‘Our fault is that she was Dalit’: In Hathras, a forced cremation, a media circus, and a life of humiliation
Shambhavi Thakur
Ground Report

‘Our fault is that she was Dalit’: In Hathras, a forced cremation, a media circus, and a life of humiliation

No family members were present during the victim's last rites, despite the police’s claims to the contrary.

By Akanksha Kumar & Nidhi Suresh

Published on :

Almost two kilometres away from Asha’s house in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras, police barricades block the road. Relatives and journalists walk down the narrow lane to her house while police vehicles rumble past. A crowd of Congress and Samajwadi Party workers sit in protest near the barricades.

At around noon on September 30, when the house was crowded with media personnel, the police came and picked up Asha’s father, claiming there would be “some interaction with Yogi Adityanath”, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. At the time, Asha’s brother said, “I am not sure in what way he will be pressured but we are very scared right now.”

This morning, her brother sent Newslaundry a video of the father, who had returned from the police station. In the video, Asha’s father alleged that he was made to “sign some paper” at the police station, “after being pressured by police and DM saab”, referring to the district magistrate.

Police presence in the village.
Police presence in the village.

“DM saab and others forced me to say the media has done their job and should go home now,” the father said.

Asha was gangraped two weeks ago in a field near her home by four Thakur men. She died on Tuesday in a hospital in New Delhi. Yet her family was deprived of even one intimate moment with her body. At around 2 am on September 30, Asha’s body was cremated by the Uttar Pradesh police without a single family member being present. The family says they did not consent to the cremation.

In a video that circulated on social media, the police was seen talking to the family on the night of the cremation. An officer said: “In this extraordinary situation, you have to accept that you have made some mistakes.”

Does the family agree?

Asha’s sister-in-law told us, “Yes, our fault is that we trusted the police. Yes, our fault is that she was a Dalit girl. Yes, our fault is that we didn’t agree for her to be cremated at night. If she was from a Thakur family, none of our mistakes would have been pointed out.”

Today, the Valmiki women no longer feel safe in the Thakur-dominated village.

No dignity even in death

Compounding Asha’s assault and death, her family is inconsolable about not being able to conduct her last rites with dignity.

The family learned of her death a little after 6 am on September 29, when a doctor at Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital told Asha’s brother, who was waiting outside, that she had died. At 7.15 am, the brother texted Newslaundry: “Ma’am, didi ab nahi rahin.” Ma’am, my sister is no more.

The body was taken for postmortem and was returned to the hospital by noon. According to the autopsy report, which was accessed by Newslaundry, the final diagnosis suggests “strangulation with cervical spine injury” and death due to cardiac arrest.

A page from the autopsy report.
A page from the autopsy report.

After the postmortem, Asha’s sister-in-law said, it’s unclear what exactly happened to the body, as Asha’s brother and father, who were at the hospital, were surrounded by the media.

“When the officials left the hospital in an ambulance with the body, there was no family member in the ambulance,” she said. Instead, Asha’s brother and father were in a car that the ambulance was following from Delhi to Hathras.

“At some point, the ambulance and the car split ways,” Asha’s cousin said. “The ambulance took a different route while her brother and father reached home.” The cousin said the police and the ambulance reached Asha’s house a little after midnight, and told the family to cremate the body quickly.

The family told the police that according to Hindu traditions, a body cannot be cremated at night, and that they would do so in the morning. Relatives were still on the way and would reach only by daybreak.

“The police continued to build pressure,” the cousin said. “They took away one of our relatives from Agra and we still don’t know where he is. We kept trying to request that it’s important for us to be part of this last journey with Asha.” Newslaundry could not identify who this relative was, and where he was “taken”. The cousin added that the police then “caught hold” of another relative and asked to speak with him “in private”.

The family refused to allow the relative to go with the police, the cousin explained, fearing for his safety, given the police’s harsh attitude. Anticipating that the body might not be handed over, women in the house began surrounding the ambulance.

“The police got so upset that they started pushing our women around,” said Asha’s sister. “Some of them fell into the field on the side of the road, some fell into the thorny bushes on the side. This was done by both male and female police officers.”

