New Delhi: Crimes against women don’t happen in isolation from the prevalent social hierarchy and norms, laden with caste and class biases. In December 2019, when it was reported that a 23-year-old woman had been burnt alive in a small Unnao village by men who had allegedly raped her and wanted to punish her for approaching police, a series of rumours followed.
Perhaps it becomes easier to do so when the incident happens in a seemingly distant region. In this situation, travelling to Unnao to meet the families of the victim as well as the accused became imperative.
The story itself was complicated, with the added layers of caste dynamics and familial rivalry. It was important to tread sensitively — for the villagers to speak openly.
While speaking to the villagers, it became clear that the story wasn’t just about this one crime but about a greater malaise that enabled a series of crimes against women that had taken place in Unnao.
This story is a deep-dive into the crime itself, but also sought to explore the caste, gender and political equations in the village. We are grateful that it struck a chord with readers.
Unnao: Around 9 pm, the Unnao rape and murder victim’s body was brought back to her Hindu Nagar residence to a reception of shower petals. Elder women of her family announced resolutely, “No one will cry!” Everyone acknowledged the appeal, but hardly anyone could oblige.
Over 50 hours after the victim was set ablaze in a small Unnao village over an alleged rape case — creating stark national headlines — her brother decided not to cremate her body.
“We can’t cremate her. Her body is 90 per cent burnt as it is, there isn’t much left of it. We will bury her and build a memorial for her,” said the brother after he brought the body home from Safdarjung Hospital in the national capital.
The woman had been airlifted to the Delhi hospital after five men, two of them her alleged rapists, from a powerful upper-caste local family set her ablaze at 4 am one morning last December. After treatment in Delhi for almost two days, she succumbed to grave injuries.
The 23-year-old was laid to rest next to her grandparents near the family home as a grieving village bid her farewell amid loud wails and blank stares.
How politics played out in the anguished village
Just 24 hours before this, the victim’s home, a dilapidated shanty, in the Hindu Nagar village of Unnao played host to a political drama as the case rocked the country — with even Parliament witnessing Opposition protests.
As the family awaited the body of the victim, the shock of what had happened to their daughter numbed their senses.
But even as the family went through the stages of grief, a flurry of politicians from across the spectrum visited them to extend condolences.
Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, BJP’s Unnao MP Sakshi Maharaj, and Uttar Pradesh BJP ministers Swami Prasad Maurya and Kamal Rani Varun visited the family. Not to be left behind, members of Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and the Social Democratic Party too showed up to express solidarity.
Politics played out in full public view as local Congress leaders protested against the BJP and attempted to block Sakshi Maharaj’s cavalcade. The MP had to get down from his car and walk a few metres to reach the victim’s home. When he met the family, he promised them Rs 25 lakh as compensation.
Later, after her burial, Lucknow Divisional Commissioner Mukesh Meshram gave the family a hand-written document, promising two houses under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana — family members claim they had their names on a list under the affordable housing scheme but to no avail.
Meshram also promised to post a woman constable for 24-hour protection to the victim’s sister, and a licence to the brother to carry a gun for self-defence.
The family, however, didn’t seem to care for such pronouncements. “Not a single politician who visited us today has even bothered to offer arranging food for us,” one of the aunts of the victim told ThePrint as she lent a shoulder to the victim’s sister-in-law to grieve.
The sister-in-law, who married the victim’s elder brother 12 years ago, saw the victim’s growing up years from too close. “A tiny, petite girl who grew up in front of my eyes…” she spoke of the victim, with motherly affection.
“…and now, just like that, she is gone,” she said while belching, after answering media’s questions on an empty stomach through the morning.
The youngest in a family of five sisters and two brothers, the victim was the apple of everyone’s eye. Her elder sister, who was with her at the hospital along with the brother, described the victim as the most ambitious of the lot. A lover of spicy food and dressing up, the young woman initially wanted to join the police force, before expressing a desire to study law. She finally applied for a job in a bank. She had aspirations, said her sister.
In the early hours of the morning she was attacked, as she ran frantically in a ball of fire on the streets about 500 metres from her village, her dreams came to a horrifying end after a year-long battle with her alleged rapists.
The fateful morning
The 23-year-old had set out towards Rae Bareli, 50 km from her village, early that morning. She was aggrieved that Shivam Trivedi, the prime accused in the rape case she had filed in March, was let off on bail on 25 November. Trivedi, an upper caste man with whom she had an affair, and his cousin Shubham allegedly raped her on 12 December 2018.
Shivam was arrested in September but got bail on 30 November.
On the fateful morning last week, the victim left her house to discuss the case with her lawyer.
