T he murder, sexual assault and hurried cremation on September 30 of a young Dalit woman in Bulgadi village of Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh and the subsequent handling of the matter by the State government run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) raise many disturbing questions, including that of attempts to cover up the crime and protect the accused from charges of rape and murder. The theory that it was an honour crime committed by the family members themselves was assiduously planted by a section of the media and through the statements of some officials.
On the morning of September 14, the young woman from the Valmiki community (it falls in the officially designated list of Scheduled Castes), along with her mother and brother, were busy collecting fodder in the millet (bajra) fields in Bulgadi. This was routine work for the family, a means of basic sustenance. The fields on which they worked were owned by Thakurs, an upper-caste group. The village, with 400 people, itself is dominated by Brahmin and Thakur households. This Valmiki family was among a handful of non-upper caste groups who wielded no influence whatsoever. The victim had studied up to Class five.
It is a family of agricultural labourers, dependent on income from agricultural work and the sale of milk from the few buffaloes it owned and also on the munificence of the upper castes. An entire day’s work of harvesting and weeding would earn it a maximum of Rs.250. It was harvest time and there was work in the fields. The elder son, Satyendra, had returned home after being laid off by his employer, a mobile shop owner, because of the lockdown. He helped the family with agricultural work. On that day, the younger brother, Sandeep, a laboratory technician who shared his name with one of the main accused, was at work at Khoda in Ghaziabad in a laboratory. “I heard about the incident and took a bus to reach home,” he said.
The millet crop was ready to be harvested and the land needed to be cleared for the rabi crop. A tall crop, it offered easy and thick camouflage. It was a hot day too, recalled Rama Devi, the mother. The three of them were cutting grass for fodder and making bundles of them. This was the moment the family got separated and when the young woman was pounced upon from behind and dragged away by the accused persons. “I told Satyendra to get some water for us. I had an ear infection and had applied medicine and put cotton in my ears which impaired my hearing. I regret I could not hear her properly when she called out. I went to look for her but found her upturned slippers and knew something was wrong. I found her bleeding and in a dishevelled state. She could not get up. Her pyjama was open. I covered her and lifted her in my arms like I would a baby. I do not even recall how I gathered the strength and courage to run to the road and call for help,” Rama Devi told Frontline .
Satyendra arrived a little later and a bike was organised to take the victim to the local Chandpa police station and from there to the district hospital where she made her first statement regarding the attempt to kill her and rape her. There were prominent ligature marks seen on her neck, and her kurta was torn. “We had planned to go to see a doctor for my earache,” Rama Devi said.
The victim’s spine was badly damaged in the assault, and the government hospital referred her to the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College hospital in Aligarh, some 40 kilometres from Bulgadi. Om Prakash, the victim’s father, said the police did not accompany them to Aligarh. “I requested them to do so but they just gave us the papers,” he told Frontline . “My daughter struggled to live for 15 days. She told me she had lost hope of survival,” he said.
She was treated for her injuries and examined for sexual assault eight days after the incident. Neither did the initial first information report (FIR) at Chandpa police station mention rape at any point nor was she examined at the district hospital for rape; no evidence was collected to that effect. Her family members were reportedly persuaded to shift her to a Delhi hospital. She was admitted to Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi on September 28. She died the next morning.
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Bulgadi and several adjoining villages in the area are dominated by upper-caste people who are also the landowning groups, most of them owning large, medium and small plots of land. The Valmikis are numerically smaller and therefore lack the kind of economic, political or social clout that the dominant castes have. They complained of untouchability being practised by the upper castes. The Valmiki families were given government “pattas” for small plots during the 1980s, mainly from community or Shamlat land. They also leased out land from the dominant castes for cultivation. Some of the younger men of Valmiki and upper-caste communities worked in Delhi and other cities. “We couldn’t study beyond primary school. Our economic situation did not allow it. Our father has done all kinds of work to keep the family going,” said Sunita, the victim’s sister. The only daughter-in-law of the house, Sandhya, had lived in West Bengal. She said she was never made to feel that she was a Valmiki in West Bengal. But in Bulgadi, it was different. “I have three daughters. I cannot live in this village anymore. The Thakurs will hit back,” she said.
