Just five days before International Women’s Day, a special court order in the Hathras gangrape case convicted one under the charges of culpable homicide (without the intent of murder) and the SC/ST Act, while acquitting the other three accused of all charges. The court also ordered their release from the Aligarh jail without any delay.
Referred to as "victim" in government documents, the 19-year-old deceased Dalit woman was raped and killed by the upper caste men of Bhulgarhi village in September, 2020. The four accused, all belonging to the Shikhawat Thakur community of the same village in Hathras district were later arrested in the case. However, the judgement hasn’t surprised the victim’s family. "The defense lawyer had warned that the judgment would be held in their favour," the victim's brother tells Outlook. They are now planning to go to the High Court. “This is just the beginning. The truth will come sooner or later,” he adds.
The family has not yet immersed the ashes of their daughter, stored in some corner of their home, away from the vicinity of media, politicians, and CRPF. The family never got the opportunity to give "her" a dignified cremation as her body was burnt by the local police in the presence of the District Magistrate without her family's presence or permission. "We brought the ashes and flowers from her cold pyre, we would never completely know if it really was my sister who they cremated," her brother says.
On September 14, 2020, one of the villagers 'Chhotu' found their daughter lying in his field, in a "compromised state", severely unconscious and naked. The family ran frantically to the spot to find her violated body, breathing heavily, uncovered. They immediately reached the Chandpa Police Station and registered the first complaint where the officials asked them to rush the girl to Bagla Hospital, given her critical state. "I could not pay attention to my complaint at that point, nor was I fully aware of what had happened with my sister," reads her brother's statement. She was referred to JNMSC Aligarh Hospital due to her deteriorating state on September 14. She kept repeating Sandeep's name at the Bagla Hospital, Ravi, one of the main accused said in his statements.
The "victim" was later transferred to the Safdarjung Hospital in New Delhi on September 28 where she last breathed around 5:00 am on September 29, 2020. A severe injury in her neckbone was found as a cause of death as per the post-mortem reports. Her statements were recorded at the JNMSC Aligarh. Forensic reports found no blood or semen in her clothes. The case was later transferred to the CBI, which the family opposed and asked for a judicial inquiry. "She had injuries all over her body. Her neck and spine suffered fractures. The perpetrators left her in the fields and fled the crime scene assuming she was dead."
Victim Blaming Continues
Nationwide protests broke out demanding justice for the Dalit woman who in her statements said that she was gang raped by Sandeep, Ravi, Ramu, and Lavkush. However, after the acquittals of three accused, a section of Bhulgarhi village is silently rejoicing the apparent victory of what they perceive as “truth”.
The predominantly Thakur village is convinced that everything is perfectly well in the village. While most villagers refrained from speaking to the media, those who did, openly supported the four accused and expressed solidarity with the Sisodia and Lavkush family. Women, children, men, and elder citizens of Bhulgarhi unanimously echoed their undying support for the “real victims” of the case- Sandeep, Ravi, Ramu, and Lavkush who have suffered unnecessarily to the “fake narrative and politics of the Valmiki family, politicians, and media.”
In early October 2020, the upper caste men from the village held a meeting and staged a demonstration in support of the accused. Narendra Sisodia, a 48-year-old villager blames the media, BJP's Manju Diler, Congress, Rahul Gandhi, and the victim's family for staining Bhulgarhi's name. "Koi kaand aiso thodi hoyi ho, na koi rape hua hai, (No scandal or rape ever took place here)”, he says.
Sisodiya says that the victim's grandfather and Sandeep's father had a family feud and there was nothing else in the case. "What has happened to the boys is absolutely wrong. They had good characters. The victim's family has only benefitted from all of this. What have they lost? They have garnered popularity and money at the cost of these four and our village."
Kamini Sisodia who works at the Prem Raghu Hospital tells Outlook how frustrating and humiliating it has become for her to repeatedly be asked what happened in Bhulgarhi every time she tells someone where she hails from. "I am a Sisodia, so they question me that I am choosing their (accused) side because of my caste, which is not true. The case was false, those who were proven innocent had to suffer two and a half years in jail- what will be the condition of the one convicted?" Calling the charges fake, Kamini said that the victim's family was fully aware of everything that had happened, yet they blew the case out of proportion and tainted the name of the village.
An eerie silence wraps the field where her body was hastily cremated by the local police and administration despite her family's repeated protests. Standing outside the barbed boundaries of this field, speaking with Outlook, Omkar Singh says that the boys were innocent and the God has been on their side. "Had they done anything wrong, they would have been punished, but they were innocent and the entire village and region stood by them."
Along with Omkar stands Sisodia, a farmer by occupation, who says that the entire village is glad that the boys have been released. They were implicated in a conspiracy by the opposition. "Only the boy and the girl would know what is going on between them. How would anyone else know which mood are they going in? Which mood are you standing in here" Sisodia says. Both of them add that the girl was murdered by her own brother and nobody else is responsible for the Dalit woman's death who was also a "daughter of our village."
A Tattered Family
The family of the victim call the judgment fabricated and tells Outlook that the arguments presented by their lawyer have not been mentioned in the court order. "We never asked for a government prosecution because we were well aware that the state was not standing by us," says the sister-in-law of the victim.
During one of their earliest hearing, the older brother recalls that on the March 5, 2021, two drunk men barged into the courtroom and threatened to shoot their lawyer if she was ever to enter Hathras. "The judge folded his hand requesting them to not create a ruckus. When we filed an Interlocutory Application (IA) in the high court for CCTV footage, the footage was removed during the investigation. One of them is an accused in a rape case himself."
Whatever has unfolded since September 14, 2020, till the date is all because of BJP, one of the family members say. No medical investigation was conducted till September 22, add the brothers.
Apart from the mental trauma, the incident has also taken a toll on the livelihood of the family. The promises made to them by the state government remain unfulfilled, except for a compensation of Rs. 25 lakh which is running out as there is no earning member in the family. The victim's father, who earlier worked as a sweeper in the government school has lost his work. "We did not ask for anything, but they secretively took our father on October 1, 2020, after our sister's body was burned a day before and gave us a written offer of a government job. But, they are now offering us a private job. They even promised us a house in Hathras which we declined since we wouldn't be safe there- our own home is better."
The victim’s sister-in-law while referring to her 7-year-old daughter says, how she had been shifted to her maternal house to ensure that her education is not disrupted. However, their two other daughters have now turned three and four years old and enrolling them in a school is a big challenge for the family.
Disappointed and anguished at the court order, the younger brother says that if this was how the administration and law were to function, "they should rather have declared their judgment in a gram panchayat. We would at least be spared from the stress of running to the courts." The elder brother's wife breaks into tears telling when she tells that it has become very difficult to meet her oldest daughter. "Because the CRPF surveillance is so strong, we can't have people over or go anywhere without their approval. My daughter doesn't want to come here, she says that the village murdered her bua (aunt)."