Protesters marched with placards demanding accountability for the girl’s death. “We want justice,” they chanted, with signs reading: “Justice for the daughter of India”.
The parents of the 9-year-old also attended the protests, sitting on a makeshift stage with supporters from their village. The girl’s mother sobbed and screamed, sometimes calling on her daughter to “come back”.
Towards the end of the morning, police estimated that there were around 80 protesters in attendance. However, the crowd quickly swelled, with a CNN team on the ground placing the estimate at over 300. Police confirmed that 200 security personnel had been deployed to the protest site.
The 9-year-old girl – a member of the Dalit community, the most oppressed group in India’s Hindu caste hierarchy system – had fetched water from a Delhi crematorium on Sunday, according to Ingit Pratap Singh, a senior from Delhi. police officer, citing a statement from the victim’s mother.
After the girl did not return for half an hour, crematorium priest Radhey Shyam, 55, called the mother and showed her the body of her deceased daughter, Singh said.
“The girl was lying on a bench there, they told her mother that look, her lips are blue and her body is burnt from the lips to the wrist,” Singh said. The mother learned that her daughter had been electrocuted while trying to get water.
Shyam and three other crematorium workers convinced the mother to cremate the body, saying it would be complicated to involve the police, Singh said. The girl’s body was cremated in the presence of her parents.
But the incident sparked an uproar in their village, and after the parents returned home, around 200 villagers gathered to demand justice.
The same night, police arrested four men suspected of being involved in the girl’s death. They have not yet been charged, but have been remanded in custody for two weeks, Singh said. Police are investigating the crime as an incident of caste violence and also investigating allegations of rape made by the victims’ families and other villagers.
Since the girl’s body has already been largely cremated, forensic scientists “could not determine anything based on the remaining body parts” during the autopsy, Singh said Wednesday. Forensic units are now testing other evidence like bodily fluids on his clothes to “determine if there were any shocks used in the sexual assault,” he said.
The Indian caste system was formally abolished in 1950, but the 2,000-year-old social hierarchy imposed on people by birth still exists in many aspects of life. The caste system categorizes Hindus at birth, defining their place in society, the jobs they can do, and whom they can marry.
Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted a statement Tuesday evening after being accused of silence. “The murder of the 9-year-old in Delhi after being ravaged is extremely shameful,” he wrote, calling for the death penalty for the perpetrators. “I will meet with the victim’s family tomorrow and do all I can to help them in this fight for justice.”
Shaktisinh Gohil, member of parliament from India’s main Congress party, called for the incident to be discussed in the current parliamentary session.
Dalit women in danger
Protests began on Sunday evening in the area where the rape took place, but escalated as anger spread.
Some protesters burned effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday, as anger grew over his silence on the issue and the government’s perceived failure to protect young girls from the country’s lingering rape problem.
The protesters included men, women and children, some wearing masks with a cross over their mouths to signify the silence of the country’s leaders.
“My relatives live in the same village as the girl,” Anil Kumar, 46, said during Wednesday’s protest. “It’s total anarchy in New Delhi. A 9-year-old girl is raped and the administration is asleep.”
“We want the most severe punishment for the accused, an example must be set by the government,” he added. “Women’s safety cannot be taken lightly.”
Savita Sheel, a resident of the area where the incident occurred, said she was “shaken” when she heard about it.
“If such things happen next to an army cantonment, how can we be reassured about the safety of women in the nation’s capital? She asked – referring to the fact that the Indian Army headquarters, military housing and the base hospital were in the same vicinity.
The victim’s mother told CNN on Wednesday that she wanted justice for her daughter’s death. “My daughter was a very good girl, she was a lovely girl,” she said in tears.
Opposition activists and politicians have taken to Twitter to highlight the persistent problem of sexual violence against women and caste atrocities, which have persisted for decades despite concerted efforts to tackle the problem.
The number skyrockets when you factor in other crimes against women, such as sexual harassment, voyeurism, attempted rape or other types of assault.
Members of the lower and oppressed castes – about 201 million of India’s 1.3 billion people, according to government figures – are particularly vulnerable, according to human rights organizations and activists.
India’s rape laws have been changed several times over the past decade, after a number of high-profile rapes and murders brought to light the shocking rates of sexual assault in India. However, activists say existing laws still do not protect women and that many issues related to India’s rape crisis persist.