OPINION

Caste, crime, and a cremation

Policemen, political leaders and relatives of the victim crowd outside her house in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, on September 30. (Below): Relatives of the victim watch her funeral on TV in their home.R.V. MoorthyR_V_Moorthy  

With sadness in his voice, the uncle of the 19-year-old woman who was assaulted and allegedly gang-raped in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, speaks fondly of the family’s pride. He talks of how the young woman was “traditional”. Though she had little formal education, she would give sane advice on family issues. Her mother says she was good with household chores. The uncle sums her up in one sentence: “She was a superstar.”

Following her brutal assault on September 14, the young woman fought for her life at Aligarh’s J.N. Medical College and Hospital and later passed away in New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital on September 29. Her death and hurried cremation in the early hours of September 30 by the district administration has sparked an outcry across India and protests in some pockets. The family says the authorities did not seek their permission before cremating their daughter, a claim that the district administration refutes. The ghastly incident, which has led to a political slugfest, highlights the plight of women in the State and the country, continuing caste-based discrimination, and lapses in administration.

A story of discrimination

The beginning of this grisly story of alleged rape and murder is not in the undulating millet fields of Boolagarhi village of Hathras, situated 200 km from New Delhi; it begins in discrimination, according to various accounts of the family. Like most girls from the Dalit Valmiki caste, the young woman could not study beyond primary school, says her father Ram Lal. “We always lived in fear of our girls getting dragged into the millet fields,” he says. The millet fields are barely a kilometre away from where the family lives. The tall crops that gently sway in the breeze now look menacing to the family, serving as a terrible reminder of what their child went through.

The woman’s uncle, too, says she always preferred to stay at home. In her dying declaration, the woman had said that two of the accused men, Sandeep and Ravi, both belonging to the dominant Thakur community, had tried to assault her earlier. But she had kept quiet as she feared for the life of her father and brother.

“We have been punished twice,” says the victim’s younger brother Rakesh who works as a lab attendant in Noida. “Once when my sister was killed by the Thakur boys and the second time when the administration burnt her body in the dead of the night. All I wanted was to wait till dawn and dress up my sister in new clothes for her last journey.” Despite the family pleading to be allowed to see the victim’s face one last time, they were not allowed, they say. The village was turned into a police fortress and the police manhandled anyone who tried to come out of their house that night, they allege. They say they don’t even know what material was used for her funeral.

Ram Lal has an LPG cylinder, two buffaloes, and two bighas of allotted land, which is more than what many others in the village have. He works part time as a sanitary worker in a neighbouring school. While Rakesh is in Noida, Ram Lal’s older son Rajesh stays in the village. A steady income ensured that the family did not slide into poverty.

Ram Lal’s house is one of the four Valmiki houses in a village dominated by Thakurs and Brahmins. “ Yeh ghar thoda achhcha hai unse (this house is slightly better than theirs),” says Khema Singh Chauhan explaining the alleged animosity between the families of the victim and the accused. In 2001, Sandeep’s father spent time in judicial custody for assaulting the young woman’s grandfather with a sickle. Chauhan is a sanitary worker in Delhi and is married into the family. “When my baraat came to this village in the late ’90s, I found the shopkeepers here sprinkling water on our money before accepting it. Not much has changed since then. They still consider us animals,” he says.

Assaulted in the fields

The victim’s mother, Gayatri, is inconsolable but doesn’t tire of talking to the media. In her retelling of the incident, the horrors of that morning emerge. On September 14, at around 9 a.m., she went to cut grass with her daughter and her elder son Rajesh. A little later, Rajesh returned home to tend to the cattle and stack up some of the collected grass. The mother and daughter stayed in the field.

After some time, Gayatri could not see her daughter, who was working further away in the fields. She called out her name several times. When she didn’t hear an answer, she assumed that her daughter had gone home to drink water as it was an exceptionally hot and humid day. But when she was returning home, she saw one slipper belonging to her daughter lying upside down at the edge of the millet field. “She would have cried for help but I am hard of hearing,” she says. A little ahead, she found another slipper and tell-tale marks of a person being dragged into the millet fields that are thick enough and sometimes tall enough to hide an elephant. Overcome by sudden fear, she ran ahead only to find her daughter lying unconscious and naked, her tongue protruding out. Gayatri quickly covered her daughter’s body with her sari and screamed for help. Gayatri says she didn’t mention anything about sexual assault to anyone as she wanted to save her daughter’s dignity. “I sprinkled water on her face. Soon Rajesh came and we took her to Chandpa police station on a motorcycle,” she recalls.

