What Ram Singh’s Life—and Death—Says About Violence and Inequity in India

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That’s easy to say from the capital. It’s hard to imagine things changing in Kalla Dhey, the kind of nowhere place that tends to drift off the radar of politicians between election campaigns. In a good moment, the warm sun and hum of insects paint a bucolic picture, obscuring the daily grind of farmers who are barely able to earn enough rupees to eat. In a bad moment, every person seems gripped by resignation over the failure of the Indian state to include hundreds of millions of citizens in its breathless race to the top.

Ram Singh, slim, mustachioed, with a receding hairline, was the registered driver of the white bus and the first suspect arrested. He spent the first years of his life in Kalla Dhey. Extended family members next door remember him and his younger 26-year-old brother Mukesh—who told police that he was on the bus with Singh that night—working hard as young boys. “There is no school here, no education,” says Bhom Pal, a 45-year-old cousin. “[Ram and Mukesh] were working in the field and selling firewood in the market. They would use some of the money they made to buy things.” Their uncle, Gyar Sa, who lives with Pal, remembers that the family didn’t seem close. “There were no bad feelings,” he says, “But they all kept to themselves.”

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That Singh left this place before he was a teenager, moving to New Delhi with his mother and stepfather, was hardly rare. Many households around here are only occasionally occupied, their residents living part- or full-time in New Delhi or other cities, where they earn more money. “There’s no work here,” says Jag Mohan Mali, 52, a neighbor who lives on the other side of the river. “People have to fill up their stomachs. They have to leave.” It’s a problem throughout Karauli, says Meera Kushna, an official in the district: “All the kids who want to better themselves have to go. It’s very hard to do what they do. Sometimes they get work. Sometimes they don’t, and they come back empty-handed.” After the Singh family arrived in the capital, hundreds of miles away from their fields, they settled into a small house tucked in a corner of Ravidas colony, an informal pocket of mostly migrant workers in south New Delhi. Like most of the people living in Ravidas, Ram Singh’s stepfather found work in New Delhi as a day laborer, before he eventually left and went back to Karauli with his wife.

More people migrate to Delhi than to any other city in India, according to the Indian Institute of Human Settlement. Though poverty rates are relatively low compared to other parts of the country, the millions of new arrivals have created a severe housing crunch that has left many workers living on the streets, or without basic services in informal settlements like Ravidas. Dipanker Gupta, a sociologist in New Delhi, says the yawning gap between the city’s haves and almost-haves has contributed to a rising crime rate. “It is people who are not quite poor, not quite well off, but who have some access to urban life—they know how to drive a bus, for example—who [get involved in crime],” says Gupta. “They can touch [a different life], but they can’t grasp [it].” Madhu Purnima Kishwar, an academic and writer based in New Delhi, says places like Ravidas forge “rudderless” and “brutalized” young men who are products of a weak education system and a failure to lift up rural livelihoods. “It’s not just a case of the law failing; it’s the policies,” says Kishwar. “You have to look at the inner health of your society. They are also victims.”

According to neighbors and extended family, Singh came and went from Ravidas repeatedly over several years. Says Kamla, a neighbor who, like many in India, goes by one name: “He was always tense and angry. He never spoke to anybody. He just kept to himself.” She says she regularly saw Singh returning home drunk, or looking as if he had just been in a fight. And while she kept her distance, she says, “If we knew [he and Mukesh] were up to something like [the rape], we never would have let them stay here.” Nobody, of course, knew what lay ahead. In fact, not just the brothers were members of the small Ravidas community. Two others charged with the rape and murder also lived in its narrow lanes.

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