The incident itself is a reflection of a larger malaise, one that goes beyond the immediate occurrence of the crime and the hurried cremation. When the opposition parties protested, they were accused of politicising the incident. Amid all this, the Allahabad High Court took suo motu cognisance of the incident and the hurriedly conducted cremation. A bench of the High Court stated that the incident had “shocked” its conscience. The Hathras district administration was directed to apprise the court of the developments in the case and the inquiry into it.
The bench also took a strong view of the announcement by Prashant Kumar, Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order), that there was no rape committed. The bench asked him whether he was aware of the new definition of rape. The District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police had also remarked similarly, that there were no injuries on the private parts of the victim. The Additional Director General also said that action would be taken against people who had alleged rape to fuel caste tensions. It was ironical that a young woman who had been murdered was seen as of little consequence when compared with the rape accused. It was also ironical that the top police establishment was ignorant of the importance and admissibility of the dying declaration of a person under the Indian Evidence Act. Yet, a large section of the media chimed along with the official line that no rape was committed and held the opposition parties responsible for “politicising the incident”.
The hurried cremation, therefore, has not been the only problematic aspect. There were insidious efforts, direct and indirect and aided by sections of the print and electronic media, to pin the incident as an honour crime and to deny the occurrence of a gang-rape merely on the basis of the absence of semen. The latest twist in the case has been the removal of sections pertaining to rape from the FIR registered by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which has taken over the investigation. Interestingly, the mandate of the three-member Special Investigation Team constituted by the government was to investigate on the basis of the modified FIR of the Hathras police, which had included sections pertaining to murder and rape and which was done after the victim gave a statement about being gang-raped by four persons. The perpetrators of the alleged crime as named by the victim in her dying declaration belong to the Thakur community, which Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath hails from.
The incident is also a pointer to the impunity with which violence against women from socially and economically backward groups takes place in India and the manner in which procedure is given short shrift. There has been no respite in heinous crimes against women despite amendments to the rape laws that broadened the definition of sexual assault and rape and introduced new offences within the Indian Penal Code.
Taking note, perhaps, of reports pertaining to the dereliction of the police in collecting timely evidence from the victim and not registering proper FIRs, on October 9 the “Women Safety Division” of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued an advisory to the Chief Secretaries of all States and Union Territories regarding mandatory and strict action to be taken up by the police in cases of crimes against women. There was nothing new in what the advisory laid out except that it was being reissued in the context of the investigation of the Hathras case, especially as questions had been raised regarding procedures that the police had not apparently followed.
The advisory recalled that the MHA hadearlier issued directives to States and Union Territories for the registration of FIRs, collection of evidence for forensic examination, use of Sexual Assault Evidence Kit (SAEK) and completion of sexual assault cases within two months. It also said that the registration of an FIR of a cognisable offence (like sexual assault) under Section 154 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) was mandatory and the police could also register zero FIRs if the jurisdiction of the crime fell in another area. Failure to register FIRs in cognisable offences was punishable under Section 166 of the CrPC, stated the advisory. Section 164 A of the CrPC explicitly says that a complainant of sexual assault or rape should be examined with consent by a registered medical practitioner within 24 hours from the time of receiving the information.
The advisory also referred to Section 32(1) of the Indian Evidence Act which says that the verbal or written statement of a person who had died would be treated as a relevant fact, especially if the statement related to the circumstances that led to the death or the cause of the death itself. The Supreme Court, in its order of January 7, 2020 ( Purushottam Chopra vs NCT of Delhi ), had directed that a dying declaration cannot be discarded merely because it was not recorded by a magistrate or attested by the police.
The Directorate of Forensic Science Services had also issued guidelines to investigation officers and medical officers for the collection, preservation and transportation of forensic evidence in sexual assault cases. Sexual Assault Evidence Kits had been issued to all States and Union Territories, stated the advisory. “It is necessary to use these kits in every case of sexual assault,” it stated and observed that “even with stringent provisions in law and several capacity building measures undertaken, any failure of police to adhere to these mandatory requirements may not augur well for the delivery of criminal justice in the country, especially in the context of women safety”. It recommended that “such lapses, if noticed, need to be investigated into and stringent action taken against the concerned officers responsible for the same”. The lapses in the Hathras case were serious but except for a Superintendent of Police and a few constables, no inquiry was initiated against the law and order bureaucracy.
