The two girls in Badaun who were raped and killed had left home to go to the fields to relieve themselves. Every time they step out, say the women of the village, it is with the fear of being teased, the shame of being seen, and the discomfort of counting hours. Pritha Chatterjee reports. Photographs by Praveen Khanna.
Sixteen-year-old Sridevi can spell her name as well as write three-word sentences in English. She manages the accounts of a small shop run by her family that sells glass bangles, bindis, lipsticks and small knick-knacks. When her father Bhajan Singh needs help with his Nokia mobile phone, he turns to her, to save numbers or to explain messages advertising schemes from his mobile operator. The Class VI student at Katra Sadatganj village’s only private school also helps her mother out in the tailoring work that she does. The mother and daughter take turns at the sewing machine to stitch blouses and salwar-kameez on order, as the other wields a hand fan in a futile bid to beat the oppressive summer heat.
Bhajan Singh is proud of his “padhne wali beti”, and makes her write English sentences to show to everyone who drops in at their house this sultry afternoon. “She works only during school holidays, like the ongoing summer break, or after school hours,” he makes it clear, adding that he would never compromise on her studies.
IN PICTURES: Going to toilet in Badaun’s Katra Sadatgan
Sridevi listens to her father, edgy and sweaty, catching quick glances outside. She loves her school and her father for it, but right now, studies are far from her mind. It’s still about five hours to sunset, she makes a mental calculation.
Around 3 pm onwards, Sridevi can bear it no longer, peeping out every 15 minutes to see if the streets are deserted. People usually take a mid-day nap at this time in her village, but these aren’t usual days. For the past week, VIPs, mediapersons and complainants from neighbouring villages have been pouring into Katra Sadatganj, the village in Badaun district nearest to the Ganga. The streets and fields around her house, just about 20 metres from the home of her two deceased cousins who were raped and found hanging on May 27, are crawling with them.
Sridevi returns disappointed every time. She has never seen so many people in her village, she complains. “Do it in the courtyard,” her mother Ashwini tells her again. “There is lot of dry hay there. I will tell your father to step outside for a while. Your stomach will start hurting if you hold it any longer.”
Sridevi doesn’t say anything, sitting down back at the sewing machine.
Speaking out, the 16-year-old learnt a while ago, doesn’t help — particularly if it is for a little thing called a toilet. Sunset, when it would be safe for her to go out and relieve herself, is three hours away. Afternoon hours, generally the perfect time for women to go to adjoining fields, are for the “emerzency times”. All other times are like today’s.
Her two cousins had gone out at their usual 8 pm to relieve themselves in the fields, before they went missing and were raped and their bodies found.
There are very few houses in Katra Sadatganj that aren’t pucca. Bhajan Singh’s two-room house, enclosed by a 4-foot boundary wall, is made of red bricks. Sridevi and her mother do their stitching in the courtyard. With Bhajan Singh out working in the fields, they also manage the shop next door.
One of the rooms of the house, where Bhajan Singh, his wife and three children sleep, was built four years ago under the Indira Awaas Yojana. The sanctioned Rs 36,000 was to be also used to build a toilet, but the money ran out. Whatever little Bhajan Singh could spare was spent to build the other room — used as a store, where Singh sometimes sleeps to guard his buffalos in the courtyard — and to construct the boundary wall for “security”.
Ask Bhajan Singh why he didn’t build a toilet and he shakes his head despondently, “I am not heartless, I know how difficult it is for my girls, but please understand my situation. I had to make arrangements for a pucca roof over our heads first. Before that, every time it rained, our hut would be flooded and collapse. Without the boundary wall, boys would lurk outside, staring at my girls. We are poor people, we have to weigh our expenses carefully.”
At the sewing machine, Sridevi is preparing for another “emerzency”. Carefully hidden from her mother’s eyes, she is stitching clothes to prepare for her menstrual cycle, between making the blouses. She takes a strip of cloth, covers it alternately with layers of hay and dry soil, puts another cloth on top and stitches the two strips together. Sometimes she uses only cloth, stitching multiple layers to make thick padding.
Over the years, Sridevi has learnt not to reuse her period clothes, ignoring her mother’s advice.
“My mother uses cloth, washes it and then reuses it. The pieces she made me use earlier were so dirty, no matter how much I washed them. I would get a stomach ache and want to urinate again and again. I have made my own arrangement now,” she says.
The symptoms she describes are characteristic of urinary tract infections, but Sridevi and her mother do not know that.
Sridevi knows though of the options not available to her. “I have seen the advertisements for disposable pads, where they show blue ink being magically absorbed into clean white pads,” she says.
Maya, who got married to Sridevi’s brother two years ago, is fascinated by the pads her younger sister-in-law makes. Maya has to use the plain rags Ashwini gives her for her periods.
