A posse of CRPF troops and Uttar Pradesh police men are spread out outside the abandoned family home of the Unnao rape survivor.
An advertisement on the door speaks of the wiring business run by the uncle of the young woman who remains on life support at the King George’s Medical University in Lucknow.
It is an eerily quiet afternoon, and only a few people are outside their homes.
Across the road stands a large white house with a sizeable temple area and a private school adjoining the compound. This belongs to the expelled BJP MLA and rape accused Kuldeep Singh Sengar.
The sprawling compound is a testament to Sengar’s dominant position in the village, located 75 km west of Lucknow.
The MLA, now in the Fatehpur jail, is charged with raping the young woman, the custodial death of her father and allegedly plotting the car collision in Rae Bareli, which resulted in serious injuries to the survivor and her lawyer and the death of her two aunts.
While the outside world outrages at the alleged crimes, which are being investigated by the CBI, and the delay in action against the accused MLA by the BJP, in his maternal village he still garners sympathy.
Many residents feel he is being falsely implicated due to political reasons. Those who expressed sympathy for the victim did so in hushed tones and avoided blaming the MLA or pronouncing a verdict in the case.
Those who spoke up, did so in defence of the jailed MLA, whose family’s writ runs large here despite the criminal charges against him.
Sengar allegedly raped the victim in June 2017 after she was taken to his house by a woman identified as Sashi Singh under the pretext of getting a job. She was also allegedly abducted and gangraped later by another set of men, the MLA’s aides, including Sashi Singh’s son.
After her attempts to get justice bore no fruit as the legislator’s influence allegedly prevented police from booking him in the case, the survivor attempted self-immolation outside the residence of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
The girl’s father, who had come down from Delhi to attend a court hearing, died soon after in police custody after being allegedly thrashed by the MLA’s brothers and henchmen. The accused have allegedly been intimidating the family to withdraw the rape charges.
Ram Kishor Singh who runs a school on the outer edge of the village has known both families for many decades. He regrets the infamy the entire episode has brought not just to the village but also the State police and the MLA.
Mr Singh believes politicians are capable of all sorts of activities and does not rule out the MLA's role in thrashing the survivor’s father or even plotting the collision. However, he still firmly supports the lawmaker. Who knows, he argues, it could be a natural accident or a planned one, but with his sentiments tilting in favour of the MLA.
Quoting a myth to back Sengar, Mr. Singh says, “ Vidhayakji (the MLA) is going through the same thing that Raja Harishchandra did in his bad days. He was declared a thief and a criminal wherever he lay his hand. Naturally, all blame for the accident is being dumped on Vidhayak’ji's head without any proof.”
On the rape charges, Mr Singh is categorical that Sengar is not guilty.
“I can't say about things he did outside. But inside the village, it is hard to comprehend he would so such a thing,” he said.
Amid allegations and counter-allegations, residents spoke of the long association of the Sengar family with that of the survivor — both are from the same caste and her uncle, who has many criminal cases against him, was once a right-hand man of the Thakur leader.
The association which turned to acrimony seems the stuff of cinematic plots and is related by the villagers in graphic detail. Both families are of the same caste and beyond the public outrage against the MLA, people narrated a long history of alliance-turned-bitterness between the two sides.
The fallout happened around 2000, after political disagreement over the post of (village head). Soon thereafter, Atul Sengar, the MLA’s brother, accused the uncle of shooting at him.
The uncle then shifted to Delhi and returned only in 2015. Fresh tension surfaced after the survivor's family decided to contest the pradhan polls again, challenging the writ of the Sengar family, locals said.
Atul Sengar's wife eventually won but the episode created a rift between the two sides, which was further worsened just before the 2017 Assembly polls when the uncle, villagers say, distributed pamphlets deriding the MLA as a rapist.
Incidentally, the uncle of the survivor is serving prison time, since February in Rae Bareli jail, for allegedly shooting at the Atul Sengar, who has a notorious reputation in the village. He is also in jail for the assault on the survivor’s father which led to his death last year. He allegedly also shot at an IPS officer in the past.
Both sides have lodged criminal cases against each other. However, those sympathetic to the survivor’s uncle were reluctant to speak on the feud.
Ram Kumar, is a CBI witness in the Unnao case, claims the MLA is being falsely implicated as part of a conspiracy due to his popularity.
He says Sengar was dragged into the rape case by the survivor’s uncle after he used his clout to get names of Sashi Singh, who allegedly lured the girl to the MLA on the pretext of getting her a job, and her daughter out of the initial FIR.
Ram Kumar asks why the girl did not name the MLA in court for six months after the issue first came to light.
"When she was recovered in June 2017, her family tried to pressurize Sashi Singh's son Shubham (one of the men accused of abducting her and gangraping her) to marry the girl. But they refused. Following this, the uncle booked them in a case. But when the MLA helped Sashi and her daughter in the case, the uncle included the MLA's name as well to implicate him," said Ram Kishor, contradicting the version of the victim.
Several such theories are afloat in this village.
The Sengar family has held the post of gram pradhan for many decades and has a flourishing business of cold storage and brick klin. His wife Sangeeta is herself a Zilla Panchayat head, a post she won despite rebelling against the SP, her husband's party then in 2016, and contesting as an independent. Every piece of development here, especially the roads, is attributed to the MLA's family and locals describe him as accessible and helpful. Some, however, criticize him for his political opportunism.
"When he was an SP MLA, then CM Akhilesh Yadav came to attend the teravih of his mother in a state chopper. But after the Shivpal-Akhilesh feud, Vidhayakji sensed it best to change sides and joined the BJP," said one local. Sengar won in 2017.
Such was his clout that after the 2019 Lok Sabha election results, the BJP winner from Unnao Sachhidanand Hari alias Sakshi Maharaj visited the MLA in jail to thank him for his support, triggering a lot of public criticism.
Today charged with multiple crimes, ironically, it was Sengar, who would hold court in the form of a village panchayat every Sunday at his residence to solve disputes to avert legal entanglements. Locals say people from across the district would come in. "He was the last word. If he said right, it was right," said one villager.
Kamal Singh is the brother of Bauaa, one of the aides of the MLA's brothers Atul Sengar. Bauaa is also in jail. Kamal admits Atul Sengar and his men thrashed the father of the victim and is nervous about the possible punishment his brother might face. But when it comes to the allegations against the MLA, he changes tone. "I swear by this temple. He was willing to go through a narco test. He cannot rape her," said Kamal, adding that he thinks even the collison was just an accident.
Kamal who works in the pantry of a train in Delhi has been out of work since the arrest of his brother last year.
But not all are in awe of the MLA. Bhupendra Singh, a neighbour and relative of the girl, was hesitant to take sides. "It's their personal dispute. CBI will investigate what happened," he said, declining multiple questions on what he thinks about the issue.