Unnao rape case: Corrupt nexus

Print edition : August 30, 2019

Kuldeep Singh Sengar, BJP MLA and the main accused in the Unnao rape case, being shifted from Sitapur prison to appear before a court in Delhi on August 3. Photo: PTI

The car in which the victim was travelling to meet her uncle in jail, after it was hit by a truck that had its number plate greased out, near Rae Bareli on July 28. Photo: PTI

It was money, muscle power and political might that enabled Kuldeep Singh Sengar and his accomplices to lord it over their fiefdom in Unnao and get away with multiple crimes.

The story of the Unnao rape case exemplifies how a criminal nexus continues to operate across Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled Uttar Pradesh. The case of four-time MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar shows how political and financial corruption gets entrenched when an elected member of the legislature functions like a satrap. Despite being investigated on charges of rape, murder, criminal conspiracy and intimidation, Kuldeep Sengar continues to call the shots in Makhi, a village in Unnao, from behind bars. When Frontline visited Makhi, 70 kilometres from the State capital Lucknow, its residents were wary of even mentioning his name.

Toh kya hua? Baahar nikalke maar dega humko [So what if he is in jail? After coming out, he will kill me],” said a man in a matter-of-fact way. An atmosphere of dread pervaded the village. In the Garhi mohalla, where Kuldeep Sengar lived in a sprawling complex with a school and a temple, not a single person criticised him. A few Thakurs insisted that he had done no harm. A Muslim resident, who did not want to be named, said: “We are poor and marginalised people. We cannot afford to offend the powerful. It is better for us to keep quiet.”

But in another neighbourhood of the same village, where Sushpal Singh, a Thakur, had dared to take on Kuldeep Sengar in the election, people were willing to discuss the case, albeit in hushed tones. They spoke of the sordid affair and explained how Kuldeep and his brothers enjoyed unchallenged impunity. They lorded it over the region and struck fear in the hearts of all.

The house where Kuldeep Sengar lived belonged to his grandfather, who had been a pradhan for several decades. Kuldeep’s father joined the family business of sarapha or bullion, but Kuldeep did not follow suit. He had political aspirations, and when he started out, all residents of the village supported him, thinking that he would carry on his grandfather’s legacy. But he turned out to be different. Gradually, he won the acceptance of all the small landlords and started functioning like a khap panch. He helped people during weddings and cremations and kept the peace in the village by sorting out local issues at his doorstep. The State administration and the police establishment were kept at abeyance. The arrangement suited everyone. Those who did not like his ways were coerced into silence. Over the years, the atmosphere of the village deteriorated and people who could send out their children to study and work elsewhere, did so. Several houses in the village were locked or only had elderly people staying on. “Young boys at an impressionable age start imitating the ways of the Sengars and get into trouble. We did not want our children to get affected by all that, and so we ensured they left. Now they work in Kanpur or Delhi,” said an old farmer.

Kuldeep Sengar began his political career nearly two decades ago with the Youth Congress but soon joined the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). He won from the Unnao Sadar seat for the first time on the BSP ticket. Later, he jumped ship. He won from Bangermau in 2007 and Bhagwant Nagar in 2012 on the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) ticket. In 2017, he joined the BJP ahead of the Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh and won from Bangermau.

Kuldeep Sengar’s political reach was wide. Residents of Makhi said that Annu Tandon of the Congress and Sakshi Maharaj of the BJP had been among his visitors in the village. The school he built on his compound was financed by Akhilesh Yadav, who, too, had been his guest. It took the BJP two years to expel him after the rape allegation surfaced against him. It took the outrage triggered by the gruesome accident in which the girl and her lawyer were seriously injured and she lost two of her aunts on July 28 this year for the party to finally expel him. But he continues to be an MLA. His wife, Sangeeta, continues to be the chairperson of the zila panchayat. His brother Atul’s wife, Archana, remains the village pradhan.

The case dates back to June 2017, when the girl, who was then 17 years old, was allegedly raped by Kuldeep Sengar in his house. Barely 100 metres separate her humble home from Kuldeep’s palatial one in Makhi. The two families were related. Kuldeep called the girl’s father “mama”, or, maternal uncle. Both families are Thakurs, but belonging to different gotras. Residents said Kuldeep and his two brothers, Atul and Manoj, used to work with the girl’s father, Pappu or Surendra Singh, and his brothers, Mahesh and Guddu. But as the Sengars grew richer and started throwing their weight around, they distanced themselves from the girl’s father and uncles, and the two families became estranged. Guddu Singh died a decade ago, allegedly killed by the Sengars, residents of the village said. But no police complaint was lodged.

