No one noticed Tara leaving home that day.
The family’s one-room kachha house in a village in Lakhimpur Kheri’s Isanagar did not have a toilet, so Tara, her parents, and two older brothers would defecate in a field a few metres from their home.
At around 2 pm on August 14, Tara, 13, left to defecate. Her mother, Shanti, usually accompanied her but she was feeling drowsy that afternoon and lay down for a nap.
“But she wore her dupatta,” Shanti recalled. “She didn’t forget it.”
Tara, like other girls in the village, never forgot to carry her dupatta and drape it over her barely matured breasts – even if she was only going a few metres away. Every girl here is told from a young age that her dupatta is her saviour, that she must cover herself so that she isn’t “outraged”. No girl would dare leave her dupatta behind.
Yet, Tara, who had diligently worn her dupatta, was found 200 metres from her house, raped and strangled to death by the very piece of cloth that was supposed to keep her safe.
Two men have been arrested in connection with her death so far – Santosh Yadav and Sanjay Gautam. Santosh owns the field where Tara was found. Just weeks before the death, he had warned villagers against defecating in his field.
Tara’s family are Dalit, from the Gautam caste. Sanjay belongs to the same caste while Santosh is a Yadav, an OBC community in Uttar Pradesh.
Newslaundry met Tara’s family on September 23 to piece together what had happened.
“Maybe if our toilet has been constructed on time, Tara would not have died,” said Shiva, Tara’s father.
Shiva, 55, is a marginal farmer and occasionally works as a labourer. Tara was his youngest child; his sons are 18 and 28.
On August 14, Shiva said, an hour passed before the family realised that Tara hadn’t returned. Her father began searching for her and asked a group of men grazing their goats if they had seen her. The men pointed towards the field, and said they had seen her heading there.
The field is owned by Shiva’s neighbour Santosh Yadav, who grows sugarcane. Shiva reached the field and, from a distance, saw Santosh sitting there, on the ground. “From afar, I called out to him and asked if he had seen my daughter,” Shiva said. Santosh waved his hands in the air and said, “She is not here.”
Shiva then spotted another neighbour, Sanjay Gautam, in Santosh’s field. “I heard Sanjay ask Santosh, ‘Who is it?’ and Santosh told him, ‘It’s Shiva,’” the father said. “Then I heard Sanjay ask him if I had left, and Santosh said yes.”
Shiva overheard this conversation from a distance and it appeared perfectly natural. He left to continue his search for his daughter. A month later, as he thought back to what had happened, he said he regretted that moment — that he had walked away.
The path leading to the sugarcane field.
Shiva, Shanti and their sons continued to search the neighbourhood for Tara. By 5 pm, they were losing hope. Dusk was falling and the parents were panicking. They decided to walk towards the field once more.
Santosh and Sanjay were still there. This time, when they spotted Shiva and Shanti walking towards them, Shiva said, they ran.
His suspicion raised, Shiva walked into the field. There was a small clearing in the sugarcane and he saw what looked like his daughter’s body and clothes.
“Immediately I started screaming ‘Hai dada, humari betiya ko maar daale, daudo dada re dada’,” he said. My daughter has been killed. Run dada, run.
Tara lay in the clearing, her black dupatta wound around her neck. The steel lota she had carried with her lay nearby, alongside her slippers. Her feet were bound with straw.
“There was blood coming out of her eyes. Her tongue was protruding out and bleeding. She must have bitten it while being strangled,” Shiva said. His voice trembled as he remembered his last moment with his daughter.
FIR and postmortem
At 11.42 pm that night, an FIR was filed at Isanagar police station. Based on Shiva’s complaint, the FIR named Santosh Yadav and Sanjay Gautam as the accused. They were booked under Sections 302 and 201 of the Indian Penal Code which deal with murder as well as under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act.
Tara’s postmortem was conducted on camera at 2.30 pm on August 15 by a panel of three doctors at the Lakhimpur Kheri district hospital. Newslaundry has a copy of the postmortem report which states that there were injuries on her back, right knee and left ankle. There were contusions on the left side of her face below the eye, caused by the rupturing of blood vessels. Her brain, respiratory tract and lungs were noted to be congested.
The postmortem report indicates sexual assault. Tara’s abdomen was distended — swollen due to pressure from inside — and her vagina was bloodied and lacerated with a deep wound on the lower surface. Her hymen was torn and blood clots were present. The cause of death was asphyxia.
After the postmortem, penal charges of gangrape were included in the FIR. Since Tara was a minor, charges under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act were added as well.
On August 29, two weeks after Tara’s death, the Uttar Pradesh police filed a chargesheet.
‘I too have lost my child’
Three days after Tara’s murder, a police official named Sunil Singh visited her family. According to Shiva, the official said the police had made a video of Santosh and Sanjay confessing to the crime, and a video of them saying Shiva should be “grateful” he even found the body since they were planning to “dispose of it”.
Shiva himself never saw the videos and claimed that Sunil Singh was transferred soon after.
Singh was the station house officer of Isanagar when the death took place. He told Newslaundry he couldn’t comment about the video. “During interrogation both the boys confessed is all I can say,” he said.
Singh was transferred two weeks after Tara’s death. He is currently the station house officer of the Lakhimpur City police station. He said it was a “routine transfer”. “This is a better posting for me.”
His successor in Isanagar, Hari Om Shrivastav, said he couldn’t comment on the matter, but confirmed that the chargesheet had been filed. The investigating officer, Arvind Verma, could not be reached.
Tara’s parents walked us to the field where she was found. It was the first time they were returning to where they had found their daughter that day. The field is about 200 metres from Shiva’s house. Sanjay lives two houses away, Santosh barely a few hundred metres away in a Yadav cluster.
The village has around 100 Yadav voters, 700 Gautams, and 110 Pandits, according to the sarpanch Sundar Lal. “The Gautams are lower caste but they outnumber the other castes,” he said.
At Sanjay’s house, his parents sat desolate. Sanjay lived here with his parents and four siblings.
Shanti laying out her daughter's clothes.
Sanjay Gautam's parents.
On the morning of Tara’s death, Sanjay, his father, and some fellow villagers had gone to a nearby village for “majdoori ka kaam”, meaning manual labour. The father said they returned around noon. “I wasn’t feeling well so I went to buy medicine,” he said. “We own cattle so I asked Sanjay to go and collect grass from the field to feed them.”
This was likely around the same time that Tara went missing. “Sanjay was not with me at the time of the incident,” his father added. “Only God and Mother Earth know what happened during that half-hour when my son was not with me and was in the field.”
Sanjay was arrested the same evening, his family said.
Sanjay’s mother was home when she heard that Tara had been killed. “I went to their house and Tara’s brother came running to me,” she said. “I held him tightly because he was crying so much. We have always had a good relationship with their family.”
Sanjay’s mother, like other villagers, went to the field and saw Tara’s body. Her son had returned by then, she said, and he went to the field again with her.
“He wasn’t trying to run from the police. He came with me to the field and we saw the body,” she said. “Everyone was crying. I too cried for the child. In fact, I cried more for Tara than when my own son was taken away. But today I feel the pain they are feeling right now. I too have lost my child.”
Ever since, the villagers have given the family a wide berth. “Nobody talks to us anymore,” the father said.
Asked if they believed their son had attacked and killed Tara, the parents fell quiet.
“If my son has done this, he should be punished,” his mother said. “If not, return my child to me.” She broke down.
‘His nature was so good’
About 500 metres away from Sanjay’s house is the home of Santosh Yadav. He lives with his parents, three brothers, his wife and one-year-old child. His two sisters live elsewhere with their husbands. Santosh had just completed his bachelor’s degree in science and was supposed to start work at a sugar mill. According to his family, he had also applied to join the army and the Uttar Pradesh police.
Raju Yadav, Sanjay’s brother, believes his brother is innocent.
“He was in the field all day. He came home at 1.30 pm and then returned to the field only at 5 pm,” Raju said. “If he had done it, why would he go back to the field?”
The police took away Santosh from his house at about 10 pm, Raju said.
Santosh Yadav's family.
If Santosh confessed, Raju told Newslaundry, then “he should be shot dead in public”. “I will make his wife give that in writing even,” he added. “But we know he’s innocent.”
Did Santosh’s family have any relationship with Tara’s family? “We stay away from those people,” Raju said. “They are dangerous.”
Santosh got married in 2018. His wife said he could “never do something like this” since he was, she claimed, “extremely shy” around women.
“Even when a woman would ask him for help, he wouldn’t help them. He was that shy,” she said. “His nature was so good.”
Santosh’s mother chipped in to defend her son. “You can ask about him from anyone in the village,” she said.
Their families claimed that Santosh and Sanjay were arrested from their homes, but the police case diary tells another story: that they were “waiting for a vehicle” near Mausaipur Tiraha on Lakhimpur road on August 15 when they were “chased by the police” and caught.
Newslaundry asked Sunil Singh, the former Isanagar SHO, for a clarification. He said, “After the incident, the boys tried to run. We caught them while they were trying to get another vehicle from the main road. They were not arrested at home.”
The case diary also records the statements of the two accused.
“I was stupid. I made a mistake. Please forgive me,” it quotes Santosh as saying.
“I did it under the influence of Santosh Yadav. Please forgive me,” it records Sanjay as claiming.
For want of a toilet
That Tara’s house did not have a functional toilet is at the heart of the tragedy.
A few weeks earlier, Shanti said, Santosh had warned villagers that he wouldn’t tolerate anyone defecating in his field.
“He said, ‘If you defecate in my field, I will beat you,’” Shanti recalled, saying she didn’t expect her daughter to pay for it with her life. “It seemed to be a threat to everyone, not just us. And moreover, even after he said it, people still continued to go there. So then why was my child killed?”
The sarpanch had sanctioned a toilet for Tara’s family under the central government’s Swachh Bharat Mission last year, her aunt Sita said. “We got Rs 12,000 as the first installment. Then there was a delay in the second installment,” she said. Since the toilet seat hadn’t been fixed yet, it was left unused.
Tension was palpable when we asked about this. Some male relatives of Tara urged us to focus on the crime instead of asking questions about the toilet. They clearly did not want to openly criticise a government scheme.
After Tara’s murder, with the women scared to go out in the fields to relieve themselves, the family pooled money to buy and install the seat. The toilet is functional now.
The toilet installed after Tara's death.
‘A poor man's daughter was killed’
Newslaundry asked Shiva if he knew what Tara wanted to be when she grew up.
“A poor man cannot dream,” he replied. “Neither can his children.”
Tara had been enrolled at the local government school but dropped out, he said. Which class did she drop out from? “She studied enough to do her own signature,” Shiva replied.
As a father, Shiva said he had to make a choice between feeding his family and sending his daughter to school. “Girls and daughters are not that safe in the village. We all have to work. Who will take them to the far away school?”
Since Tara’s death and the arrests, the village has been tense. Shiva claimed Santosh’s brother Raju had been threatening them, saying he would “take care” of Shiva and his family once Santosh was released from jail.
On October 26, when Newslaundry spoke to one of Tara’s brothers, he said the Yadavs and the Gautams barely ever interacted.
“We are from different castes,” he said. “We used to be neither friends nor enemies.” After Tara’s death, things changed for the worse: it was difficult for anyone from his community to go past the Yadavs without being cursed.
“The shop we get our things from is near their house,” he said. “Everytime we go that way, Santosh’s mother starts asking why enemies are coming to their side.” Regarding Sanjay Gautam’s family, he said, “They’ve just been quiet.”
Shailendra Kumar Singh, the district magistrate of Lakhimpur Kheri, in an order issued on October 20 stated that Tara was “gangraped by Santosh Yadav and his friend Sanjay Gautam in a sugarcane field. They then strangled her with her dupatta, killing her.”
The letter issued by Shailendra Kumar Singh, the district magistrate of Lakhimpur Kheri.
Santosh had applied for bail, the letter continued. “If he is given bail, he will continue to commit such crimes, thereby disturbing the peace of the area. Due to this, I believe that Santosh Yadav should be booked under the National Security Act of 1980. As the DM of Kheri, this is the solution I see best fit.”
Shailendra ordered Santosh to be booked under Section 3 and Sub-section 2 of the Act.
The administration also transferred Rs 8.25 lakh to Tara’s family as compensation.
When we met Shiva on September 23, his family was mourning another death. His granddaughter had died, hours after her birth.
“If she at least would have survived, I could have had something to hold on to. I would have made peace that God sent me my daughter back in the form of this child,” he said. “But now everything is finished. Only God can help us through this. A poor man’s daughter was killed.”
He broke down. “A poor man’s daughter was killed.”
Some names have been changed to protect identities.
Independent media has a critical role in sustaining democracy, telling stories that need to be told and asking questions that require answers. Support independent journalists by paying to keep news free. Subscribe to Newslaundry today.