Sankrod in Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh is everything that BR Ambedkar described an Indian village to be. In fact, it is not just a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism; it is much worse. The village has segregated colonies for different communities, much of its population has never gone to school, and it has electricity for only two hours at night. There’s no running water – most houses have hand-pumps, and the village has one semi-pucca road that trifurcates into three narrow dusty lanes.
Sankrod, one would assume, then, is far from the madding crowd – tucked somewhere in the rural hinterland.
It is not.
It is an hour’s bumpy ride – a little more than 30 kilometeres across the Yamuna – from Delhi University, arguably India’s most reputed centre for higher education.
Sankrod has been in the news of late (not so much in the Indian media as the international media, but we will get to that later). Initial reports suggested that a “Khap Panchayat” in the village had ordered the rape of two Dalit sisters as retribution for their brother eloping with a Jat girl, following which one of the sisters petitioned the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court took cognisance and has asked the UP government to submit a report by September 14. The international humanitarian non-governmental organisation, Amnesty International, too, took the case up and floated an online petition seeking government intervention. The foreign media, consequently, started pursuing the story with a missionary zeal.
Now, though, media reports have appeared that seem to imply that there was no Khap and no diktat. BBC, yesterday, carried an investigative report headlined, “Did India village council really order rape of two sisters?” Soon, Indian media organisations followed suit with similar reports, quoting Sankrod’s villagers, on how there was perhaps no Khap and no rape order. This after carrying stories with headlines like “Rape the sister, says UP Khap Panchayat for brother’s action”.
So what really happened? Why did media organisations somersault on the Khap narrative? Was the rape diktat a figment of someone’s imagination that the media lapped up without double-checking?
I went to the village to talk to people from both the communities and cops from the UP police. The truth, I discovered, is much more complex.
First, a chronology of events.
April 22, 2015: Ravi (24), from the Jatav caste, and K (21) from the Jat community, disappear from the village.
May 2, 2015: Ravi and K surrender before Delhi Police at the Mehrauli Police Station. Police records accessed by Newslaundry acknowledge the same. In her statement, K says she is pregnant with Ravi’s child – and has run away on her own will because she is being tortured by her family. She is sent to Nari Niketan, a shelter home for women.
May 6, 2015: K is produced in the court of a metropolitan magistrate to record her statement under Section 164, Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). The magistrate, however, refuses to record her statement on the ground that no case is registered against anyone. K refuses to go back to Nari Niketan but agrees to go to her maternal uncle’s place in Delhi. Again, Delhi police records acknowledge the handing over of K from Nari Niketan to her uncle.
May 19, 2015: K (who is now back in Sankrod at her parents’ place) again disappears.
May 28, 2015: K and Ravi are found in Meerut and the police there hand them over to Baghpat police (accounts vary as to how they ended up in Meerut). They are taken to Baghpat, where K is handed over to her father. Ravi is booked under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act for purportedly possessing poppy husk and jailed.
No one in the Dalit colony of Sankrod knows anything. Not even the next-door neighbours. “We are poor people – we keep to ourselves,” says a middle-aged woman, as she slices potatoes outside her house that shares a wall with Ravi’s house. Another young man tells me he is a daily wage labourer and is away most of the time. “I don’t know what exactly happened.”
The Jat part of the village is more forthcoming, though. “All this is nonsense peddled by you people sitting in the city – there was no Khap,” an old man tells me. Another elderly man adds that there has not been a Khap meeting in years. Were there threats issued by the Jats then? “Look at the girl’s father – he’s so weak that if you slap him once he won’t be able to stand up. How can he threaten anyone?” asks the man.
K’s father is indeed thin and diminutive. Dressed in an off-white kurta-pajama, he doesn’t utter a word when I ask him his what really happened. Instead, a burly bidi-smoking man takes my questions on his behalf. He introduces himself as an “ordinary resident” of the village, but everyone around refers to him as Netaji. Clad in a neat kurta-pajama with a gamcha around his neck, Netaji stands out with his crisp voice. “Are you related to any political party?” I ask. “I am a Lok Dal worker,” he tells me nonchalantly, as he chain-smokes his bidis.
“The boy’s father, Dharampal, was in the Army, his son and daughter-in-law are cops in Delhi. They are rich. How can we threaten them?” he asks me. Everyone around him pitches in, earnestly trying to convince me that the girl’s family is too poor to possibly harass anyone. “Look at this frail cow – she is our only source of income. Just because they are from a lower caste, it doesn’t mean we can harass them,” the girl’s elder brother, who claims to be a truck driver, tells me.
K’s parents and the family cow
“The truth is, she [K] was lured by the boy on the pretext that he’ll give her a job,” Netaji tells me. So, they were never in love? “No, not at all. She was happily married to a man in Haryana,” he says.
