The gang rape of a veterinary doctor whose body was set on fire and dumped under a bridge has sent shockwaves through India, with hundreds of women taking to the streets in protest.
The charred body of the 26-year-old woman was found on the outskirts of the southern city of Hyderabad on Wednesday night.
CCTV footage, police reports and witness accounts suggest the attack had been premeditated. The woman’s scooter tyres had allegedly been deflated by four men , who then sat waiting in a lorry nearby and approached her to offer help.
She was allegedly dragged to an uninhabited scrubland near the motorway that was hidden from the road by bushes, where she was smothered to muffle her screams and raped by the men. It is believed they then suffocated her. Her body was then put into a truck and taken to a motorway underpass, where the men set it alight and dumped it at around 2am.
Her body was found at 5am by a resident of nearby Chatanpally village who noticed smoke. The body was wrapped in a blanket and had been doused with kerosene.
The case has prompted revulsion across India, with many comparing it to the brutal gang rape and murder of a student on a bus in Delhi in 2012, which prompted thousands of women to take to the streets and resulted in a change in the law around what constitutes sexual crimes.
On Saturday, hundreds of protesters gathered outside a police station on the outskirts of Hyderabad to demand justice, while protests also took place in Delhi and Bangalore.
Four men, identified as Mohammad Areef, Jollu Shiva, Jollu Naveen and Chintakunta Chennakeshavulu, all aged between 20 and 26, have been arrested and placed in 14-day judicial custody.
VC Sajjanar, the Cyberabad police commissioner, gave details of the circumstances of the attack. “The accused had consumed alcohol and noticed the veterinary doctor parking her bike at the toll plaza around 6pm,” he said in a statement. “They hatched a plan and Naveen [a suspect] deflated her scooter’s tyre. When the victim returned, Areef got down from his truck and told her about the flat tyre. After offering to help, Shiva took the bike on the pretext of getting it repaired. Then, [suspects] Areef, Naveen and Chennakeshavulu forcibly took the victim into an abandoned room nearby, where she was raped.”
Three policemen have also been suspended for failing to act quickly when the woman’s disappearance was registered by her family on Wednesday, with the officers instead suggesting she had just gone off with a man and turning the family away from the police station. Before she was attacked, the woman had called her family at about 9pm to say her scooter was immobile and she was stranded by the road and scared.
According to the National Commissioner for Women (NCW), the police asked the victim’s mother if she was having an affair with anyone and ignored the family’s pleas that their daughter’s failure to return home was unusual. It was only six hours after the family raised their concern that the police began to look for her.
Shyamala Kunder, a member of the NCW, travelled to Hyderabad to demand justice in the case. She told the Guardian she had visited the area where the attack had happened, and said it was “deserted and unmaintained … anyone could do anything there unnoticed”.
“The girl’s family are in shock,” said Kunder. “When they went to the police station to lodge a missing person report, the police only bothered to tell them it was not in their jurisdiction. If the police had responded immediately maybe the girl could have been saved. Now we are demanding immediate punishment for the perpetrators so that it sends a strong message to society.”
India is the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman because of the high risk of sexual violence, according to a 2018 survey by the Thomson Reuters foundation. According to government figures, more than 32,000 rape cases were reported in 2017, but the real figure is believed to be far higher.
In Delhi, one woman who staged a protest outside parliament on Saturday said she was beaten by police after she refused to move. “The only purpose of this protest is to ensure that I am not burned to death tomorrow,” she said. “Every 20 minutes, there is a rape in India. I don’t want to die.”