Murky trail

Shashi Singh, a distant relative of the family staying in the same village, lured the girl away to Kanpur, apparently on the pretext of getting her a job. But villagers say that Shashi’s son Shubham and the girl had eloped. Kuldeep intervened and asked them to get married, but Shubham’s father did not agree. That is when the trouble started. The girl was taken to Kuldeep’s house for some sort of reconciliation, and he allegedly raped her.

Residents of the village wondered why the girl was taken to Kuldeep Sengar’s house when her father or uncle might just as well have visited him to work out a solution. Kuldeep had no earlier complaints of sexual harassment against him. But in a village where a feudal code of conduct is still very much in force, the girl being taken to his house instead of her father or uncle is suspect.

Thereafter, the girl was allegedly gang-raped by associates of Kuldeep Sengar. A first information report (FIR) was lodged under Sections 363, 366, 367 and 506 of the Indian Penal Code and Sections 3 and 4 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, naming Kuldeep as the main accused. While some of his associates were charge-sheeted, Kuldeep Sengar was allowed to roam free. He apparently continued to influence the police and intimidate the girl and her family members. False complaints were lodged against the girl’s uncle. Even after she complained to the Chief Minister through an open letter, no action was taken against Kuldeep by the local authorities.

On April 3, 2018, the girl’s father was beaten up, allegedly by Atul and his accomplices. Both parties lodged complaints against each other. But on April 4, the police arrested the victim’s father, on the charge of possessing an unlicensed firearm. The family feared that he might be tortured in custody. Days later, on April 8, the girl tried to immolate herself near Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s house in Lucknow.

The next day, her father died in custody. The post-mortem report mentioned the cause of death as blood poisoning due to perforation of the colon and listed multiple injuries, contusions and abrasions on his body.

Adityanath’s administration was now forced to act. The Chief Minister set up a special investigation team to probe the rape and the father’s custodial death. The girl and her family, who were still in Lucknow, were taken to a hotel in the city and kept confined to their room without water or electricity on the pretext of protection.

On April 11, the Allahabad High Court took suo motu cognisance of the case, admitting as a public interest litigation petition a letter by a senior lawyer, Gopal S. Chaturvedi, seeking an investigation. The court said that as per the submission made by Chaturvedi, it found it “disturbing” that the father of the rape victim was arrested by the police “for no reason” and was “mercilessly beaten” while in custody, The Hindu reported on April 12. “We fail to understand why the investigating agency, instead of arresting the accused persons, arrested the complainant, in connection with this case,” said a Division Bench of Chief Justice Dilip B. Bhosale and Justice Suneet Kumar, the report in The Hindu said.

These incidents led to huge outrage and another FIR was registered against Kuldeep Sengar. The case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). On April 13, finally, Kuldeep, Atul and their accomplices were questioned and arrested by the CBI. Shashi Singh, who was accused of taking the girl to Kuldeep, was also arrested.

But that did not stop the BJP from patronising him. Soon after the general election results, MP Sakshi Maharaj went to the jail to thank Kuldeep Sengar for his help. Several other small-time BJP leaders spoke out in his support and defended him in the press. In August 2018, Mohammad Younus, a key witness in the case of assault on the father, died under mysterious circumstances and was hastily buried.

Village residents said that after the girl and her family persisted in pursuing the case against Kuldeep, old cases filed by the Sengars against the family were revived. On July 2, after a lull of a couple of months in the case, the girl’s uncle got convicted in a 19-year-old case of attempt to murder, filed by Atul. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a district court. Some village residents pointed out that he was alive because he was in jail and that his life would be in danger had he been free.

