In 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won an unexpectedly big victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections and everybody thought that one of the experienced BJP leaders from the state will be chosen as chief minister. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi, always ready for some ‘shock and awe’ exercise of power, foxed all speculations and picked up Yogi Adityanath, head of the Gorakhnath Math in Gorakhpur. Yogi had been elected to the Lok Sabha thrice, so he was no stranger to politics. But nobody had imagined that he would be pitchforked into chief ministership of India’s most populous – and complicated – state.
Since then, PM Modi and CM Yogi have been running a mutual admiration club. Modi has praised Yogi for all kinds of things from creating jobs, getting investment, managing the Kumbh to even handling the COVID pandemic. Modi being older, has often advised the younger Yogi on important matters of policy. As he did recently after the gruesome Hathras alleged gang rape case spun out of control and UP police was filmed cremating the body of the victim in the dead of night, using kerosene and uplas (cow-dung fuel) to get the flames going.
The Hathras case is the toxic distillate – the end result - of the approach and mentality that CM Yogi and his administration has come to represent. A poor, dalit woman being allegedly gang-raped and brutally murdered in broad daylight and the police declaring there was no rape, after secretively and forcibly cremating the body at night – this is the fate of poor disadvantaged and socially oppressed sections of people in UP under Yogi.
The facts of the case are by now imprinted on the hearts of Indians, and the world. But they bear a brief repetition. On September 14, the 19-year old dalit girl was accosted by four ‘upper’ caste men when she was cutting grass with her mother in fields in Boolgarhi village, Hathras district, 230 km from Delhi. The men dragged her away and allegedly raped her and then strangled her with her dupatta. This is what the mother, who discovered her body, said.
It took hours for the police at Chandpa police station to file an FIR (first information report). The girl was taken to a local hospital and then shifted to another hospital in Aligarh. On September 15, she became conscious and narrated the incident and identified the four men. On September 20, police arrived to take her statement.
Nobody had done statutory tests to determine rape – at least that’s what is reported. Local police chief Vikrant Vir said that sexual assault had not been established and samples had been sent for tests. While the four men were arrested, the girl’s condition deteriorated and on September 28, she was shifted to Safdarjang Hospital in Delhi, where she died on September 29. In the early hours of September 30, the police brought her body to the village, threw a 200-strong cordon around the place, refused to allow the family to see her face or light her pyre, and in a field, the lonely pyre burnt her body to ashes in the dead of the night.
Clearly, the administration and police were racing to cover up the whole matter. The District Magistrate visited the family and threatened them in a veiled way saying that the media would ultimately go away in a day or two, and they would be left here. They should think about it, he said, as captured on camera, and shown on national networks. The media was barred from even entering the villages, Opposition leaders were detained and not allowed to meet the family, nor was a well-known lawyer who had fought the infamous Nirbhaya case of 2012.
The outrage that followed swept across the country, prompting PM Modi to render some advice to CM Yogi to act speedily in favour of justice. Yogi on his part set up a Special Investigation Team or SIT, ordered a fast report, and as of Saturday, had suspended some top police officers.
Is this yet another tragic case of police carelessness in a crime against a woman? It is. But it is not just that. Is it yet another crime against a dalit woman? It is, but again it is not just that. The Hathras case is emblematic of a rot that has been catalysed by the Yogi-led BJP government, even as the Prime Minister has been offering fulsome praise to it.
Rising Crimes Against Women
Last year, 60,777 women in UP were victims of various kinds of specific crimes that happen against women, according to data put out by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). That’s about seven such crimes against women every hour, the whole year round. That’s a staggering number of crimes in a state whose energetic and fiery chief minister had promised to protect women when he came to power three years ago, and who has repeatedly asserted that he would not spare any criminal in the state. Note that this number has increased by about 5% since Yogi took over.
Included in this are 3,131 women who were raped, another 358 on whom rape was attempted, 2,424 who were burnt to death or otherwise killed because of dowry demands, 18,617 who were subjected to cruelty by husbands and their relatives (Section 498A IPC), and 12,157 women who were assaulted “with the intent to outrage the modesty” as Section 354 IPC rather quaintly describes sexual assaults.
These figures should be taken with a fist-full of salt – thousands of women do not report crimes out of fear of public shaming, or under pressure from families, or not having the wherewithal to fight a case, especially if the culprits are powerful people. In reality, the victims’ number could be double or even more, in crimes where death is not the end.
Rulers often get away from this by arguing that police or government can’t prevent all crimes. But that is not true. If in the Hathras case, the police had moved fast and efficiently, instead of saying that ‘she is just doing drama’ when the girl lay bleeding and screaming in pain in front of their eyes, it would have conveyed some deterrent message to society. But in this case, they are now saying that there was no rape!
The other factor working behind this conspiracy to cover up the case is caste. The girl belonged to the Valmiki community, traditionally sanitation workers, whom you would have otherwise heard of dying while manually cleaning sewers. The alleged criminals were from the ‘upper’ thakur caste, to which CM Yogi too belongs.
In UP, last year, 9,790 members of Scheduled Caste/Tribe communities faced atrocities – including 219 who were murdered, and 545 dalit women who were raped. That’s nearly 27 cases of atrocities every day, round the year. Again, these numbers hide a much more serious situation which goes unreported due to the power wielded by upper castes. But despite that, the spate of atrocities is merciless and unrelenting.
In the Hathras case, both these facets – being a woman and being a dalit – converge. Hence the alacrity with which the body is burnt, even though test reports take weeks to come, and the victim is given due medical care after days of agony.
The Ground is Slipping From Under Yogi’s Feet
Yogi Adityanath is presiding over a dispensation, the likes of which have never been seen in any Indian state. Only a few months ago, he ordered his police to stamp out protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act, which led to an onslaught against Muslim families, brutal beatings and deaths in police actions, ransacking of homes, and property confiscation notices to dozens.
Yogi’s regime has also seen dozens of so-called ‘encounter deaths’ where a trigger happy police force shoots alleged criminals in some wilderness. It is his regime that saw the massacre of 11 tribal farmers by landlords in Sonbhadra district in July last year, even as the police kept away.
He is also quick to suspend workers’ rights (in the name of the pandemic), invite big companies to invest in the state, spend time planning how to beautify the Ganga waterfront in Kanpur, and lodge criminal cases against journalists who expose this or that failing of the administration or even for tweets and social media posts.
But, with each new atrocity, with every curb on democratic rights, Yogi’s hold on UP is steadily slipping away. No amount of fire-fighting can recover the lost ground, and assuage the growing revulsion at this parody of the promised ‘Ram Raj’, which is fast turning into ‘jungle raj’.