The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing 
by Sonia Faleiro.
Bloomsbury, 315 pp., £9.99, January, 978 1 4088 7676 3
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In May​ 2014, the bodies of two teenage girls were found hanging from the branches of an old mango tree in the Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh. The nooses had been fashioned from their own dupattas. Relatives and neighbours from nearby villages came to the orchard in solidarity and mourning. The police arrived, but the families refused to let them cut the bodies down. They wanted to wait for the news vans. The girls belonged to the Shakya caste, which in Uttar Pradesh means significant economic and social disadvantage: only if the national news cycle picked up the crime, the family thought, was there any hope of the crimes receiving a federal, and therefore reliable, investigation. ‘If we bring down the bodies,’ one family member said, ‘the matter will end in the village.’

The girls were cousins and, like almost everyone else in the area, belonged to farming families. On the day of their deaths, they had gone to a devotional fair. A few hours after they missed their curfew, a search party took to the fields with torches, tamanchas (homemade pistols) and bamboo sticks. The father of one of the girls went to the nearest police station to report them missing but the officers on duty were drunk and wouldn’t let him through the door. They told him to come back the next day. The girls’ relatives suspected a boy from a Yadav family, a caste above the Shakyas, who had been spotted flirting with them that day. But the officers – also Yadavs – didn’t call the boy in for questioning; instead they offered him protection.

Sonia Faleiro’s The Good Girls tells the story of the case (she refers to the girls, who have never been officially named, by pseudonyms). Katra Sadatganj is an ‘eye-blink of a village’, Faleiro writes, in a desperately poor region, a place where women fold up their saris to work the fields of tobacco and garlic, taking their babies with them. Farmers socialise by the water wells and at night drag their charpoys onto the fields to sleep next to their crops, with sticks and tamanchas at hand. The temperature hits 45°C.

Uttar Pradesh is afflicted by long months of drought. During especially dry spells, farmers eat bitter bread made from millet cuttings left over from cattle feed, and weeds foraged from the river banks. The poverty isn’t only an accident of climate: as the economist Jean Drèze has noted, it is a ‘man-made starvation’. Farmers work on land they do not own and have no rights to. Labour contracts are relentless and demeaning. The market and the caste system keep more than half the population of Uttar Pradesh in a state of dire need.

The families of the two girls managed to hold out against the police long enough for local reporters to arrive at the scene. The journalists took photographs and uploaded them to Facebook, where they were shared thousands of times. TV news picked up the story, speculating that the girls had been raped and then murdered. Some channels ran dramatic re-enactments: girls being held down, strangled, their legs prised open. Local politicians arrived in Katra, accompanied by policemen in flak jackets and helmets. They tried, and failed, to negotiate with the family. The crime scene was by this point hopelessly contaminated, littered with chewing tobacco, leftover food, the DNA of hundreds of people. The girls’ bodies were spoiling in the sun.

When Mayawati – the Dalit leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which was founded to defend the rights of lower-caste people – announced that she would visit the bereaved family, volunteers from the area got the site ready. They pitched a tent for her, set up generators to power the air-conditioning units and turned a field into a helipad. Footage of young boys digging with their bare hands was broadcast on TV: they scooped rocks into buckets and smoothed the soil with their palms. Once the landing site had been levelled, the letter ‘H’ was stencilled over it in white powder. Mayawati’s twin-engine helicopter descended a few hours later. She stepped out in a crisp white salwar kameez, dupatta folded once around her neck, and held a press conference at the orchard, saying that the police were protecting the real culprits and trying to cast doubt on the families. She later gave the girls’ parents £5000 in cash.

The bodies finally came down after more than 48 hours. The autopsy, though overseen by a doctor, was carried out by a man without medical qualifications: a farmer’s son who had skipped school to take care of the crops and cattle, before getting work as a hospital cleaner. Three years later he had been given the job of carrying out post-mortems (his predecessor wasn’t medically qualified either). The hospital continued to list him as a ‘grade four’ employee or ‘unskilled labourer’ – he belonged to one of the lowest castes. He had to buy his own instruments at the bazaar: a mallet, needles, knives, a weighing scale. Faleiro describes the examination room as ‘filthy’, the table ‘inches deep in dirt’ and the bed covered in ‘blood stains and the red welts of the wax stickers that were used to seal medical reports’. The crowd waited as the former cleaner, a gynaecologist and the observing doctor examined the bodies. All those present were sure that the girls had been assaulted. They appeared to be vindicated when the gynaecologist emerged to say she had found evidence ‘suggestive of rape’.