What about the girl’s statement to the police where she alleges ill-treatment by the family? “All of that was prompted out of our girl forcibly. The boy’s brother is, after all, a constable in Delhi Police,” he asserts. Then why did she run away the second time? “They tricked her into it. The boy had all her education certificates, so she had gone to collect it, but they kidnapped her.”
When I ask him about the Khap, Netaji insists there was no Khap. He is vociferously backed by everyone sitting around him. “You can ask anyone you want to; it is all concocted,” says a strapping man, who identifies himself as the girl’s uncle. A Khap, he explains, cannot sit like that. “You need the permission of the district administration. Besides, for a Khap to be legitimate, there has to be at least 360 families,” he tells me.
Netaji (right) with another Jat resident of Sankrod
The men surrounding K’s father are adamant that they will not settle for anything less than the strictest punishment for Ravi. “He and his brother raped our daughter, her life is destroyed,” they say. Soon, there is a scathing attack on the “character” of Ravi and his father. “Ask everyone, his father killed his first wife. And now Ravi is having an affair with his step-mother,” says Netaji. Everyone nods in agreement. Suddenly, all of them seem to have a story about Ravi and his father’s womanising ways.
When they finish with their anecdotes, I insist that I want to speak to K directly. I am led to a room on the roof. One can see Ravi’s house from the roof. She is wearing a floral-patterned salwar-kameez, looks hassled and refuses to make eye contact with me. When I ask her if she was ever in love with Ravi, she tells me she hardly knew him, staring blankly into space.
Question: “But what about your statement to the police where you claim to have been in love with him for the last three years?”
K: “I was pressured into saying that, I don’t even know him properly.”
Q: “Why did you go the second time, then?”
K: “He had my videos and certificates and he sent a kid to ask me to come outside the village and collect them. I went there and he kidnapped me.”
Q: “Was he alone?”
K: “No, he was with two of his friends. He was on a bike and the other too, on another. They sedated me. I woke up in a train to Jammu.”
Q: “What did you do in Jammu?”
K: “I don’t know – he probably wanted to sell drugs there.”
K then tells me they came back to Meerut, from where, she claims, she called up her brother.
Q: “Where did you get a phone?”
K: “I got it from someone on the road.”
Q: “But wasn’t Ravi around?”
K: “I don’t know; he had a black bag, which he kept asking me to hold. I think it had drugs.”
According to K, she was rescued by the police, and taken to the police station. Ravi, she says, was arrested.
Dharampal, Ravi’s father, recounts a completely different version of events as we speak on the roof of his house. Bespectacled and wearing a light blue checked short, he doesn’t quite fit my image of a womaniser.
“The two have been in love for three years – and we were opposed to it because we knew it would mean trouble for us,” he tells me.
Dharampal claims that it was he who accompanied the duo to the police station in Meerut. “I’ve been receiving threat calls from the girl’s family to locate them and get her back. So the moment I found out they were in Meerut at one of our relatives’ place, I rushed there and took them to the nearest police station,” he tells me.
According to Dharampal, it was on his insistence that the two turned themselves in to the Delhi police the first time too. “We have to live here, and we respect the social norms here,” he said. His wife, who looks much younger than him, joins us, but barely speaks
Dharampal and his wife
But who told him there was a Khap? “I was threatened by the girl’s uncle that the Khap has decided he [Ravi] would be taught a lesson – ladki ka badla ladki se lenge,” they had told me. When I tell him that people in the village – even the non-Jats – say there was no Khap, he says the Jats never informed anyone. “Decisions like these are always unilateral. The Jats have always dominated us.”
Question: “But how do you know there was a Khap?”
Dharmapal: “See, you have to understand…it is always like that. It’s a congregation of Jats. No one else is allowed.”
Q: “You are a retired army man [Dharampal retired as a Sub-Naik], your son is a cop and you’re better off than the girl’s family. Didn’t you try seeking help?”
D:“The Jats call the shots here. No one wants to mess with them and I am just a private security guard in Delhi now.”
Q: “Why didn’t you approach your company?”
D: “I retired in 2001. I don’t even know where my company is posted. Those days, we didn’t have mobile phones like now – I don’t know how to get in touch with them.”
As the day progresses, a few people in the Dalit and Muslim colonies lose some of their initial reticence. One young man, who tells me repeatedly in the course our conversation not to name him, says the couple had been in love for a long time. “Ravi used to go for computer classes to Khekada (a one-street town some distance away), where K also went to school. I have often seen them hang around together in the market there,” he tells me. Another young Muslim girl, much to her mother’s consternation, tells me K used to often pack food for Ravi when he went for his computer classes. “You will get all of us killed!” the mother chides her as I press her for more information. Another youth, who is preparing to be a bank clerk in Delhi, says the two definitely liked each other. “K’s family also knew about it, that’s why they forced her to marry someone else,” he claims.
