The Hathras Horror is yet another reminder of how the state treats those without voice or political power.
Perhaps I should rename this column "Broken India". For that is what we have experienced in these last three weeks.
The Hathras Horror, as it has come to be called, will live with us for a long time. The alleged gangrape by four upper caste Thakur men of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras on September 14, has all the elements that expose the sickness in Indian society.
First, the rape itself. It signifies that age-old dictum that when men wage war, it’s the women who are often the collateral. From what we have learned so far, the handful of Dalits in the victim’s village have long feared the dominant Thakurs and have been at the receiving end of threats and violence from them. To show the Dalits their place, rape their women – it is a ritual observed even in the India of 2020 with an average of 10 Dalit women raped every day across the country.
Second, we have witnessed how the criminal justice system continues to fail the most marginalised Indians. The family of the victim was forced to wait for several days, even though she was severely brutalised and close to death, before the police recorded her statement. How often have we heard this story? Not just in UP, this happens all over the country. And no change in law appears to make a whit of a difference. In fact, it appears as if all these laws are unknown to the police, or they selectively and deliberately choose to ignore them when the victim is poor or from a marginalised community.
Third, after the woman died in a Delhi hospital, the UP police transported her back to her village at night, didn’t allow her family to see their daughter one last time, and cremated her in the early hours of the morning without their consent. This surely will be remembered as one of the most horrific and patently illegal acts by a police force tasked to implement law, not break it.
And if all this was not enough, the police – who take their directions from the home minister, who happens to be the chief minister – barricaded the village, rushed hundreds of personnel to create a virtual fortress around this nondescript village, and stopped the media as well as opposition leaders from meeting the family.
When they lifted the siege, the story did not end. Top police officials claimed there was no evidence of rape as the forensic examination had not found any semen in the victim’s body. For the police, who ought to be cognizant of the law, including the changes in it, such a statement was extraordinary. A detailed report in Newslaundry explains the law and also what the family went through trying to get the police to act in accordance with it.
It is hard to believe that the police did not know that the victim's word that she was raped was enough in the eyes of the law. That they should speak of the absence of semen in the forensic report as casting doubt on rape was even more unbelievable. Any kind of penetration, even by an object, is defined as rape after the changes made in the law in 2013, in the wake of the 2012 gangrape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi. So the absence of semen, that too after the woman has been in a hospital for over a week, has no relevance as Supreme Court advocate Vrinda Grover explains in a useful video on the Wire.
The victim's statements have now been appended in an affidavit filed by the UP police in the Supreme Court, where the matter has come up, as also in the Allahabad High Court, which took suo motu cognisance of the case after reports in the media of the late night cremation.
Apart from the police, the UP government, and the family of the victim, the other player in this story is the media. How did it conduct itself after September 30 and the late night cremation by the police?
Much has been written about the hustling and aggressive tactics of Indian TV journalists, particularly in the Sushant Singh Rajput case.
In Hathras, the determination of the India Today reporter Tanushree Pandey has been acknowledged as important because she succeeded in filming the illegal cremation of the victim's body. Her report is heartbreaking and deeply disturbing. But her persistence paid off as this evidence, apart from other reports, compelled the Allahabad High Court to take notice and demand an explanation from the UP police. Without it, the police might have succeeded in spinning its yarn that the cremation was done at the behest of the family.
Just as the victim's family struggled for days to get the UP police to proceed with the case, the media too was slow to wake up. The first reports appeared almost 10 days after the assault. It was only after her death on September 29, and the next day, when the UP police brought her back to her village late at night from the Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi, that the media became part of the story.
Once again, it is print and digital that have to be relied upon to place this kind of atrocity within context. Reports such as this and this in the Indian Express, for instance, give us a sense of the victim's family, the village, its caste make up and the history of trouble between the family of the men who are accused of raping her and her family.
This tragic quote from the mother in the first story speaks to the stark reality facing millions of Dalit families in this country: "She had to cross the highway just to get to the primary school. Trucks and buses moved at such speed…We pulled her out of school when she was in Class 5. We never let her go alone, we were afraid she might come under a car, or that someone might kidnap her…What we feared has come true. We couldn’t protect her.”
On that fateful day, the young woman had stepped out to help her mother collect fodder.
Much of the electronic media, unfortunately, went into its usual feeding frenzy once the barricades were lifted. As this video by Kavita, who is a reporter with the remarkable rural news portal Khabar Lahariya shows, reporters showed no sensitivity towards a grieving family as they thrust mics repeatedly in the faces of the mother, father and other relatives, trampled all over the house, sat wherever they could, did not even pause to consider that this family needed not just privacy but even just the space to conduct normal activities like cooking for the children.
One can’t only blame the reporters given they are all under immense pressure from their bosses to generate exclusives.
Yet, given that this behaviour has now become almost the norm for television reporters, is it time to retrain journalists on how to behave when approaching people who have suffered loss? Persistence might pay off in getting information, but surely insensitivity towards people who have already been beaten down cannot be justified.
The Hathras Horror is not just a crime against one woman. It is a reminder to us all, including in the media, of how little has changed for women in India. It’s also another reminder of the deep fault line of caste that persists in this country. And above all, it illustrates how the state and its law-enforcing arm, which is supposed to protect people, treat those without voice or political power. This is indeed a broken India.
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