The police station at Chandpa clearly did not have an evidence kit, neither did the Bangla District Government Hospital. The doctor who examined the victim recorded that she was in a semi-conscious state. She was not examined for rape either at the Chandpa police station where she was brought first or at the district hospital. This was despite her stating that her attackers had forced themselves on her. She used the word “zabardasti” in a video recording that was taken on the day of the incident. The term “zabardasti” is a colloquial term for sexual assault and rape while “chhedkhaani” is referred to molestation and eve-teasing. The victim had said “zabardasti” in her initial statement. The FIR did not include sections on rape or even molestation but only attempt to murder. Therefore a case under 307 IPC and Section 3 (2) (v) of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, was registered.
The victim stayed in the ICU of the Aligarh hospital until September 28 when she was shifted to Safdarjung Hospital. Prior to that, on September 19, five days after the incident, she regained consciousness and gave a statement under Section 161 of the CrPC, wherein she stated that she had been “molested” by Sandeep alias Chandu, who also tried to strangle her. On September 21, she made a request that her statement be recorded again. In her statement made the next day, September 22, she named four persons as having raped her and Sandeep of having strangulated her with her own dupatta. She fell unconscious. When asked by the investigating officer why she had not said this before, the victim stated that she was not in a state of consciousness. It is pertinent to observe that given the nature of her injuries, the hospital had suggested to the family to take her to a spinal injuries hospital. The victim was in a critical state consistently and had at the very first instance used the word “zabardasti” even as she lay severely injured at the Hathras civil hospital.
The very first Sexual Assault Forensic Examination of the victim after the assault was conducted at the Aligarh hospital on September 22, where her mental and emotional state was described as “distressed”. Body swabs were not collected as she had been “wiped several times”. At the time of admission, her clothes had been changed and she had been washed and her genitalia douched. “No UV examination of the body surface” was done as the body had been “wiped several times”. At the time of the examination, she was conscious and oriented to “time, place and person”. The victim told the examiner that her vagina was penetrated and this was recorded in the report. She mentioned four persons by name. The provisional opinion by the Aligarh hospital stated that “there are signs of the use of force. However, opinion regarding penetrative intercourse is reserved pending availability of FSL [Forensic Science Laboratory] reports”. The reference to “force” was part of the sexual assault forensic examination report.
Three of the accused are from a single family. The molestation charge was dropped and 376D (gang rape) was added in the FIR. All four were arrested. It was only after the victim had stated that she had been raped that a sexual assault forensic examination was conducted, which found no prima facie findings suggestive of rape. This was a preliminary report, but the Additional Director General (Law and Order) declared, which was not his job to do, that there was no rape committed on the woman as no semen was found in the forensic examination.
The victim died on September 29, the day after she was brought to Safdurjung Hospital. The cause of death as per the post-mortem report of Safdarjung Hospital was “injury to the cervical spine (neck) produced by indirect blunt trauma and its resultant sequelae”. The ligature mark, according to the post-mortem report, was consistent with attempts of strangulation but did not contribute to the death in this case. The internal examination of the pelvis reported how the “hymen showed multiple old healed scars” and “anal orifice showed old healed tear over 11 o’clock position”. The final opinion of the Aligarh hospital, which arrived on October 3, said that there were “no signs suggestive of vaginal or anal intercourse”, but there was evidence of “physical assault” (injuries over the neck and back).
Frontline spoke to a doctor at the Aligarh J.N. Hospital to seek clarity over what the old healed scars and tears were suggestive of. He said that it was possible that the tears and the scars pertained to the incident of September 14. The victim had been washed and her clothes were changed before she was brought to the hospital. The exhibits containing her clothes, nails and swabs were sent to the FSL at Agra. The details in the exhibits revealed a “torn kurta”; blood traces were found in seven exhibits, all pertaining to the internal genitalia and on her clothes, including undergarments. No sperm was found on any exhibit. Under the criminal laws for rape, the presence of sperm is not considered a ground to prove the commission of rape. Penetration was a sufficient ground according to several Supreme Court and High Court orders.