“I try to keep one cloth for myself, but often the clothes get mixed up. There are four women in the house, and sometimes there are visitors,” she tries to explain, nursing her newborn.
She has just learnt that Sridevi does not reuse her “smart pads”. The words rush out as Maya realises what that means, all in whispers so that her in-laws can’t hear. “Washing the clothes is a big problem. When we wash them at the village handpump, the boys laugh. So we are forced to wash them in the kitchen. If we use these once and throw them, the problem is solved!”
Sridevi is counting the days to the time her school reopens; she hates that the summer break is over a month long. “When the school is open, girls go to the school toilet. It is so much easier then,” she says.
She adds that having used a toilet, it is more difficult for her to do it in the open. “My mother has never seen a toilet, look at her, she can even do it in the courtyard.”
Another girl who has just dropped in, also a cousin of the deceased girls, agrees. “It’s terrible during the periods. Imagine going out and trying to spot our stains in the dark. If there are stains on our clothes, the boys laugh,” she says.
This month, though, her periods saved her life. “Because it was that time of the month, I did not go out with my cousins that evening to relieve myself. During our periods, we use the courtyard. All the women of the house do.”
It is 6 pm, and Sridevi and her sister-in-law decide they can finally safely go to the fields. On lucky days, the village gets electricity for about an hour at a stretch. It’s pitch dark as they step out of the house with their lotas — small tin utensils to carry water to wash themselves — carefully, making sure no men are lurking around, before breaking into almost a sprint towards the fields.
Behind them, Sridevi’s 60-year-old grandmother Shakuntala calls out, “Don’t go alone, you stupid girls! I am coming with you.”
Since May 27, everytime the young women in the house need to go to the fields, the old woman stands guard.
Neelam, 15, has devised her own protection: she hides her lota under her dupatta. “The lota is a giveaway. The boys know what we are going for. They follow if it’s only girls with no elders, and flash torches on our faces when we are relieving ourselves in the fields. If we get up hurriedly, they laugh and run away,” she says.
Before May 27, Neelam went to the fields with her friends, in groups of five-six. Now, her father or brother always stands guard.
The 15-year-old says it doesn’t matter what caste the men belong to, or what age. “Even old men stop their tractors and flash lights at us if we are near the road. When we run away in shame, they flash their lights at our backs, so everyone knows what we were doing,” she says quietly.
It has been a bad day for Neelam. “Last night, I had an upset stomach. It is so hot, I think I had too many watermelons. I wailed and wailed holding my stomach,” she says.
Neelam’s father refused to escort his daughter out, scared after May 27. Instead, he and his wife dug a hole with their hands behind their house in the courtyard for her to use.
That, Neelam says, is another given. When the women fall sick, they dig such holes, often themselves, to use at night. In the mornings, if the stench gets too much, they clear the holes. Otherwise, they cover these with mud, and hope nature will do the rest.
Preparing for another night, Neelam says she will drink a lot of water so that she can relieve herself “properly” in the 15 minutes her parents stand guard in the fields.
Neelam studied till Class V in a government school, but had to drop out to help her parents in the fields. “I help with the crop. I like the work,” she says.
Till a few years ago, Neelam adds, when she left for work at about 5 am, she would do her morning rituals on the way. “Now I can’t do that anymore. The men and boys go out in the mornings. So either I go before daylight or after sunset.”
Neelam has seen the slogans, scribbled over the walls at the primary government school in the village and the secondary school about 2 km away, on the merits of using toilets and warning children, particularly girl students, against open defecation.
It was in 2002 that the last survey to identify BPL families for the Indira Awaas Yojana was carried out in the village. Pradhan Kamal Kant admits that many villagers like Bhajan Singh who were sanctioned money for a room and a toilet under the programme never actually constructed the toilets. Of those who did, still fewer use them.
Ram Awas says he could spare money only for a simple hole encircled by a little cemented area for squatting. “People said there was no point using the hole as a toilet because it would fill up. So I started keeping cowdung cakes in the hole,” he says.
Bal Ram lives in a hut made of straw and hay. But in the courtyard, there is a toilet made of bricks, built from money allocated through the government programme in 2012. In the four years since it was built, it has been used mostly as a chulha (stove) or a room where neighbouring women gather to chat in the afternoons. Only about a few months ago did Ram’s wife Kamla Devi start using it, but only for urination.
“We have never done our business inside the home,” she explains. “What if the men hear us? Now, after so many years, I have mastered the courage to go there sometimes. But I cannot imagine defecating inside. It is too shameful to do it inside the home.” The men of the house always go to the fields.
