U.P. ‘gang rape and murder’ of Dalit woman | Death in a flour mill

A 40-year-old Dalit woman’s body was found dismembered on the floor of an atta chakki in a village in Banda, Uttar Pradesh. The family alleges gang rape and murder by upper caste men, but the police claim it was an accident

December 08, 2023 02:09 am | Updated 03:11 am IST

Off-limits: The police have sealed the flour mill where the alleged crime took place in Pataura village, Banda district, Uttar Pradesh.

Off-limits: The police have sealed the flour mill where the alleged crime took place in Pataura village, Banda district, Uttar Pradesh. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

Trigger warning: the following article contains potentially distressing material; please avoid reading if you feel disturbed by violence.

On the morning of October 29, Asha and Suraj (names changed to protect privacy) left for the atta chakki (flour mill) they worked at, about 100 metres from their home in Pataura village, Banda district, Uttar Pradesh. The couple, both Dalits, had taken up a job to plaster the mill’s walls with cow dung. Their oldest daughter, Rashmi (name changed), was getting married and they were trying to supplement their income. “We needed some money to buy a lehenga and saris for our daughter. We did not have jewellery, and we wanted her to have a better life,” Suraj says. They were promised ₹300 a day, the same rate they were paid for working as farmhands.

Suraj, 43, and Asha, 40, had left the mill for home around 12.30 p.m., for lunch. Their daughter had dal-roti ready for them, knowing that her father had to leave quickly for work in Naraini, about 20 km away. Bauwa Shukla, one of the owners of the chakki, allegedly called Asha on the mobile phone between 2 p.m. and 2.30 p.m., and asked her to complete some more plastering work. “Hurriedly, my mother left, she hadn’t even eaten properly,” Rashmi says. The couple had worked there for just two days.

The couple, both Dalits, had taken up a job to plaster the mill’s walls with cow dung. Their oldest daughter, Rashmi, was getting married and they were trying to supplement their income.

The couple, both Dalits, had taken up a job to plaster the mill’s walls with cow dung. Their oldest daughter, Rashmi, was getting married and they were trying to supplement their income. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

On the same day, in the late afternoon, Asha’s dismembered body was found in the mill’s main structure by a relative, with her sari, petticoat, and blouse strewn around. The Banda police from the Girwan station, about 10 km away, reached the spot at 4 p.m., says the Superintendent of Police, Ankur Agarwal. He adds that they took the body for a post-mortem.

Before the post-mortem results came in, the Banda police, via a video message from Agarwal on November 2, declared through their social media handle on X that the initial investigation showed a case of accidental death, where the woman’s body got entangled between the machine and its belt. The woman did not sustain any injuries in her private parts, it claimed. The post-mortem report came out on November 21.

The couple, both from a community of leather workers that belongs to the Scheduled Caste, were employed on Rajkumar Shukla’s land as farm workers. Rajkumar also ran the mill with Bauwa. About 150-200 other Dalit families live and work on farmlands in Pataura village, about 18 km from the Banda district headquarters. The village was set up in 1975 after Dalits were ostracised and forced to flee from the surrounding areas. The land is owned by Brahmins.

The mill is built on semi-barren land of about 2 acres, surrounded by a wall. It is a two-room structure, with mud walls and a roof of clay tiles.

The mill is built on semi-barren land of about 2 acres, surrounded by a wall. It is a two-room structure, with mud walls and a roof of clay tiles. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

What happened next

On the evening of her alleged rape and murder, Asha’s family submitted a complaint at the Banda police station. They claimed gang rape and murder. A relative, who found Asha’s body, says they had heard screams and saw three men — Rajkumar, Bauwa, and Rajkrishan Shukla — step out of the mill. They also spotted three other men scale the wall behind.

The chakki is built on semi-barren land of about 2 acres, surrounded by a wall. It is a two-room structure, with mud walls and a roof of clay tiles. Its massive iron gate is now sealed. “The mill had old, rusted machines,” Suraj says. It was run on stolen electricity, the police say.

The police registered an FIR only the following day under Sections 302 (murder) and 376 (rape), not gang rape, of the Indian Penal Code, naming the three men the relative had seen.

Agarwal says the almost 24-hour delay in registering the FIR was because Suraj was not present when the relatives approached the police. “I got to know about what had happened much later, and by the time I came home, I realised that everyone had gone to the police station. There they asked us to come the next day,” Suraj says.

A friend of the bereaved family shows documents and photographs of the alleged gang rape and murder.

A friend of the bereaved family shows documents and photographs of the alleged gang rape and murder. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

When they felt the police were taking no action, the villagers called for a protest on November 16. Rajkumar was arrested the next day, but the police changed the charges and booked him for offences under Sections 304A (causing death by negligence), 287 (negligence with respect to machinery), and 201 (causing disappearance of evidence of offence) of the IPC, and Section 3(2)(v) of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.

