Amidst slander and constant vigil, Hathras victim's family seeks closure
Ground Report

Amidst slander and constant vigil, Hathras victim's family seeks closure

Media and security personnel have congregated at the village, and rumours range from ‘honour killing’ to ‘Naxal interference’.

By Akanksha Kumar & Nidhi Suresh

Published on :

Ramesh refused to give us the address to his house. Instead, he asked us to meet him near a bus stand. Are you uncomfortable taking us home, we asked.

“Yes. It would be best not to go to my house,” he said. “I’m scared that I’m being watched and that my phone is being tapped.”

Ramesh is the cousin of Asha*, the 19-year-old Dalit women who was assaulted and allegedly gangraped in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras by four men. She died two weeks later, and the Uttar Pradesh police forcibly cremated her body without the consent of her family.

Four Thakur men from Hathras were arrested: Ramu, Ravi, Luvkush and Sandeep.

Ramesh doesn’t live in Hathras; he lives in a neighbouring village. On September 14, the day Asha was assaulted, he received a phone call from Asha’s brother and immediately rushed to the Bagla Joint District hospital, where she was first taken for medical treatment. Since then, he has been travelling back and forth between the two villages.

Three days after Asha’s death, the police said that due to the “prevailing law and order situation, no political delegations or individuals will be allowed to visit the village”. In the media and political circus that followed Ramesh preferred to communicate with us on WhatsApp, paranoid that his phone was being tapped.

The case has already witnessed multiple bizarre twists. From insinuations of “Naxal” interference and Islamist funding, to media houses propounding theories of honour killing, to call records being brandished to suggest previous contact between the family and the accused, and even a “love affair” between the victim and one of the accused — no angle has been left untouched.

When we returned to Hathras for the third time, what we saw resembled a dystopian theatre performance starring the media.

Metal detector installed in Hathras.
Metal detector installed in Hathras.
CCTV cameras at Asha's house.
CCTV cameras at Asha's house.

Slander in death

Last week, the call data records of Asha’s family were leaked to the media. It was reported that over 104 calls were made between one of the accused and a phone registered in Asha’s brother’s name from October 2019 to March 2020. Media anchors like Sudhir Chaudhary began insinuating a possible love affair between the victim and the accused.

Chatting with us in a friend’s house, Ramesh told Newslaundry that yes, the two families would occasionally speak on the phone. Asha’s brother had enrolled for work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and the village pradhan would telephone the accused’s family whenever work came up. The Thakur family would choose who would be enrolled for work and so, Asha’s brother would often call the Thakur family, seeking to be enlisted.

“Some of the calls were also to talk about stray cattle entering the fields,” Ramesh said. “Linking it to this case is absolutely wrong. In a span of six months, is a conversation for a total of five hours really that much? If someone has an affair, then conversations happen everyday for long durations.”

Ramesh said the call records are being “projected in the wrong way” to “create a different narrative and shield the accused”. “If there was any real relationship between the two of them, the police have to show this with proper evidence,” he said.

On October 7, the four accused wrote a letter to Vineet Jaiswal, the superintendent of police, proclaiming their innocence. They stated that they had not been present when the incident took place, that they were “friendly” with the victim, and that her family had been unhappy with this “friendship”.

They had met Asha the day she was assaulted, they wrote, but left after the mother and brother expressed displeasure at the meeting. According to the accused, the family had then beaten up Asha.

When we brought up this letter, Ramesh said, “If there was such a thing [a love affair], so much has happened since the incident. My sister even died. And now they’ve woken up to write this letter? It’s so clear that they’re doing this to save themselves.”

Asha’s family is currently living in fear, Ramesh said. There are only four Valmiki households in the village, and the Thakur community has been garnering support by the day. The family is now under “surveillance” from the administration.

Referring to the Uttar Pradesh police and administration, Ramesh said: “They’re adamant on proving that we are only telling lies. They have been intimidating us even after the media has been coming here.”

