“When in court, I never ever turn around and look at the four men who raped and killed my sister,” said Asha’s brother. “Usually they stand right behind me. The courtroom is small but I make sure to enter before them. I just can’t bear to look at those men.”
It’s been seven months since Asha, 19, was raped by four men near her home in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras. She two weeks later and was by the Uttar Pradesh police in the absence of her family.
Upper-caste villagers and family members of the accused tried to pass off Asha’s death as an “honour killing”. But in December, the CBI completed its investigation and concluded that Asha, who was Dalit, had been by four Thakur men: Sandip, Ravi, Ramu and Luvkush.
There are two simultaneous cases going on. The first, of Asha’s gangrape and murder, is at the special SC/ST court in Hathras district. The second is at the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, which took suo motu cognizance of the case, and is looking into her forced cremation and the role of state officials in botching the investigation.
Meanwhile, life has changed irrevocably for Asha’s family. They now live under 24-hour protection of CRPF personnel, with four personnel assigned to each family member. “I guess it’s for our own safety,” her brother said.
Within Hathras, they can only travel using transport arranged by the CRPF while being escorted by security personnel. “Even if we have to go to the barber, we have to file an application with the CRPF a day in advance,” her brother said. “Only if we are outside Hathras district are we allowed to move in our own vehicle, followed by the CRPF.”
He added: “Ever since the incident at the district court on March 5, the security situation has tightened.”
Security personnel at Asha's home.
But what happened on March 5?
A ‘drunk’ lawyer and threats in court
On March 5, the special SC/ST court in Hathras convened to hear the testimony of Asha’s brother, who is the first prosecution witness in the case.
According to Seema Kushwala, the family’s lawyer, advocate Munna Singh Pundhir, representing the accused, began passing vulgar comments while the evidence was being presented. She said: “When Asha’s underwear was taken out, the defense lawyer and others began laughing and saying, ‘Yes, please take a good look at these panties.'"
Then, just as Asha’s brother started giving his statement, a local advocate, Tarun Hari Sharma, entered the courtroom.
“The moment he walked in, he began shouting at me,” the brother said. “I could smell the alcohol on his breath.”
Kushwaha tried to tell Tarun to “back off” as he was intimidating the brother and interrupting the hearing. However, Tarun was joined by his father Hari Sharma, also an advocate, who also began yelling at Kushwaha and Asha’s brother, saying this was a case of honour killing and not rape.
More lawyers entered the courtroom and joined the Sharmas in verbally abusing and threatening Kushwaha and Asha’s family.
“They started aggressively coming towards me and said I must remain within my limits,” Kushwaha said. “They started laughing and saying, ‘Let’s see how you come to Hathras next time.’ Asha’s brother was on my left and I could see him shaking and getting very scared.”
Judge BD Bharati then adjourned the hearing for lunch. “The judge himself seemed scared of these men,” said Asha’s brother. “He just kept folding his hands in front of them and requested them to leave.”
But the intimidation continued when the court reconvened after lunch, Kushwaha said. The Sharmas and their supporters continued to intimidate Asha’s brother, preventing him from deposing properly. The judge noted a direct threat to life and asked the UP police to enter the courtroom and ensure the family’s safety.
By 5 pm, Kushwaha said, the judge “gave up” and adjourned the hearing. When she stepped out of the courtroom with her associates, Tarun and Hari Sharma and a few others surrounded them, saying Seema Kushwaha should “go back” and “stay in her limits”. The judge noticed and ordered the UP police to escort Kushwaha and her team out of Hathras.
Newslaundry reached out to advocate Munna Singh Pundhir to ask about the events of March 5. “Nothing happened,” he replied. “Seema and that girl’s family are being dramatic simply because they don’t want to give a statement. If they do give a statement, it will become clear that this is a case of honour killing and not gangrape.”
Newslaundry could not get through to Tarun Sharma but his father Hari Sharma said that Kushwaha is “creating a publicity stunt”.
“My son and I have done nothing wrong,” Hari told Newslaundry. “She is making up all this because she wants to become a national celebrity. Why didn’t she immediately file a tatkal application and get a medical test done for my son? That would have proved if he was drunk or not, right?”
While speaking to Newslaundry, Hari also reiterated that as a lawyer, Seema Kushwaha “must remain within her limits”.
But for Kushwaha, this is not the first time she’s been threatened in connection with Asha’s case. In February, she had written to the home ministry asking for security as she did not feel safe.
“For months now, my husband and I have been receiving threats,” she said. “Surprisingly, many of these threats are from people who supported me during the Nirbhaya case but who are now angry that I have taken up the case of a Dalit girl.”
Allahabad High Court takes cognizance
On the day of the incident, Kushwaha told the judge that she wanted to file an application detailing what had happened and asked for the courtroom’s CCTV footage. “The judge told me to let it go,” she said. “He refused to file my complaint and said, ‘Seemaji, these things happen.’”
Eleven days later, on March 16, Asha’s brother moved two applications in the SC/ST court in Hathras. The first was a request from the family to be exempted from appearing in court till the security situation improved and for an in-camera trial. The second was a request for the CCTV footage from March 5.
