Hathras shame: A crime aggravated by bizarre theories and a cover-up

Rather than finding the real culprits and punishing them, new theories are being bandied about, reflecting lack of sensitivity for the victim’s family

An activist holds a placard during a protest after the death of the rape victim in Hathras. Photo: Twitter

A massive cover-up and character assassination is underway after the alleged gang rape of a 20-year-old Dalit woman in a village in Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh. The woman later died after a brutal assault.

October 14 would mark an exact month since the incident took place. There have been speculations and theories being spun about the ghastly incident. A request for an independent judicial inquiry has been turned down. A probe by a Special Investigation Team of the UP police is still underway. In hindsight, the incident itself would not have come under the spotlight had it not been for the hastily conducted cremation of the victim by the state administration.

Theories that the murder was an outcome of an honour crime involving the victim’s family members and that no rape had happened seem to be moving in the direction of getting the perpetrators off the hook. The family is also being pressured to take narco tests as if they were the accused.

There is a widespread perception that the probe might get influenced and derailed by caste considerations as all the four accused belong to the same caste group as that of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. After the victim named four persons in her dying declaration, there have been a series of meetings of caste panchayats of the Thakur community in flagrant violation of Section 144 which has been otherwise imposed in the area. There also have been open threats given by caste leaders and BJP leaders, all in support of the accused persons, three of whom belong to one family.

While the state government had suspended half-a-dozen police officers, including the Superintendent of Police, there is little assurance that the Dalit family will get justice. Even as fanciful theories float of how the killing was an honour crime and the handiwork of the victim’s family, the government has done little to dispel or reject these theories.

Related news: Twist in the tale: Hathras accused says he was friends with the woman

The sinister twist

The upper caste meetings themselves were held as a show of support for the accused where the innocence of the accused is upheld and the girl’s character besmirched even after the death. These meetings are also held to push the theory that the victim was in a relationship with one of the accused and was therefore killed by her own family.

This is the common refrain among all upper caste members in the village and nearby areas, be it Brahmin, Thakur or Jat. The main accused Sandeep Thakur, who is in custody in Aligarh, has in a handwritten letter to the Superintendent of police Hathras that he was friends with the victim and was in telephonic touch with her. He wrote that he and the other three accused were being framed by the family. In that letter, according to reports, he stated that on the day of the incident, she had called him to the fields.

When she spotted her mother and brother, she told him to leave. He wrote that he left his home to tend to his livestock and that he learned later that she had been beaten up by the mother and brother as they objected to her friendship with him. He had never harmed her in any way, he wrote.

The honour crime narrative was gaining traction with some media persons also pushing this theory. Reporters who have visited the village quote locals as claiming that the girl was not of “good character” and that the accused men were victims of a conspiracy. Call record details of a phone belonging to one of the victim’s brothers were leaked to the media insinuating that there were many calls between the girl and the accused youth made from that phone. The family of the victim, on the other hand, has denied this, stating that their daughter was unlettered and incapable of dialling numbers. All that the family owned was one single phone.

Today, despite the attention by political parties and others, reports say they are fearful of reprisal from the upper castes in the village. Security has been provided and every visitor screened and details noted by a phalanx of uniformed and plainclothes officials.

Related news: Hathras gang-rape: Yogi govt gives SIT 10 more days to submit report

Fear grips victim’s family

For more than three generations the family had stayed in the village, built their lives brick by brick. Yet they are apprehensive of the outcome of the investigation. The constant spotlight itself with various political parties extending support to them has not entirely served their cause.

They have been bombarded by the media, sections of whom have been trying also to discredit the version of the mother, who was the main witness to the crime and also the dying declaration of the girl.

Even as speculative theories have been afoot, there has been little or no criticism by the mainstream media itself on the quality of the investigation and the lack of timely and quality treatment to the girl. Comparisons are also being made of the public attention that Nirbhaya received in 2012 when she was flown out of the country for treatment and the Dalit woman girl of Hathras.

On October 3, the department of Forensic Medicine of JNMCH Aligarh gave its final report that “no signs suggestive of anal/vaginal intercourse” and that there was “evidence of physical assault on the neck and the back.”

Related news: Hathras victim’s kin offered ₹50 lakh to lie: UP police

Legal tangles

The victim had in her verbal statements mentioned the names of the persons who had assaulted her. The cause of death as stated by the Delhi hospital where she had been admitted in the last days of her life was “alleged post-strangulation with cervical spine injury with sepsis with cardiopulmonary arrest.” There was no mention of rape anywhere or attempts of forced intercourse, even though one of the reports mentioned old healed tears which appeared to be consistent with the time of the occurrence of the incident, September 14 and the time when the medical examination for rape was conducted on her, September 22 which was a full one week after the attack.

There are explicit guidelines of the central government regarding medico-legal care for survivors and victims of sexual violence, all of which were flouted and in fact non-existent. The Aligarh hospital declined to give an opinion on whether she had been raped till the final opinion of the Forensic examination Report arrived. The final opinion ruled out sexual assault and rape.

Even though the matter was reported immediately by the family members of the victim, no medical examination was conducted to ascertain whether she had been raped or not. The Assistant Director General of Police declared that as the Forensic Report Aligarh had found no signs of semen present, there was no rape. His statement drew flak from women organisations who pointed out that the absence of semen was not considered as a central and crucial element in a case of rape or gang rape. Her dying declaration itself was evidence. The onus of proving their innocence lay on the accused and not on the victim. This was the law.

Related news: India condemns UN rep’s comment on Hathras incident

Role of state government

From the day of the incident itself on September 14 till her cremation on September 30, the role of the state government has come under the scanner. Legal experts have pointed out that after her death, her body should have been handed over to her family. Even if it had been handed over to the police, they were bound to hand it to her next of kin, which was not done. The victim was brought back to the village and cremated in the heavy presence of the police sans her family members who were locked up inside their home. They told the media that they wanted a proper cremation with Hindu rituals and in the presence of kith and kin but they were prevented.

The government’s argument was that they had prevented a potential law and order situation by cremating the body. In fact, there was more outrage because of the surreptitious manner in which the entire district administration colluded against the family who had no one to speak for them.

The incident was horrifying enough but from the very first instance when the crime came to light. Rather than focus and address the procedural lapses, the state government and its agencies began weaving a conspiracy theory, which they say was hatched by the opposition parties in order to defame the government and the leadership of the Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

The debate had become less about ensuring justice to the woman or taking effective measures to prevent crimes against women and conducting proper investigation but more about claims that the incident was being “politicised” a charge mainly leveled by the ruling party in the state and supported by certain sections of the media.

The veracity and establishment of rape and honour killing has become the focal point of not only media discussion but has been converted into a dominant discourse by the investigating authorities and state agencies as well.

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