At first, the officials thought nothing of the victim’s complaint that she was struggling to articulate. When Gayatri intervened to say that Sandeep had tried to strangulate her daughter, the station in-charge took down the complaint and asked Rajesh to rush his sister to the hospital. “He sent two constables with us in the auto. At Hathras, they said they didn’t have the facility to treat her and referred her to the Jawaharal Nehru Medical College and Hospital in Aligarh,” says Rajesh.

The two constables had orders to accompany the family only till Hathras and refused to proceed further. Rajesh dialled 108 for an ambulance. It took the family two hours to reach Aligarh.

One incident, different versions

The district administration and the family have presented two different versions of the incident through videos. Some of these videos were ostensibly recorded when the young woman was taken to the Chandpa police station and made to lie on a stone slab. While Gayatri insists that her daughter was gang-raped, the district administration has tried to discredit her version by circulating a video where the young woman is heard saying Sandeep tried to strangulate her because she resisted his attempt to molest her.

The administration has also shared a video where the young woman’s mother can be heard saying that only Sandeep was involved in the crime. However, in a video released by the family, the young woman is heard saying she was raped by at least two men while the other two ran away on seeing her mother. A relative of the woman recorded this video when she was in the Aligarh hospital.

A source in the hospital says the woman noted down four names in her dying declaration and attributed the crime to enmity between the families. Brahm Singh, Circle Officer, Sadabad, who recorded the statement on September 22, says she mentioned the names of Ravi, Ram Singh, and Luv Kush, and so their names were added to the FIR under the relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

The family alleges the police are trying to drop the gang-rape charges so that the accused will not be sent to the gallows. An uncle of the young woman who works in Aligarh Muslim University says, “My niece had told her mother about the sexual assault when she regained consciousness. She had kept silent earlier because of social pressures. But when she told the investigating officer about the gang rape, we accepted it as her decision.”

A lack of trust

Vikrant Vir, Superintendent of Police (SP), Hathras, refutes the claim that an attempt is being made to save the accused. “Had that been the case, why would we [the Station House Officer] lodge an FIR under attempt to murder and atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes within an hour of the incident,” he asks. Why was the SHO shifted out of his post a few days after filing the FIR, then? “I shifted him to police lines because I felt he could not win the trust of the people he is meant to serve,” he says. Vir himself was suspended on October 2.

Vir, who is from Bihar, adds that Sandeep was arrested on September 19, a few days after the incident. And when the girl named the other three men, the police nabbed them quickly and added the section of the IPC pertaining to gang rape to the FIR, he says.

Vir also insists that the timing of the cremation was not odd. “I have been told it is not unusual to conduct last rites during the night in this belt. Another official said if you delay the cremation, the soul wanders... The point is, there is no one Hindu way. Anyone can be wiser in hindsight. Anyway, a three-member SIT has come to guide us.”

Both Vir and the District Magistrate, Praveen Laxkar, say the young woman’s father is being manipulated by people with vested interests. Rajesh says his father is a simple man, which is why he is being pressured by the administration. On October 1, in a video that went viral, Laxkar can be heard telling the family that the media will be gone in a day or two, but they (the administration) will stand by the family. He can also be heard saying that the family should not change its statements so much that the officials get changed. Laxkar has denied the contents of the video since, but the video shows a lack of trust between the family and the administration.

Citing the autopsy and forensic reports, Prashant Kumar, ADG (law and order) told reporters that the victim was not raped. “The FSL reports say that no semen was found in the woman’s body,” he said. Haris Khan, medical superintendent of Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College, says the medical and forensic examination was conducted on September 22, eight days after the incident.

On being asked about the alleged delay in the medical examination of the woman, Vir also says it was conducted as soon as the victim told them about the incident. When asked whether the police could have asked the medical team to conduct it within 72 hours considering the condition in which the woman had been brought to the police station, Vir concedes it could have been done. “There are some systemic gaps for which we all need to work together but our intention always was to do the best for the young woman. I ensured that she got the best of treatment free of cost,” he says.

Shahid Siddiqui, Principal, Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College, says the young woman suffered a fracture in the cervical spine and a gash on the tongue, possibly because she had bitten her tongue while being strangulated. “As she and her mother didn’t say anything about sexual assault, we didn’t examine her. She had developed paralysis of the limbs. She was first admitted to the general ward but later, as her condition deteriorated, she was shifted to a high dependency unit and then to the ICU where she was put on a ventilator,” he says. Neurosurgeon Fakhrul Hoda says they were waiting for the patient to stabilise. “She should have been shifted to a higher centre in the first place. There was no point in referring her at a later stage,” he says. “We have all the facilities she required,” he adds.

