Print edition : October 23, 2020

Police personnel cremate the body of a 19-year-old Dalit woman who was brutally gang-raped two weeks ago, in the wee hours of September 30, in Hathras district, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: PTI

Yet another violent rape and murder in Uttar Pradesh, barely 200 kilometres from the national capital, exposes the links between caste and violence against women.

As the country looks on in horror at its second Nirbhaya case in the gang-rape of a teenage Dalit girl by four men, aged between 20 and 25, in Hathras in Uttar Pradesh, 200 kilometres from the national capital, the victim and her family continue to be denied dignity and possibly even clarity around the tragedy. Criminally assaulted on September 14 near her house in Boolagarhi village in Hathras, the girl battled for her life, for two weeks at Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College in Aligarh then at Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi, before breathing her last on September 29. She was cremated around 3 a.m. on September 30 by the district authorities amidst heavy police deployment in the village and at the victim’s house. The victim’s family contended that the police did not allow the family to perform the last rites of the girl and, instead, cremated the body clandestinely at night.

The family members alleged that the body was brought in an ambulance from New Delhi and was not handed over to them. Instead, it was taken straight to the cremation ground. A doctor at Safdarjung Hospital said on condition of anonymity: “It was a medico-legal case. So, the body was handed over to the police after the post-mortem, as is the norm in such cases.”

The police was supposed to hand over the body to the family. When the ambulance reached the village, the women of the victim’s family were seen pleading with the police to allow them to take her home for the last rites. They even lay down in front of the vehicle to stop it from proceeding. According to the victim’s cousin, “We do not cremate the dead at night. Also, we usually have a small pooja and show the face of the departed one last time to the entire clan. So, we wanted to take her home. The police claimed that the body was decomposing. But we assured them that we would arrange for ice slabs to prevent the body from deteriorating at night. But nobody was ready to listen. The entire family was barricaded. Nobody from the family could come out of the house. There was deployment of police outside the house.”

An eyewitness told Frontline: “It was a cremation by force. The family is right. When the father of the victim spoke to the Chief Minister, he told him about the forcible cremation by the local officials. The Chief Minister expressed regret at the cremation without the presence of the father.

“The body arrived from Delhi around 1.30 a.m. The family wanted to take her home. The police wanted to go directly to the cremation ground. The police were worried about law and order. Maybe they thought of a possible political rally against the crime during the day. The accused stay close by and anything could have happened. The police feared that houses could even be set on fire by some miscreants. Joint Magistrate Prem Prakash Meena was present at the cremation site, besides Superintendent of Police Vikrant Vir. They took the decision to cremate at night, around 3 a.m. A grandfather (not the direct grandfather) and a distant cousin of the victim were present at the cremation, but nobody from her direct family was there.”

According to the eyewitness, when the body arrived from New Delhi, the vehicle stopped around a hundred metres from the victim’s house. Some residents asked the driver to take the vehicle to the girl’s house, which the police allegedly did not allow. The police and administrative officials got into an argument with the family members, who insisted on cremating her in the morning. However, the officials were adamant on carrying out the last rites at night itself. So, a little before 3 a.m, she was consigned to flames, with the preparations for the pyre having been made by midnight.

The district officials insisted the cremation was with the consent of the family elders and claimed that the girl’s father was taken into confidence and had not voiced any objection to cremation at night. The girl’s father or brothers were not seen at the funeral though. Instead, a distant grandfather was present, leaving the immediate family fuming at their daughter being denied dignity in the last rites, just as she was denied dignity and protection in life.

The 19-year-old girl was assaulted on September 14 by four men from the Thakur caste when she had gone to get fodder for animals. According to her mother, the daughter had accompanied her when she went to cut grass from the fields near their house. As the mother was cutting grass, the girl collected the fodder. It was at that time that the four men, later identified as Sandeep, Luvkush, Ramkumar and Ravi, allegedly pounced on her, resulting in a fracture in her spinal cord and a slit tongue. Her mother, who is hard of hearing, could not hear her cries for help. She later located her by following her footprints and her blue slippers, one of which was found near an unpaved path in the bajra (millet) field. She was horrified to find her daughter in an unmentionable condition.