The women began prostrating before the police, Asha’s sister-in-law said, begging for the body and asking for permission to cremate her in the presence of family.

“We fell on the ground. We stretched out our pallus and finally we begged them to at least show us her face once,” she said. But the police only got more aggressive, and family members locked the gate of their house and did not allow any police officers to enter.

Asha’s brother cut in: “Forget seeing her face, we haven’t even seen her body bag.”

Finally, the police gave up, family members said, and drove the ambulance to the cremation ground.

“They burnt her away with petrol and diesel and we still don’t even know if that was Asha’s body or not,” said the sister-in-law, her voice cracking.

During the cremation, the police shot a video and later posted it on social media, claiming that Asha’s father had been present at the cremation site. This is vehemently denied by family members, who claim the father had been at home with them.

“My father had almost fainted and was lying on a charpoy here when the cremation took place,” Asha’s brother said. “That video is entirely false. The man in that video is someone from our neighbourhood whom they took with them. They made him throw two cow dung cakes into the pyre and made a video saying this is our father.”

The family believes the rushed cremation was because they wanted to ask for a second postmortem.

Media cacophony

When Asha’s father was taken away by the police in the afternoon yesterday, her mother sat in a corner of the courtyard outside the house, her back against a stone pillar. She wore the same blue sari that she had been wearing on Sunday when these correspondents had visited her. Her voice was hoarse from repeated interactions with the media, and she struggled to complete her sentences.

Asha’s brother squatted on the floor opposite her, looking dazed and exhausted. Every inch of the house was occupied by journalists and relatives. A few journalists had climbed to the roof with their cameras; others loudly addressed their cameras in different corners of the house.

The family had distributed water in plastic cups to the journalists; these cups now littered the floor. A woman from the house intermittently got up to sweep them away as an ABP News reporter thrust her microphone into the mother’s face, saying: “Okay, but wasn’t there a delay from your end also in reporting the rape?” Asha’s mother looked back at her, aghast.

After a few more sessions on live television, Asha’s mother got up and went indoors. We sat with her here in silence as she cried and called for her daughter.

“How many times am I supposed to keep repeating what happened to my daughter?” she said. “I’m losing my mind. Where were all these media people when my daughter really needed them?”

We decided not to interview her.

Palpable caste divide

In stark contrast, the house opposite Asha’s house was quiet and deserted. Three of the four accused — Ramu, Ravi and Luvkush — live here. Ravi and Luvkush were arrested on September 21 and 25, respectively, and Ramu on September 26. Sandeep, the fourth accused, was arrested on the evening of September 19.

The village is dominated by Thakur households, with only four Valmiki (Dalit) houses. Two of these are Asha’s and her relatives. The third Valmiki family lives in a house a few metres away from Asha’s; one of the residents here told Newslaundry: “Yes, we still practise untouchability in this village.”

Dalits are treated differently in the shops, the neighbour explained. Water is sprinkled on money they hand over to shopkeepers, and nobody wants to touch anything that they have touched.

She said that no Thakur will ever enter a Valmiki house but this, in her opinion, is not unusual, not a part of “caste tension”.

Valmiki children in the village.
Valmiki children in the village.

“Yes, a Valmiki will always sit on the floor and the Thakur on a chair or charpoy but that’s just how it is, isn’t it? That’s our tradition,” she said. Her two children, studying Classes 6 and 7, also spoke of how in primary school, the Thakur and Dalit students are made to sit separately after protestations from upper caste children, who did not want to sit with the Dalit children.

The fourth Valmiki household in the village refused to speak to us. “I don’t know anything,” a family member said as police personnel walked past.

A 75-year-old Thakur resident of the village told Newslaundry he holds no sympathy for the four Thakur accused.

“They’ve caused so much nuisance to this village. This Ravi has misbehaved with women even before,” he said. Other villagers said that the four accused had “eve-teased” and harassed Asha a few months ago as well.

Even though the Thakur resident did not explicitly admit that the village had a caste divide, when asked if the Thakurs ever attended Valmiki wedding ceremonies he said, “No, we don’t. But they come to our weddings and do the cleaning.”

Asha is a pseudonym to protect identity.

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