The teenager was attacked by four Thakur neighbours, say the police who are yet to confirm if she was sexually assaulted as well.By Akanksha Kumar and Nidhi SureshPublished on :

Chandpa is a quiet region by a national highway in Hathras district of western Uttar Pradesh. It mostly grows bajra, a type of millet, which is now in full bloom, with the crop as tall as six feet. On September 14, a hot sunny day, Asha, 19, was found naked, bleeding and barely alive in a small village amidst this scenic region. She had apparently been raped. After two weeks of fighting for her life in the hospital, she died this morning.

There are over 20 personnel of the Pradeshik Armed Constabulary posted at Asha’s house. The PAC is a specialised police force deployed for maintaining law and order or for providing security to VIPs. Asha’s family belongs to the Dalit Valmiki caste. Their home is right across from the house of the accused – Ramu, Ravi and Luvkush – who are upper caste Thakurs. The PAC personnel have been deployed to prevent the relatives of the accused from targeting the victim’s family.

There was nothing unusual about the morning Asha was assaulted. Asha, along with her mother and brother, had gone to the fields at around 9 am. Before heading out, Asha’s mother, who is hard of hearing and suffers from pain in her ears, had stuffed cotton balls in both her ears. The three of them worked under the blazing sun, cutting and gathering grass, barely 200 metres from their house. After a while, the brother headed home to fill water for the buffalos, while Asha and her mother remained in the fields. Close to half an hour later, when Asha’s mother got up and looked around for her daughter, she couldn’t find her.

She called out her name a few times and then gave up. “She kept saying she was thirsty, so I thought she might have left me and gone home. I got so angry that I wanted to give her two slaps,” said the mother. But just as she made her way along the dirt path towards her home, she spotted Asha’s blue slippers lying upside down. Looking around, she saw footprints and signs of dragging on the mud near the slippers. She followed the trail which led to a small opening inside one of the bajrafields.

She walked us to where she had found Asha. Since the incident, she had not visited this part of the fields, which are owned by the Thakurs but where the Valmikis have been cutting and gathering grass for years. “Everytime I close my eyes,” she said, breaking down uncontrollably, “I see the image of what I saw that day.”

“My daughter was lying naked with her tongue protruding from her mouth. Her eyes were bulging out and she was bleeding from her mouth, her neck and there was blood near her eyes. I also noticed bleeding from her vagina. I quickly covered her with the pallu of my saree, and started screaming,” she recalled.

Disputing news reports that Asha’s tongue had been cut off, her mother said when the assaulters strangulated her, her tongue would have protruded out and she would have bitten it hard.

Hearing the mother’s screams, a few children gathered around. She asked them to inform Asha’s brother, and get some water. Some of the children fetched water in a polyethylene bag which she sprinkled on Asha. “Maybe my daughter screamed but I couldn’t hear her because I cannot hear well. When I found her I thought she was dead. She was lying so still,” she recollected. “But when I went closer I realised that she was breathing very slowly.”

When the family asked Asha what had happened, Asha, who can’t speak clearly because of her tongue injury, mumbled, “Sandeep choked me.”

Asha's mother in the fields where her daughter was assaulted.

Police and medical apathy

Immediately, her brother and mother drove Asha to the Chandpa police station on their motorcycle. There, Asha lay groaning in pain on a stone platform in the sun. “Nobody listened to us there,” her brother complained. “The police kept saying, ‘Just take her from here. She’s being dramatic and lying here. Do you want to trap us?’”

At that time, Asha, who was slipping in and out of consciousness, had not explicitly mentioned sexual assault or named the other three accused. Her brother narrated that she had been assaulted with the intention to murder, and the police filed an FIR against Sandeep, booking him for attempt to murder, as well as under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act.

“I had found her naked and she was bleeding from her vagina. At the time I thought that if I mentioned it, my daughter would not be able to live with dignity for the rest of her life,” said her mother. “But when she herself said it later, we told the police.”

A cousin of Asha’s who reached the police station after hearing about the incident, said the family then took her in an ambulance to a local hospital where she was kept for two hours before being referred to the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital, Aligarh. “A policeman accompanied us halfway to the hospital and then left. The police didn’t help us even though this was a police case,” he said.

Though Asha regained consciousness in Aligarh and spoke with her family, the Hathras police chief Vikrant Vir said her statement was recorded only on September 19.

At the Aligarh hospital, the cousin recalled that the family grew worried as Asha’s condition deteriorated, but “the doctors refused to tell us what was happening and we had to keep asking them to come take a look at her”.

Scared that they might lose Asha, the family tried to get attention through the media. One of her cousin’s put out a tweet with a picture of her lying on the stone platform at the Chandpa police station.

“I had tagged a few channels on twitter and even put photos of my sister and kept on sharing it but no one even liked it, no one even retweeted it,” he said.

