By Dhrubo Jyoti, Shiv Sunny

Hathras: His phone was buzzing. It was two days after his sister, 19, allegedly raped, died, with her body being consigned to flames with the administration watching. The stream of visitors was constant, from neighbours, to politicians, to an intrusive press. Most had never stepped into his mud and brick home before. There had been no peace. He was used to the ping, almost as if it was now a dirge for his loss.

Yet, this alert was different. Ominous. Unsigned and from a number unknown to him. “Accept the reality and stop lying for money. Otherwise you won’t be able to hide anywhere in the country. All of you will be in jail,” read the text in Hindi, dated October 1. His sister was dead, his life torn asunder, but that message was a warning, that trouble was only just beginning.

In a four-part series, HT returns to the scenes of crimes against women in rural India that have shaken the country over the past two decades, launched protests, and affected the course of law, to examine what has happened since, and if the social conditions that allowed for, and perpetuated these crimes, have changed at all.

The first: Hathras, where exactly one year ago, on September 14, 2020, a 19-year-old Dalit girl was allegedly raped and assaulted. Days later, amid national outrage, her body was cremated in the dead of the night.

The dramatic sequence of incidents once again put under the spotlight one of India’s stark realities — the striking vulnerability of Dalits, especially women, in the countryside where upper caste power permeates every interaction and forces marginalised castes to be dependent on them for survival.

The botched probe and police missteps also showed how caste dominance can shape government machinery, and how difficult it is for vulnerable communities to challenge perpetrators, even when the law is technically on their side.

In the village, even as the rape-and-murder sparked nationwide protests, forced politicians to make a beeline for the village, and prompted the state government and the Supreme Court to step in and steer the investigation, the family has fought a separate, invisible battle — against fear.

Their trust in the local administration was shattered, and every time they stepped out, it was clear that the villagers had coalesced in support of the four accused – all Thakurs. “People would look at us like we had done something wrong, and said we targeted innocent boys,” said the mother of the victim. “My bacchi (child) was dead. But nobody believed us.”

On October 27 that year, the Supreme Court ordered that central paramilitary forces be posted for the family’s security.

Today, a year after the incident, roughly 35 personnel guard the family through the day. The Central Bureau of Investigation took over the case on October 10 and indicted the four accused men – Sandeep Singh, Ram Kumar Singh, Ravi Singh and Lavkush Sisodia – in a trial ongoing in the Hathras district court.

Yet, attitudes, and theories in the village remain unchanged – the relatives did this for money, the girl was dating one of the accused, this is a family dispute, an attempt to tarnish the government. There is, above all, outrage at how impoverished Valmikis (the caste of the victim) defied local strictures to accuse people many stations above them.

This worldview has spilled over into even the legal proceedings, alleged the victim’s sister-in-law. “We go to the courts to bear witness, they treat it like it’s their fief. Hamari beti bas hamari reh gayi, but woh char ladke pure gaon ke ho gayein hain (Our daughter is just ours, but it’s as if the four boys belong to the entire village).”

Roughly 20 minutes from the bustle of Hathras town, crop fields ring the village where the Valmiki family lives. Mud tracks branch off from the state highway, cutting through the fields to the village. In the monsoon, the fields flood and the one pucca road in the village turns into an island – where men set up charpoys and children wade through the muddy slush to get to the fields.

The village of roughly 350 people has just four Dalit families – all hailing from the Valmiki caste, which is often forced to perform sanitation duties. One shares a mud wall with the victim’s family and another a front courtyard, used for buffaloes to rest and eat, but now occupied by CRPF personnel.

Almost every family in the village works in agriculture – the higher castes as owners and cultivators and the rest as sharecroppers or farm labourers. It was in these fields that the victim’s mother first noticed her missing.

Around 7.30am on September 14, the family was out cutting grass in the fields when the mother found her daughter injured and barely conscious, her clothes bloody and torn. They rushed to the police station, and then to the local hospital and finally the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital in Aligarh. On September 19, she gave a statement naming the accused and recorded her dying declaration on September 22.

After she died in Delhi on September 29, the police rushed her body back to the village and at 2:30am the next day, forcibly cremated her. The administration later claimed that it took the consent the family and wanted to ward off law and order problems – but the family denied this and said only a distant relative was present. “I ran behind the van carrying her but couldn’t stop it. They didn’t let us see her one last time,” said the sister-in-law.