Government affidavit alleges false narratives
In an affidavit to the Supreme Court, the State government appealed that the CBI investigation be time bound and supervised by the court to ensure a free and fair investigation and keep out “false narratives” from the investigation. The affidavit was in response to a petition filed by a social activist requesting the Supreme Court for an investigation of the incident by a former Supreme Court or High Court judge.
The irony was that it was the State government that had been creating a false narrative of a conspiracy being hatched to engineer riots in the State. The affidavit stated that the police had taken all steps after registering the crime and that “extraordinary circumstances and sequence of unlawful incidents” had compelled the district administration to cremate the victim in the presence of the family members who “agreed to attend to avoid further violence”. The affidavit also stated that the social media, certain sections of the print and electronic media, and some political parties had made a deliberate and planned attempt to incite caste and communal riots using the present offence.
The government affidavit claimed that the parents had refused to give consent to shift her to a spinal injuries specialist hospital. The affidavit was silent on whether the state had offered to bear the costs of treatment, if any, at a spinal injuries hospital.
The affidavit detailed the large presence of persons outside the hospital and the violence on the way to Hathras. Despite 400 persons being present outside Safdarjung Hospital, the affidavit states, “it was because of tactful handling and appropriate action that no untoward incident was allowed to take place and the matter was addressed well”. The protesters were “sloganeering and demanding justice”, states a letter from the Deputy Commissioner of Police, South-West District, Delhi Police, to the Secretary, Uttar Pradesh government. It did not lead to any violence contrary to the claims of the State government that violence was anticipated at the hospital and across the State. Section 144 was imposed all through the State to prevent protests and gatherings. Mediapersons were not allowed to take their vehicles up to the village; they had to walk a good two kilometres or more to reach the house of the victim. A Keralite journalist who was on his way to cover the incident was booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
‘What’s the big fuss about’
“What’s the big fuss about? It is not as if an upper-caste girl was attacked,” said a group of men at a tea kiosk, referring to the media attention. They were members of the Jat community and owned land. They told Frontline that the Valmikis worked in the fields owned by Brahmins, Rajputs and Jats and that the undue attention to the incident could affect “future relations”. The truth will come out, they said, adding that the “young men had been entrapped in the case” owing to a feud between two factions of the Thakurs in the village. The family members of three of the accused persons also believed that the men were innocent. “They were at home attending to the livestock. We have many buffaloes to tend to,” they said. They denied that there was any interaction with the Valmiki family which incidentally was at a distance of 50 metres from the house of the accused persons. In a letter addressed to the Superintendent of Police, Hathras, the main accused, Sandeep, pleaded innocence and wrote that he was friends with the victim and used to occasionally talk to her on the phone. He met her on that day in the millet field but she asked him to leave as her brother and mother were with her. He wrote that later he got to know that she was beaten up by them and as a result sustained severe injuries. The letter was signed by him and bore the thumb prints of the other accused.
But the most odious part was yet to come, thanks to a section of the electronic media and their political patrons. An unfortunate honour crime in Delhi where the accused persons were from the minority community and a murder of a priest in Rajasthan spurred a whataboutery unheard of before. The names of the Delhi accused were prominently displayed on an English television news channel and the opposition parties accused of turning a blind eye to that. “Why are not they marching to the victim’s house in Delhi or in Rajasthan?” the channel anchor ranted, at the same time adding that the objective was not to draw an equivalence between the Hathras case and the other crimes. That crimes against Dalits, women and minorities far outnumbered crimes against “general castes” was not important enough to be highlighted.
The Hathras incident might not have come to light had there not been a public uproar. The crime would have been recorded as just another statistic against a Scheduled Caste woman. And as women’s organisations and activists have pointed out ad nauseam, it is the certainty of procedure and proper investigation more than the certainty of punishment that is needed to be guaranteed if the growing incidence of crimes against women and low conviction rates are to be addressed.