She later told the media: “My daughter was lying naked with her tongue protruding from her mouth. Her eyes were bulging out and she was bleeding from her mouth, her neck and there was blood near her eyes. I also noticed bleeding from her vagina. I quickly covered her with the pallu of my sari and started screaming.” She believed that when her daughter was strangled her tongue might have protruded and she could have bitten it hard.

Police apathy

The family later went to the Chandpa police station to register an FIR. The family alleged that the police failed to show the required urgency. When the family tried to rest the bleeding and crying girl on a platform at the police station, they were asked to go away. Later, a case was registered for attempt to murder and under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention) of Atrocities Act.

Importantly, at that stage, the victim was alive, though slipping in and out of consciousness. She had named Sandeep but not the other accused. In her fast-deteriorating condition, she did not initially mention rape. Later, as the police took her complete statement under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the charge of gang rape was added. Following her death, the accused were charged with murder. The autopsy report referred to “rape and strangulation” and “tears in her private parts”. The Uttar Pradesh police, however, claimed that a forensic report of her viscera had proved that the girl was not gang-raped as alleged and that the victim had died of neck injury. Others, however, contested the claim, alleging that the samples were collected days after the incident, and not within 24 hours, as it should have been.

The Chief Minister appointed a Special Investigation Team to inquire into the crime and announced a compensation of Rs. 25 lakh to the family, besides a government job for a family member and a house in Hathras under the State Urban Development Agency.

Predictably, political parties took up the case, accusing the administration of denying justice to the bereaved. Sonia Gandhi called the incident “barbaric”, and, in a video statement, asked if being a girl was a crime. “What was the Uttar Pradesh government doing that for weeks the girl’s parents were not heard. The Nirbhaya of Hathras has not died. She has been killed,” she said. “Even the dead have some dignity. She was denied even that. The government should not think that the country will stay silent. I stand with the pained family of Hathras in its quest for justice.”

A day later, even as Section 144 was imposed in the district, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was detained as he attempted to meet the grieving family. He claimed he was manhandled too and wondered if “only the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh], the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] men and the Prime Minister have the right to walk on the road”. His sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, asked why it took the Chief Minister two weeks to react to the tragedy. “Was he waiting for a call from the Prime Minister to take action? He did not let her family take the body home. Even now, you say, you formed the SIT after a call from the Prime Minister.”

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader, Mayawati, said: “The late night cremation sparks suspicion and anger among people. The BSP condemns the stand of the police in the matter.” She asked the Supreme Court to take suo motu action. Former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav accused the government of trying to hush up the matter with a cremation at night.

Meanwhile, the family of the victim continues to live in fear. The accused were seen in the neighbourhood until their arrest, forcing the women of the family to stay indoors. There is a palpable sense of fear among the Dalit families even after the accused men’s familes have fled the village.

The village stands polarised on caste lines. There are just a dozen or so Dalit families in the village, dominated by Thakurs and Brahmins. The Dalits have their residential area a little removed from the dwellings of the upper castes who, they claim, still practise untouchability. “The upper caste men, when they need us to cut the crops or do something, never come to our house themselves. Instead, they send a message through somebody. They do not step into our house. In this case too, nobody came to condole the death. It is not a suprise as we have separate cremation grounds based on caste here. Even at a shop, the shopkeepers hand over our things from a distance,” says a Dalit resident.

Clearly, Hathras will need more than the token arrest of the accused for peace and trust to return. Within hours of the victim’s cremation came news of the gang rape of yet another Dalit girl, in Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh. Jayaprada, the BJP leader and former Lok Sabha member, made a point when she told Frontline: “I am pained at the new Nirbhaya incident. I beseech the Chief Minister and the Prime Minister to ensure quick justice for our Dalit daughter. Those responsible for the dastardly act should be hanged to death. And it should be done in the shortest possible time, unlike the Nirbhaya case which dragged on for years.”

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