From hope to despair: They won, says Hathras victim’s family after UP court verdict

Mar 08, 2023 04:31 AM IST

At the Dalit household, time has stood still. The family has remained under the watchful eyes of CCTV cameras and 35 paramilitary personnel for 32 months now, only venturing out to the field, for rations and for medicines.

Her days start at the crack of dawn — the buffaloes have to be fed, and their feed buckets replenished with fresh grass from the fields that ring her mud-and-brick house; in a corner of the open courtyard where the coal fire simmers, pots of tea have to be made, before the dough for the morning rotis is kneaded and the children wake up. Last Thursday, however, she stirred out of bed even earlier, for an entirely different reason: to get ready for the 20-minute trip that would take her into town, past the railway station and the choked thoroughfares, up a tar road on the hill where the Hathras district court is perched. There, at noon, was scheduled the final pronouncement of the verdict in the 2020 gangrape-and-murder case of her late sister-in-law.

On September 14, 2020, the family found the 19-year-old Dalit woman injured and barely conscious, her clothes torn and breathing laboured. (Representative)
On September 14, 2020, the family found the 19-year-old Dalit woman injured and barely conscious, her clothes torn and breathing laboured. (Representative)

As she got ready for court that morning with her husband, she was upbeat. “CBI (the Central Bureau of Investigation) was on our side and we had her dying declaration naming the four men who did this to her. She can’t come back but her old parents were waiting at home, for nyay (justice) ,” she said.

Her hope was soon to turn to despair. Shortly after 1pm, the court announced that three of the four men accused of the crime were acquitted of all charges; the fourth, prime accused Sandeep Sisodia, was found guilty, but not for either rape or murder, but culpable homicide. He was sentenced to life in prison but his lawyer, MS Pundhir, is confident that he will soon make bail in the high court, given that he was cleared of the most serious charges.

Her head shrouded in the saree, she shuffled out of the courtroom and down a flight of red-sandstone steps out of the yellow court building, its sides lined with a thicket of lawyers, journalists and curious local residents. “As I walked past advocates, I could hear them discussing how the verdict had spared them of embarrassment — naak katne se bach gayi (we have been saved from dishonour),” she said. “Another man said — did they think we’ll sacrifice four of our boys for the sake of that neech jati (lower caste) girl?”

Also read: Hathras rape: A year on, still living in fear, buried under social stigma

By the time the rented car pulled up outside her house, celebrations had broken out in the village, where only four Dalit families — all from the Valmiki caste — live alongside 350-odd people. “Anyway everyone felt that we had trapped their boys — how dare this low-caste family take on us, they would grumble. Now they had been vindicated,” she added.

The rape, and rushed cremation

A 10-minute walk from the house takes one to the field where on the morning of September 14, 2020, the family found the 19-year-old Dalit woman injured and barely conscious, her clothes torn and breathing laboured. They rushed her to the nearest police station, then to the Hathras district hospital and finally the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital in Aligarh. On September 19, she gave a statement naming the accused and she recorded her formal statement — which would go on to become the dying declaration in the CBI charge sheet — on September 22.

But her health steadily deteriorated. She was shifted to Delhi in the last week of September but died in Safdarjung Hospital on the morning of September 29. As protests by Dalit groups rocked the Capital, the police rushed her body back to the village. At 2.30am the next day, she was cremated. The administration later claimed that it took the consent of the family and rushed the exercise fearing law-and-order issues, but the family denied this in court. The sister-in-law told the court that she pleaded with the policemen for a last glimpse and even ran behind the hearse, but to no avail. The controversial dead-of-the-night cremation sparked a national storm of criticism, and added to allegations of police negligence when the local station failed to add rape charges to the first information report (FIR) for five days, or the names of all four men. A departmental inquiry is ongoing.

Despite the outrage and the CBI charge sheet in December 2020 corroborating the family’s version of events, it became clear quickly that the trial was going to be far more complex, and this was borne out by the 167-page judgment.

The judgment

The judgment, transcripts of court proceeding and cross-questioning, and medical examinations reviewed by HT, show that three questions were front-and-centre in the trial — whether the four men were guilty, and more specifically, if the other three men, Ravi, Ram Kumar and Luvkush, were involved in the crime alongside main accused Sandeep; whether this was a case of rape, or only of assault; and whether the murder of the victim was premeditated. On all three counts, the court took the side of the defence.

On the first, Pundhir argued that there were inconsistencies in the statements by the victim and her family, pointing out that the first time the crime surfaced — around 11.30am on September 14, when a local journalist filmed a video of the woman lying down outside the station — she only mentioned Sandeep, and not the other three. “The other three names were added on the basis of surmise and conjecture. We told the court that Sandeep and the victim had an affair, and the possibility of the family (the victim’s family) being involved in the crime could not be ruled out,” Pundhir told HT. It was only on September 22 that she formally named all three men in the crime, and there was little evidence to nail their involvement except her dying declaration, he added.

The court appeared to have agreed. “There were no eyewitnesses to the crime... If indeed she had been raped by four men, she would have mentioned their names to the reporters, and also to the police five days later. Hence her statement on 22.09.2020… naming the four men cannot be found to be believable,” the judgment said.