The Hathras district court sits atop a hill that it shares with a 200-year-old temple dedicated to Lord Krishna’s elder brother, Balaram. Like many small towns in the heartland, the district court premises is the nerve centre of the dusty town, and rows of tables with black-robed lawyers line the five-minute drive up the hill.

It is here, in the special SC/ST court, that the trial has progressed over the past year. Of the 104 witnesses mentioned in the CBI charge sheet, the statements of 16 have been recorded. The victim’s elder brother is currently giving his statement in court.

Hearings have grown increasingly acrimonious and things came to a head on March 5. The lawyer for the family, Seema Kushwaha said a drunk lawyer interrupted her during arguments and others barged into the courtroom and threatened her. “Seema, stay in your seema (boundary), they told me,” she said.

She lodged a complaint and asked the high court to shift the trial. On August 26, the high court refused the request. Kushwaha has appealed to the Prime Minister and home minister for additional security.

The defence case rests on three prongs: Establish that the victim and accused Sandeep had a relationship, question the lack of medical evidence, and blow holes in the dying declaration of the victim – which the CBI used to indict the four men.

“They shared 105 calls. The girl’s brother says he didn’t see the murder happen, the mother says she was at a distance. Where is the medical evidence?” asked Munna Singh Pundhir, who represents the four accused. “They remain in jail only due to media.”

Kushwaha rubbished this and pointed out that the girl had mentioned “zabardasti” on September 14, named the accused on September 19 before saying “balatkar” on September 22 — without the police acting on it. “The medical examination was done eight days later, and after many changes of clothes. Moreover, the change in rape laws after 2013 don’t need semen to establish rape. These are all distraction tactics.”

The victim family’s refusal to obey to social hierarchies by fighting the case has galvanised the Thakurs and other upper castes. They agree on one thing: that the family brought a bad name to the village. “Before the murder, the upper castes in the village were divided and would fight among themselves. Now, they have united to fight because this is their honour,” said the sister-in-law.

The village chief, Narendra Sisodia, said the villagers were united in seeking justice but cautioned that if anyone other than Sandeep (it’s a popular theory that he committed the crime and the others have been framed) was punished, or if the men were given the death penalty, the region will erupt in protest. “We are Thakurs, we will support them,” he said. Sisodia was one of the organisers of a controversial upper-caste mahapanchayat days after the crime in favour of the accused.

Sandeep’s father, Narender, pointed to a 2001 case filed by the victim’s grandfather against his family for criminal intimidation, hurt and under the SC/ST Atrocities Act. That case was settled in 2015. “Has anyone seen the murder happen? Has anyone asked them if they did it? They’re out to destroy us,” he said.

The village is split into two contrasting worlds: The upper castes believe nothing is amiss and it is only a matter of time till the Thakur men are acquitted. They say the region has never seen any caste disturbance, and take pride that they share space with the Valmikis. “We even invite them for our events,” said a young villager.

Among the four Dalit families, however, there is despair. They say their children are hit when they take animals out for grazing, and threatened with police cases. They avoid local shops. “They say once the faujis (forces) leave, we’ll barge into our homes and thrash you,” said a woman neighbour, also Valmiki.

A young Dalit boy said he is abused with slurs every time he ventures out of the house. His mother, a distant relative of the victim, said the children are often told they’ll be killed.

The victim’s family has sold six of their seven buffaloes because they can’t go out and collect fodder. They live on the 25 lakh received as compensation, because they can’t hold down jobs due to court dates and stigma. Their kin say they are not allowed in local temples, are asked to stand away from the others at village shops, and their turn at the water pumps comes last. Villagers often refer to them as “basera” (settlers).

“No one came to see us, know about our daughter. Now, even the other Dalits are scared of the villagers because they’re dependent on lands (largely owned by Thakurs and other upper castes),” said the victim’s father.

The family feels that the tragic circumstances that upended their lives in October last year haven’t changed much — the upper castes still control village life, the Valmikis are still vastly outnumbered, and though some policemen were suspended, the political and administrative set-up is still bereft of influential Dalit people.

“The initial focus on Hathras ensured that things moved but over the past year, the pace has slowed, the trial is sluggish and things are back to being difficult for the family. There is hardly any improvement in the condition of local Dalit women, and the power structure continues to be dominated by the upper castes,” said Manjula Pradeep, director of the Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network.

There is a sense of fragile security for now – thanks to 35 men and eight CCTV cameras – but they know that one day the CRPF will leave. “We have put our future at stake but at least our future generations will be treated better,” said the father. The sister-in-law offered less hope. “We know we will never be safe. Their mindset will never change.”

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