A Hanging

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We travelled to the UP village of Katra Sadatganj where two girls were allegedly raped and then hanged. The story that emerges from whispers of the villagers and conflicting versions of the police only multiplies the horror
On 27 May, 35-year-old Babu Ram was returning from a routine check of his field at night in Katra Sadatganj village in Badaun district, Uttar Pradesh, when he heard muffled screams and commotion in a ditch nearby. “I saw an acquaintance, Pappu, dragging a girl by her hair and I chased after him,” says Babu Ram, “but he set a katta against my chest, so I let go and ran.”

The girl being dragged by her hair was known to Babu Ram—she was his niece—and so he ran home to inform his brothers. The girl had been with her cousin, another daughter of the household. “We thought they went to ‘freshen up’ (colloquial for going to the toilet) or were gossiping with one of the neighbours,” says the mother of the elder victim, who was 15.

The family was quick to move. They went first to the local police outpost, at about 9 pm, where they say constables Sarvesh Yadav and Chattrapal Yadav asked them to identify their caste. “When I told him that we were Mauryas, he slapped me and said that he doesn’t take orders from people like me,” says the father of the elder victim, “He then accused us of ‘selling’ our own girls and then coming to complain to them. As an afterthought, he added that our girls would be returned to us in two hours.”

He also says that those two hours were the hardest of his life, now knowing what to do. Since Babu Ram had identified one of the abductors, the family continued their search for the girls, finally returning to the police station at around 12:30 am. They say it took them half an hour to wake up the police, who were not pleased with the persistence with which they wanted an FIR lodged; the constables even beat up the parents in an attempt to silence them, telling them to go look for their daughters in the mango grove nearby. “Jao jaake dekhlo, kahin phaasi-waasi laga ke toh nahi mar gayeen,” (Go see, what if they’re hanging dead by a noose) is what the parents recall being told.

The family, distraught and outraged, decided to go with some of their neighbours to the nearest town— Badaun, some 45 km away—believing it to be their only hope at getting immediate action and being taken seriously. While they were still on the outskirts of their village, Katra Sadatganj, at approximately 5 am, the local police reportedly sent a message informing them that their daughters had been found in a grove near the village.

The family rushed to the spot and found their daughters with nooses around their necks—hanging from a mango tree, their bodies swaying eerily in the morning breeze.

“The police then pushed us to take the bodies down,” says the mother of the elder victim, “But we refused until proper action was taken against the accused. If we took them down, it would all be forgotten and marked as a suicide.” For almost a day, the bodies stayed suspended as the villagers sat around in silence. It was only after the police took charge that they were taken down.

The post-mortem examination conducted by a panel of three doctors reportedly confirmed sexual assault, found some ante-mortem injuries on the bodies, and put the girls’ deaths down to asphyxiation by hanging.

Badaun’s Senior Superintendent of Police, Atul Saxena, says that this case is more complicated than it seems. “When someone murders [victims] after rape, rarely does [the rapist] hang a body to send out a message that this can be done.” He also says that even though the FIR filed in the case is correct, it is short of details. The omissions, he says, are glaring. “This entire case could have been avoided if there hadn’t [been] such gross negligence. [The local police] handled it very badly,” says Saxena, who makes it a point to mention that he conducts gender sensitisation camps for his officers at regular intervals. “After the Delhi gang-rape, we have a lot of literature coming in on the right way to handle such crimes, and we have been educating our officers.”

That programme appears to have had little effect on police conduct in rural Uttar Pradesh. Just two weeks ago, in nearby Etawah, the mother of another victim was reportedly stripped in the street and beaten by the father of the accused, who had been pressuring her to drop the case. In 2011, a girl was raped inside a police station in Nighasan and hanged from a tree on the premises. The tree was later cut down and the evidence destroyed. A CBI enquiry that was ordered proved futile.

Things may be different for this case; or at least, so goes the hope. All the accused have been arrested, and two have allegedly confessed to the crime during police interrogation. Among the arrested are Sarvesh and Chattrapal Yadav, the policemen who initially refused to file the FIR.

“But there are some questions that need to be answered because there are logical flaws in the story. Those will be addressed only after we finish our investigation,” says SSP Saxena, who is currently looking for evidence. Confessions to the police, rather than to a judge or magistrate, have little legal validity; and SSP Saxena also believes that the confessions might be recanted once the case goes to court.

THERE ARE PARALLEL VERSIONS of the events of that night doing the rounds as well; loose talk of honour killings, of the girls being friends with the accused, and of prior intimate contact. “One of the accused has admitted that he was friends with the girls,” says Saxena, “But that’s all I can say. I will not comment on whether they had physical relations.” A lady constable who was on duty at the time, Vijaita Kumari, says that she has had a hard time believing the parents’ version: “It is so easy to blame the police. Everybody believes it too. But if you lived here, you would know. These people are poor and daughters mean nothing to them. Most of them either pimp out or sell them.” Kumari suggests that the fathers may have killed their daughters on discovering their affair with the boys, and have pinned it on the accused. “Just look at them, sitting there, doing all this drama for attention,” she sneers.