But the victim’s lawyer, Seema Kushwaha, disputed this — mentioning that the four men were mentioned first on September 16, when one of victim’s relatives lodged a case diary, then on September 19, when circle officer Ram Shabd (who was later suspended for alleged negligence) came to record the victim’s first statement, and finally on September 21, when the victim’s mother told police that the woman had told her that four men had raped her.

On the rape charge, the defence presented the medical examination of the victim and forensic reports, the post-mortem examination and alleged discrepancies in the victim’s statement. Pundhir pointed out in court that the forensic reports had found no presence of semen and only old tears on her genitalia. “What went in our favour is that when the urine testing was done, we were able to show that the doctors found no injury, and also that she didn’t mention rape either on the 14th or the 19th,” said Pundhir. The defence also cited the two reporters who filmed a video of the victim of the day of the crime, and who told the court that the woman didn’t mention the word rape.

The court agreed, noting that if she had really been raped, then she would have mentioned it clearly in the video clip and later statement to police. “It is also important that no medical evidence was found of rape,” the judgment noted.

But Kushwaha disagreed, pointing out that the medical examination was done eight days after the assault, on September 22. “Scientific research shows that after such a long gap, it is almost impossible to find any evidence of rape,” she said, adding that the post-mortem report also noted the presence of “old healed tears”. The CBI charge sheet also said that the victim may only have explicitly used the word “balatkar” (rape) on September 22, but on the first day, in the police station, she used the word “zabardasti” (by force) which the federal agency found was neglected by the local police. “Imagine the condition of the girl — attacked, paralysed, barely able to speak. She may not have used the exact word, but she did mention that the accused forced themselves on her, and that should have been taken into account,” Kushwaha said.

On the murder charge, the defence argued in court that ligature marks found in the post-mortem report around the neck were not complete, and that she died of septicemia. Pundhir also claimed that serious charges were levelled because of an old dispute between the families of the victim and the accused in 2001 — the victim’s grandfather had filed a case against the fathers of Ramu Singh and Sandeep Sisodia under the SC/ST Act, which ultimately fell through due to lack of evidence.

In its judgment, the court found that ligature marks were not found at the back of the neck, and that in most cases of strangulation, death is within minutes, while in this case, it happened after several days, and due to cervical fracture and related complications. “The victim continued to talk eight days after the incident hence it cannot be concluded that the intention of the accused was to murder the victim,” the judge said.

Moreover, these apparent discrepancies in the statements and versions of events appeared to have eroded the importance of the dying declaration of the victim — a key prong in the CBI charge sheet — in the eyes of the court, and ultimately weakened the prosecution case.

“...the case had taken a political turn and many people were coming to meet the victim and the family, hence the possibility that the victim named the others after being told by her family and others cannot be denied,” the judgment said.

For Kushwaha, this is galling. “In the 2012 gang rape case too, all parties protested and thousands came on the streets. Wasn’t that also a political turn? Did it take away from how heinous the crime was?” Her reference is to the 2012 gang rape and murder of a physiotherapy student in Delhi.

Both sides are now preparing to go to the Allahabad high court — the defence to acquit Sandeep Singh or get him bail, and the victim’s family to overturn the verdict. “None of my arguments were taken on record. We will mention it too,” said Kushwaha.

At the village

A lot has changed in the village in three years. The mud tracks that branched off the road into the village have been paved. Some of the fields now have concrete skeletons jutting out of them, signs of impending house construction. The spots where activists fought pitched battles with the police in the days after the crime now have shops. But the biggest change is in the mood of large sections of the village after the three acquitted men came back home on Friday. Outside paan shops and kirana stores, clumps of young men discuss how their honour was saved and justice was served.

For their families and hundreds of their supporters, the verdict is a vindication of the belief they first shared at a controversial upper-caste mahapanchayat in the district in October 2020. Various theories swirl — it was done to gain compensation, the victim had a relationship with one of the accused, it was the result of the animosity in the 2001 case, and was an attempt to destabilise the society and the administration. “A one-sided narrative was created and no one listened to us,” said the father of Ramu Singh, Rakesh. “These boys and their families were poor, they were from our community and the real victims. We are glad that the time has changed and the truth has come out,” said Pundhir.

At the Dalit household though, time has stood still. The family has remained under the watchful eyes of CCTV cameras and 35 paramilitary personnel for 32 months now, only venturing out to the field, for rations and for medicines. “We don’t have jobs because who will hire us? They are afraid of police trouble,” said the victim’s brother. They aren’t invited to village festivals, nor do they venture into community and local events. “The whole village went to their (the accused’s) house, accompanied them to the temple. Not one person has come to meet us, ask us how we are doing,” said the victim’s father.

The family is now steeling itself for another round of court battle — but their disappointment is perceptible. “No one could believe that a choti jaat wala was taking them on. But what was the point?” asked the victim’s father.

“Even after all this, they won.”

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    Dhrubo works as an edit resource and writes at the intersection of caste, gender, sexuality and politics. Formerly trained in Physics, abandoned a study of the stars for the glitter of journalism. Fish out of digital water.

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