The central moral challenge that we will face in this century will be to address gender inequality in the developing world. One reason for this injustice is that many women docilely accept it — even enforce it. But that may be changing, as I found in a slum here in the central Indian city of Nagpur.
For more than 15 years, the narrow alleys of the Kasturba Nagar slum in Nagpur were ruled by a local thug named Akku Yadav. He was a man from the higher caste, who looted, killed and raped people in this Dalit-dominated slum region. Barging into homes, demanding money, shouting threats and abuse and assaulting women on daily basis was the order of the day. They reported these incidents but only to get laughed at and abused by the hands of the police.
Residents claimed that he had killed at least (or probably more than) three neighbors and dumped their bodies on the nearest railway tracks. They also claimed that there was at least one rape victim in every other house in the slum, girls as young as 12 were reportedly dragged outside and gang-raped by his henchmen. Like any other thug who thinks he has the world under his control, Akku Yadav, too, used to ascertain his dominance and control the male members of the family by assaulting their women.
Rape even today is a huge taboo in India but several of Akku Yadav’s victims reported the crime to the police dozens of time, each time he was arrested and granted bail. Police were also in cahoots with the criminal. They used to tell the women to drop the complaint because he would eventually come after them. In fact, according to the people there, one woman went to the police station to report that she had been gang-raped by Yadav and his men, and the police raped her too. Akku used to bribe police and feed their mouths, and they, in turn, used to protect them. All of this was a big, vicious circle.
All of this changed when Usha Narayne, now 35, a hotel management graduate stood up and reported the incident when Akku and his gang of goons attacked her next-door neighbor. She came from a Dalit family too, but all her siblings and her parents were educated. In a neighborhood that was plagued by illiteracy, this was a phenomenal achievement—one of the reasons why these goons never tormented her family.
The neighbors had got their leader. Seeing someone standing up for themselves against these criminals gave them courage. Soon a mob gathered and burned down Akku Yadav’s house—he became so scared, he turned himself to the police for protection. His bail hearing was set two weeks after on the day of August 13, 2004 but soon the word got out that he would be eventually free.
200 determined women, armed with kitchen knives and chilli powder, gathered and marched from the slum to the courthouse. Exactly at 3pm, after spotting Akku Yadav being accosted by a constable, these women lynched him to death. Chilli powder was thrown in his face and stones were hurled. The constable, seeing the mob of scorned and incensed victims, fled in fear. As Akku fought for his life, one of the women hacked off his penis with the kitchen knife. 70 stab wounds were found on his body, the body that was found lying on the clear white marble flooring of the Nagpur district court—the place where justice is ‘supposed’ to be delivered!
The police arrested a handful of women, including Usha, for the murder. But Usha could prove that she was not in the courtroom that day. And then every woman living in the slum claimed responsibility for the murder. They said to the police that no one person can take the blame; they told them if they want to make any arrests, they would have to “arrest us all.”
As of today, all the accused women had been let off, including Usha, who has unintentionally become the face of Akku Yadav’s lynching. She has begun her new life as a social activist and is helping the slum dwellers of Nagpur make food and clothing that they can sell together to feed their stomach.
I don’t condone vigilante justice. Taking law into your own hands can never be the answer, but sometimes it is the only solution!