The “accident”

On July 28, when the girl, two of her aunts and her lawyer, Mahendra Singh, were travelling to meet her uncle in jail, a truck rammed into their vehicle in Rae Bareli. It was coming from the wrong side of the road and had its number plate greased out. The aunts were instantly killed. The girl and her lawyer suffered multiple injuries and were put on life support at King George’s Medical University (KGMU) in Lucknow. Three security personnel, a gunner and two women constables, who had been assigned to accompany the girl whenever she travelled, were not with her. They were later suspended. The girl’s uncle filed an FIR from inside prison blaming Kuldeep Sengar for the accident. He said that Kuldeep had called them from behind bars and asked them to take back the case if they wished to live. He recalled that when they had gone to the police to file a complaint in the rape case, the police told them that Kuldeep was a lawmaker with the ruling BJP and urged them to compromise with him as they feared losing their jobs. According to the FIR, the threats had increased after the Allahabad High Court rejected the request of a co-accused in the rape case for bail. In view of the threats, the uncle had asked the family to move to Delhi from Unnao for safety.

The incident revived the case in the public domain with several political leaders and the media slamming the BJP for its inaction. It rocked Parliament, with opposition leaders demanding accountability. The National Commission for Women (NCW) wrote a letter to the Director General of Police, Uttar Pradesh, and met with the girl’s family. “The Commission is seriously concerned about the unfortunate incident. Considering the gravity of the matter, it is requested to ensure absolutely free, fair and speedy investigation into the matter and take action deemed appropriate for the crime committed,” said the NCW in its letter.

The CBI, which took over the investigation from the Uttar Pradesh police, has carried out searches at 17 locations. Kuldeep Sengar and nine others were named in the FIR, including Arun Singh, son-in-law of Ranvendra Pratap Singh or Dhunni Bhaiyya, who is the State Minister for Agriculture, Agricultural Education and Research.

The number of the truck was retrieved and the driver and cleaner, who belong to Fatehpur, the same place where Ranvendra is a lawmaker from, were arrested. The owner of the truck, Devendra Singh, was questioned by the CBI, but he denied knowing Kuldeep Sengar. He asserted that the number plate was smeared as he wanted to escape being caught for unpaid instalments on the truck. But the girl’s relative told Frontline that there was no doubt that it was Kuldeep who orchestrated the accident.

A day after the accident, a letter dated July 12 addressed to the Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, and written by the girl, surfaced. In the letter, she sought the CJI’s intervention in the case. She had mentioned the increase in threats and said it posed a danger to their lives. Gogoi pulled up the Supreme Court registry on why the letter had not reached him. In January, the girl’s mother had filed a transfer petition before the Supreme Court to transfer the case to Delhi from Unnao, fearing that a fair trial would not be possible in the State.

Rajiv Yadav of the Rihai Manch in Lucknow was not surprised at the apex court’s non-intervention in the case. “We deal with cases of violence and atrocities routinely and write to the police establishment, politicians and judiciary. Not once, in all these years, have we ever got a receiving from the Supreme Court,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court transferred four cases from a CBI court in Lucknow to Delhi and ordered the State government to pay the girl Rs.25 lakh as interim compensation. The trial is expected to be complete in 45 days and hearings will take place on a day-to-day basis, as per orders of the court. These cases include the rape of the minor, a false case hoisted against her father under the Arms Act by conniving police officers, the custodial death of her father, and a second instance of gang rape of the survivor within a week of the first one. The transfer of the fifth case pertaining to the accident, for the time being, has been stalled.

The CBI submitted before a Delhi court that Kuldeep Sengar had indeed assaulted the minor and Shashi Singh had lured her to his house. Counsel for Kuldeep Sengar claimed that the girl was not a minor. District and sessions judge Dharmesh Sharma stopped short of gagging the media as demanded by the CBI and the counsel for the accused. He issued guidelines restraining the media from reporting the names and addresses of the victim/survivor, family members and witnesses. He also asked the media to refrain from reporting witness testimonies and opinion on the merits of the case. Kuldeep Sengar, who was in judicial custody, would be shifted to Tihar jail, as per the orders.

The apex court also ordered the girl and her lawyer to be airlifted from KGMU to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi. On August 5, two green corridors were created in Lucknow and Delhi, and the girl was brought to AIIMS Trauma Centre, where her condition continues to be critical requiring ventilator support. The next day, her lawyer too was shifted. He was unconscious with severe traumatic brain injury, multiple fractures and was on advanced life support systems, said AIIMS.

According to the residents of Makhi, if this accident had not taken place, the case would have been slowly forgotten and Kuldeep Sengar would have eventually come out of jail. But now they are not too sure.

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