The distraught teenager told family members that their neighbor had pushed her to the floor, stuffed a cloth in her mouth and raped her. The relatives, with a number of villagers, found the man she had accused and beat him.
Then, declaring that the 16-year-old girl had brought shame to the family, the group tied the girl to the suspect with a rope and paraded them through fields and markets in a village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Some spectators kicked, punched and spat on her.
Videos of the shaming this past Sunday circulated widely on social media, triggering a nationwide outcry over one of the most distressing aspects of India’s rampant problem with sexual violence: victim blaming.
Tilak Ram Bhilela, a farmer from the village, told The New York Times he had been horrified when he saw people laughing and shooting videos on their cellphones as the pair were led through the market. Crowds lined the streets and some men stepped forward to spit on the girl’s face, he said.
“When I saw them doing that to her, I had tears in my eyes,” recalled Mr. Bhilela, who said he had been watching with the paraded girl’s family members as she turned to them for help. “But no one could speak a word, the mob was so angry they would have killed us.”
After coming under public pressure, the authorities in the village said this week they had arrested six people for publicly shaming the girl. India law protecting minors prohibits identifying the village by name.
Among those held are her brother, an uncle and a cousin. The police said that the neighbor she had accused had also been arrested as part of an investigation into the rape. The girl, her family and the neighbor could not be reached for comment.
Reports of horrific sexual assaults on women have become familiar in India, where by some calculations the average number of rapes committed daily works out to one roughly every 15 to 20 minutes.
But a publicized spate of brazen assaults in recent years has mobilized women’s groups and other activists to raise the alarm on deeply entrenched misogyny that may be fueling the attacks.
That includes the problem of victim shaming, which is most acute in rural areas, women’s rights activists say, where a rape survivor is often regarded as a shamed woman, unfit for marriage. Many rape victims pay the price for speaking out, with their family members disowning them or pressuring them to stay quiet.
Perpetrators of sexual violence can act with impunity, activists say, because only a handful of rape cases lead to prosecutions, out of tens of thousands of cases reported a year. In 2019, the last time the Indian government provided statistics, an average of 87 rapes were reported daily,though the true scope is far worse because most go unreported.
In villages the problem is exacerbated because complaints are handled by councils of men, who mete out their own punishments, said Ranjana Kumari, a women’s rights activist in New Delhi.
“Victim shaming in this country has become so common,” said Ms. Kumari, who is also director of the Center for Social Research, a nonprofit group in New Delhi that supports women’s rights. “If you commit a crime against women, perpetrators think they can get away with it.”
In 2018, a teenager in central India was set afire after her parents told a village council that men in the area had raped her. That year, reports that an 11-year-old girl in Chennai had been gang-raped drew an outcry, but in the city, people soon started to blame the child’s mother.
Even at the highest levels of the country’s courts, recent decisions have drawn scrutiny and anger over what rights groups describe as regressive, patriarchal attitudes toward women. The head of India’s Supreme Court recently drew calls for his resignation after he had asked a man accused of raping a minor whether he would marry the victim as a way to settle the case.
Amid this week’s uproar, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, a government body, directed the police in the state of Madhya Pradesh to submit a report within 24 hours on the parade incident in the village, where about 1,200 people live. And on Wednesday, the local police said officers were investigating more people suspected of involvement in parading, beating and punching the girl.
In the videos that emerged the crowds lining the streets also shouted “India, my motherland, is great.” The slogan has come to define the Hindu nationalist fervor that some say is sowing divisions in the country, including between men and women.
Ms. Kumari, the activist, said the state of Madhya Pradesh had witnessed some of the most horrific incidents of sexual violence against women in recent years.
“Over 95 percent of people watching the events of Sunday were men,” she said, referring to the parade crowd in the village. “This is a reflection of our society. This is how we see crime against women.”