‘They are all low life’

In front of Ram Lal’s house stands Sandeep’s house. Sandeep has been accused of murder and gang rape along with his uncles Ravi and Ram Singh and friend Luv Kush. Sandeep and Luv Kush are 18-19-year-olds, while Sandeep’s uncles, both in their thirties, are married. There is no male member in the house except for Bhanu, Sandeep’s brother who is a teenager. None of the brothers has more than three bighas of land. The women in the house refuse to buy any story about the wrongdoings of the men. “ Koi bhi badchalan nahin hai (There is no bad character),” says Manorama, Sandeep’s aunt.

In 2001, Sandeep’s father Narendra Singh Guddu and Ravi spent time in judicial custody for an attack on Ram Lal’s father. “Ravi sells vegetable biryani in the neighbouring village and was busy with its preparation when the incident took place [on September 14]. All the rice went waste that day,” says his mother Rajwanti. Ram Singh’s mother Shanti Devi says her son was in the dairy outside the village at the time of the incident. The families say Ram Lal has become greedy and wants to make money over his daughter’s death. “He wants to avenge what happened in 2001,” says Rajwanti.

Bhanu says Sandeep was at home during the incident. It was Luv Kush who took water for the woman when she was gasping for breath, she claims. “He was in his field which is close to the place where she was found. And now, he has been named in the FIR.”

The families describe their neighbours as “ neechi kaum (low life)” whom they won’t touch with a barge pole. When asked if Ravi would sell biryani to a Valmiki, Bhanu chuckles. “We sell biryani on a plastic plate and we don’t mix business with caste,” she says. The conversation reveals how entrenched caste is despite the trappings of modernity in the village, such as televisions and refrigerators.

Handling a volatile situation

Watching over the wailing women in the victim’s house, who all have their heads covered, are gods of the Hindu pantheon. When the body of the victim was brought to the village from Delhi, several people from other villages and members of the Bhim Army poured into Hathras. Many youngsters could be heard saying, “ Yeh log bhatak gaye hain, humein inko line par lana hai (These people [the family] have lost their way, we need to bring them back on track).” The implication is that by sticking to Hinduism, they have strayed from the path of B.R. Ambedkar. The local administration feared that these people who infiltrated into the village would cause a law and order problem. Meanwhile, on the basis of the ADG’s assertion that the victim was not raped, the All India Kshatriya Mahasabha held a protest outside the village demanding that the rape charges be dropped.

Hathras is a reserved constituency in U.P. It is represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Rajvir Diler. The party holds four of the five Assembly seats in the district. The anger against Diler is palpable in the village. Though Diler is from the Valmiki community, members of the community see him as someone who is beholden to his upper caste patrons in the party. Like his father Kishan Lal Diler, who nurtured the reserved constituency for the BJP since Kalyan Singh was at the helm of the State, stories of Diler carrying his own glass whenever he visits the family of an upper caste voter are common.

On September 30, there were cries that he was a blot on the community. “If a Thakur offers him a chair, he sits on the ground. Today, we made him sit on the ground in a Valmiki’s house,” says the sister-in-law of the victim. It took him more than a week to reach out to the family after the incident, she says. While Diler takes credit for helping the victim shift to Delhi, the family members say it was too little, too late.

On his part, Diler says the administration let him down. “I was stopped at the Chandpa police station on the night the body was brought to the village. The District Magistrate and the former SP carried out the funeral without the family. Had I been allowed entry, I would have found a middle path,” he says. Diler says he has complained to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath about the high-handedness of the officials.

Shyoraj Jeevan, a senior Congress leader from the area, agrees with his rival. “The administration lacks maturity. It should have used people like us to build bridges with the family. They tried to handle a volatile situation by forgetting that the Dalit youth of today are assertive about their rights.”

Meanwhile, in the outer courtyard of the house, relatives can be heard discussing their experiences of everyday discrimination. Things haven’t changed since independence, they say.

Surendra Singh, who worked in U.P. Roadways for some time, says he was taunted for his fair skin when he joined service. “My superior would often say that I submitted a fake Scheduled Caste certificate to get the job. They could not digest that a Valmiki can be fair. It led to many skirmishes in the office and ultimately I had to leave the job.”

The names of the victim’s family members have been changed to protect their identity