Kumari’s companion spits in disgusted agreement and nods.

Saxena, however, dismisses the idea that this is a case of honour killing, saying, “These things don’t exist here.”

Still, people talk. Savitri Devi, a 70-year- old neighbour, blames the loose talk on the social predicament that attends bringing up daughters. “What else will people say?” she sighs. All the Mauryas who live in the village stand by the parents’ version. “Gareebo ki beti sabki lugayi aur ameeron ki sabki izzat. Isse kehte hain kismat,” (a poor family’s daughter is everybody’s woman, but a rich family’s daughter is everybody’s honour) says 28-year-old farmer Parvesh Kumar, another neighbour. He speaks of regular abuse at the hands of Yadavs, who routinely harass the Mauryas of the village. “Sometimes, by letting cattle loose on our crops, and other times molesting our daughters and children.” Last year, there was allegedly a murder in the area, the accused being Yadavs. “There has been no case registered against them and [the victim’s] mother is still running from pillar to post for justice,” reports Kumar.

Single girls do not step out in this village after dark without a chaperone. “We are scared about all that can go wrong, and girls are the izzat of the family; what is one to do?” asks 15-year-old Anita Kumari, who knew both the victims well and said they went to the same government school. “It is just one mistake you make that you have to pay the price for,” says Kumar grimly.

One of the older ladies mutters, “They weren’t so old that they needed chaperones. They had each other. If they were older, their mothers would have gone [to relieve themselves] with them.”

There are government schemes for toilets in rural areas, but they have yet to make a difference. “We had applied once, but all they did was come and dig a hole,” says Kumar, “we are still waiting for them to come back. Until then, we will have to protect our daughters in the only way we can.”

There is a narrow brick path that leads to the house of the victims. The filth and squalor do not deter big city visitors. Television crews line their small courtyard, and Rahul Gandhi sits on the floor, a picture of empathy, in conversation with the victims’ fathers. Opposite the courtyard are three small brick rooms and a small thatched hut that serves as a kitchen. Fourteen people live here; three brothers, their wives and their children. The oldest and youngest brothers are the fathers of the two girls who were raped. Women sit in rows in front of the room in silence, their faces covered. After Rahul Gandhi promises quick action and leaves, so do the TV crews.

Meanwhile, SSP Saxena is in a rush to create a makeshift helipad and get extra security as he has just been informed that the state’s former Chief Minister will be arriving the next day. He takes out his phone and rings a junior, asking him to seek permission from a farmer to transform his field into a temporary landing pad for a helicopter.

None of this helps the mothers of the victims deal with their grief—or anger. The mother of the eldest victim is almost beside herself; “My daughter wanted to be a doctor—look at her handwriting. She practised every day and wanted a better life for herself. She did not deserve this,” she says, thrusting forth some notebooks. “We don’t want compensation from [Chief Minister] Akhilesh Yadav,” she says, “We want justice, and if he cannot do that, tell him to give us two daughters of his family—we will [treat them as ours were treated] and then sell our land to give him compensation.”

Her surviving children—two sons and a newly married daughter—try to calm her down. She has spoken words she does not mean, but she keeps repeating that sentence over and over. An older woman talks about money being only maya, an illusion, and about how children cannot be replaced.

In the din, there is one woman who sits silently in a corner. Her face is covered, and all you can see are her rough feet, neatly lined with rows of silver bicchiya. Head bowed, she sits as if turned to stone. An older woman nudges her to talk, but she merely shakes her head and says, “My head is spinning.”

She is the step-mother of the younger victim, who married into the family after the younger brother’s wife died, leaving him with an infant daughter who she helped raise. “She cannot have children of her own. That girl was everything to her,” says a family friend sitting next to her.

The step-mother eventually uncovers her face. There are no tears; just a vacant expression. “My life went out of me. They hanged her to silence her… so that nobody could tell her story. But we will. Again and again, until they give us justice, not money.”

Former chief minister Mayawati arrived a week after the incident and announced a compensation package— from Bahujan Samaj Party funds—of Rs 5 lakh for each victim; the family has reportedly accepted it. On his part, CM Akhilesh Yadav has launched a CBI enquiry and had a fast-track court committed to the case. Whether the CBI enquiry will yield results, nobody is willing to wager; until then, the women of Katra will continue to seethe for justice.

According to National Crime Records Bureau data, India has a rape every 22 minutes. This statistic, a horror in itself, does not account for the fact that a large number of assaults go unreported. The real numbers are far worse. Only last month, Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party had come under attack when he opposed the death penalty for convicted rapists; “Ladke, ladke hain” (Boys will be boys), he reportedly said. If his son, the CM of Uttar Pradesh, differs in his views on lawlessness and barbarism, he is yet to speak up.