Mumbai: In 2014, two teenaged cousins from a marginalised family in rural Badaun in north-central Uttar Pradesh were found hanging from a mango tree. The investigation, yet to be closed, showed up the many inequities and social prejudices that led to the tragedy. What are the social and cultural factors that made the two young girls vulnerable? What prevented them from getting an education and finding a voice? In villages like Katra Sadatganj where the youngsters lived, poor families have no hope that public systems will ever work for them, says Sonia Faleiro, author of The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing, which released recently and examines the girls' life and death. Falerio, whose first book, Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay's Dance Bars, also featured women protagonists, speaks to IndiaSpend.


Edited excerpts:

To take a broader view of the subject of your book, how can women achieve a better place in the Indian society?

This is a slightly different case because you have to remember that the girls at the centre of this case were children. The young woman I call Padma was 16 years old, Lalli was 14. So as children, they did not have access to the kind of resources that might have helped them protect themselves and understand what their options are. However, had they been older, I don't think that they would have had those resources either, living where they did. And resources can take various forms--it can be something as straightforward as picking up the phone and, of course, the children had access to numerous phones; they had access to four, in fact. So it can be something as simple as picking up the phone and dialing the police. It can be going to somebody in the village who they see as an elder. It can be accessing health service or an activist--some other social service, therefore. But there is none [of these] in Katra Sadatganj where the children lived. There was and continues to be a police chowki [post] with five police officers, but there is no sense among the women of the village, and the men, that those people will offer them any sort of protection. So I think it's two things: One is knowing how to access resources; and then, having done that, being able to actually receive the help. We need a lot of work in these two areas.

When the girls go missing, the family does not quite react as you think a family should. One of the questions that seems to come up immediately is honour--where could they have gone and, therefore, how will that reflect on us--more than, perhaps, what could have befallen them.

Yes, I say this over and over because I feel like I need to stress this: The children were very much loved by their parents and their siblings, and they were valued members of the community. We tend to think that when terrible things happen, it's the outcome of anger or malice or something even more profound--hatred. But that was not the case. The children were valued.

But valuing somebody does not necessarily translate into looking after them or giving them choices and support or freedom. And that's the situation that these two kids found themselves in. Despite being loved, they were boxed into the situation where they had to do exactly as they were told. It didn't matter what they thought or what they felt or what they wanted for themselves. And I do have sympathy for the parents as well because the parents weren't necessarily doing what they wanted; they were doing what they believed they had to do to be "good" members of their village and of their clan. What you see over and over again is everybody following these rules that are set out for them by some sort of greater power. The power can be a religious community or the local khap [informal caste or community union] or whoever the power is. But everybody is following these rules, nobody is entirely happy and nobody is doing what they truly want to do.

So yes, in this case, the family felt, naturally, immense horror at what had happened to their children, but they also thought, 'What does this mean for us, how are we going to be regarded, what commentary does this make on us as parents and as good people?'

You also talk about how these two girls did a lot of work at home, way more than what any 16-year-old would do, at least in the kind of urban environments we live in. You see elements of modernism, exposure to things and the world beyond, thanks to the mobile phone or smartphone, and all this still leads to a very constrained life up to the point they would likely get married off.

Yes, Padma and Lalli's mothers did not know how to read and write and neither did their fathers. But although their parents had not received an education and had not sought an education as adults, they wanted to educate their children. And they had a choice in the village in which they lived: They could send their kids to the free school, the government school, or they could spend a certain amount of money--not an inconsiderable sum--and send them to the private school which was near the orchard. They chose to send all their children to the private school where they were learning English, Math, Science. So you know, this is a huge step forward. And when we say 'Nothing changes in India, people are exactly where they are', that's not true. Parents have ambitions for their children, parents want better for their children and the Shakyas did. However, because of a range of complicated circumstances, that hope and those dreams never run the full gamut, it never goes to the full extent.

Padma, for example, at the time of her death had already been pulled out of school. She had finished the eight grade, there was no high school in the village and her parents were unwilling to educate her further. So she was, as they say, "sitting at home". Her first cousin Lalli who died along with her was 14 and still in school but Lalli would also have to be removed from school, as her parents believe, and she would also have to be married off. And while they were learning all these new things and experiencing this world that their parents had no experience of, there was not so much that they could do with it. As you mentioned, they had phones; they could call and they could text--things that their mothers could not do. Their mothers could at best hold the receiver to their ear.

But these girls had discovered a world, thanks to their parents and their parents' progressive attitude in this area, and they knew there were things out there but they couldn't access them in any meaningful sense. They couldn't take that education and get a job. They couldn't leave the village. And ultimately as we discovered, they couldn't even talk to anybody who was not a close member of their family without attracting unwanted attention.

One character in the book seems to frown upon the girls' behaviour only because they use the phone. Do you get a sense that people like him are going to be around for a long time? Or do you feel that with everything else that's happening, maybe people are getting more accommodative, particularly when it comes to women and girls?

I think that the change that we are hoping for that we somehow thought would happen at the time that the market was flooded with phones and data became incredibly cheap--and it seemed like everybody in India had a phone and was scrolling through--that has not actually happened. The real change that accompanies modern things is modern ideas, and we haven't seen those.

The person that you're talking about is a farmer in the village called Rajiv Kumar who happened to see the children talking on the phone. And not knowing the girls at all, barely knowing the parents, [he] took great offence, and thought that this is not appropriate behaviour. And he complained to a close member of the family. And that close member, first cousin of the girls, then started to spy on them. And as we find out, that spying, that obsessive behaviour ultimately led to a series of events that culminated in the death of the children.

