The Hathras rape victim was not the first to be cremated in the dead of the night in Uttar Pradesh, without the consent or presence of her family. A number of young men who died in the Meerut-Muzaffarnagar belt of the state during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests last December were also allegedly given quick burials. These took place in wee hours of night, under pressure from the state police, which told the families not to let the volatile situation flare.
In one instance in Meerut, the uncle of one of the deceased protesters, Manshad Ahmed, had alleged that police prevented him from taking the body of his nephew Noor Mohammad home and insisted on immediate burial to “avoid violence”. Many other families had alleged being told by police that to carry home the bodies of their kin, they must first commit in writing that no unrest would take place.
The problem in Uttar Pradesh is that the police is a law unto itself, and brooks no criticism. Ever since its present Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was sworn in in 2017, he has steadily given more power in the hands of an already muscular force, allowing them to follow a “thok do” policy. The over-confidence of this laissez faire policy was abundantly manifest in the way a large police contingent made its way, post-midnight, to arrest the noted gangster Vikas Dubey.
But Dubey had allegedly been tipped-off about the arriving team and greeted the police contingent with a barrage of bullets which left eight policemen including an officer of the rank of DSP dead. In retaliation, and in continuance of this “encounter” policy, Dubey and five of his close associates were gunned down by the cops in separate incidents.
This trigger-happy policy was also manifest in the 2018 shooting of Apple executive Vivek Tewari in Lucknow. A month before Tiwari’s killing, in September 2018, the police had invited TV journalists to witness a live shoot-out, in which two armed men—Mustakim and Naushad—were chased by policemen through fields, cornered, then shot dead.
Aligarh SSP Ajay Kumar Sahini had told the Times of India at the time, “There is nothing wrong in it. We wanted to provide first-hand information to the media.”
According to latest reports, between 20 March 2017 and 10 July this year, ever since the chief minister launched his “zero-tolerance” fight against criminals, Uttar Pradesh has witnessed over 6,000 encounters in which around 13,000 persons were arrested, 2,296 were injured, and 122 criminals were killed. These encounters have taken place across the length and breadth of the state, from Meerut, Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat, Saharanpur, Bulandshahr, Ghaziabad and Noida in the west, to Kanpur and Lucknow in central Uttar Pradesh, and Varanasi and Ghazipur to the east.
As criticism of these encounters mounted, and the NHRC demanded an explanation for each of these deaths, the state has apparently switched to “half-encounters” where youngsters, some with no criminal record, are picked up in the early hours of the morning and shot below the abdomen. Lucknow-based Ram Kumar, general secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, says the only reason why the state changed its approach was because if the police kill a person, they had to report his death to the State Human Rights Commission. “With these boys being shot below their abdomens, their families also do not take up their cases, and so the police officials do not end up facing any legal hassles,” he says.
But has this encounter policy brought down the crime rate as promised? In January, the National Crime Records Bureau released its 2019 Crime in India report, according to which Uttar Pradesh once again leads in terms of violent crimes against women. The state recorded 3,065 rape incidents in 2019, the second-highest in the country, bringing the incidence of rape in the state to 2.8%. There were 59,445 crimes including rape, murder, kidnapping, cruelty and assault in 2018 in the most populous state, which climbed to 59,853 in 2019. Therefore, the encounter policy has clearly failed.
Crimes against women have increased all over the country, but Uttar Pradesh also had the highest number of crimes against girl children, with 7,444 cases reported under the the POCSO Act in 2019. The latest crimes in India report also highlights that 34 incidents of murder with gang rape or rape were recorded in Uttar Pradesh in 2019, the third-highest in the country. Dalit women continue to be among the most victimised, as the recent Hathras incident where a 19-year old woman was allegedly gang-raped and left with lethal injuries, shows. Yet the state police took seven days to lodge an FIR in the matter, stoking charges that the young men belonging to the Thakur community were being sheltered. In fact, the reaction of the police was odd, for it kept insisting after the Hathras incident that no rape had taken place. Not only was this claim, soon after, contradicted, for whatever reason, the forensic examination of the woman was also found to have been delayed by over a week. In a predictably callous sequence of events, the young woman was taken to a local district hospital from her village, but as her condition worsened, she was moved, to JN hospital in Aligarh and finally to Safdarjung hospital in Delhi, where she succumbed to injuries.
Three video recordings of this woman have surfaced on social media after she died. The first seems to have been shot at a local clinic in Hathras, in which she says she resisted the men who were attempting rape on her. The second is from Chandpa police station in Hathras district, apparently shot on 14 September, in which she states there were previous attempts to rape her by two of the men. A third video has surfaced, too, in which she says she was raped and names her four attackers.
In complete disregard of all these videos, the police machinery has started insisting that the medical report of the Aligarh Muslim University Medical College does not confirm sexual assault. If the police had not been in such a hurry to cremate her, a fresh investigation could have been launched by the authorities. But of course that’s impossible now. To further compound the mess, the police sealed Hathras and imposed Section 144 on the victim’s village, Boolgarhi. The claim is that this was done to prevent the spread of Covid-19. However, by now, the state government has sniffed an international conspiracy in the case. Neither politicians nor media were permitted to meet the deceased woman’s family members, who had been barricaded inside their homes and a large police force deployed outside. Just two kilometres away, elite-caste Thakurs and Brahmins held not one but two “maha” panchayats in which over 500 men are known to have assembled. Not just that, the Thakurs have warned that if action is taken against the four members of the community named by the deceased, who have been arrested, they would wreak vengeance on the Dalits.
The entire sequence of events has created a sense that there is support for Thakurs in Uttar Pradesh, and that they have the backing of Brahmins as well, who joined them in these panchayats. A section of Uttar Pradesh police officials do not approve of the encounter policy or caste-based outlook, insisting that it robs the crime-fighting capabilities of the police. “The way we are going, we will end up being the laughing stock of the nation,” says a senior police official in Lucknow.
SR Darapuri, retired IG Police of Uttar Pradesh cadre, who is now national spokesperson for the All India People’s Front (Radical), is strongly critical of how the bureaucracy has handled the Hathras case. “Instead of showing some sympathy for the victim’s family, they blindly followed instructions being given to them from Lucknow. In my 32 years of service, I have never seen such a servile police machinery. In my time, the police force knew how to say no to our political leaders,” said Darapuri, who is equally critical of the encounter policy.
The handling of the Hathras incident seems to have stirred even some BJP members, as the MLA from Loni, Nandkishor Gurjar, has demanded action against the Hathras District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police, both of whom have been suspended. Is the Uttar Pradesh government serious about bringing down the crime rate in the state and helping stop crimes against women? So far, a complete absence of accountability was visible in the ruthless manner in which it handled the incident and in the narratives it constructed around the woman’s death. Now the chief minister has claimed that “certain vested interests” are taking advantage of the incident. Perhaps his government should bring the real perpetrators behind the violent crime against the Hathras woman to book and end the controversy.
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.