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A rape forgotten—50 years ago, Mathura was denied justice. Then society betrayed her

Fifty years after she was raped, ThePrint tracks down Mathura who is still waiting for justice though her case paved the way for legal reform.

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In a tiny two-room hut in a village in Maharashtra, a diminutive Gond tribal woman fixes a plate of daal-bhaat for her son. “Aise hi khana padega, achar nahin hai. (There is no pickle),” she says, before moving to a corner to apply black dye on her shoulder-length grey hair. There is no official document –  Aadhaar, PAN or voter card – tying this woman to the name Mathura.

Villagers know her by another name—one that Mathura was forced to take after 26 March 1972. Fifty years ago, a constable from Desaiganj police station in Gadchiroli district raped her on the station premises. His colleague, head constable, joined him but was too intoxicated to rape her.

Mathura was barely 16 years old at the time.

The two policemen were convicted by the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court. But in 1978, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling and acquitted them. The incident and the subsequent acquittal sparked nationwide protest, gave an impetus to the women’s rights movement in independent India, and paved the way for legal reform.

Mathura, however, has been forgotten. If the police and judiciary failed her then, in the years after, it was the society that let her down.

Mathura closes the door of her house | Jyoti Yadav
Mathura closes the door of her house | Jyoti Yadav

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Mathura is everywhere but nowhere

“How has been my life?” Mathura asks bitterly in Hindi. “Jaisa ghar dikh raha hai waisa hi life raha(My life has been like my house.)

Outside her kutcha house, a few hens seek shelter from the summer sun under a pile of garbage. Mathura lives on a monthly widow pension of 1,000 rupees, which she supplements with manual work as and when it comes her way.

In the years since the judgment, she moved to another village, got married and raised two sons. Her husband died in 2017. “My husband did not know about what happened to me, or maybe he knew. And there is no point telling my sons,” she says.

Did anger or shame drive her to silence? “Anger,” she replies, twisting her fingers. “Sharm se zyada gussa aata hai (More than shame, I feel anger).”

Today, Mathura exists only in research papers, judicial history, essays on the feminist movement, competitive exam courses, YouTube videos and law classrooms.

She does not exist in any official record.

In Desaiganj, the police station has no record of the rape case. The station has been relocated several times. Most of the personnel have no knowledge of the woman. Many say they were born after the incident.

When ThePrint set out to look for her, activists in Nagpur who saw her last in the 1970s said she may have moved to Wardha. They were wrong.

Neither the Gadchiroli nor Chandrapur district administration is aware of her. There is no trace of her in the village in Desaiganj town, Shivaji ward, which Mathura once called home. Mathura remembers it as a rural settlement, but when ThePrint visited the area in May, it looked more like a small town with a big market, petrol pumps and good roads. Huts have been replaced by pucca (concrete) houses.

Mathura curses this place and its people. “Bahut gande log they, (they were terrible people),” she says. Nevertheless, it was where she worked as a domestic maid and agreed to marry her employer’s nephew. What happened afterwards altered the course of her life.

New police station, Desaiganj village, Maharashtra
New police station, Desaiganj village, Maharashtra | Jyoti Yadav

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New beginnings, old wounds

The village Mathura now calls home is relatively prosperous. Her older son (34), who lives with her and works as a seasonal wage labourer, believes their small kutcha house will be replaced under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. The LPG gas cylinder they received under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana is no longer in use because they can’t afford to refill it. Mathura’s younger son, 28, works in a factory in Hyderabad and occasionally sends some money home.

Clad in a bright orange sari with a green blouse, Mathura greets us tentatively. Her son calms their pet dog Moti who gets anxious when strangers knock on the door. He wants to offer us tea, but there is no milk.

Over a plate of daal-bhaat, she reopens old wounds that have not healed. “I was an orphan who lived in Desaiganj with my two brothers, Goonga and Gama.” She does not remember the names of her parents or the village she grew up in. “I washed dishes at other people’s homes and worked at construction sites. If I didn’t work for a day, we would not have a meal at night.”

The one person she liked and admired was Nushi bai whose house she worked in. “Wo hi ek saheli tha mera. Wo bhi mar gayi. Main gayi thi. (She was my only friend, but she is dead. I went to her funeral,)” she says. “She was a good woman. She wanted to provide me with shelter and asked me to move into her house. She arranged for me to marry her nephew Ashok.”

A daily wage worker, and orphaned like Mathura, Ashok was much older than her and lived in Nushi’s house. The young girl agreed to the marriage and moved in with Nushi. “My brothers were not capable enough to secure a marriage for me. But a few neighbours corrupted Gama’s mind.”

Her brother, she claims, filed a complaint under village pressure against Nushi and Ashok, alleging they had kidnapped her.

Mathura's half-made house in her new neighbourhood | Jyoti Yadav
The neighbourhood. The congested lane leads to Mathura’s half-built house | Jyoti Yadav

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The rape that shocked India

On 26 March 1972, around 10 pm, Mathura, Ashok, Nushi, and her husband Laxman were summoned to the police station. Head constable Tukaram and constable Ganpat were also present. They asked Nushi, Laxman and Ashok to wait outside. When others left, they locked the doors and switched off the lights.