“Changing the offences of the FIR... has made them bailable,” says advocate Rashmi Verma, a member of the not-for-profit organisation Dalit Dignity and Justice Centre, which teamed up with other NGOs to undertake an independent fact-finding project on the alleged crime.

The delay in arrests increases the chances of the accused tampering with and destroying evidence, she adds. The fact-finding team’s report itself says, “… There seems to be an attempt to not just dilute the charges of the crime but change the crime itself.” On November 29, Rajkumar was granted bail. The chargesheet will be filed in 60 days, in keeping with the SC/ST Act. His family does not wish to speak to the media.

Covered with a tin sheet, Asha and Suraj’s home has just enough space for the family of five.

Covered with a tin sheet, Asha and Suraj’s home has just enough space for the family of five. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

Facts and findings

Two doctors at the Community Health Centre in Naraini had conducted the post-mortem on November 1. “The cause of death is shock and haemorrhage due to ante-mortem injuries,” says Agarwal, ruling out sexual assault. He adds that the vaginal swab samples have been sent for forensic examination. He says the “conclusive” report of medico-legal experts said it was an “accidental death” as there were no weapons involved, and Asha’s body had been entangled in the machine.

The family alleges there was no hospital stamp on the post-mortem report, which is against the norm. Agarwal says, “The doctor’s name is clearly mentioned, and the post-mortem has been videographed for further investigation. When needed the video will act as evidence.”

He also says Rajkumar claimed that when Asha was applying mud on the wall, she got stuck in the belt. “He panicked and called a few more people when he saw her clothes getting stuck,” he says, adding that they have taken the opinion of forensic experts in Lucknow and Prayagraj. “The machine was old, so the kind of cuts on Asha’s body are possible with these machines.”

Asha’s family also says there was no blood near her body. Photographs of the chakki in the fact-finding report by the group of not-for-profit organisations — including the Bundelkhand Dalit Adhikar Manch, Chingaari Sangathan, Vidya Dham Samiti, and Youth for Human Rights Documentation — show little blood at the alleged crime scene. However, Agarwal asserts that blood was found at the spot.

Verma says of the police post on X, “In the first 48 hours, there should be no unnecessary release of information except the facts of the incident and that the investigation has been taken up.”

She adds that the police “should not rush to the press with half-baked, speculative or unconfirmed information about ongoing investigations”, as this “not only raises apprehensions about the fairness of the investigation but also contradicts the Ministry of Home Affairs 2010 advisory… which states that police officers should confine their briefings to the essential facts”.

Family members in the street leading to Asha and Suraj’s home in Pataura village, Banda district, Uttar Pradesh.

Family members in the street leading to Asha and Suraj’s home in Pataura village, Banda district, Uttar Pradesh. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

Life on the fringes

At the entrance to Asha and Suraj’s home are two posters of B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution and advocate for Dalit rights. Covered with a tin sheet, their home has just enough space for the family of five. Rashmi, who was supposed to be married in November to a man who operates an earthmover, is still home. Sitting next to a clay stove, she says she now fears for her life. “What if the men come back?”

Rashmi finished Class VII, and then worked with her mother in the fields. She takes care of the family’s animals: a calf and a goat. She remembers her mother as someone who liked to dress up. “She only wore saris, and had them in different colours. She loved wearing make-up. She couldn’t buy a lot of products, but she would often wait for hawkers who sold make-up on their carts,” she says. As someone who enjoyed singing and dancing, Asha would be the first to be invited to village performances, where she danced her heart out. Rashmi says her mother remembered the lyrics of Hindi songs by heart.

After Asha died, Suraj threw her bangles into the field. “I cannot see them daily. It kills me. What do I have to do with those bangles now? I couldn’t even get her justice,” he says, with a sense of hopelessness. He has worked many years, sometimes as a daily wager, sometimes selling paani-puri.

Rashmi tries to wear all of Asha’s saris. So does Asha’s younger sister, who is 21, has gone to college, and is finishing a degree in home science. “Every time I wear her sari, it tells us who we are and where our place in this world is,” Asha’s sister says. “How long do we have to live like this, in complete fear of these men? At some point, we will have to get out and walk in front of them.” She remembers that the pink and brown sari Asha wore the day she was allegedly raped and murdered, was gifted to her by her aunt in February this year.

At Asha’s parents’ home in Naraini, her father, who suffers from tuberculosis, holds up a clutch of documents containing FIRs, post-mortem reports, and requests to higher officials, with the hope of being heard. He sits on a wooden charpoy. Last year, he lost a son to an accident; this year a daughter. Now, he has two children left: his daughter, who is looking for a job, and a son, who works as a plumber.

Behind him are portraits of Ambedkar. “Shasan unka, prashasan unka, hamara kaun? (The government, the administration belong to them. Who do we have?)” he says.

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