Did Asha have any friends in the village? “It’s very difficult for us (Valmikis) to befriend anyone in the village,” Ramesh said.

Media cacophony

In the past week, the families of the accused have received widespread support from the Thakur community.

On October 9, Raja Rajendra Singh, the national president of the All India Kshatriya Mahasabha, met these families at Boolgadhi. Singh told Newslaundry that he is “confident” that the four are innocent.

Meri antar aatma yahi bolti hai ki humaare log aise kaam kabhi nahi kar sakte,” he said. (My soul tells me that our people can never do such a thing.)

Does his antar atma know who committed the crime? “No, the CBI has to do an investigation,” he said. “I only know that disciples of Lord Ram will never do such a thing.”

Last week, Aaj Tak did a “super exclusive” show where they interviewed Roopwati, the Thakur sarpanch of Chandpa, who lives in Bagna village nearby. Roopwati and other villagers told journalist Shweta Singh that the accused were innocent, and that it was a case of honour killing. They also said that “members of the Bhim Army” had made it into a caste issue.

Newslaundry met Roopwati’s son, Ram Kumar, in Baghna. He sat on a charpoy under a tree near a temple, surrounded by people. Next to him was Republic Bharat reporter Kavita Singh, doing a live bulletin.

When we tried to approach Kumar, Singh said, “No! Republic will sit here till 8 pm. Don’t you know how the electronic media works? If you want, you can speak to him for a few minutes during the break, but I will sit here and you cannot disturb my frame.”

When we pressed that we wanted to speak to him, Singh bent down and told Kumar, “Do not agree to speak unless they do a live TV interview of you.”

She then left, and Kumar refused to allow us to record an interview.

Villagers are understandably wary of being on camera. One of them pulled out a newspaper clipping and explained that ABP News had done a “sting operation” a few days ago on Kumar. ABP had interviewed him using a hidden camera and then, the villager said, “edited” the video to show Kumar saying that two of the accused, Sandeep and Luvkush, had been present when Asha was assaulted.

The news clipping.
The news clipping.

But what Kumar meant to say, the villager continued, was that “innocent Thakurs” had been “falsely accused”. Ram Kumar told Newslaundry that he plans to take legal action against ABP News.

The same day #NaxalBhabhi began trending on Twitter, claiming that some sort of “Naxal infiltrator” had been living in Asha’s house. It was later debunked that this “bhabhi” was actually Jabalpur-based forensic scientist Rajkumari Bansal, who came to Hathras to meet the family.

As the news of the ”infiltrating bhabhi” gained traction, Asha’s family sat huddled inside a room in their home, while media and security personnel congregated outside. A reporter from Republic Bharat, Sweta Tripathi, rushed into the house, a cameraman in close pursuit, pointed at Asha’s grandmother sleeping on a charpoy, and said: “See how empty everything is now. Earlier, this place was filled with reporters who were trying to brainwash the family. But today, there is nobody here”.

After a few minutes of this, Tripathi thrust her microphone at one of Asha’s relatives and demanded to know if “someone from Jabalpur” was in the house.

“Yes, I myself have come from Jabalpur,” the woman responded.

How was she related to the family, Tripathi asked. The woman said: “I am not related. I have simply come here.” Tripathi then addressed the camera, saying “See, this is it. Can’t tell who is related who is not and so difficult to understand also...”

The “woman from Jabalpur” later showed us her Aadhaar card and told us she’s from Firozabad.

“I said it to her out of anger,” she confessed. “I am the mother of Asha’s sister-in-law and I’m here because my daughter needs me. These people are showing everything wrong. Let them show whatever they want, I don’t care anymore.”

On the other side of the road, slightly removed from this bedlam, is the house of three of the accused, Sandeep, Ravi and Ramu. Ravi’s mother recognised us from our previous visit and lashed out: Why hadn’t our recordings of her appeared on TV yet? We explained that we don't work with a TV channel and showed her the YouTube video we had made, and she calmed down.

