Hathras: There are no photos of the 20-year-old Hathras ‘gang-rape’ victim on the walls of her house.
The saree the mother wore on the day her daughter’s body was forcibly cremated, lies hanging from the verandah ceiling.
“We will frame a large photo once justice is delivered,” said her mother, before pointing towards a Tulsi plant. “Until then, I will continue to take care of her plant; it reminds us of her, and it’s growing beautifully.”
As for the saree, the mother said, “It’s a reminder of how I wasn’t allowed to see her face one last time. Now when I think of her, I look at her Tulsi plant.”
It’s been a year since the 20-year old Dalit woman was allegedly gang-raped and murdered by four upper caste Thakur men — Sandeep (20), his uncle Ravi (35) and their friends Ramu (26) and Luv Kush (23) — at their village of Boolhgarhi in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district.
On the morning of 14 September 2020, the woman was out in the fields with her mother to collect fodder for cattle when the accused allegedly got hold of her.
She had succumbed to her injuries in New Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital on 29 September and was brought to her village late that evening. Her body was, however, forcibly cremated by the UP government officials at around 2:25 am on 30 September.
A year on, the family grapples with not only her loss but also the method of her last rites, the village has been further ruptured by the existing caste divide, the four accused languish in jail but the trial has been marred by allegations of “upper caste intimidation”, and the once prominent spotlight and political patronage has all but vanished.
When ThePrint revisited Boolgarhi last Thursday, it found the family on its own, barring the CRPF personnel providing protection, even as they battle murmurs and snide insinuations of the 20-year-old being the victim of a “honour killing”.
Trial marred by charges of intimidation
The CBI had taken over the case and filed an FIR on 11 October. The premier investigating agency filed its charge sheet on 18 December, and charged the four men of gang-rape and murder, while accusing the UP Police of negligence.
The trial began at a special ST/SC court in Hathras in January this year. There have so far been around 20 hearings, and the proceedings on prosecution witness statements and evidence are expected to continue at least until October, after which the defence will produce its witnesses — the four accused. The defence accuses the victim’s elder brother of strangulating her.
In March, however, there was a ruckus in court that has led to the family to allege “upper caste intimidation”.
According to Seema Kushwaha, the Dalit family’s lawyer, court proceedings on 5 March had to be adjourned by district judge B.D. Bharti, after a “drunk lawyer”, Tarun Hari Sharma, allegedly stormed the court and began threatening her and intimidating the victim’s older brother, the prosecution’s first witness in the case.
She also alleged that defence counsel Munna Singh Pundhir, along with a “gang of lawyers”, began taunting the family and the prosecution when the 20-year-old’s undergarments were being taken out.
“Seema ko seema yaad dila denge”, “Acche se dikhao” — were some of the statements allegedly made by the lawyers when the underwear was produced, according to Kushwaha and the victim’s brother. In-camera proceedings began after the 5 March incident.
Pundhir denied the allegations, calling them “fake” and a “publicity stunt”.
“This is a case of honour killing; no one is threatening them,” he said. “The family just wants to run away from the village because the elder brother killed the girl.”
‘Feel nauseous when attending court’
Kushwaha, however, said that after the incident, she had sought police protection.
“I requested the court to provide me security and police personnel escort me until the Hathras border,” Kushwaha said, adding that Sharma is “goonda type” and was earlier “accused of murder”.
The family alleged that some of the lawyers are looking to sabotage the case. “There is a gang of lawyers here, they say that the upper caste men have been falsely implicated,” the older brother said. “They don’t want Seema Kushwaha to fight our case; so, they resort to threats and intimidation.”
The brother also said that court appearances have now become traumatising for the family.
“I don’t eat anything on hearing days; it makes me feel sick,” he said. “I try not to look at the accused but their presence makes me dizzy. Standing long hours during questioning makes me nauseous.”
“My sons struggle to sleep; every day the same questions are asked,” the mother said. “The elder one wakes up from sleep and screams answers of questions asked in court.”
The family and their lawyer filed a plea against the “harassment” before the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, which is hearing the forceful cremation case. Last month, the high court refused to stay or transfer the trial out of Hathras on the basis of status reports filed by the CRPF and the district judge.
“The reports were provided in court in a sealed envelope. I haven’t seen them but as per information the district judge has denied that we were being threatened and that it was only a verbal spat between me and the lawyers,” Kushwaha said, adding that the judge himself is scared of the “gang of lawyers”.
She added that a petition challenging the HC’s dismissal will be filed in the Supreme Court as attempts to “intimidate” her allegedly continue.
