MUMBAI, India — The mysterious death of a 9-year-old girl from India's most oppressed caste has horrified her country.
The child went to fetch water Sunday evening from a cooler at a crematorium near her family's New Delhi slum — and never came home. What happened next appears to be either a tragic accident with a bungled response, or the latest in a string of brutal gang rapes that have grabbed international headlines and prompted at least one poll in recent years to rank India as the most dangerous place in the world for women.
The details of this case are sketchy but grim: A Hindu priest who works at the crematorium told the girl's parents and police that the child was accidentally electrocuted when she tried to draw water from a cooler at his facility. But the girl's parents accuse the priest and three other men of raping her, killing her – and quickly cremating her body to destroy evidence of their crime. The priest denies any wrongdoing.
Four suspects have been arrested, including the priest. Police are investigating, but their job is complicated by the fact that there is little physical evidence. It's the family's allegations against the suspects' denials.
Protests across the country
Protests erupted outside the crematorium and have spread across the Indian capital in recent days as well as on social media, with the hashtag #JusticeForDelhiCanttGirl. (Cantt is the name of the girl's southwest Delhi neighborhood.) Marchers waved placards with pictures of nooses, calling for the suspects to be hanged. Others decried patriarchy, caste oppression and an epidemic of rape in India. Bollywood celebrities tweeted outrage.
Public anger over rape in India is so fierce that suspects are sometimes killed in police custody, even before they're charged or face trial. Last month, an academic report on sexual violence in India found that the media focused disproportionately on unusual rape cases in urban areas, while experts say most attacks happen within families and go unreported.
The girl in this case belongs to the Dalit community — the lowest group in Hinduism's caste hierarchy. Like her, a majority of victims of sexual violence in India are believed to be women from oppressed castes.
On Wednesday, Delhi's chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, ordered a judicial inquiry into the case. The suspects face charges of rape, murder and criminal intimidation.
The parents say they were pressured to stay silent
The girl's parents told local media the suspects pressured them into agreeing to an immediate cremation. The mother told BBC Hindi that the priest advised her not to call the police, warning that authorities might harvest and sell the girl's organs. Her daughter's body was bruised, her lips were blue and her clothes were wet, she said.
In addition to Kejriwal, India's main opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, visited the child's family early Wednesday.
"Her parents' tears are saying only one thing — their daughter, the daughter of this country, deserves justice," Gandhi said.
Sexual violence and the safety of Indian women and girls became a major political issue after an infamous 2012 gang rape of a medical student on a Delhi bus. The death of the victim in that case — who has become known as Nirbhaya, or "fearless one" — prompted lawmakers to increase penalties for convicted rapists.