NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - A series of brutal rapes committed against women from India's lowest castes are making national headlines across the South Asian nation of 1.3 billion, fuelling street protests and social media outrage that's put Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration under the spotlight.
A 19-year-old woman from the Dalit caste - the lowest rung in Hinduism's complex social hierarchy - died in a New Delhi hospital on Tuesday (Sept 29), two weeks after she was allegedly gang-raped by upper caste men from her north Indian village.
Her mutilated body was found by her mother in the fields of her village in Hathras, in Uttar Pradesh.
Anger was already simmering in the country over her death, but it spilled onto the streets on Wednesday and Thursday following news reports that local police cremated the woman's body in the middle of the night without her family present.
Network station NDTV showed her relatives pleading with officials to be allowed to take the body home.
Caste rapes in other towns in north India, such as Balrampur and Ajmer, have also since come to light.
More than nine Dalit women were raped every day in 2019, according to data released on Tuesday from the National Crime Records Bureau.
As pressure mounted on the state and federal governments, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said on Twitter that the guilty will not be spared and announced that the case had been handed over to a special investigating team with promises of a speedy trial.
Justices Jaspreet Singh and Rajan Roy from the High Court in the state's capital, Lucknow, referred to the extensive media coverage of the case and noted "the incident has evoked disgust among the public at large".
They ordered protection for the family from any coercion and said they would examine "whether the economic and social status of the deceased's family has been taken advantage of by the state authorities to oppress and deprive them of their constitutional rights".
The court is due to meet on Oct 12, where the police and family will be present, according to the order dated Oct 1 published on the court's website.
The federal home ministry did not immediately comment and spokesmen for the Uttar Pradesh government did not respond to calls or text messages.
India's Constitution outlaws caste discrimination and enshrines affirmative action via laws designed to make up for centuries of marginalisation of Dalits, who now number more than 200 million.
Yet caste remains a significant factor in deciding everything from family ties and cultural traditions to educational and economic opportunities, especially in small towns and villages.
Rising crimes against lower caste citizens in recent years contrast sharply with Mr Modi's electoral promises of social justice and ensuring the safety of women.
The burgeoning protests are drawing comparisons to the wave of anger that spread across the country in 2012 after a woman was fatally gang-raped in a bus in the capital New Delhi.
"The public outrage against the rapes makes it imperative for the establishment to ensure justice," said Ms Beena Pallical, director of economic and educational rights at the New Delhi-based National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. "Now the government has no excuse."
Even as India seeks a place among the world's developed nations with Mr Modi's promises of a US$5 trillion (S$6.83 trillion) economy by 2025, the shadow of caste discrimination lingers.
Last year, more than 45,000 crimes were registered against lower-caste citizens, an increase of 7.3 per cent over 2018 figures, government data shows.
A large number of crimes go unreported, according to the India Justice Report, with the criminal justice system heavily weighted in favour of more privileged castes.
"India is a casteist society," said Ms Kiruba Munusamy, a New Delhi-based researcher and supreme court lawyer.
"Most of the authority and state machinery support the dominant castes for political benefits. The policemen are also not free of caste bias."
India also has a poor record of successfully prosecuting rape cases. The data shows that the conviction rate for rape stood at 28 per cent in 2019, compared with 42 per cent for murder cases.
A senior police official on Thursday said a forensic report had found no proof of rape, according to news reports.
An autopsy concluded that the woman died due to an injury to her neck and resultant trauma, the Indian Express reported a local official as saying.
Police in Uttar Pradesh also arrested Mr Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the main opposition Congress party, as he tried to travel to the village where the attack took place.
India is facing a very difficult time with its surging coronavirus epidemic, said Ms Pallical.
"And yet, if these people think even in a tough time like this it's okay treat Dalits and their women like this, what does it say about our Indian society?"