“Corona is such a disease of which many were scared but the situation that we are seeing in Uttar Pradesh is even more dangerous than corona,” declared Sanjaybala on Friday evening.

The 34-year-old social worker was among the hundreds that gathered in Jantar Mantar in Central Delhi on Friday evening to protest against the brutal gang-rape and murder of a Dalit woman by dominant-caste men in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh.

This was perhaps the first demonstration to take place at the protest site in nearly six months after legal restrictions on large gatherings were imposed in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19 has claimed more than 100,000 lives in India.

On September 14, four upper-caste men raped and assaulted the Dalit woman. She died in Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital on September 29. After this, her family said that her body was hastily cremated by police officials in Uttar Pradesh without their consent.

The crime has sparked nationwide outrage against the adminitration of the Uttar Pradesh government led by Chief Minister Adityanath. The state police have barricaded the village, refusing to let politicians or journalists meet the family.

On Friday evening, the Hathras superintendent of police and four other police officials were suspended after the Special Investigation Team formed to inquire into the case submitted its initial report.

In Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad joined the protests along with their followers.

Masked protestors in Jantar Mantar held candles and placards demanding for justice for the woman. “We can wear masks and leave during corona but the way our daughters are unsafe is even more dangerous than corona,” Sanjaybala said.

On Thursday, the police had banned gatherings at nearby India Gate. On Friday, the Delhi Metro stopped services to stations near Jantar Mantar for a few hours.

‘Why is Prime Minister silent?’

At Jantar Mantar, police and paramilitary officials stood by with their batons and shields. Some police officials were making video recordings of the protestors. The entry and exit points of Jantar Mantar were barricaded. At around 7.15 pm, the police stopped protestors who were aiming to march towards India Gate.

Protestors at the site chanted slogans like “Hang them”, “Jai Bhim” and ‘Azaadi’. Some also chanted “Desh ke gaddaron ko, phansi do, phansi do!”. Hang the traitors of the country.

Some demanded to know why Prime Minister Narendra Modi was silent on the matter. “When the prime minister can make us light candles and bang utensils then why is he silent today?” asked Sanjaybala, referring to Modi’s appeals to Indians to make these gestures to demonstrate gratitude to healthcare workers and show unity in the fight against the coronavirus.

“Where is that chowkidar who said he is the country’s chowkidar?” she asked, referring to Modi’s promise that he would be India’s security guard. “Why is he not declaring punishment for the attackers of our daughters?”

Sanjaybala said that the inability of a Dalit woman to access justice in Uttar Pradesh was linked to vote bank politics. “I am ashamed that the public of India has put him on the post of the Prime Minister where he cannot do anything to Yogi [Adityanath],” she said.

Others said that Modi had not delivered on his electoral promises of guaranteeing women’s safety. “There is a video of Modi where he says that if you press the button on the lotus symbol and that it is guaranteed that your girl child is safe, something like this, many voted for this,” Manish Kumar, a 28-year-old resident of East Delhi.

He said: “I feel bad because first it was Nirbhaya [the name by which a gang-rape victim in Delhi who died in 2012 is known], then it became Manisha…I don’t know how many girls have come. And they always put a name to it but the cases never end.”

Manish Kumar at Jantar Mantar on Friday evening.

Some protestors criticised the functioning of the Uttar Pradesh government and its response to the case. Twenty-year-old Delhi University student Mudita Singh Kushwaha said that the state’s handling of the case was a joke and that it represented a “new low” in the continued oppression of Dalit women.

“Today the kind of example that has been set up by this Hathras rape case, I think in a state like UP and in other states no other woman will dare to go to the police station to file an FIR if something of this sort happens,” she said.

Dissent during a pandemic

Until the outbreak of Covid-19 in March, India had witnessed months of wide-spread, peaceful protests against the amended Citizenship Act that introduced a religious test for Indian citizenship that critics said discriminated against Muslims. The protests came to an abrupt end on March 24 when the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown was imposed.

On Friday, some people at Jantar Mantar said that it was necessary to step out and protest against injustice despite pandemic.

“This entire lockdown and the post-CAA NRC [protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and proposed National Register of Citizens] has stifled us,” said Kushwaha. “This entire pandemic period has been very much as an opportunity and as fortune by the government to quell dissenting voices and to curb protests in any form.”

But Kushwaha said that the space for dissent for women from marginalised communities had shrunk further. “I think her community has been given a clear message that you do not have the right to dissent by the bureaucracy, by the administration and by the UP police,” she said.

Others said that stepping out to protest was essential if the government at the Centre was to be awakened. “People should not sit at home, they should step out, no matter who we vote for but if the leader is not doing well then we should speak against them,” said Manish Kumar.

Sanjaybala said that the protests before and after the lockdown were a sign of dissatisfaction against the Centre. “One after the other the public is getting upset and coming on the road,” she said. “From that it feels that people have made the wrong decision by giving them another chance,” referring to the Bharatiya Janata Party being voted in for a second term in the 2019 general election

At 7.45 pm, police officials made announcements from loudspeakers and told protestors to disperse from the site.