A village in denial
Back in Boolgarhi, an eerie silence has enveloped the village, with the incident only sharpening the ever-present caste divide.
Thakurs are the most dominant community with a few Brahmins. The three Dalits families are all related to each other.
The Thakur-Brahmin temple is still inaccessible to the Dalits, even though rains have washed away the scribblings on the wall that said only upper castes are allowed there. “The boys will paint it again,” a Brahmin woman who lives next to the temple said.
No one talks about the 20-year-old, but there are murmurs of how four “innocent men” have been framed in an “honour killing”, and that the woman was in a relationship with one of the Thakur men.
Not only is the Dalit family isolated, they do not go out for any work or interact with anyone. “We have been socially isolated by the upper castes,” the woman’s mother said.
The cremation site can hardly be detected in between the lush green fields if not pointed out by local residents. “We stopped coming to work here after the incident; there was heavy police barricading for days,” said a village resident Ishwari Devi. “We started coming here only this year, since May.”
Just across the road from the Dalit family’s home, relatives of the accused complain that they haven’t got any time with their sons.
“Ramu and Ravi’s children are growing up, they ask about their fathers, what do we tell them?” said Sandeep’s grandfather. “Their wives have gone silent. In the two-minute calls they get, they only sob, saying they are innocent.”
He added that they have no faith left that their sons will ever come back as this is a “media trial”. “When there are court hearings, we only get to see them from a distance,” he said.
Luv Kush’s family still believes that he is innocent because, according to them, he gave water to the woman when she was first found by her mother. “Why will anyone give water? Will they not run away?” his father asked.
Asked if they have received support from the Right-wing groups that protested for them last September — members of Bajrang Dal, Karni Sena and Kshatriya Mahasabha — the father said that none of them have since visited or spoken to them about the case or provided support.
“They came then for politics,” Luv Kush’s father said. “Now it’s been a year since my son is in jail. Where are they now?”
A family isolated
The 20-year-old was the youngest of her siblings — two brothers and a sister.
Both the brothers showed photos of her last Rakshabandhan with them — the smiling 20-year-old in a pink and yellow suit is seen tying them rakhi. The gifts she received remain untouched.
“Rakhi pe uske dono bhai bohot roye, 2 beheno ne baandhi, ek reh gayi, sabse choti wali (Both brothers cried on Rakshabandhan this time; two sisters had tied rakhi but one wasn’t there this time),” said the 20-year-old’s mother.
Her father proudly flaunted door mats that the 20-year-old had woven from leftover material. “She was very talented,” he said, before he broke down along with his wife.
Seeing them weep, their young granddaughters also began crying out loud.
“We have sent away the eldest one to my maternal family; there is no school here nearby and I don’t want my daughters to grow up in such a hostile environment,” the sister-in-law said.
Her middle daughter, who turned five recently, pointed at the 20-year-old’s photo on her uncle’s phone and said, “Bua ko maar dala.”
The youngest one, who was just 14 days old when the incident happened, turned a year old on 26 August.
On the phone, another cousin plays two videos of the 20-year-old dancing in an orange hoodie, to the Rajasthani folk song – “Ara ra ra” — at a wedding in 2017. The rest of the family gathers to watch it together.
“We will never leave this village, this is our home, we have her memories in every corner,” the father said.
The family has, however, formed a bond with the 18-20 CRPF personnel that guard them in three shifts.
These personnel, stationed since November, frisk visitors at the entry point and lodge details in a register that they submit in court. Eight CCTV cameras in a computer room, outposts on the terrace and various locations in the house’s premises have been stationed for surveillance. The personnel escort the family members everywhere they go, even for daily essentials like fruits and vegetables.
‘No leaders have come’
Family members of the 20-year-old said that no political leaders have called or visited them after the incident in the last one year. “No leaders from SP, BSP, Congress and even Bhim Army, including Chandra Shekhar Azad, have visited us since,” the younger brother said.
ThePrint went through the visitors register that only had entries of relatives and journalists.
Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, along with other Congress leaders, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati — had at that time come out in support of the Dalit family, demanding action not only against the accused but also against the then Hathras District Magistrate Praveen Kumar Laxkar.
Former BSP MLA from Hathras, Gendalal Choudhary, said the family has the BSP’s support “but he hasn’t visited them since last September-October”.
Former BJP MLA (Hathras), Rajvir Pehelwan who had organised a protest for the accused, said his stance remains the same. “There is no rape, no casteism, no oppression here,” he said. “The matter has been exaggerated by outsiders. The court proceedings also show that.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)