But all this is tittle-tattle – not reason enough to come to a conclusion on the story.
The police’s handling of the case, though, makes the kidnapping narrative seem dubious.
On May 21, Satish, a cousin of Ravi, was picked up from Delhi by sub-inspector Aman Singh of Baghpat Police. Remarkably, there was no warrant or case registered against Satish. According to the petition submitted by Ravi’s sister in the Supreme Court, Satish was kept in custody for three days in Baghpat and tortured when he failed to furnish information about the duo’s whereabouts. Incidentally, records in the Welcome police station in Delhi acknowledge that Satish was taken away by Singh and without any charges.
Then on May 24, another relative of Ravi, Naresh, was picked up by Singh without any charges. This time, though, Singh didn’t even bother informing the Delhi Police. However, transcripts of a telephonic conversation (part of the petition) between Singh and Ravi’s brother reveal that Naresh was indeed in Singh’s custody. Singh, in the conversation, threatens Ravi’s brother of dire consequences if he approached the court. (Ravi’s brother, a constable in Delhi Police, had started recording all conversations on his phone.)
Likewise, the Baghpat police’s version of May 28 (the day the K and Ravi were handed over by Meerut police to Baghpat police) is riddled with inconsistencies. Meerut police’s records show that the duo was handed over to Baghpat police in the wee hours of the morning, from where they were taken to Baghpat. Curiously, according to the First Information Report against Ravi, he was apprehended by the Baghpat police for being in possession of poppy husk later in the day at 6:12 in the evening. The FIR that charges Ravi under the NDPS Act states that Ravi was picked up by Singh while he was on patrolling duty in Baghpat.
The transcripts of another telephonic conversation (also part of the petition) between the Station House Officer of Khekada Police Station, Subodh Yadav, and Ravi’s brother plugs further holes in the police’s theory. The conversation has Yadav admitting quite explicitly that Ravi was being falsely implicated. Yadav says he could have pressed even more serious charges as desired by the girl’s family.
Singh has since been transferred to another police station. Yadav refused to comment, and directed me to the Circle Officer, who I was told is away on leave.
Cops who have been deployed in the village to “protect” Ravi’s family are convinced that the Dalit family’s allegations are false. “They are just taking advantage of being Dalits,” a beat constable tells me, whom I later see sharing a cigarette with Netaji -– a man he’s supposed to defend the family from.
Netaji with one of the cops deployed to protect Ravi’s family
The Sankrod story reveals many inconvenient truths. The one about India’s caste realities is the most obvious. But even that is layered. As an elderly Jat man in the village points out: how can an impoverished Jat family, with one frail cow and no land, harass a seemingly well-off Jatav family? Where is the money to bribe the cops, after all? An answer to that lies in the caste make-up of Uttar Pradesh’s police and bureaucracy. Almost all cops handling the case are Jats or Yadavs – castes that fall in the middle of the country’s complex caste hierarchy. Not one cop I spoke to was sympathetic about the Dalit family’s plight because, well, they were all either Yadavs or Jats.
According to a 2009 study, UP has the highest difference among states when it comes to actual number of Scheduled Caste cops in the police force and the government-approved reserved number. According to the study, the state has 7.1per cent SC cops, although the state government’s policy mandates for a presence of 21 per cent. That is a difference of almost 14 per cent.
The less obvious but perhaps even more jarring takeaway from the story is the international media’s fascination — often at the cost of facts – with all things primeval about India. Here are a few headlines that the international media went with:
Al Jazeera: India village council orders rape of two sisters
Time: Two Indian Sisters Ordered to Be Raped by Village Council Beg Supreme Court for Help
The Daily Beast: Indian Village Orders Gang-Rape Of 2 Sisters
The Independent: Indian sisters told they will be repeatedly gang-raped as punishment for their brother’s crime launch appeal at Supreme Court
It is understandable that without reporters on ground (and with Khaps’ notorious history) it is difficult to ascertain whether a diktat was really passed by a Khap Panchayat, but it is strange that they should refer to Khaps as a “local village council”.
Considering that Khaps have been an object of interest for the foreign media for a while, it is difficult to believe that organisations like Al Jazeera and Time are unaware of the fact that Khaps are not local village councils but extra-constitutional bodies. A local village council in the Indian administrative structure is a democratic institution and is called a Panchayat.
Beyond the rhetoric of Khap condemnation, this episode carries a much more important story that people ought to know: about how the police often intimidate the people it is meant to protect. Here perhaps, the Indian media is equally guilty. Almost all reports in the mainstream media have focused on the supposed Khap order when the Supreme Court petition filed by Ravi’s sister is against the UP police’s harassment.
The UP police, unlike a Khap Panchayat, is part of the Indian state’s justice delivery mechanism. Its brazen misuse of power is surely more problematic – and should ideally have been more newsworthy than a supposed Khap diktat.