Doctors at Aligarh’s Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College Hospital said at the time of admission the same day that the girl was paralysed with a severe spinal cord injury and had several broken bones. Her mother paints an even more horrific picture. “When I saw my daughter (on the farm), she was bleeding. Her tongue had been cut off, the police are lying when they deny it. Before she fainted, my daughter named one of the accused into her brother’s ears. We first thought village boys had thrashed her, but later it was found that she had been gang-raped.”
A Youth Congress agitation in the national capital.
Boolgadhi village, located some 400 km from state capital Lucknow, has a small Dalit population, 90 of 300-odd resident families. Despite the gruesome nature of the crime, the UP police took five days to bestir itself and record the girl’s statement. They visited the village only after BSP supremo Mayawati and Bhim Army founder Chandrashekhar condemned the incident. One youth from the village was arrested on September 19. On September 22, eight days after the attack, the police pressed charges of gang-rape and attempt to murder against him and three more youths from the village, who were subsequently arrested. All four men have also been booked under provisions of the SC/ ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
As the girl’s condition worsened, she was shifted to Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi on September 28. Her death next morning sparked countrywide outrage. On social media, the tragedy has brought back memories of similar ghastly crimes against women, with some calling the Hathras girl the ‘forgotten Nirbhaya’, a reference to the December 16, 2012 gang-rape of a young medical student in New Delhi.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath on the morning of September 30, asking for strict action against the culprits. Soon after, the state government announced that a special investigation team (SIT), headed by home secretary Bhagwan Swaroop, would take up the case. Adityanath has announced a compensation of Rs 25 lakh and a house in Hathras city for the girl’s family, apart from a job for one member. The case will be fast-tracked.
As political parties try to corner the UP administration over the handling of the case, several questions remain unanswered. First, the response of the local police. Not only did it take pressure from national leaders for the police to take some action, there was a long delay in registering a case of gang-rape. It is also unclear why the police forced the cremation in the middle of the night soon after the girl’s body had arrived at Boolgadhi village around 12.45 am on September 30. Amid protests by villagers, the girl’s family had repeatedly pleaded that they be allowed to take the body home once, but the police allegedly declined and even resorted to violence to keep them at bay.
Around 200 police personnel blocked the cremation ground during the funeral and the girl’s family was reportedly not allowed to go near the pyre. “The brother of the victim called and told my office that he and [their] father were taken to the cremation ground while the cremation was on, but were not allowed to see the [girl’s] face,” tweeted National Commission for Women chairperson Rekha Sharma.
Questions are also being raised about the casual dismissal by the police of a caste angle in the case. “Despite endless announcements by the UP government, incidents of atrocities and rapes and murders of Dalits and women are not stopping. It is but natural to question the intentions of the state government,” said Mayawati.
A recent report, ‘Quest for Justice’, by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, a coalition of Dalit activists and academics, says crimes against Dalits have risen alarmingly, with over 391,000 atrocities reported between 2009 and 2018. The report says close to 90 per cent of the cases filed under the SC/ ST Act during this period were pending action. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there has been a 7 per cent increase in crimes against women in India between 2018 and 2019, with Uttar Pradesh registering the highest numbers.
However, a report released in August by the Uttar Pradesh home department claims a drop in rape incidents in the state in the first half of 2020, down 38.7 per cent compared with 2016. UP additional director general of police (law and order) Prashant Kumar says: “The police are taking strict action in cases of crimes against women. Instructions have been given to step up patrolling to prevent such crimes.”
The situation on the ground, however, does not lend any credence to those statistics and police claims. As Adesh Singh, a Lakhimpur-based social activist, says: “The anti-Romeo squad, formed after Yogi Adityanath assumed power in 2017, became inactive during the pandemic. With schools, colleges and coaching institutes closed, troublemakers are now commonly spotted in markets, at road intersections, even hospitals, and young girls and women are routinely molested.”