Hathras: The family of the 20-year-old Hathras woman who died Tuesday after she was allegedly gang-raped and assaulted by four men is quite certain why she was targeted.
They wouldn’t have lost their daughter, they say, if they hadn’t been Dalits but “Pandits or Thakurs”, two “upper-caste” communities that dominate Boolgarhi, the village the family calls home.
The 20-year-old victim and her family are members of the Valmiki community, which accounts for all of two households among Boolgarhi’s 200. She was out to collect fodder on 14 September when four of her upper-caste neighbours allegedly dragged her into the bajra fields, pulling her by the dupatta around her neck, and assaulted her. While she was being strangled, she allegedly bit her tongue so hard, she cut it.
On Tuesday, she died at Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital, her injuries too critical for her to survive.
For the family of the victim, the brutality of the Hathras assault, the latest instance of sexual violence to catch attention of the country, is a testament to the caste faultlines that run deep in Uttar Pradesh.
Adding to the family’s pain is the fact that they were deprived of a proper farewell by the Uttar Pradesh authorities’ decision to cremate the victim in a pre-dawn funeral that defied the family’s religious beliefs. Until the last moment, they beseeched police in Hathras, as well as the district authorities, for a final look at their daughter, but to no avail.
The four upper caste men identified as the suspects — Sandeep, his uncle Ravi, their friend Lavkush and Ramu — were arrested last week.
The lines that divide this Hathras village
The fact that the upper castes and lower castes of Boolgarhi inhabit different universes is clear at once when you enter the village.
The homes of the Hathras rape-murder accused and the victim are hardly 200 metres away, but they couldn’t be more different.
The former are high-walled, gated concrete structures — most of them two-storied — while the two Dalit households live in small, two-room units made of concrete and mud. The Thakurs and the Pandits own land, but the two Valmiki households get by on dairy goods from their livestock and daily labour.
When ThePrint team visited the village Tuesday night, all the Thakurs and Pandits’ houses were locked from inside even as the relatives of the victim lined up outdoors, in grief and anger, for a last look at her.
The upper caste residents couldn’t be approached for comment, since all appeared to be indoors, but their Dalit neighbours spoke of a deep divide in Boolgarhi.
Over the years, the Valmikis said, the upper castes have sought to subjugate them in numerous ways. They have tolerated it all quietly, they add, in order to maintain the uneasy peace that defines their life in Boolgarhi. “They harass us in many ways, like they say, ‘don’t walk from this side of the road’, they drain dirty water into our homes,” said the victim’s sister-in-law.
“We went to work in Delhi to escape the discrimmination here. How long will we keep fighting for basic amenities?” said a cousin of the victim who works in a factory in Delhi.
The family of the victim said nobody would have dared to do what they did to her had she belonged to the “Thakur or the Pandit community”.
Even police, the victim’s mother said, had “not been prompt” in taking action against the accused because they are from the upper caste.
“Yaha pe insaan ka jaat pehle dekhte hain, phir kuch kaam karte hain, woh dekhte dekhte haiwan ban gaye hain sab. Police ne bhi hume pehle bola tha Chandpa thana mein ki hum natak kar rahe he, beti ko kuch jyada nahi hua hain (Here, people see your caste first then take action. They have turned monstrous now. When we took our daughter to the Chandpa thana, the personnel told us that we are doing drama and that nothing major has happened to her),” the mother said.
Hathras Superintendent of Police (SP) Vikrant Vir denied these allegations but said the station house officer of Chandpa was transferred to police lines — seen as a punishment posting — Sunday for “his failure to promptly act in the case”.
The Valmikis of Boolgarhi allege that the “apathy” with which the woman’s case was handled could be attributed to the fact that Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is a Thakur. The caste dynamics under Adityanath’s rule have been a matter of headlines since he took over in 2017 from the Samajwadi Party (SP).
The potential caste contours of the Hathras episode have also been the defining aspect of the political response it has triggered.
From former Congress president Rahul Gandhi alleging a “class-specific jungle raj in Uttar Pradesh”, to the Aam Aadmi Party hitting out at the CM’s “casteist mindset”, and the Bhim Army’s protest at Safdarjung Hospital, and from Mayawati, who pitches her party BSP as a platform for Dalit uplift, demanding fast prosecution, to Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party moirning the death of a “Dalit daughter”, the outrage of political parties has invoked the alleged casteist undercurrents to the crime.
‘Apathy of police’
The Hathras victim was cremated at 2.25 am, amid a heavy security cover that saw over 150 police personnel descend on the village of 200 households.
The family requested the police and the district authorities to let them send off their daughter in accordance with their rituals — or at least let them spend some time with her. A window of 20 minutes was initially allowed for rituals, but when the family rejected it as too short, even that was withdrawn.
The police personnel prevented her family from leaving the house as she was taken for cremation.
Asked why they were hurrying the cremation in the pre-dawn hours, the police and the district authorities said they feared waiting until morning would lead to the matter being “blown out of proportion” and “politicised”.
Before the body arrived at the site, generators and a pile of logs — her pyre — stood ready.
Hours before dawn, the Hathras victim’s mortal remains were burnt to ashes, with her bereaved family shedding tears at home a short distance away.