Katra Sadatganj, Uttar Pradesh, is the Indian village where two cousins were raped and hanged
Residents blame a cocktail of issues for the attack, which has drawn international headlines
Poor sanitation, underdevelopment, and apathetic police have all played a part, they say
Five men, including two police officers, have been arrested in connection with the deaths
It’s pitch dark as we drive through the villages of India’s most populous state. No street lights line the roads which cross large swaths of farmland; the only flashes of light come from the bolts of lightning which flicker across the stormy night sky.
A powerful dust storm has knocked out power supplies as we head into Uttar Pradesh’s Budaun district, but the headlights of our car illuminate the hazy figures of men and women squatting behind roadside bushes to defecate.
Some 120km ahead of us lies the village – Katra Sadatganj – where two schoolgirls were attacked when they went out into the fields to relieve themselves Tuesday night; the pair were gang raped and later found hanged in a mango tree.
The brutal assault has brought a range of challenges facing India into the international spotlight, almost 67 years after the country gained its independence from British rule.
At Katra Sadatganj, villagers mourning the two girls blame a cocktail of issues for the horrific rape attack, from a lack of decent sanitation, to underdevelopment, to what they call police “slackness” in response to the girls’ disappearance.
According to UNICEF, India has the highest number of people in the world – an estimated 620 million – who defecate in the open; only half of the nation’s population uses toilets.
Most of those living at Katra Sadatganj have little choice in the matter.
“There’s no toilet. Where can the girls go?” shouted Jamuna Devi, one of those who had gathered to mourn the dead girls, as she sat on the mud floor of their home. “No one has done anything for sanitation,” she complained.
“We are scared,” screamed Renu Devi, another of the women consoling the pair’s bereaved mothers. “If this could happen to them, it could happen with us also.”
The mourners also accuse police of apathy, echoing concerns raised over and over again by human rights groups and activists concerning the handling of cases by India’s law enforcement officers.
Most of the country’s policing system is based on the 19th-century, colonial-era Indian Penal Code (IPC), designed in the wake of an armed uprising against British rule in 1857.
In its 2009 report, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch reported that Indian police forces have yet to evolve from the IPC’s original pattern of behavior.
Authorities have acknowledged in past years that the country’s police have also been under-staffed and under-resourced.
Katra Sadatganj’s police station has been temporarily shut down after the attack drew national and international attention.
Two of its officers are among five people who have been arrested in connection with the schoolgirls’ deaths.
The arrests so far notwithstanding, the murdered girls’ families are unforgiving about the police’s response to the case.
“If police wanted, my daughter would have been alive today,” the father of the eldest victim wailed.