Trigger warning: This report contains details of an attempt to suicide that some readers might find distressing.
On August 19, five men sat huddled in a waiting room in Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. They had come from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, after learning that their relative, Rajesh, was battling for life in the emergency bruns ward.
“I am tired of talking to the media. My throat has gone dry. He’s on a ventilator. He has sustained 70-80 percent burns,” Rajesh’s brother said. “Doctors have told us it is a matter of a few hours.”
Rajesh died on August 21.
Rajesh, 27, and his friend Reena, 24, had set themselves ablaze outside the Supreme Court complex on August 16, after doing a Facebook Live in which they railed at the criminal justice system for denying them justice. Reena suffered over 80 percent burns. She’s “critical and on ventilator support”, doctors treating her at the RML Hospital said. “Chances of her surviving are low.”
An unmanned official at the hospital told the daily Indian Express that Rajesh and Reena had been “brought in such conditions that the doctors performed surgeries on the same night”. “After surgeries we sent them to the burns department for treatment,” the official added, “but the man died.”
Reena was allegedly raped in 2019 by Atul Rai, a Bahujan Samaj Party MP, and Rajesh was an eyewitness to it.
After Reena filed a rape complaint against Rai, the Uttar Pradesh police began harassing her and her friend, even registering allegedly false complaints of rape against Rajesh in Varanasi and Ballia. “And Rajesh was attacked when he went to attend a hearing at the MP MLA court in Prayagraj in January this year,” his brother-in-law, who was visiting him in hospital, said.
Fearing for their lives, Rajesh and Reena left Uttar Pradesh for Delhi.
Rajesh, who was from Ghazipur, had met Reena while they were studying at Udai Pratap College in Varanasi. In 2018, Reena told Rajesh that Rai had called her to his flat in Varanasi Chitaipur, raped her and threatened to make public a video he had made of the assault if she complained. Reena had been introduced to Rai in 2015 when she was contesting a student union election in her college, according to her police complaint.
“My brother has been fighting just so that this girl gets justice,” Rajesh’s brother said, just before he was called in to see Rajesh at the RML Hospital on August 19.
At the Supreme Court, a lawyer’s aide pointed to the cap of a Frooti bottle on the ground just outside the complex. “This is where they did Facebook Live, then poured fuel they had brought in the Frooti bottle on their bodies,” he said, adding that he was a witness to the gory episode.
Did nobody try saving them? “You know how rapidly it spreads when someone catches fire,” he replied. “They darted across that road towards Gate D. Everyone here was making videos.”
In the Facebook Live, which is still on Rajesh’s timeline, Reena says, “Instead of being treated like a victim, the Uttar Pradesh police have tried to malign my character. All to save a criminal.” She goes on to name an inspector general of police, a former senior superintendent of police in Varanasi, a station house officer in Ballia, a circle officer, an inspector and his son, and a judge at the MP MLA court in Prayagraj as the people who had conspired against her and the eyewitness at every stage of the case in order to protect the MP.
Joining in towards the end, Rajesh says, “This is the condition of law and order in Uttar Pradesh. We are scared about taking this step but this fear has no meaning.”
Shortly afterwards, agonising screams rent the air as the phone is thrown on the road.
The spot where the man and the woman set themselves afire.
The rape case
On May 2, 2019, Reena a complaint of rape and fraud against Atul Rai at Varanasi’s Lanka police station. Rai went absconding and approached the Supreme Court for protection from arrest. But, on May 27, the court turned down his plea.
Almost a month later, the MP before a judicial magistrate in Varanasi. He’s still in jail.
In September 2019, Reena posted a video online that Rai was threatening her. “I’m being told that I’ll meet the same fate as the Unnao rape victim,” she said, referring to the young woman who accused BJP legislator Kuldeep Singh Sengar of rape in 2017 and was seriously injured in a suspicious two years later. Rai was also threatening witnesses to her rape, she further alleged.
In December 2020, the Varanasi police filed against Rai after Reena complained that the MP and his accomplices were “defaming her and her family on Facebook” by accusing them of trying to blackmail him.
In March 2021, the Supreme Court a notice to Rai after Reena pleaded for the case to be shifted to Delhi from the MP MLA court in Prayagraj. The court also stayed the proceedings in the Prayagraj court.
On August 4, a Varanasi court an arrest warrant for the victim after the MP’s brother Pawan Kumar complained to the police that she had forged her date of birth in official records. It had to issue the warrant, the court claimed, because Reena was “untraceable despite raids”.
‘Can a victim expect justice’
Rajesh’s Facebook page is a repository of messages he and Reena sent to various police officials, politicians and news organisations seeking help.
On December 5, Reena sent an email to Uttar Pradesh’s police chief apprising him of the matter and asking for intervention. Similar emails with the subject line “Can a rape victim who is putting up a fight against a powerful MP expect justice to be done?” went to home minister Amit Shah, BSP chief Mayawati, BJP leaders JP Nadda and Subramanian Swamy, lawyer Seema Kushwaha, and the National Commission for Women. She also sent a series of WhatsApp messages to Varanasi’s police chief after he had stopped taking her calls and apparently “blocked” her number.
A couple of weeks before setting herself ablaze, Reena had tweeted that she was “next in queue” after the Hathras and Unnao rape victims. She denounced the governing BJP as the “Betiyan Jalao Party”, tagging prime minister Narendra Modi, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath, the UP and declaring that “public servants are public cheaters in UP”.
UPDATE: Reena, the complainant, died of her injuries at 10.30 am on August 24, her brother told Newslaundry.
Names have been changed to protect identities.
If you or someone you know needs help to overcome suicidal thoughts, contact Fortis +91 8376804102; AASRA +91 98204 66726; The Samaritans, Mumbai +91 84229 84528.