NEW DELHI — A teenager from a north Indian village who was dragged from a field and raped by a group of men died of her injuries at a hospital in New Delhi on Tuesday, triggering nationwide outrage again after years of what experts describe as a gang rape epidemic in India.
The 19-year-old woman, whom Indian law prohibits naming, had been transferred to the hospital just a day before, two weeks after she was gang-raped and mutilated by higher caste men near their village in the Hathras District in Uttar Pradesh State, her family said.
The police chief in Hathras, Vikrant Vir, said that four men had been arrested on charges of gang rape and murder. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “strictest action” should be taken against the attackers, according to a Twitter post by Yogi Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh’s top elected official and a leader of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
But justice is unlikely: Of the tens of thousands of rape cases reported in India annually, only a handful result in prosecutions, National Crime Records Bureau figures show. Activists say the true scope of the problem is far worse, as many cases are never reported because of the stigma of sexual violence in India.
When action is taken against suspects, it is often by vigilantes or by police officers acting extrajudicially, in killings that are usually widely praised but that also point out the justice system’s inability to deal with rampant sexual violence.
The woman was Dalit, on the lowest rung of India’s Hindu caste hierarchy. On Tuesday, hundreds of protesters from the Bhim Army, a party advocating for the rights of Dalits, thronged the Delhi hospital where the woman was treated and clashed with the police.
A leader of the Bhim Army, Chandrashekhar Azad, urged Dalits across India to take to the streets to demand that the attackers be hanged.
The 19-year-old woman was cutting grass to feed the family’s five milk buffalo in Hathras when she was taken away by a group of upper-caste men on Sept. 14, according to her brother, Satender Kumar.
Her tongue was cut and her spinal cord was broken after she was dragged by her neck with a rope, Mr. Kumar said. He said that arrests came only after days of complaints to the police. His sister was initially treated at a hospital in Uttar Pradesh before being transferred to New Delhi.
Mr. Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, said in another tweet that a special investigative team had been formed to take on the case and that a report would be delivered within a week.
After the woman died in the hospital in New Delhi, her body was taken back to Uttar Pradesh, where the police seized her body in the early hours Wednesday and took her to be cremated without the family, ostensibly to try to keep the case quiet, Mr. Kumar said.
“They took the body by force, assaulted the family members, and cremated my sister in the night itself,” he said. “Police did not allow us near the cremation place.”
The Hathras police did not immediately comment on the family’s accusations. But the district magistrate, Praveen Kumar Laxkar, told reporters on Wednesday that it was untrue that family members were not allowed at the cremation.
Dalits are particularly vulnerable to caste-based discrimination, and Dalit women are singled out for sexual attacks thousands of times a year, according to human rights organizations.
Gruesome reports of rape, often followed by retaliatory violence if victims or their families speak out, have become painfully familiar in India. Whether a rape report rises above the din to receive national notice is often determined by class and caste dynamics.
A student’s shocking gang rape aboard a bus in New Delhi in 2012, which later resulted in her death, galvanized a nationwide protest, with demonstrators clamoring for reform. But the country’s overburdened court system continues to move slowly. Four men convicted in the 2012 case were hanged earlier this year, after exhausting their appeals.
The police killing of four suspects in the alleged gang-rape of a 27-year-old veterinarian last year in the southern state of Hyderabad was widely cheered as a swift workaround to Indian justice.
Swati Maliwal, head of the Delhi Commission for Women, went on a hunger strike outside Mahatma Gandhi’s mausoleum in New Delhi last year, demanding that lawmakers pass a bill to force courts to carry out the executions of rapists within six months of being convicted.
On Wednesday, Maliwal said in a public statement that the Hathras case had “embarrassed the entire nation” and that she had written to the chief justice of India’s Supreme Court, “pleading for justice for the girl child.”
The teen’s death this week followed a string of disturbing rape reports in India as the country struggles with the coronavirus pandemic. In one case, in the southern state of Kerala, an ambulance driver is accused of raping a Covid-19 patient while taking her to the hospital. In August, the mutilated body of a 13-year-old was found in a sugar cane field in Uttar Pradesh, near the border with Nepal. In July, a 6-year-old girl was kidnapped and raped in the southern state of Madhya Pradesh, and her eyes were severely injured in an attempt to keep her from identifying her attackers.
According to the latest Indian government data, the police registered 33,658 cases of rape in 2017 — an average of 92 per day and a 35 percent jump from 2012, when fast-track courts for rape cases were rolled out. About 10,000 of the reported victims were children.
Hari Kumar reported from New Delhi, and Emily Schmall from Chicago.