It took one full year for Asha’s friend to speak.
Sneha was Asha’s close friend, in her own words, despite the age difference between them. A year after Asha was gangraped, and subsequently died, in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras, Sneha told Newslaundry about how Asha’s death was a rape “waiting to happen”; how Sneha had herself been harassed by Sandeep, the prime accused in Asha’s case.
Since then, Sneha said she’s been living under constant and heightened fear.
Asha, 19, a Dalit woman, was gangraped on September 14 last year. She died two weeks later and her body was forcibly cremated by the Uttar Pradesh police without the consent of her family.
Four Thakur men – Sandeep, Ravi, Ramu and Luvkush – were arrested and the trial is ongoing. Asha named them in her dying declaration, and they were also named in the Central Bureau of Investigation’s chargesheet filed in December.
Nevertheless, Asha’s upper caste-dominated village refuses to believe she was raped. When Newslaundry met Sneha, exactly a year after the incident, she described a village not just in denial but living in anger and fear of violence.
Asha’s village has around 66 households and 500 residents. There are only four Dalit families, comprising about 30-32 people. The rest are Thakur and Brahmin.
While Asha’s home is now guarded by 35-40 CRPF personnel, eight CCTVs and two metal detectors, girls like Sneha are terrified they’ll meet the same fate as Asha did.
Friendship, fear and fate
Sneha continues to attend school, though Asha dropped out in Class 4. The two girls would meet most evenings, though Sneha is years younger, once Sneha was done with schoolwork and Asha with housework, and would talk, walk and confide in each other.
A year after her friend’s death, Sneha holds onto one particular memory.
It was early September, around 10 days before Asha was gangraped. Sneha was home, since schools were shut due to the Covid lockdown. That evening, Sneha said, Asha and a few other Dalit girls met up with her, looking shocked and shaken.
Asha told her she’d gone to the local market with one of the girls when Sandeep and two other boys grabbed their arms. “She said that he tried to touch her and grab her,” Sneha recalled. “She looked so scared and she was crying.”
She added, “He does that a lot. Sometimes it’s with a girl in this village, sometimes it’s with a girl in another village....” She broke off as her mother walked in.
When Newslaundry asked whether Sneha had had similar experiences with Sandeep, Sneha looked down, lowered her voice, and said, “I mean...Initially, they used to just eve-tease us whenever we passed by. Sandeep would call me ‘Katrina Kaif’. I tried not to bother much”
Did she ever tell him off?
“Well, I used to get angry,” she replied. “I never had the courage to say anything but I never liked it.”
Did she tell her parents or mother about it? No, she said.
Asha was one of her few friends, Sneha said, because the Brahmin and Thakur girls in the village don’t speak to Dalit girls.
Sneha claimed the eve teasing and harassment by Thakur boys and men in the village continued after Asha’s death, though now it’s with a heightened sense of vengeance because the Thakur residents believe that the Valimikis ruined their reputation in the area.
Sneha had another story to tell about Sandeep. “One day, Sandeep’s father beat up Sandeep because he heard that his son had been misbehaving with Asha,” she said. “He asked his son, ‘Why are you doing this? She is a Valmiki girl.’ And then Sandeep was sent away from here.”
Sandeep’s parents refused to speak to Newslaundry. When this reporter asked Asha’s father if he knew about this incident, he said, “I have no idea. We hardly spoke to them.”
Sneha doesn’t want to leave Hathras but she also does not want to keep living in fear. “I want to study, I want to live here,” she said. “This is our village”.
She added that they never thought the harassment would get “as bad” as it did in Asha’s case.
Last year, when Asha was hospitalised after the rape, her mother told Newslaundry that Asha had to her family that the men who gangraped her had threatened to kill her family members. When her family asked why she hadn’t mentioned this before, Asha had said that she was too scared to tell.
The field where Asha was gangraped.
“I really wish my daughter had said something to me before,” her mother said at the time. “For the past six months, whenever we would ask her to step out for something she would make excuses by saying she was not well. Only now do we know why.”
A journalist had also recorded Asha’s statement on video. In the video, Asha clearly said, “They tried raping me earlier but that time, I escaped..."
The journalist asked, “That time you escaped, but this time you got raped?”
“Yes,” Asha said.
