Of late, Hindu priests in India have been extremely busy performing the last rites of those that died due to covid.
There is also another activity they have been involved in: rape of young Dalit girls.
In the latest outrage perpetrated on August 1 in India’s capital city, Delhi, a 55-year-old priest at a crematorium, and his friends, gang-raped a nine-year-old girl and then murdered her in cold blood.
The girl had gone to fetch water from the crematorium cooler but when she did not return after an hour, her mother went looking for her.
At the crematorium, the priest, Radhey Shyam told the distraught mother that her daughter had died due to electrocution.
The mother refused to believe the priest and demanded to see her daughter to take her to the police station and the hospital.
“Don’t do that. I will give you money but let’s settle the matter here. You will not be able to fight the case,” the priest told the distraught mother, according to media reports.
She insisted on seeing her daughter’s body. This is how she described what she saw.
“She was lying lifeless,” recounted the mother, her voice breaking. “There were bruises on her body, her face was pale and her clothes were wet.”
Sensing danger, the priest and his associates locked the gates of the crematorium and cremated the girl’s body in an attempt to cover up the evidence of their horrendous crime.
The helpless mother’s pleas went unheeded.
When news of the incident spread, the girl’s father and their neighbours rushed to the crematorium.
They caught the priest and the three accomplices.
Confronted by so many people, the culprits confessed to raping the young girl hoping that perhaps they might escape punishment.
When the police arrived, they arrested the accused.
Cases of gang rape, murder and sexual offences against a child have been registered against the suspects.
The crematorium which was doing brisk business due to Covid deaths, was also sealed.
Hundreds of people joined by women’s rights activists have held protests in Delhi, demanding the death penalty for the four accused.
To press their demands, the girl’s family and residents of Nangal have blocked the highway outside an army cantonment in the area.
While the police say they have opened an investigation against the accused, their past record does not evoke much confidence.
Last September, the police cremated the body of a 19-year-old Dalit woman against the wishes of her family.
She was raped and murdered by so-called upper caste Hindus.
The police cremated the teenager’s body in the middle of the night after locking up the family in their house.
The incident occurred in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh.
India is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women.
Official data from 2020 shows a woman is raped every 15 minutes, or 35,000 rapes each year.
This does not reflect the real picture since many victims do not report rape cases.
In many instances, the police also refuse to register cases.
The overwhelming majority of sexual and other crimes target Dalits, contemptuously called untouchables.
They cannot draw water from the same well, or eat from the same plate but they are fair game for rape.
Even female foreign tourists are not spared.
Such information, however, seldom makes it to the pages or television screens of the Indian-doting Western media.
While the latest outrage against another Dalit child has led to protests, whether these will result in any meaningful action is debatable.
“This is not an isolated incident. It’s just that it came to light. Sexual violence against women, particularly those from backward classes, is common in this country and they have to struggle hard to get justice,” Delhi-based women’s rights activist Suman Dixit, who has joined the family in protest, told Al Jazeera.
If stringent anti-rape laws alone were the answer, there would be reduction in such cases.
Activists and feminists say the situation on the ground has not improved.
This is the mindset created by the caste system that treats most people as less than humans.
Dalits (or untouchables) are at the bottom of the caste pyramid.
Their lives have no value in caste-infested India.
Even the police do not take their complaints seriously and often deliberately mess up the case so that if it goes to court, the accused go scot free.
A report published last September by the National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) said close to 400,000 incidents of violence against Dalits were reported between 2009 and 2018.
This was a 6-percent increase from the previous decade.
Family of the latest victim has had visits from such political figures as Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi and Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.
Such visits, however, have occurred in past cases as well without any improvement in the situation of Dalits.
Some retired police officers including Prithviraj Singh, a former director-general of Police in Himachal Pradesh state, have expressed concern about the justice system and policing in India.
“The system has been turned to serve the rich and powerful. It has to change,” said Singh, who now runs a group for social justice.
It is the social norms created by the ubiquitous caste system that must be abolished if any justice can ever be served.
The latest outrage will not be the last.
Many more poor, innocent Dalit girls and women will continue to be raped and murdered because they are not considered as equal human beings.