What matters to women voters in the area, where a Dalit girl was recently found dead on premises linked to an SP leader?
“I didn’t get justice under the BJP government. If a new government comes to power, maybe then I’ll get justice,” says Asha Singh, as she waits for the immersion rod to heat the water while her daughter Nisha* prepares tea in their house in Unnao district.
But these are not marks of a regular household; it is after all, a temporary abode for the mother and daughter who left Makhi village soon after Asha was declared as the Congress candidate from Unnao Sadar seat – one of the six constituencies in the district. Security personnel maintain a visitors’ register outside the house, its gates plastered with Congress symbols.
Their lives have changed since 2017 when Nisha alleged that she was raped by BJP MLA Kuldeep Sengar. Almost a year later, she lost her father, who allegedly died in police custody after being charged in a false case under the Arms Act. In July 2019, a truck rammed into the car in which Nisha, her lawyer and two aunts were traveling – the three succumbed to injuries. In December 2019, Sengar was convicted of rape and is still in jail. In December last year, a Delhi court discharged Sengar in the case related to the accident, saying that prima facie there was no evidence.
For Asha and Nisha, it has become a struggle for justice for such victims, powered by grief and rage. “My brother-in-law continues to languish in jail in a false case filed by Kuldeep Sengar. What can the police do? They also act under pressure,” says Asha.
“Not a single daughter or sister can expect justice under the BJP regime,” says Nisha, her arms adorned with two pink bands with the Congress campaign words – ‘ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon (I am a woman and can fight). She has been trying to get a job and was told to fill out an online application but couldn’t figure out the process. Nisha says she has “responsibilities and there’s not a single male member in my family”.
Nisha too has been drawn to electoral politics. “When I met Priyanka (Gandhi) didi, I told her about contesting polls. She asked me how old I am,” she says. “This time it’s my mother, next time I will fight the elections.”
But the elections are an uphill task, with the governing BJP banking on women’s safety as a poll plank, and BSP candidate Devendra Singh, according to Nisha, “spreading canards behind their back”. Devendra is the brother of the lawyer who died in the accident, and Nisha earlier reached out to BSP chief Mayawati requesting that his candidature be withdrawn. “He had called on 100 when the accident happened but never turned up to appear as a witness in the court. Now we are told that he says bad things about us,” claims Nisha.
Asha and Nisha are determined to craft their campaign around justice for women, but do such issues matter to women voters in the area, amid the shadow of another alleged rape, allegedly involving a politician’s relative?
Inside Rita's house
On the third floor of Kanshi Ram Colony, Rita Devi and her husband Mukesh are accompanied by a small group of police personnel. Their daughter Roshni* went missing on December 8 last year, and her decomposed body was recovered two months later from an ashram belonging to Fateh Bahadur Singh, a minister in the erstwhile Samajwadi Party government. Roshni’s parents have alleged their daughter was kidnapped and raped by Rajol Singh, son of Fateh Bahadur Singh.
As part of the much-touted ‘Mission Shakti’ programme in the wake of the 2020 Hathras rape-murder case, separate women help desks were to be set up at police stations across the state. However, for Rita and Mukesh, their “daughter would have been sitting between us today but the police and administration didn’t listen to us”. The police shooed them away, they allege, and an FIR was filed only on January 10 under IPC sections 366 (kidnapping), 323 (punishment for voluntarily causing hurt), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace), 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation) and under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.
Roshni’s case caught the media attention only when a video of Rita trying to stop Akhilesh Yadav’s car in Lucknow went viral on January 22.
Among documents collected carefully by Mukesh over the last few months is a copy of a receipt from the ‘Jan Sunwai Portal’ from December 30 – it didn’t yield any result in getting an FIR lodged. The couple tried meeting CM Yogi Adityanath but were told that interaction is not possible since the model code of conduct has come into force. Mukesh then asked a neighbour to post a note on the family’s behalf on Twitter. “It is a crime to be a Dalit in this country. Every time I would request them (the accused) to return my daughter, I was told not to worry. Your daughter will return once I’m done.”
On February 12, UP police finally arrested Rajol Singh and his friend Suraj. But Roshni’s family is still not at ease since the charges related to rape have not been included in the FIR. Newslaundry contacted CO Unnao, Kripa Shankar Singh, who says “there is no confirmation regarding rape”.
Roshni’s post mortem report is also mired in controversy. While the first report on February 11 revealed that she died of asphyxia due to strangulation, the second report dated February 15 mentioned asphyxia due to throttling as the cause of death along with a line that says “ante mortem neck pressure”. The second report stated that all injuries were ante mortem (before death), there was no mention of injury in the first report. Speaking to local media, Dr G Khan, FSL expert admitted “that two reports were different” but didn’t elaborate. However, Unnao SP Dinesh Tripathi has been quoted by the Print as saying that “the two reports were similar”.
Preparing for the long-drawn legal battle, Mukesh tells Newslaundry, “I will continue to follow this case till the end even if it means that I have to beg.” Does the family have any hope from the new government that would take over after March 10? “Whatever happened to my daughter, no one else’s daughter should meet a similar fate.”
What matters for women
In Kanshi Ram Colony, two floors below where Rita and Mukesh live, women have other woes. Set up in 2007 when Mayawati was elected as the CM, local residents claim their colony has been grossly neglected by subsequent governments. Roads connecting building blocks are laden with mounds of garbage, and drains compel women to defecate in the open since toilets are overflowing with sewage.
For Archana, 45, a journalist, cleanliness will be the top priority when she goes to vote this time. “I’m not sure about who to vote for. When we are not getting any benefit then what’s the point of voting?” says Archana, who is disappointed with the policing system too. “I had gone to file a complaint regarding some domestic issue and women constables were commenting on my clothes.”
Mohsina, 35, a tailor, demands upliftment of the poor. “None of our work gets done. Our gutters are choked but no one cares.” On the recent incident, she says, “We are scared after the recent incident. It could happen to anyone. We felt more secure under the Mayawati government.”
Jyoti, 35, a domestic worker out of work since the Covid-induced lockdown, has been running from pillar to post in order to avail government benefits. Mother of an eight-year-old daughter, Jyoti says, “For the last 10 years, I have been trying to get a pension for the handicapped but to no avail. Officials say since I’m 40 percent handicapped, I am not eligible for pension. But my hand is non-functional.”
She says she was turned down by a factory when she approached them for work since “she couldn’t use both hands”.
What does she think of the Yogi government? “We are getting free rations and that’s enough for now. I haven’t made up my mind though about voting.”
The BJP has fielded Pankaj Gupta while Abhinav Kumar is the Samajwadi Party candidate from Unnao Sadar – around 45 percent of 3,97,945 voters in the constituency are women. No woman has represented the seat since 1951.
‘Quite safe’, say BJP workers
At the main office of BJP in Unnao, Sadhna Dixit, district president of Mahila Morcha, sits among other BJP volunteers, preparing for the next round of campaign. On the wall, the BJP’s poll slogan – ‘soch imaandar, kaam damdaar’ – has been painted along with pictures of PM Narendra Modi, CM Adityanath and other BJP functionaries.
The BJP is banking on “safety” and “security” as its major poll planks this time.
“Before 2017, women were subjected to molestation and rape every time they would step out to parks and other places. Yogi Adityanath has made sure that all such goondas are either dead or behind bars,” says Dixit. She says women can ride vehicles solo unlike earlier times when a male family member had to accompany them. “There is no fear from love jihad and we feel quite safe under the Yogi Adityanath government.”
*Names changed to protect identity
With inputs from Jitendra Mishra Azad. Pictures by Akanksha Kumar.
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