Court records document what happened next. Ganpat took Mathura to a lavatory at the rear of the main building, loosened her undergarments, lit a torch and stared at her private parts. Then, he pushed her to the ground and raped her.

Ganpat ne izzat looti. Munh daba diya tha. Tukaram ne chhoo kar bolaAcchi hai. (Ganpat raped me. He held my mouth. Tukaram touched me and said ‘she is good’),” Mathura says.

By then, word had spread of Mathura’s disappearance, and villagers gathered outside the unlit police station. As they threatened to set the building on fire, Tukaram came outside claiming Mathura had left. But she emerged from behind the building sobbing and said she had been raped.

An FIR was registered at the same police station against Ganpat and Tukaram. For the medical examination, Mathura travelled 140km to Chandrapur district headquarters. At the end of the four-hour journey, she was subjected to a two-finger test to determine her virginity.

Dr Kamal Shastrakar examined her almost 24 hours after the rape. He recorded, “The girl had no injury on her person. Her hymen revealed old ruptures. The vagina admitted two fingers easily.”

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Burden of proof

The case went to a sessions court but the onus was on the prosecution–and Mathura–to prove that she had been raped. In the absence of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, she was neither counselled nor given shelter. Instead, her identity was laid bare.

The Chandrapur sessions court judge acquitted the policemen and labelled Mathura as someone “habituated to sexual intercourse”, calling her “a shocking liar”.

It took a while for this case involving an under-age tribal girl to garner national interest. A social activist and academician from Nagpur, Dr Seema Sakhare, started following the case and began writing columns in Marathi newspaper Lokmat. She filed a petition in the high court against the verdict.

In October 1976, the high court convicted Tukaram and Ganpat, sentencing them to imprisonment for one and five years, respectively.

Sakhare, now 88, recalls how the case and the guilty verdict laid bare caste divisions with brahmin and non-brahmin lobbies. “That a social activist from a disadvantaged caste group (Teli) managed to get a verdict in the victim’s favour upset the upper caste lobby,” she recalls. The two women are no longer in touch.

The high court verdict was challenged in the Supreme Court, the appellants were M.N. Phadke, S.V. Deshpande, V.M. Phadke, N.M. Ghatate. In September 1978, the Supreme Court reversed the guilty verdict.

Mathura was judged for her relationship with Ashok, described by the court as her ‘lover’.  Shakhare says the tone and language of the court reflected an urban upper-caste bias, far removed from the realities of rural society.

But was Ashok really her lover? Both Sakhare and Mathura herself deny reports of a grand love affair. It was a pragmatic arrangement, one orchestrated by Nushi, that would provide a young tribal orphan with a roof over her head.

Ganpat’s claim that semen found on his pyjama was a result of nightfall was entertained by the Supreme Court. “He speaks of nightly discharges. This may be untrue, but there is no reason to exclude the possibility of his having stained his pyjamas with semen while having sexual intercourse with persons other than Mathura. The seminal stains on Mathura can be similarly accounted for. She was, after all, living with Ashok and very much in love with him,” the ruling said.

Dr Seema Sakhare, the activist who filed a petition against the Chandrapur sessions court verdict in the Mathura rape case | Jyoti Yadav
Dr Seema Sakhare, the activist who filed a petition against the Chandrapur sessions court verdict in the Mathura rape case, at her house in Nagpur | Jyoti Yadav

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Ghosts from the past

Almost all the people involved with the case are no more—Ashok, his brother, his aunt Nushi, and Goonga. ThePrint was unable to find out what happened to Ganpat and Tukaram.

Mathura, who was humiliated under a relentless public gaze only to be denied justice, is angry. “Saza toh dilana chahiye tha. Bahut gussa aata hai. Main itni chhoti aur kamzor thi. Usko kaisey maarti? (They should have been punished. I get so angry. I was so small and weak. How could I have resisted them?)”

After the acquittal, four law professors at Delhi University wrote an open letter to the Supreme Court. It was followed by large-scale protests with the matter reaching Parliament.

Mathura never got to know that her case resulted in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 1983, which shifted the burden of proof from the victim to the accused. Custodial rape became a punishable offence with at least seven years of imprisonment. In-camera procedures were brought in assault cases, and the identity of the rape victim/survivor began to be withheld.

These changes had no effect on Mathura’s life, though. Her case was never reopened.

Her own family abandoned her. Gama took a job in a factory in Nagpur and settled there with his family. “I moved to another town and started working as a domestic worker.” It’s where she met her husband and started a family.

“Sakhare remembers Mathura as someone who didn’t speak much. One photo depicts the activist holding her hand aloft, the young girl’s face is a study in quiet anger.

Mathura acknowledges the need to move on, but there is no one to help her. “My own brother let me down. Who would have helped me? What will I do with all these grudges?” Her past remains a raw, untreated wound while she dwells on the future. “I want to see my sons married, but there is no money.”

This is an investigative three-part series on decades-old gang rape cases where ThePrint examines systemic prejudice, implementation of laws, and the women’s lives long after the public gaze veered away from them.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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