On March 2, 2023, an SC/ST court in its verdict in the highly publicised Hathras case of 2020 dropped the charges of rape against the four accused men in the case. The main accused was convicted under charges not related to rape, and the other three walked free. The victim’s family, which had been hoping for justice for a long time, has decided to approach the Allahabad High Court now.
In September 2020, the whole country was shocked when the 19-year-old victim of a suspected gang-rape and murder case was hurriedly cremated in the wee hours of the morning. The victim, a young Dalit girl, fought for her life for 15 days before succumbing to her injuries on September 29 at a government hospital in Delhi.
Following her death, a day-long protest was kicked off by members of the Bhim Army and the Congress, after which her body was sent to Boolgarhi village in Hathras district of UP—just a few hundred kilometres from New Delhi. In Boolgarhi village, caste discrimination is an everyday reality.
According to the victim’s mother, the authorities cremated the victim without the family’s permission around 2.30 am on September 30, a day after her death.
Following the funeral, the case gained national attention as people called for justice for the victim and questioned the motives of the UP government and administration.
Hathras shortly became the site of media frenzy and political drama. Opposition leaders who were trying to meet the family were stopped by the State government and the media was barred from entering the village; while the police had arrested four upper-caste men accused of the crime, senior police officials denied that it was a rape at all.
More than the alleged crime, what seemed to have shocked people was the way the case was handled by the UP administration. Since then, the victim’s family and civil society activists have repeatedly questioned the actions of the UP Police and government, claiming that they were attempting to shield the accused men who belonged to the upper-caste Thakur community.
A week after the victim’s death, the CBI took over the case amid much political furore.
Over two years later, on March 2, 2023, the special court in Hathras district convicted the main accused, named Sandeep, under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), dealing with culpable homicide not amounting to murder, and certain sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The charges against the three others, who were also accused of gang-raping and murdering the 19-year-old in the charge sheet filed by the CBI in court, were dropped.
No rape, murder charges
Strangely, there were no charges of rape or murder against any of the accused. In its verdict, the SC/ST court cited the lack of evidence to rule out the possibility of rape and murder.
In a detailed order of 167 pages, the court noted that the victim and her mother did not tell the doctors about the sexual attack when she was admitted to hospital on September 14, 2020. The court said that it was a week after the victim was first admitted to the hospital, on September 22, that the first reference to sexual assault was made.
But a video of the victim shot outside a local police station went viral later, in which she can be heard telling the police, “Gala daba diya (they strangled me).” Asked why, she said: “Zabardasti na karne de rahi taiku (because I did not let them force themselves on me).” This video was shot on September 14, but because there was no explicit mention of sexual assault, the police did not probe the matter further.
The case’s destiny had already been decided in the way that it was mishandled by the local police. According to the family, when the victim was taken to the nearest police station, Chandpa, the police delayed the registration of an FIR in the case, even as the victim was slipping in and out of consciousness.
The family described the gory details of the alleged gang-rape in great detail several times: her mother said she found her in a battered condition with her tongue cut off, covered in blood.
Mishandling by police
Despite the circumstantial evidence, the local police did not probe the possibility of rape at the initial stage: no charges of rape or gang-rape were mentioned against Sandeep in the initial FIR registered by the local police; only a milder law, section 354 of the IPC, which deals with assault or criminal force on a woman with intent to outrage her modesty, was invoked. The rape charges were added to the FIR only a week later, when the victim first officially recorded her statement.
After the CBI took over the investigation, it registered an FIR invoking IPC sections related to gang rape and murder, as well as the SC/ST Act. But important evidence which could have been secured by the local police had already been lost in the initial phases of the investigation.
As time progressed, top police officials in UP made all efforts to establish that it was not a case of rape, as alleged by the victim’s family. It was seen as a way for the ruling BJP government to make every effort to dismiss the possibility of rape and deflect blame by opposition parties.
A senior UP police official said that the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) report said that the 19-year-old victim was not raped because “no semen was found”.
The FSL test on which the UP Police based their conclusion was conducted on September 25, three days after the victim recorded her first official statement in an Aligarh hospital claiming that she was sexually assaulted, and 11 days after the actual incident.
Medical experts pointed out that samples in alleged rape cases should ideally be collected within 72-90 hours of the crime, and preferably when the victim has not urinated, defecated, or bathed. This raises the question then: can such a delayed report provide accurate, conclusive results?
In cases of rape and murder, the investigation heavily relies on physical evidence such as marks and blood. But the mishandling of what could have been important evidence, in this case, sheds light on the incompetence of the local police in probing such cases.
In December that year, the CBI filed a charge sheet in a special court in Hathras, invoking gang-rape and murder charges along with charges under the SC/ST Act against the four accused.
The CBI argued in court that if the local police had counselled the victim on the day of the assault and provided her with a sensitive environment, she would have been able to speak about it at that very stage. The CBI also argued that the victim did not get any respect at the local police station because of her Dalit identity. Had the local police actively investigated the possibility of rape in the initial stages, the verdict could have turned out differently.
In the past three years, the world moved on. No politician seemed to be interested in meeting the victim’s family. In the 2022 Assembly election in the State, the Hathras rape case did not feature in the election manifesto of any political party’s campaign material.
The judicial journey of the victim’s family was not easy; it was marred by threats and uncertainty. The promises made by UP Chief Minister Adityanath to the family, those of a job as well as a house, remain unfulfilled.
The victim’s family continues to live in anguish, surrounded by CRPF personnel and barbed wires around their house. The victim’s brother, Sandeep, strictly believes that justice has not been done. “How can this be justice? Those who raped and killed my sister are free,” he told Frontline.
The role of the initial investigation, which had many lapses, cannot be overlooked in this case. One cannot question the judiciary alone when the evidence itself falls short.
The Hathras case was yet another terrifying episode in the nation’s shameful past of sexual assaults against women: and the way it has culminated forces one to wonder if the police is even equipped to deal with such sensitive cases.
The future of rape cases at the local level is doomed from the very beginning, especially once they go out of the limelight, as this case demostrates.