Kamal Kant has a toilet at his home, built with his own money years ago. A Brahmin, he says the reluctance to use toilets is not defined by caste but by education. “Whether it’s Brahmins, Yadavs, SCs or OBCs, you will find toilets being used to store utensils or other household objects. People here have no or very little schooling. Many women come up to me fearfully requesting a toilet, but the men of the house take the decisions. They will use their finances to build rooms, but not a toilet because they don’t feel the need for it,” he says.
Following the outrage over the death of Sridevi’s cousins, NGO Sulabh International has started the process of building toilets in the village. These will have a sitting area of cement and bricks, with a makeshift tank below to be cleaned every few months. Construction has begun in 10 houses near the victims’ home. Flooded with visitors, the victims’ own family has requested that their toilet be constructed later.
A third cousin of the victims, a 12-year-old, is disappointed she won’t get a toilet sooner, but too scared to tell anyone except her cousin brother who is helping the NGO survey the area.
“Don’t worry, you will have your toilet. Till then, go to Ram Bhajan’s house,” the 18-year-old cousin tells her. He is, incidentally, the brother of the younger of the girls raped and killed.
Ram Bhajan is famous in Katra Sadatganj. He laughs as he talks about the people visiting his house or showering him with praises.
“Till a week ago, I was the target of snide remarks. Men would laugh at me, today some are sending their daughters to my house, and coming to me for advice,” he says.
A farmer belonging to the same caste as the dead girls, Maurya Shakya, Ram Bhajan built a toilet at his home in 2012, using profits from his 10-acre field. His is one of the 170-odd houses with toilets in this village of 3,500 families.
“I could not bare to see my girls go out and cry softly on returning home, because somebody had flashed a torch on their faces or because they were scared of snakes. I did not care about myself. In fact, I still find it better to go out in the fields, but I wanted to ensure my five children had the privacy of a toilet,” he says.
Made of brick, the toilet has a curtain covering the entrance. There is a seating area made of cement and a pucca tank that cost Bhajan Rs 15,000. “The kuchcha tanks are made of bad material, these break down and have to be cleaned very frequently. I haven’t had a problem with this one till date,” Ram Bhajan says.
He, his wife and their five children sleep together in the one-room house he could build with the Indira Awaas Yojana money.
“I built a boundary wall after constructing the toilet, but I haven’t managed to collect the money to make another room. We sleep in one room, but my children are safe,” he smiles.
About the girls
The Ganga separates Badaun from neighbouring districts, and Katra Sadatganj is at its extreme end, near the river. Most families send their children to the local government primary school. The secondary school is beyond the Ganga, and with stories of kidnapping and looting along its banks travelling down generations, no child dares travel there.
The cousins, 14 and 16, who were raped and killed on May 27 were among the few to go to the village’s co-ed private school, from Classes VI to X. They were also the first generation in their families to get an education. The younger one was in Class VI, while the elder had taken a year’s break after Class VIII.
Avalesh Sharma, the principal of Saraswati Gyan Mandir Junior High School, says they were average students but attended school regularly. “The younger of the two was the brighter one. She would keep requesting me for extra coaching, said she wanted to be a doctor.”
Their cousin Sridevi, who was friends with the 14-year-old, says the latter loved watermelons and mangoes. The mango tree in the heart of the village from where the two girls were found hanging was one of the cousins’ favourite haunts. They would tie dupattas to its branches to make swings.
The 14-year-old also loved dressing up.
The 16-year-old had become very quiet over the last year after dropping out of school, Sridevi says. While many in the village claim her mother had forced her to stop school because she didn’t like her going out alone, the mother says it wasn’t for this reason. “She was over 15, she had studied enough. Who marries a girl who goes to school, that too a co-ed one? Even my daughter wanted to settle down, she said she would resume studies after marriage,” says the mother.
Sridevi can’t push another thought out of her mind regarding her friend. “We read about magnets in school. I wonder how she would have reacted if she knew she would herself attract so many clever people to the village,” says Sridevi.
About the boys
The three brothers accused of raping and killing the girls, Pappu, Urvesh and Avadesh, had moved to Katra Sadatganj four years ago from their village Badam Nangla, after the Ganga flooded their watermelon field.
Their father Veerpal Yadav has now returned to these fields to hide. His wife, his daughter-in-law and her young daughter all sleep in the open in the jungles now. “Urvesh is my only son who studied. He is in Class XII, very studious. Eldest Avadesh got married a year ago and helps me in the fields or works as a labourer. Pappu is my youngest, he was naughty and would pick up fights but never did anything bad like this,” Veerpal says, brushing away tears.
Veerpal adds that he had heard that Pappu had picked up a fight with a boy known to the elder victim a day before the incident. “I don’t know what was happening between them. I just know my sons cannot kill.”