But if you go to Katra today, you might find that people are even more conservative than they were a few years ago. And that they truly believe that had the children not had access to phones, they would not be dead today. In fact, that's not why they are dead today. We know why they are dead and it's not the phones. You don't blame objects for something like this. It's the mindset of all the people around those girls that culminated in their death.

In your book, when the two girls are found and even while they are being searched for, the option of going to the local police station is actually the last one. The larger question here is, how do we then bring about greater responsiveness in the police when it comes to issues like these? And when I say issues, let me expand a little bit and talk about gender violence--how can things change in India's small villages and towns?

I think it's two things: supporting the police, training them and giving them resources; and then holding them accountable. What we are doing right now is saying, 'The police are corrupt, the police are useless, they don't do anything'. And certainly, in many cases, it appears that is what is happening.

But if you look at it from the point of view of the police, and specifically let's look at the five people who were in charge of the Katra chauki the night that the children went missing. They didn't have a phone in the chauki. Of course, [there is] no question of a computer. The electricity was gone most of the time. They were expected to sleep in the chauki, but there was no place for them to sleep, so they would sleep in the courtyard. There wasn't even a bathroom for them to use. And there was no mode of transportation. In this situation, they are entrusted with looking after more than 30 villages, and just told, 'Well, do your job'. When they fail to do their job, they are not held accountable, perhaps because those who were supposed to hold them accountable know that they haven't received the training or the support to do their job.

So it's the circle in which everybody finds themselves and people are just doing or not doing their job. We do need to talk about whether we are training police officers, and obviously a part of that training is giving them the tools, and it's also sensitivity training and it's also increasing the number of female officers in the force. This is a given anywhere in India, but particularly necessary in UP, where crimes against women continue to increase every single year. And then it's saying, 'Look, now that you've got everything you need, you have to start doing your job'. And perhaps if we work on both these levels, we might start to see some change.

In IndiaSpend, we report a lot on gender disparity. We talk about the importance of education for women and how this can resolve a lot of issues downstream including the health and education of their children. If you were to apply this to your experiences in this part of UP, what are the things we could do as a country to help girls, a lot of whom are being denied education, the right/opportunity to seek a career in a city or the freedom to make choices, including who they want to marry or how they want to spend their life? Where do we begin?

I think the first thing is education. We need more schools and we need schools situated in places that are accessible to people, because there is such low confidence in India today about safety for women that parents in villages like Katra Sadatganj are absolutely refusing--and this was prior to the children's death--to send their children out of the village. So this is a major but an essential expenditure. You have to have schools for girls and boys of course that are within walking distance. If you're not going to be able to provide that facility, then you have to figure out how to get children to those schools because, like I said, nobody will send their girls far away without the assurance that they will come home safe. And that is one part of the problem.

The second is that we need to provide a quality of education that assures parents that these kids--who might otherwise be supporting them by working either at home alongside the mother or in the fields or factories alongside their parents--are actually getting something out of their education. A lot of parents in Katra Sadatganj do not know how to read and write. But you don't need to know how to read and write to know that your kids are coming home every day with empty notebooks or unable to answer basic questions, or the kids themselves say, 'We didn't learn anything, because master ji didn't show up'. So that's the reason why Padma and Lalli's parents didn't send them to the government school because it wasn't worth the time. The girls would go and sit there and come back learning nothing. So you need to focus on what you're actually offering kids. It's not simply a matter of saying, 'Here's a school and it's got four walls and a roof'.

The third point is that we do need incentives, because the situation for children in India is unfortunately not very different from the situation for children in Victorian England--which is, at that time kids, were bread-earners. A child was an asset because of what they could do for the family from a very young age. And that is also true in India. So, you may provide a school and it may offer good education, but if the family feels that they are losing out on an important income that is going to ensure their survival by sending their child to school, they're not going to do it.

One important incentive was the mid-day meal scheme. We often hear of midday meals that can't even be eaten or that contain insects, or in some horrifying cases that mid-day meals have killed children. But by and large, in places that I've been to, offering that hot meal in the afternoon has been incentive enough for many poor parents to send their children to school. And in different parts of the country, there have been other incentives--bicycles for girls, laptops for older students. This makes a difference. And the fact is, we can afford it. We are a poor country only because we mismanage our expenditure because we don't seem to focus on things that will ultimately enrich us, the most important of which is focusing on the youth and educating them.

If we do these three things, more schools, better schools and incentives, I imagine that more parents will be willing to send boys and girls to school.

Your book is based on an event that happened in 2014 and you went back much later and put together your notes and wrote this book. Things have changed in this period there too. With the new dispensation, particularly in UP, are things going to go forward--in the context of the girl child and women? This is India's largest state with 200 million people after all, and with a very high fertility ratio. Are you hopeful at all?

I haven't been to Katra since 2018 and I can only tell you what's happening in UP based on what you yourself know, which is the news. And the news unfortunately has been uniformly dark. We've been hearing about a huge range of human rights abuses and violence against women that continue unabated. Under these circumstances, it is very hard to feel optimistic. But the fact is that a lot of the grassroots work that has helped women and children over these many years, and many incompetent governments, continues. We continue to have non-profits working in UP. We continue to have girls going to school, and hopefully many of them are receiving whatever support is possible from their family. So I think we need to continue to be optimistic despite what the headlines may make us feel, but I think we also need to focus very strongly on improving the situation. As you say, it's 200 million people. It's the size of a country. That is a lot of people who need support.

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