NEW DELHI: Over the course of the last few weeks, protests have gripped different parts of India, demanding justice for the 19-year old Dalit woman who was assaulted and raped in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras. In UP and elsewhere, sanitation workers - largely from the marginalised Valmiki community to which the victim belonged - have struck work in protest, demanding a CBI probe into the attack. Lakhs of protesters from the community have taken to the streets in UP, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Punjab, with plans to collectively march to Hathras.

Media reports of garbage piling up in different parts of the country reveal the nature of the protest - as garbage collection and sanitation work across India today remains in large part the responsibility of the Dalit community. In some areas, protesters resorted to stone pelting. Agra - in particular - received media attention, as garbage piled up on the streets leading to the Taj Mahal, and protesters pelted stones at a municipal corporation workshop in the city, damaging garbage collection trucks.

“This is all anger. There is anger at the government and their actions,” said Bezwada Wilson, convenor and founder of the Safai Karmachari Andolan. “[The protesters] have a tool - the garbage, so they have thrown the garbage. It is very simple: It is anger at the government,” Wilson told The Citizen.

“The entire community is feeling insulted and is angry. See how the police and administration behaved with the family of the victim. She was not provided treatment on time. And later, they didn’t allow kin to perform the last rites… Even criminals get more respect,” Valmiki leader Hari Babu Valmiki told TOI.

The outrage stems not just from the brutal assault, but the events that followed -- underscoring caste disparity in the country. “If you look at the whole incident, a very gruesome kind of activity happened on the girl, who also happens to belong to the Dalit community, particularly the Valmiki community. Soon after that happened, when they went to the police station, the police were hesitating to register the case. Medical treatment was not given properly otherwise we could have got the girl back from the hospital. All the doctors and forensic labs seem to be working with the government and stating “rape bhi nahi hua (there was no rape”) Wilson said.

“Then the district magistrate, who is actually an authority who has to implement constitutional values in the district, went personally there and started threatening the family. Which means in India, now, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and in most of the country, it has started—the casteist forces, the dominant forces have completely occupied power and in the name of democracy they are actually doing a kind of general raj. And there is no way for any constitution,” Wilson told The Citizen.

Shyam Kumar Karunesh, President of Uttar Pradeshiya Safai Kamgar Sangathan, told TOI that, “The Hathras DM has been threatening the victim’s family, asking them to give statements in favour of the district administration and the state government. Our fight will continue till we get justice.”

The victim’s family has gone on the record to speak of administrative hurdles, with difficulty in even registering an FIR. Anger reached a boiling point after the victim’s body was cremated hurriedly in the dead of the night, with the family barricaded in their homes.

The Yogi Adityanath government in UP has dismissed the protests and outrage, ordering a probe into an alleged “international conspiracy” to defame the state and foment caste violence. Nineteen FIRs have been filed against unnamed persons under different sections of the Indian Penal Code, including sedition, promoting enmity, inciting caste-based violence -- with Adityanath blaming the opposition and “anti national” elements with foreign funding conspiring to destabilize the state.

“The Chief Minister saying there’s an international plot … Is there an international plot on rape of women? For people who talk against injustice, 'international plot' immediately yaad aa jaate hai (comes to mind),” Wilson said, highlighting the absurdness of the allegation.

“This is the problematic way India is going,” Wilson concludes. “And these are the anti democratic, anti constitutional forces… and in the same way as the dominant caste people, they are gathering there to support that criminal activity.” “This is not a democratic civilised society at all. The values of the constitution of India have not been followed. This is very, very problematic for democracy.”