“The special court did not accept either of these applications,” Kushwaha said. “Why?”
On March 18, Asha’s brother filed an affidavit at the Allahabad High Court detailing what had happened on March 5, and requested a stay on proceedings at the special court in Hathras.
The next day, the Lucknow bench of the high court took cognizance of the complaint and directed the district court judge, Sunil Kumar Singh, and the inspector general of the central sector, CRPF, to prepare a detailed report of what had happened and submit it by April 3. Based on the report, the bench said, the court would take a call on whether or not the case should be transferred out of Hathras.
The court also directed the SC/ST court to conduct all hearings strictly in-camera. If anyone disrupted proceedings or threatened Asha’s family or the witnesses, the bench said, severe action would be taken.
The matter was listed for hearing on April 7. However, due to the Covid pandemic, physical hearings were cancelled and Kushwaha said the Hathras case was not listed for a virtual hearing. Meanwhile, on April 9, Judge BD Bharati was transferred out of Hathras; Kushwaha and a local lawyer said it was a “routine transfer”.
Importantly, Asha’s family has been asking for months that the case be not only transferred out of Hathras but out of Uttar Pradesh. In October when they first made this demand, Chief Justice of India SA Bobde said their plea once the CBI completed the probe. Once the CBI completed its investigation in December, the family once again appealed for a in February.
On March 12, eight days after Tarun Sharma and others threatened the family in court, the Supreme Court of the case.
“The apex court was not aware of what happened on March 5,” Kushwaha explained. “They had no grounds on which to transfer the case; hence, our appeal was rejected.”
Meanwhile, the bail applications of three of the accused – Ramu, Ravi and Luvkush – were . On April 8, Munna Singh Pundhir applied again for Ramu’s bail at the Allahabad High Court. The hearing is scheduled for April 16.
Pundhir told Newslaundry: “One day her family is scared. Next day, they’re sick. Another day they go to the high court. Four innocent men are in jail and this family is ensuring they don’t get justice.”
Who is Tarun Sharma and why was he in the courtroom?
Kushwaha described Tarun Sharma and his father Hari Sharma as “gunda type” lawyers in Hathras. Neither of them have any connection to Asha’s case.
A local lawyer in Hathras told Newslaundry on the condition of anonymity, “If Tarun finds out we spoke against him, we won’t be safe here,” adding that most local lawyers in the district “do not mess with Tarun and his father”. Another local lawyer said: “Tarun is a drunkard and a very violent man.”
Munna Singh Pundhir contradicted this statement, saying it’s “impossible” for any lawyer to consume alcohol before 6 pm. He did not explain why.
Hari Sharma told Newslaundry that he was in the courtroom because Pundhir had asked him to advise the lawyers defending the accused. “My son was there for a different case,” he said. “He merely made a small legal observation when Asha’s brother’s statement was being heard and with that, Seema became very dramatic.”
According to Hari, his son does consume alcohol “but would never come drunk to court”.
One of the local lawyers said that Tarun is an “accused in multiple cases”, including a triple murder case. “He and his father are known to be notorious here,” they said. “They even have the judges under their control.”
In 2008, Tarun Sharma was accused of . He was also charged under the Arms Act and the UP Gangster and Antisocial Activities Act. Newslaundry was told that he was eventually acquitted.
Hathras resident Ankur Gupta, who is also Tarun Sharma’s neighbour, told Newslaundry that he has filed two cases against Sharma and his father. The first is for attempt to murder and the other for robbery, criminal intimidation, and assault.
“No lawyer in Hathras was willing to fight our case because they’re scared of this man,” Gupta said. “So, we had to shift our case to the Aligarh district court.”
In response, Hari Sharma said that he and his son were being “falsely” accused by Gupta. With respect to the triple murder case, he said Tarun had been trapped in a “political gamble” which was why he had been acquitted in 2011 after spending around 10 months in prison.
‘We’re the victims, we’re in jail’
“We don’t feel safe living here. My sons cannot safely go to their old jobs,” said Asha’s father. “We really need help.”
While the family received Rs 25 lakh from the state government after Asha’s death, they still haven’t received a government job or a house, as .
Asha’s brother said he has a question for the chief minister: “When the incident happened, he pretended as if he cared so much about us. Why has he not visited us even once? Maybe if he sees our condition, he might help us.”
Advocate Pundhir scoffed at this, telling Newslaundry that the family lives a very “luxurious and relaxed life”. “Even if they want to buy vegetables, they have five or six CRPF men taking them in a big car,” he said. “What are they complaining about so much now? They’ve got enough money now so why do they still want a house and job?”
But Asha’s family is scared. “Look at what happened in the Unnao rape case,” said the brother, referring to how the victim’s father was assaulted by a family member of the accused and . Asha’s father added: “We only have each other now. The family does not have the strength for another tragedy.”
Asha’s mother said the family was given a pot of ashes after Asha’s forced cremation. “We have decided that we will perform her last rites only after we get justice,” she said. “Until then, we will not even take out her clothes from her wardrobe.”
Some names have been changed to protect identities.