A question of caste

Observations on India

In late December, police in Nithari in northern India arrested Moninder Singh Pandher and his servant Surendra, suspected of involvement in the disappearance of more than 30 people, many of them children. Subsequent revelations suggested child abuse and murder. Wilder rumours include cannibalism and the harvesting of body parts for the illicit but lucrative organ trade.

What is remarkable about this ghastly tragedy is not that it happened - depravity is universal - but that the police acted 20 months after the first complaints. The police even taunted some of the parents when they came with photographs of missing children.

The reason: the early complainants were poor; the latest was someone relatively influential.

There are different strokes for different folk everywhere, but in India the contrasts are glaring. The country takes great pride in its democracy and the rights all Indians enjoy. But the test of a just system is how it performs under stress. It should work for every victim, regardless of the wealth or importance of the person.

Rapid economic growth in India is creating vast new pockets of wealth. The Nithari case is not the first instance of how influence affects justice. Consider the public response to two recent tragedies.

The lives of Jessica Lall and Priyanka Bhotmange could not have been more different. Lall was an attractive model, part of Delhi's social circuit. Bhotmange was a poor 17-year-old from the Dalit (untouchable) community who wanted to join the army. Both were young and both were murdered in cold blood by people protected by the powerful.

There was a sustained nationwide campaign to seek justice for Lall, killed almost eight years ago; protests over Bhotmange's brutal killing, three months ago, have been muted, and restricted mainly to the Dalits.

One night in April 1999, Lall had been serving drinks as a hostess at a private party in a plush Delhi restaurant, when Manu Sharma, son of a leading regional politician of the Congress Party, walked in with friends. He demanded drinks. Lall refused, saying they were closing. Sharma was incensed, and shot her at close range, killing her instantly.

There were many witnesses, but when the case went to trial, crucial witnesses turned hostile. Last February, Sharma and his co-accused were found not guilty. The middle class was outraged. Thousands marched with candles, imitating scenes from a popular Bollywood film, demanding "Justice for Jessica". Newspapers encouraged readers to send text messages to register their protest, and TV channels provided wall-to-wall coverage. The prosecution appealed and, in late December, a Delhi court overturned the earlier judgment. Sharma faces life in prison. The middle class feels vindicated. Indian newspapers congratulated their readers for demonstrating their power.

But India's compassion is selective. There has been no candlelight vigil for Priyanka Bhotmange .

Bhotmange's father, Bhaiyyalal, tilled a five-acre patch of land, growing cotton and rice, in Khairlanji in eastern Maharashtra. Their neighbours, marginally superior in the intricate caste hierarchy, had already helped themselves to some of their land to build a road. Now they wanted more, for water to flow through, and Bhotmange resisted.

In late September, a mob attacked the Bhotmange home, dragged out Priyanka, her two brothers, and their mother Surekha, and lynched them. Reports allege that they were humiliated, sexually attacked and then brutally decapitated. Local newspapers published horrifying photographs of their mutilated bodies.

And yet, the urban media took more than a month to report the outrage. It was only after Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the Congress Party, met the Bhotmange family in December, saying her daughter, too, was named Priyanka, that coverage increased.

Nobody says that Lall's killer should have gone unpunished and there is much to celebrate about the rise of the middle class and its new-found prosperity and confidence. As families have prospered in the economic boom, they rightly demand accountability.

But if economic inequality is inevitable, access to justice should never be unequal. The stories from Nithari, Khairlanji, and Delhi suggest that if you are poor, your case will be neglected until someone important pays attention. If you are better off, justice is merely a text message away.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics