It was September and the villagers of Singhai area in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri had just begun to feel relief from scorching summer heat. Savita laid her two-month-old baby down on a cot, covering him in a brown sheet to keep the flies from disturbing his afternoon slumber. She brought out a girl’s yellow dress, a Barbie doll, a stuffed toy, a blue plastic elephant, and shuddered as she placed them down by the baby. “This is all I have of her,” she said as tears rolled down her face.
“Will you ever tell your son about Nitya?”
“I will have to,” she replied.
Nitya, Savita’s daughter, was found murdered in a sugarcane field not far from her home on September 3. The postmortem revealed that she had been raped. Two days later, based on the testimony of Nitya’s father, the police arrested Lekhram, who lives in the same village.
We met Nitya’s family on September 24. A few policewomen lazed outside their house, deployed, they said, to maintain law and order. Tension was palpable in the village.
Nitya was the first child of Savita, 22 and Ramesh, 24, born four years after their marriage. In July this year, Savita had her second child, a boy. A month later, the young family’s world came crashing down.
Savita described that fateful morning as being ordinary. “After giving my son a bath, I massaged him with oil,” she recalled. “I told my sister-in-law to roast some groundnuts for Nitya. Then I went for a bath myself.”
Nitya had the groundnuts and settled down to play in the courtyard. That was the last they saw her alive. “Nobody knows when exactly she went missing,” said Savita. “We all realised she was gone by 10 am and began looking for her.”
The victim's dress and toys.
For the next 12 excruciating hours, Ramesh and Savita searched for their child. While Ramesh, assisted by fellow villagers, searched in and around the village, Savita looked in every corner of the house. She could not step outside, she added, as it was against local custom for a daughter-in-law to leave the house.
“There’s a temple close by and we made an announcement from there as well,” said Ramesh, who makes a living farming and rearing sheep. “I kept thinking that if someone had taken my child or she had wandered away, she would come back at some point.”
The next morning, at around 11 am, Ramesh was told his child had been found in a sugarcane field nearby. “There she was, lying dead. Her teeth were blackened. She had her underpants and sandals on,” he said. Strewn by her body Ramesh vividly remembered seeing the paper cone Nitya had been served groundnuts in.
“Her eyes were bulging out and there was blood on her face,” added Savita.
In the afternoon, Ramesh said, they went to the police station and had an FIR registered under penal charges related to murder and disappearance of evidence.
Savita said her family never imagined the child had been raped until the postmortem report came out. “Initially I thought she had been killed. Only after the medical test was completed did we come to know what had actually happened to her,” she added.
The postmortem, conducted late on September 3 at the Lakhimpur Kheri District Hospital, revealed the girl had faced sexual violence before being murdered.
According to the postmortem report, Nitya’s genital area was wounded and lacerated. Her hymen was torn and the lower part of the vagina had blood clots. There were also wounds on her face, neck, chest, left elbow, left thigh, and buttock. As to the cause of death, the report concludes that it occurred “due to asphyxia as a result of antemortem throttling”.
Once the postmortem found Nitya had been raped, the police amended the FIR to add charges of rape and invoke provisions of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, the investigationg officer, Pradeep Kumar Singh at the Singhai police station, said.
He also said Lekhram had been arrested after the victim’s father named him. “Rape is confirmed. I can’t reveal much but during interrogation the accused has confessed to the crime.”
Asked why Nitya’s family had been given police protection, the officer said, “The wife of the accused was murdered by someone from the victim’s family in 2014. So, they feel they are being falsely accused. Because of all this tension we have provided the victim’s family with security.”
But why does Ramesh suspect Lekhram? “No one else in the village has done this,” Ramesh replied. “When my child went missing everyone was searching for her except Lekhram. I had my doubts and I told the police.”
The victim's father in the sugarcane field where her body was found.
Lekhram, 40, lives just down the road from Ramesh. A sombre quiet enveloped his home when we visited in late September. His brother, Satnam Gautam, who lives in the same house with his mother and Lekhram’s two children, sat on a cot in the courtyard. Lekhram and Satnam both work as daily wage labourers. They earn Rs 250 a day doing odd jobs or working on sugarcane farms in their own village, and Rs 500 per day when they go to work in neighbouring Uttarakhand. Lekhram is also registered to get work under the MGNREGA rural work programme.
Several villagers were gathered at Lekhram’s house when we visited, and they eagerly defended him.
“He’s being falsely accused. This family has been trying to trap Lekhram’s family for a while. It is sad that their daughter died but this is also wrong,” said a neighbour.
The dispute between Lekhram’s and Ramesh’s families goes back six years when Ramesh’s brother, Akash, was arrested on charges of murdering and raping Lekhram’s wife.
Satnam has a copy of the statement that Lekhram gave to the police on July 21, 2014. In it, he claims that his wife Rampa Devi, 30, was taken by Akash to a nearby sugarcane field at around 10 pm on July 16. Five days later, her body was found by a neighbour. “Akash had killed her and dumped the body there,” the statement adds. “It was badly rotten.”
The statement given to the police by the accused after his wife's murder in 2014.
After Akash was released from jail on bail, he and his brother, Ramesh, tried to implicate Lekhram in several false cases, Satnam alleged.
On September 7, three days after Lekhram was arrested for Nitya’s rape and murder, Satnam wrote to Uttar Pradesh’s police chief claiming his brother had been wrongly accused. After Akash was released, Satnam alleged, he tried pressuring Lekhram to reconcile with him. “However, when Lekhram refused the culprit used a blade to badly injure himself,” Satnam added. “He then filed a fake complaint against Lekhram, seeking to pin this on him. But after an investigation his complaint was proven to be false. He then tried to accuse Lekhram of misbehaving with his sister. However, that complaint too was proven false.” Now, Satnam claimed in the letter, Akash and Ramesh were falsely accusing Lekhram of Nitya’s rape and murder.
To support his claim, Satnam told Newslaundry that his brother was home when Nitya was said to have been killed. Satnam himself had gone to buy medicine and learned about the girl being missing on his way back.
“It rained a lot that day. They found the body only the next day. By then the media had arrived and said Ramesh was accusing Lekhram of taking the child from her home,” he argued. “But they only named Lekhram the next day. If they had seen him taking her why did they not name him that day itself?”
According to Satnam, Lekhram had gone to the bank when the body was found. Sometime later the police came and questioned the two brothers at home, and then asked them to come to the police station. “They threatened us and all our relatives that we would be arrested if we protested,” he claimed.
“On the way to the station, they suddenly stopped, gave us Rs 200 and told us to go home by local transport. I told them to take us with them. But they forced us to get off and then, suddenly, shot Lekhram in his leg from behind,” Satnam alleged. “Then they took him away.”
Asked about this, the investigating officer claimed, “The father told us he saw Lekhram taking the child. We arrested him from Ninghasan, a nearby village. When the accused saw us and tried running we shot him in the leg and took him in.”
To protest Lekhram’s arrest, Satnam, along with 50-60 fellow villagers, staged a sit-in protest from September 12 to 14. Satnam told Newslaundry that the police have threatened to book every villager who took part in the protest.
On September 7, Satnam wrote a letter to his MP, Ajay Kumar Mishra of the BJP, asking for a CBI investigation.
Satnam shows a news report about the sit-in protest against his brother's arrest.
Asked about their dispute with Lekhram’s family, Ramesh replied that it stemmed from his brother being falsely accused in a police case. Initially, he claimed this case was regarding the collection of fodder from nearby fields, but later said, “Lekhram’s wife was killed and they put the blame on Akash. Anyway this dispute was between Lekhram and my brother. It didn’t involve me. Yet my child is dead.”
Nitya’s village, like nearly all villages in the region, is divided by caste, although the two families disagreed on which community dominated.
Ramesh’s family belongs to the Pal caste and Lekhram’s to the Gautam community. “They are lower caste and they are more in number in this village,” said Ramesh. The Gautams are Dalit while the Pals are counted among the Other Backward Classes in Uttar Pradesh.
“The Pals number more than us Chamars,” Satnam countered. “They all live together. They come to our side and talk to us but we don’t go into each other’s homes. There is a shop on that side, and sometimes we go there. If we want fertilizer also we have to go there but we never enter their homes.”
There were no visitors at Ramesh’s house when we visited. At Lekhram’s house, there was a crowd of villagers. Lekhram’s daughter, 14, who is physically challenged, sat quietly listening to the conversations. “Look at this poor girl. Right now she is doing all the cooking for everyone,” said a villager.
“What will her future be if Lekhram remains in jail. Given her condition, it will be difficult to get her married. And now things will be worse for her,” added a woman from the neighborhood.
Hearing this, the girl began weeping and whispered, “Send me my father back.”
A woman standing beside her wiped away the girl’s tears and said, “Either way, we are all there for her. We won’t abandon this family.”
Since Nitya’s death, her mother has not been keeping well. “She does not eat properly,” Nitya’s aunt told Newslaundry over the phone on November 2. “She complains of weakness and has high blood pressure. She has been seeing a doctor.”
Satnam told Newslaundry on November 5 that he had spoken to Lekhram only twice over the phone since his arrest. He hadn’t been able to see him because of the Covid protocols in jails.
He had asked the local police when they would be filing the chargesheet, Satnam said, but didn’t get a response. And because he wasn’t sure when it would be filed, Satnam said, he hadn’t hired a lawyer yet.
He had also written letters to prime minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath demanding a fresh investigation. On September 23, he said, he received an acknowledgement from the prime minister’s office stating that “a reply may be sent to petitioner and a copy of the same be uploaded on the portal”.
As the two families trade allegations and the police investigation crawls along, the case of Nitya’s death remains muddled. It’s expected that the forensic analysis of Nitya’s vaginal smears, vaginal swabs and nail scratching collected during her postmortem examination will shed more clarity. But that might take a while. “There is an overload of cases in UP and hence a huge caseload at forensic labs as well,” explained Pradeep Kumar Singh, the investigating officer. “We will only get the forensic report in 5-6 months.”
He added, “It was raining that day and lots of evidence was washed away as well. At least this case was reported. In Uttar Pradesh many rape cases go unreported.”
For now then, the only undeniable truth is that two women, one 30 years old and the other just three, were raped, murdered, and left to rot in the same village. Both families are in mourning, both demand justice, both are in pain.
Some names have been changed to protect identities.
Anil Verma, Riya Agarwal and Sukriti Vats contributed reporting.
All pictures by Akanksha Kumar.
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