The XX Factor

Women in India Seek Justice, The Hard Way

Last summer, I wrote about the rise of vigilantism among women in India .  In the article I looked at Uttar Pradesh’s pink gang, the largest women’s vigilante organization in the world. Now, two more cases have emerged that show just how far women here are willing to go when they can’t rely on official channels of justice.

On Jan. 4, a middle-aged woman named Rupam Pathak walked into the Bihar residence of Raj Kishore Kesri, a state legislator, and stabbed him to death . Pathak, a primary school teacher, had filed a case last year against Kesri in which she accused him of raping her numerous times over a three-year period. She withdrew the case shortly before murdering him, for reasons that are still unclear. Pathak’s husband told the press, “Rupam was put in a situation where she was forced to take extreme measure to defend her honor. While it was wrong for her to take the law in her own hands, her tormentors must also share responsibility in what happened.”

Bihar is one of India’s poorest and most corrupt states. It also has the highest levels of domestic violence in the country-59 percent of married women are affected, according to one statistic . The authorities here provide little to no protection for women, and police are regularly paid off not to pursue women’s abuse cases.

In the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, the situation is much the same. So no one was surprised this December when 17-year-old Sheelu Nishad claimed she was also raped by a politician , local government representative Purushottam Naresh Dwivedi, just a few weeks before Pathak’s case hit the headlines. A member of India’s lowest caste, Nishad has said that, like Pathak, she is considering taking the law into her own hands to get justice.

“I want to see Dwivedi hanged,” Nishad told me via an interpreter. “If the government doesn’t hang him, I will kill him some day. I just need the license of a gun.” She repeated these threats in a conversation with Sampat Devi Pal, the head of the pink gang. “We told her to join the gang instead,” says Pal, adding that “it makes no sense for her to go into prison for something like that.” The minor, who claims Dwivedi raped her for two consecutive days in mid-December, went to the police to press charges, but Dwivedi had preemptively counter-accused her of stealing his daughter-in-law’s mobile phone and 5000 rupees in cash (about $110).  It was the girl’s word against the politician’s: Nishad was arrested and thrown in jail. She believes that she would still be in jail, without any recourse to justice, if the pink gang hadn’t intervened.

After the gang protested and rallied peacefully outside the police station and Dwivedi’s home throughout December and January, Nishad was released from prison and Dwivedi was arrested on Jan. 13. Despite the fact that justice has now been promised to her by a repentant state administration, Nishad, like many women who have been following the trial, has no faith in the courts.

These two rape cases couldn’t be more potent symbols of the appeal of vigilantism over that of the formal justice system. Nishad and Pathak were both raped by legislators, who all but embody the law. It isn’t hard to understand why these two women, and many like them, are eschewing the courts and seeking justice on their own terms.

Photograph by Manpreet Romana/AFP/Getty Images.