A year ago Usha Narayane was about to embark on a new life. A call-centre worker with a diploma in hotel management, she was 25 and about to travel north from her home in the centre of India to begin a managerial job in a hotel in Punjab. The job would transport her not only geographically but also socially.
Like her neighbours, Narayane is a dalit, an “untouchable”, at the bottom of the caste ladder. Schooling and literacy are rare among the women of Kasturba Nagar, the slum neighbourhood in the city of Nagpur where she grew up. She was unmarried, preferring to work and study. Yet nobody resented her success. Instead, they had high hopes for the girl. But Narayane went nowhere. Today, she is in her family’s one-room, windowless home, awaiting trial for murder.
At noon, Akku Yadav was lynched by a mob of around 200 women from Kasturba Nagar. It took them 15 minutes to hack to death the man they say raped them with impunity for more than a decade. Chilli powder was thrown in his face and stones hurled. As he flailed and fought, one of his alleged victims hacked off his penis with a vegetable knife. A further 70 stab wounds were left on his body. The incident was made all the more extraordinary by its setting. Yadav was murdered not in the dark alleys of the slum, but on the shiny white marble floor of Nagpur district court.
Laughed at and abused by the police when they reported being raped by Yadav, the women took the law into their own hands. A local thug, Yadav and his gang had terrorised the 300 families of Kasturba Nagar for more than a decade, barging into homes demanding money, shouting threats and abuse.
Residents say he murdered at least three neighbours and dumped their bodies on railway tracks. They had reported his crimes to the police dozens of times. Each time he was arrested, he was granted bail.
But it was rape that Yadav used to break and humiliate the community. A rape victim lives in every other house in the slum, say the residents of Kasturba Nagar. He violated women to control men, ordering his henchmen to drag even girls as young as 12 to a nearby derelict building to be gang-raped.
In India, even to admit to being raped is taboo, yet dozens of Yadav’s victims reported the crime. But the 32-year-old was never charged with rape. Instead, the women say, the police would tell him who had made the reports and he would come after them.
According to residents, the police were hand-in-glove with Yadav: he fed the local officers bribes and drink, and they protected him.
When one 22-year-old reported being raped by Yadav, the police accused her of having an affair with him and sent her away. Several others were sent away after being told: “You’re a loose woman. That’s why he raped you.”
Nagpur is counted among India’s fastest-growing cities. Yet the experience of the women of Kasturba Nagar is a parallel tale of how everyday life in India’s back streets is stuck in the past. Splashed across the country’s news- papers, the gory image of Yadav’s blood on the courtroom floor was a lesson in the consequences of a state unable to protect the weak and the vulnerable.
After Yadav’s murder, powerful voices were raised supporting the lynch mob. Prominent lawyers issued a statement saying the women should not be treated as the accused, but as the victims. One retired high court judge even congratulated the women. “In the circumstances they underwent, they were left with no alternative but to finish Akku. The women repeatedly pleaded with the police for their security. But the police failed to protect them,” said Justice Bhau Vahane.
Two weeks before the lynching, Yadav came to Narayane’s house on several successive days, threatening to throw acid on her and rape her. He targeted her, she says, because she was outspoken and her brother-in-law, a lawyer, had verbally stood up to Yadav. “He raped only poor people whom he thought wouldn’t go and tell, or if they did, wouldn’t be listened to. But he made a big mistake in threatening me. People felt that if I were attacked, no woman would ever be safe.”
Although Narayane has been charged with Yadav’s murder, she claims she was not at the court when it took place but in the slum collecting signatures for a mass complaint against him. Among the charges levelled against her are some of India’s most serious offences, including “anti- nationalist” crimes amounting to treason. “The cops say I planned the murder; that I started it. They have to make someone a scapegoat,” she says. She believes she has been singled out because she has been the police’s most vociferous critic. Her education gave her the confidence that inspired the community to act, she says.
In the week before the lynching, people started to talk about taking action against Yadav. He disappeared, sensing boiling anger. Narayane and her brother-in-law bypassed the local officers and went straight to the deputy commissioner. He gave the family a safe house for a night and promised to search for him.
On August 6, hundreds of residents smashed his empty house to rubble. By evening they heard Yadav had “surrendered” and was in custody. “The police had said he would be in danger if he came back. They suggested he surrender into their care for his own safety.”
The next day he was due to appear at the city’s district court and 500 slum residents gathered. As Yadav arrived, one of his henchmen tried to pass him knives wrapped in a blanket under the noses of the police. After the women protested, the accomplice was arrested and Yadav taken back into custody, but not before he threatened to return and teach every woman in the slum a lesson.
Hearing that Yadav was likely to get bail yet again, when he returned to court, the women decided to act. “It was not calculated,” Narayane says. “It was not a case that we all sat down and calmly planned what would happen. It was an emotional outburst. The women decided that, if necessary, they’d go to prison, but that this man would never come back and terrorise them.”
On the day of Yadav’s hearing, 200 women came to the court armed with vegetable knives and chilli powder. As he walked in, Yadav spotted one of the women he had raped. He called her a prostitute and threatened to repeat the crime against her. The police laughed. She took off her sandal and began to hit him, shouting, “We can’t both live on this Earth together. It’s you or me.”
It was a rallying cry to an incensed mob. Soon, he was being attacked on all sides. Knives were drawn and the two terrified officers guarding him ran away. Within 15 minutes, Yadav was dead on the courthouse floor. But his death has not brought the women peace. Five were immediately arrested, then released following a demonstration across the city. Now every woman living in the slum has claimed responsibility for the murder. They say no one person can take the blame: they have told the police to arrest them all.
But it is Narayane who is in limbo as she waits for her case to be heard. “After the murder, society’s eyes opened: the police’s failings came to light. That has irritated them. The police see me as a catalyst for the exposure and want to nip it in the bud.”
They face a fight. Narayane is loudly unrepentant. “I’m not scared. I’m not ashamed,” she says. “We’ve done a good thing for society. We will see whether society repays us”.