A relative lay on a charpoy outside this house, scrolling through headlines on the Hathras case. We asked him whether Asha had been in a relationship with one of the accused, as proclaimed by several media channels.

Without lifting his gaze from his phone, he said, “Only the boy and girl would know this.”

We asked another relative of the family if she had known Asha. She said, “No, I did not know her. I saw her properly only when videos in which she’s lying down surfaced on the internet.”

We then walked towards the house of Luvkush, the fourth accused. Here, a young girl refused to speak to us. “No one is home and no one will talk,” she said. In the distance, we saw Luvkush’s mother walking towards the field where Asha was found, loudly addressing a TV camera that followed her.

The caste conspiracy

A heightened sense of vigilance by the administration was on display in Hathras. At Asha’s house, our ID cards were cross-checked more than once at an entry point. A makeshift tent with charpoys, fans and two mobile lavatories was set up for police personnel to rest between their shifts. We passed through a metal detector, where a policewoman noted down the times of arrivals and departures.

Before we could enter the house, yet another man in a safari suit, who identified himself as an intelligence agent, photographed our ID cards. It took a total of three layers of security and ID checks before we walked into the two-room house where Asha had lived with her parents, brother and sister-in-law.

After her death, the police installed eight CCTV cameras in and around Asha’s house, as well as multiple LED bulbs and a metal detector. Media personnel and activists sat in the courtyard alongside members of a local intelligence unit.

Inside the house, the family looked exhausted.

We asked Asha’s brother what he felt about the media attention. Prior to Asha’s death, both father and son had begged for media attention, hoping that public outrage would save her life. The brother had tagged media houses on Twitter after his sister’s assault — but no one responded.

Now, the brother looked down and mumbled, “Well, we’re okay with the media. Can’t complain.”

As he spoke, there was a commotion outside: Asha’s aunt was refusing to allow a crew from News18 India to enter. “Some of the media is trying to portray that our daughter-in-law is an outsider and not part of our family. I don’t know why they’re doing this,” said the aunt referring to the news about the “naxal bhabhi”.

When Asha’s mother stood up and left to do some chores, we asked other family members how she was doing.

“What can we say?” said Asha’s father. “She’s lost the one person who was beside her everyday. Every time we sit down to eat, she starts thinking of her child. Asha was the one who used to feed the buffalos everyday.”

When asked about the call data records, Asha’s aunt said: “There have been so many claims and counter-claims that there is no point sitting and justifying each of them. Now we are just waiting for justice.”

A mat woven by Asha.
A mat woven by Asha.
Empty streets in the village.
Empty streets in the village.

The brother added that Asha never used the phone in question; she would spend time weaving small mats from old clothes after her chores. In line with what Ramesh had told us, he too explained that the “call records” were often just communications about work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

What about claims that there’s no caste angle in the case? Asha’s father looked down and sighed.

“You know, India got freedom from the British more than 70 years ago,” he said. “But to know if that freedom really means anything, speak to any Dalit in this country.”

Hathras is divided on caste, both literally and figuratively. Thakur houses occupy one street, Brahmins another. Right now, most people had locked their doors, with only a few children playing outside. Most villagers are sceptical about speaking to the media; some of them agreed to speak to TV journalists only.

Meanwhile, in their plush studios in Delhi, anchors like Padmaja Joshi and Rahul Shivshankar of Times Now had begun claiming that the narrative of caste-based violence in Hathras was a “conspiracy theory”.

A woman from one of the Brahmin households, while offering us some water, said she knew Asha’s family only in the way one knows everyone in a village. In the same house, we asked a woman around Asha’s age whether Asha had any friends in the village.

“No,” she replied, “we don’t mingle with those people (Valmikis).”

Asha is a pseudonym used to protect the victim's identity.

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