A week after the death of a young Dalit woman who was allegedly gang raped in Hathras district in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the state police and the government are facing criticism for seemingly trying to cover up the case.
Four upper-caste men allegedly gang raped and severely injured the 19-year-old women in Hathras on September 14. The victim died at a hospital in New Delhi two weeks later, triggering nationwide protests.
State police have arrested all four accused in the case. Five police personnel including Hathras Superintendent of Police have been suspended over their handling of the case.
On Tuesday, UP state government filed an affidavit in India’s Supreme Court alleging “conspiracies” to “incite caste and communal violence” over the gang rape case.
Hinting that the protesters had vested interest, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has said those who “can’t bear to see development in the state are instigating protests.”
State police have also called the public outrage and media coverage an “international plot” to defame and destabilise the state government.
In the last 24 hours, the UP government filed 21 first information reports (FIRs) in connection with what it believes is a ploy to defame the government and stoke violence over the gang rape case. One of the FIRs is against “unknown” persons for allegedly offering the victim’s family INR 500,000 (US $6,813) to lie and disturb the peace in the area.
Dalit leader Chandrashekar Azad and 400 others who visited the victim’s family face were charged for violating Section 144 (which prevents large gatherings).
The woman’s family told VICE News that while the police registered a rape case, they don’t have a copy of the police report. “When my sister regained her consciousness in the hospital after the incident, and managed to recount what exactly happened with her, we went to the police with other members of our community. That's when they finally charged the men under Section 376 (punishment for rape),” victim’s brother, Sanjeev Valmiki, told VICE News.
Soon after the woman’s death on September 29, the police forcibly cremated her late at night, without the consent of the family. In its affidavit, the state government said this was done to “avoid large scale violence in the morning.”
Previously, police and the state government cited a forensic report conducted 11 days after the assault to imply that the woman was not raped. Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order) Prashant Kumar denied the possibility of rape arguing that the forensic report did not find any sperm.
The victim gave a statement to the local magistrate before she died, naming the men who raped her. According to Indian rape laws, the victim’s testimony alone is grounds for a rape investigation and even conviction.
“Since the statement was a dying declaration, it is taken as a relevant fact for the cause of death under Section 32 of the Evidence Act,” Rutuja Shinde, a Bombay High Court counsel, told VICE News. “Usually, a dying declaration is seen as made in extremis (facing imminent death) as it is assumed that someone who is on their deathbed would state correctly any fact related to the cause of their death.”
Shinde added that other evidence would be needed if the victim were still alive, but due to her consequent death, her statement must be taken as a relevant fact unless proved otherwise.
State police’s theory also contradicts a medical report of the hospital where the victim was first admitted. The report documented the use of force and “complete penetration”.
Amit Malviya, head of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Information Technology cell tweeted a video of the victim to suggest it was a case of physical assault and not sexual. National Commission for Women Chairperson Rekha Sharma called his actions “illegal and unfortunate”.
Under the Indian Penal Code, anyone who reveals the identity of a sexual assault victim can be imprisoned for up to two years.
“The medical reports of my sister have been changed,” said Valmiki. “The fact that her body was burnt the way they did, is proof that there's an attempt to brush this whole situation under the carpet.”
Dalit activists have condemned the state government’s rhetoric in this case.
“They have no other option [but to cover it up] in the face of international condemnation,” Ashok Das, a Delhi-based Dalit journalist, told VICE News.
Paul Divakar, a Dalit activist and former general secretary of the national campaign on Dalit human rights, said the state government’s allegations of a conspiracy is a diversionary tactic. “This [anger and outrage against the rape] is a spontaneous reaction, much like what we saw after the George Floyd killing in the US. This is an attempt by the state to protect the upper caste perpetrators, as well as their own complicity in the case,” Divakar told VICE News.
The state administration also tried to coerce the victim’s family against speaking to the press. In a video, Hathras District Magistrate, Praveen Kumar Laxkar is seen telling the family, "Do not finish your credibility. Some media people left today and more will leave tomorrow. Only we will be here with you. It is up to you whether you want to change your statement or not.”
The authorities cordoned off the village and barred the entry of media claiming the village was a COVID-19 containment zone. The Editor’s Guild of India condemned the state government for imposing restrictions on media and tapping the phones of journalists who were in touch with the victim’s family.
Opposition party leaders including Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi were also prevented from visiting the victim’s family by.
Today, four journalists were detained on their way to Hathras.
This is not the first time the authorities appear to conceal details of a gender-crime. In August this year, a 13-year-old girl was raped, strangled and her eyes gouged out in UP’s Lakhimpur city. “When the media and local leaders arrived at our house, cops declared the place a covid containment zone, and didn’t allow the villagers to speak to the media or politicians,” the father of the teenager told VICE News.
“People aren’t just protesting because of the rape. They’re angry because the police didn’t file a case, burnt her body without any dignity, destroyed evidence, turned the village into an armed fortress, and didn’t allow protesters but allowed a gathering of Thakur supremacists,” Kavita Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association, told VICE News. Krishnan is concerned that the Uttar Pradesh government is trying to cover up the caste angle in this case as they recognise it as a moment of awakening for citizens.
According to data, 87 rape cases were reported on a daily basis in Uttar Pradesh in 2019, with the state recording a 7 percent increase in crimes against women. 10 Dalit women are raped everyday in India.