats argued that teasing Dalit young women was an especially good means of passing time.”