On her way to catch a train, the woman was accosted and cornered by five men at Goura Chowk at 4 am, according to her statement to the police.
She was then stabbed and thrashed with a stick, before the accused poured kerosene on her body and set her ablaze, the statement said.
The Uttar Pradesh Police said there hasn’t been a confirmation of the stabbing and other injuries.
Ajay Kumar Tripathi, inspector in-charge of the local Bihar Thana police station, said he covered her with a blanket the minute he saw her. She had run towards the nearest police station for over a km before calling the police using a passerby’s phone, Tripathi told ThePrint.
After Tripathi took her to the nearby hospital, he went back arrested the five people she named as responsible for the crime — Shivam Trivedi, Shubham Trivedi, Ram Kishore Trivedi (Shivam’s father), Harishankar Trivedi (Shubham’s father), and Umesh Bajpai (Trivedis’ nieghbour).
The five men have been under arrest since then.
‘Brainwashed into love, videographed, raped at gunpoint’
The gruesome crime came months after the young woman filed a detailed FIR in her rape case in the Bihar Thana station as well the Lal Ganj police station in Rae Bareli on 5 March.
According to the FIR, Shivam Trivedi “brainwashed” her into falling in love with him but backed out of marriage later.
Over an unspecified period, he took her to various cities, including Rae Bareli, and established physical relations with her even as he shot the act on video. He also threatened to release these videos if she complained, the FIR said.
On 9 January 2018, he had a marriage registration contract prepared at the Rae Bareli civil court when she insisted that he married her. The wedding, however, never took place. Eventually, he threatened to kill the woman and her family if they pressurised him further, the FIR said.
The girl then started living with her aunt in the Lal Ganj locality of Rae Bareli. According to the FIR, Shivam showed up at her place with cousin Shubham on 12 December. On the pretext of taking her to a nearby temple, they took her to a field and raped her at gunpoint.
Shivam was finally arrested on 19 September while Shubham went ‘absconding’.
While the police had allegedly refused to register a case initially, the matter was set in motion only after she filed an application with the Rae Bareli court seeking a probe.
The victim’s father is now demanding a “Hyderabad-like encounter” of the perpetrators, saying his daughter would be alive today if the law and order system was actually in place. “If only they registered the complaint on time, arrested them on time and didn’t let them off, this wouldn’t have happened.”
The ‘feared’ Trivedi clan in the Brahmin-majority village denied all the charges — even the affair.
Shubham’s mother, Savitri Devi, who enjoys an unmistakable clout in the village having served as the village head (pradhan) of Hindu Nagar gram for 15 years now, denied that her son was related to the case.
“He had a hydrocele surgery on the day of the alleged rape, which means there’s no way he could have been there. This is why he wasn’t arrested,” Savitri Devi told ThePrint.
At her home, other family members also defend “Shubham bhaiya” in unison.
Meanwhile, Shivam’s mother Saroj Trivedi said she knew nothing of the relationship between her son and the 23-year-old woman. “My son comes back to sleep at his home every day. He wasn’t even friends with this girl, a relationship is a far cry.”
The families of the accused are demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe in the case.
However, a neighbourhood friend of Shivam Trivedi, who went for a morning jog on the day of the alleged crime, told ThePrint, “Within 20 minutes or so after we began jogging, he got a call informing him about the incident. I went back to my home and he went back to his.”
He was later questioned by the police. “I just told them we go running some times. Thankfully, they realised I have nothing to do with the case.”
Others in the village used the words “taanashaahi” (dictatorship) and “dabangai” (bullying) to describe the pradhan.
“Everyone is scared of her. She can get her men to beat anyone up, especially those who belong to lower castes. Her threat is real,” said a Scheduled Caste villager who did not wish to be named.
The 23-year-old victim belonged to the ‘lower caste’ Lohar (blacksmith) community. Villagers told ThePrint that an inter-caste marriage is unimaginable in Unnao, and so “there was no way Shivam was going to marry the girl”.
The Trivedi family also rejected the allegation that it threatened the woman’s family after the rape case was registered.
“The (girl’s) mother has been working as a cook in the local government school for many years now. If she (Savitri Devi) really wanted to threaten them, the mother wouldn’t continue having this job,” one of Shubham’s sisters told ThePrint.
‘Not just about our daughter’
For many villagers, the young woman’s tragedy has been rendered into a cautionary tale. “This is what happens when one gets too much freedom,” said a villager who asked not to be named.
But everyone else doesn’t agree. During the burial of the woman, many children of the village bawled inconsolably.
“This isn’t just about our daughter. This is about the future of all the girls in the village, or this country,” said the victim’s sister-in-law.
This report was originally published on 9 December 2019.