Asha’s family heard about this for the first time from the video. “I wish she told us,” her brother said. “We also saw it on that video. It’s a terrible feeling...I wish she told us. We could have stopped this. Maybe she’d be with us today.”
What rape? No rape
A year after the incident, a tense silence remains over Asha’s village. As Newslaundry walked from the field where Asha had been gangraped towards a cluster of houses, a relative of one of the accused stopped his bicycle and said, “Why don’t you build a park in that place where you’re saying she got raped? Decorate it and felicitate her. How long will you media people live in this illusion that she got raped?”
The family of the four accused are furious with the media. When Newslaundry tried to speak to them, one of them said, “Just leave. You, the media, have convicted our sons. You have turned this into a media trial. You will be responsible for the death of our men.”
Newslaundry spoke to Nikita, a final-year MSc student in the village. Nikita lives in a street designated for Brahmins, just a few lanes away from Sneha’s house. On the morning of Asha’s gangrape, Nikita had been walking by the bajra fields, heading for an examination at college, when she heard a commotion.
“Asha’s brother and mother were crying,” she recalled. “They were on a bike and Asha was placed horizontally between them.” Nikita didn’t find it unusual at the time. “I thought she was sick and they were rushing her to the hospital,” she said. “So, I didn’t pay much attention and went to college.”
Nikita knew Asha but when asked if they were friends, she immediately said, “Friends? No. Why would we be friends? I used to see her when she was cleaning or something outside. That’s all.”
When asked if she fears the men in the village, she said, “Why would I be afraid? There was no rape that happened here.”
It’s a sentiment repeated by multiple Brahmin and Thakur women in the village.
Some of the upper-caste residents of Asha's village.
“The men are innocent. They’re from such good families,” said a Brahmin woman. A Thakur woman said, “Also, is it always the man’s fault? Why are we blaming our men? Maybe she also wanted it.”
The prevailing theory among them is that Asha’s death was an “honour killing”. This is for two reasons.
First, the four accused from prison, days after Asha’s death, to the superintendent of police in Mathura. In the letter, accused Sandeep claimed he and Asha were friends who would often speak on the phone, which her family did not approve of. Sandeep claimed he had met Asha the day of the gangrape but left when she asked him to. He said he later found out that Asha’s mother and brother had “beaten” her.
One of the Thakur residents of the village told Newslaundry: “See, he himself has said that they were in a relationship. Then how can rape happen?”
Second, Prashant Kumar, the additional director general of police, Uttar Pradesh, held a on October 1, a week after Asha’s death, where he claimed Asha’s forensic report found “no sperm”. Hence, he concluded, no rape had taken place. Four days later, Dr Azeem Malik, the chief medical officer of the Aligarh hospital, said Kumar’s statement was highly misleading and as the samples for the forensic report were collected 11 days after the gangrape.
Despite the CBI investigation confirming rape, and Kumar later telling Newslaundry he was merely “”, the damage was done. It still holds currency among residents of Asha’s village as further proof that her death was an “honour killing”.
‘Good that her body was burnt’
Many villagers told Newslaundry they don’t think the Uttar Pradesh police was wrong in forcibly cremating Asha’s body.
“Imagine if they had handed the body over to the family,” said a Thakur resident. “They would have placed her body on the road and created a big scene. It would have become a major law and order issue. We Thakurs would have been in danger. Riots would have broken out. So, we think the police did the right thing.”
While most of the village believes the four accused are innocent, a few concede that perhaps Sandeep could be held accountable but not the other three: Ramu, Luvkush or Ravi.
But no one has much to say about the other three accused. During multiple conversations over the past year, Newslaundry was told that Ravi had a problem with alcohol and would harass women. Little was said about Ramu or Luvkush.
Villagers are also upset that Asha’s gangrape and death is labelled an act of caste violence, despite the fact that the village itself is physically divided on caste lines. Dalits are also not allowed to enter upper caste temples. A Valmiki woman said their families are not allowed to approach the local vegetable vendor; he “gives us what he thinks we need and we have to take it, whether the vegetables are rotten or not”.
Dalit residents emphasised that caste plays a key role. “They say there’s no untouchability here?” asked the Valmiki woman angrily. “Come, then let’s go to their house. Let me see if they let me inside their homes, allow me to sit with them, and share a meal with them.”