The gangrape and maiming of a 19-year-old woman from the Dalit community in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, ended on Tuesday night with her death, and a hasty, lonely cremation in the dead of the night. It was a crime that stands out for being enabled by many inequalities and injustices. The most striking is the caste privilege that allows upper-caste men entitlement, with apparent impunity, over the bodies of Dalits. (The accused are from a Thakur family with a record of caste violence against the victim’s family). It is one more example of the epidemic of sexual violence that regularly crushes Indian women and girls. UP police officials stand accused of cremating the woman, without allowing a last glimpse to the grieving parents and without their consent. To be able to inflict so much cruelty takes insensitivity, of course, but it is also a function of a reflex, honed over years, to bend to entrenched systems of power.
The Uttar Pradesh police, in the last few years, has consistently chipped away at its facade of being a professional police force. In the service of “a tough administration” and a “nationalist” macho government, it has crossed several red lines. Extra-judicial killings are projected and celebrated as justice, despite reprimands from the Supreme Court — and no police officer is held accountable. As an investigation in this paper has shown, the National Security Act (NSA) is used recklessly in cases of cow slaughter — often a dog whistle in heartland politics against the minorities — and also to book those protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The crackdown against protestors during the anti-CAA protests, their naming and shaming through posters in public places, were all giveaways of a police force ready to use a heavy hand to serve a partisan agenda.
In a democracy, the state is granted the monopoly of violence, but, in turn, it is bound to fairness, justice and due process for all — and not just the few. But lawkeepers, unless held accountable to law, remain a weapon in the hands of the powerful. The Hathras incident underlines that the all-powerful UP policeman, impatient with the checks of procedure and law, stands against the vulnerable and powerless. The UP police has often justified its excesses in the name of maintaining law and order; it must ask itself what law was protected by violating the sanctity of a 19-year-old girl’s last rites.