Hisar (Haryana): Her Hindi exam was scheduled for 18 September 2012, nine days after they raped her. There were 12 of them; eight raped her, four stood guard and someone thought it would be fun to make a video.

“I was always a good student," says the now 19-year-old. “I was the type who studied throughout the year, but since the exams were around the corner, I told my mother I would go to nani’s (granny’s) house where I could study undisturbed."

Dabra village, where she lived, is less than 15km from the township of Hisar, her nani’s home. The girl took a shared autorickshaw and was walking the remainder of the short distance when a car with eight men crammed inside stopped. She was pulled in. They took her to a secluded stone shelter adjoining the fields where they were joined by four others on motorcycles.

Ironically, it was the video clip that eventually led to the arrest of the eight who were visible in it (the other four who couldn’t be seen were never arrested). Four of those eight were sentenced eight months later by a sessions court to life imprisonment. Four were acquitted for lack of evidence.

For nine days after her rape, she kept silent even though she was in agony. “I couldn’t lie down, I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t even go to the bathroom," she says. Her mother persisted in asking what was wrong with her usually cheerful daughter. And then on the ninth day, just before her Hindi paper, she told her.

Outraged and angry, her father, a gardener, wanted to lodge a first information report with the police. According to a fact-finding report facilitated by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), the father was told by Dabra village elders that if he persisted, the boys would make the video public. Some reports suggest that the father was even shown the video. Later that day, he drank pesticide and killed himself.

Dabra erupted in protest. For three days, members of the Dalit community, to which the girl belongs, refused to cremate the father’s body until arrests were made. Finally, on 21 September, the police arrested eight of those accused—all higher caste boys from the Jat community. A day later, the father was cremated.

The girl’s next paper, English, was scheduled for 24 September and it is a testimony to her courage that she appeared for it. “I got over 65% in it," she says, allowing herself a small smile. When she finally cleared all papers, she did so with a first division.

The stigma stays

One of the most overt manifestations of aspirational India lies in its belief in education as the key to change. In the space of just a year, gross enrolment ratio (GER), the total student enrolment as a percentage of the corresponding official age group population in a given school year, is up. GER for scheduled castes (SC) mirrors the national trend (see chart).

Looking specifically at Haryana, a limited survey carried out by the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS) shows a fall in the enrolment levels of all girls in Haryana at the secondary school level for 2011-12. For SC girls, it was 101% at the primary level but 85.6% at the secondary level compared with a GER of 104 at the primary level and 86.9% at the secondary level for all girls, according to the IIDS survey. GER can reflect percentages over 100, exceeding the population of the age group that it officially corresponds to, due to late enrolment, early enrolment or repetition.

“Parents are happy to send their daughters to school if it is located within or near the village," says Nitin Tagade, who helped conduct the survey. “But when the high school or college is located far away, then they just withdraw their daughters. This, we find, hampers higher education, particularly of SC girls."

The highway from Delhi to Hisar is punctuated with a host of schools and coaching classes, from Building Blocks (“the most innovative playschool") to Winning Edge coaching classes (“do math without pen").

Leaping to Learn: Part II

Not far from the two-room quarters in Hisar where the girl now lives with her mother, girls with neat pigtails cycle home from the Chajju Ram Senior Secondary School. “I can study for as long as I want; my parents say I can become whatever I want to become," says Meena, a Class VIII student with the boundless optimism of youth.

Sitting on a narrow bed under a poster that declares: ‘Aim to go where you have never been before’, the 19-year-old says she wanted to study law after completing a BA in music, art and Sanskrit. But attending classes accompanied by a gunman provided by the state for her protection marked her out as “that girl from Dabra who was gang-raped".

“When the upper-caste girls figured out that it was my testimony that led to the arrests and conviction of their caste boys, they taunted me and said terrible things," she says.

Her complaint to the college principal was ignored, so she wrote an official complaint to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, she says. That brought the principal to her house with an apology and a plea for her to return to class. But it was too late, she says. She simply could not go back and face those girls again.

“It is very difficult for a rape survivor, especially if she is a Dalit, to continue with her education," says Rajat Kalsan, a lawyer and activist with the Human Rights Law Network. “For this girl too, the social stigma was just too much to bear. She just lost faith in the system."

Against all odds

Activists talk of the “backlash effect" when members of the community seek to improve their social and economic condition through jobs or education.

“The upper castes don’t want Dalits to stand up and fight discrimination," says Vimal Thorat, convener of the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch. “They cannot tolerate any threat to their domination." The response to rising political awareness or social activism or even the simple act of going to school is violence, including rape, she says.

Following a spate of gang-rapes of young Dalit girls in Haryana in 2012 that was widely publicized, some newspapers reported that Dalit families in several districts were pulling out their daughters from school in the belief that they would be safer at home. The 2012 NCDHR fact-finding report from Hisar also mentions that “many people stopped sending their daughters to school".

Law and order continues to be bad in Haryana, particularly after sundown when young men prowl the streets of towns and villages on their bikes looking for “prey", says Kalsan. “Many parents of young girls are simply taking them out of school and getting them married off," he says.

But the 19-year-old in Hisar has not yet given up. She says she has enrolled in a distance education programme to complete her BA. But for now, what keeps her going is her love for dance. She is attending Bollywood and hip-hop classes at Dance Planet, a dance studio nearby.

“Maybe one day I’ll join Harywood (a reference to the Haryana film industry). Maybe one day I’ll complete my BA and get a job," she says.

For now, the future is far from certain and, yet, she dreams on.

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