One of the girls’ fathers, his face blurred out, gave an interview on national TV to ask the Central Bureau of Investigation to take over the case: ‘I do not have faith in the police,’ he said. The CBI itself wasn’t above suspicion: its director had been brought before the Supreme Court the previous year, accused of letting central government interfere with an ongoing investigation – one of the judges described the agency as a ‘caged parrot speaking in its master’s voice’. But its investigation into the girls’ deaths seems to have been above board. And, to everyone’s surprise, it didn’t confirm the local version of events. After exhuming the bodies to conduct a second post-mortem, the CBI reported that there was, after all, no evidence of assault: the girls had killed themselves.

It turned out that on the evening of the fair a relative had spotted them in the fields with the Yadav boy. The older girl was partly undressed. Faleiro suggests that the three teenagers were friends, the older girl perhaps in a consenting relationship with the boy. They knew they had been seen. The agency concluded that the girls’ fear of retribution from their own families was so great that they killed themselves rather than face it. If we accept this version of events, then we are looking at something just as horrifying as rape and murder: that women, especially lower-caste women, in India live in constant fear of punishment for bringing shame on their families, and they may do anything to escape it. ‘An Indian woman’s first challenge,’ Faleiro writes, ‘was surviving her own home.’ Two weeks after the girls’ deaths, a woman in another part of Uttar Pradesh was found hanging from a branch by the pallu of her sari; two days later, a teenage girl was found hanging from a eucalyptus tree.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 12,361 missing person’s reports were filed in Uttar Pradesh in 2014. A significant number of these disappearances were honour killings: murders exacted according to the rules of caste. This, it seems, was the first thought of the Badaun police when the girls’ bodies were discovered in Katra. ‘Honour’ is a euphemism for endogamy. Families severely punish their children for forming relationships – or even friendships – outside their caste.

Village life in Uttar Pradesh, as well as in the neighbouring states of Haryana and Rajasthan, is often governed by a ‘khap panchayat’, an extrajudicial community court of upper and middle-caste landowners which settles matters of social welfare, property rights and marriage. Caste endogamy ensures that property stays within the community. ‘Love marriages’ pose a threat to the khap panchayat’s existence because they undermine the caste system. Inter-caste relationships are a powerful challenge to centuries of segregation, and the girls may have feared that their tryst (if that’s what it was) with the boy was a transgression too far. In The Annihilation of Caste, B.R. Ambedkar, the drafter of India’s constitution, described caste as a system that divides people into ‘water-tight compartments’. ‘A caste has all the exclusiveness and pride which a nation has,’ he wrote in 1955. ‘It is not improper to speak of [the] collection of castes as a collection of major and minor nations.’ India was subject to its own version of geopolitics, with the ‘major’ castes exercising their dominion over the ‘minor’.

Three days after the girls went missing, on 30 May 2014, Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s sixteenth prime minister, having been elected on the promise that ‘the good days are coming.’ Faleiro ends The Good Girls by revisiting the village four years after the incident. The good days are further off than ever. Uttar Pradesh has a new prime minister, Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu supremacist nominated by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party despite unresolved criminal charges of murder and inciting violence. The Shakya protest around the girls resulted in only ‘short-term gains’: a media outcry, a CBI report that – at least legally – displaced blame from the family, but no real change. For a while the family gave tours of the mango orchard to reporters, posing under the tree.

In September 2020 a teenage Dalit girl was assaulted for entering the land of an upper-caste family in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. A group of men broke her spine. She died from her injuries two weeks later. The local police removed her body at night and cremated it without her family’s consent. In August 2021 a nine-year-old Dalit girl was gang-raped and murdered in south-west New Delhi. The girl had stopped to fetch water from a fountain at a Hindu crematorium a few minutes away from her house. When her mother arrived the girl was dead, her lips blue, burn marks on her wrists and elbow. The priest persuaded the mother to let him cremate the body at once, before the police arrived; it later turned out that he had been one of the attackers. In the seven years since the incident in Badaun – the seven years of Modi’s reign – unimaginable brutality has been unleashed on India’s lower-caste and Muslim populations. According to a 2019 Human Rights Watch report,

the government failed to prevent or credibly investigate growing mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalised communities, and critics of the government – often carried out by groups claiming to support the government. At the same time, some senior BJP leaders publicly supported perpetrators of such crimes, made inflammatory speeches against minority communities and promoted Hindu supremacy and ultra-nationalism, which encouraged further violence.

For a report in the financial newspaper Mint, journalists compared data provided by survivors of sexual violence with the data officially recorded by law enforcement. ‘An estimated 99.1 per cent of sexual violence cases are not reported,’ they concluded. They cited low trust in the police and pitiful conviction rates as factors, and noted a correlation between lower reporting and illiteracy. ‘In states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, less than 0.5 per cent of incidents of violence against women were reported.’ Of the tiny proportion of crimes against women that are recorded by the police, only a fraction make it into the news. Those that don’t can disappear. ‘Since [the police] couldn’t control crime, they controlled the number of reported crimes,’ Faleiro writes. The easiest place to begin is with the people whom society and culture have already designated inferior.

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