Six days after the incident, by which time political leaders had visited her, Asha was finally shifted to the Intensive Care Unit. Dr Shahid Ali Siddiqui, principal of the JNM College and Hospital, said due to spinal cord damage, Asha was suffering from quadriplegia, meaning complete paralysis in all four limbs. And the injuries on her neck, he added, were causing her “breathing problems”.

Thirteen days after Asha had been admitted to the hospital, Siddiqui said they were yet to confirm if sexual assault had taken place. “The girl is serious but we cannot confirm sexual assault as of yet,” he told Newslaundry. “A sealed report from our end has been sent to the district administration.”

Asked why the hospital had been unable to confirm sexual assault or injuries to Asha’s private parts even after two weeks, Vir merely said her samples had been collected, sent for testing and the report was awaited. “She is receiving the best medical care free of cost,” the Hathras police superintendent added.

In her follow-up statements on September 21 and 22, Asha named Luvkush, Ravi and Ramu as her assaulters besides Sandeep. The police then added the penal section related to gangrape to the FIR, and arrested Ravi and Luvkush on September 21 and 25, respectively, and Ramu on September 26. Sandeep had been arrested on the evening of September 19.

Contradicting the allegations of Asha’s family and the FIR, Hathras legislator Rajvir Diler told Newslaundry, “The girl herself told the police she hasn’t been raped. This is not a rape case.”

***

On September 27, Asha’s brothers told Newslaundry that they were being pressured by the Aligarh hospital to take her to AIIMS, Delhi. “Why are they asking us to suddenly take her there? If they feel they cannot treat her here, they need to officially refer us to a better hospital right?”

The next day, Asha was shifted to the Safdarjung Medical Hospital in Delhi, where she died on Tuesday morning. Afterwards, Vir told Newslaundry that the Hathras police had added the penal section related to punishment for murder to the FIR.

On the allegation of rape which hasn’t been confirmed or denied medically so far, the police chief said, “Her clothes along with DNA samples have been sent for a forensic examination and Forensic Science Laboratory report is awaited.”

He added that given the “heavy caseload” in Uttar Pradesh, it “normally takes time but we are trying to complete the investigation from our side as soon as possible and in order to ensure speedy justice, a request will be made by the police to take up the matter in a fast track court”.

In the past two months, Uttar Pradesh has seen multilple incidents of rape and sexual violence motivated by caste hatred. In some of these cases, the police have invoked the National Security Act.

As for applying the stringent anti-terror law to this particular case, Vir said, “We’re looking into it.”

On September 26, Vir had told Newslaundry that Asha’s family would receive compensation of Rs 4 lakh from the state government soon.

Vir also confirmed that the SHO of Chandpa police station, DK Verma, had been moved out, less than a month after taking the job, due to his “inability to build confidence in the community and control the situation”. He has been replaced by Inspector Lakshman Singh.

Caste fault lines

Nearly six months ago, Asha’s brother recalled, the men who assaulted Asha had threatened to kill her family members. Asha never mentioned this to her family until after the attack. When they asked why she had never told them about it earlier, Asha said she feared they would kill her brother and father.

“I really wish my daughter had said something to me before,” her mother said, tearfully. “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 we know why.”

Stepping out of her house, Asha’s mother pointed to a naked brick house across from hers. “That is their house,” she said. “Their sons did this to our daughter.”

Turning to a mound of cow dung near a narrow drain that separates her home from that of the Thakurs, she added, “They dump all their garbage and dirt on our side because we are Dalit.”

Relations between the neighbours have long been strained. Nearly 20 years ago, the Thakur family had attacked Asha’s grandfather. “They came into our field to graze their buffalos and my grandfather requested them to take the animals elsewhere as our crops would get damaged. Angered that a Dalit could tell them this, they attacked him with a knife-like object. When my grandfather tried to protect his neck, the knife cut away his fingers,” Asha’s brother said.

Asha’s brother-in-law, who works in Delhi and rushed to the village after hearing about the incident, said, “People here still practise untouchability. Going past our households lowers their dignity. Our grandparents still stand up if one of them passes by. You will never find a Thakur or Brahmin entering our houses and if they need to tell us something, they send a messenger. Our ancestors used to clean their houses everyday in exchange for some bread. Today, the Thakurs are angry because we do not clean their houses or give them the respect they think they deserve.”

Chandpa is dominated by Thakurs and Brahmins. According to a report in the Indian Express, of the nearly 600 families in the region, half are Thakur and a hundred Brahmin. Only about 15 families are Dalit.

Asha’s brother and cousins narrated how even now when they go to a shop in the area, the shopkeeper sprinkles water on the money they hand over. “If by mistake one of us touches a packet of biscuits, we have to buy it and cannot return it,” said the brother.

Asha has another brother, who is a trainee lab technician in Delhi. Unlike her brothers, Asha never finished school. “The village school is far from home and it doesn’t feel safe to send our girls there,” a cousin of hers explained. “Also the teaching is so bad and we Balmikis are expected to do all the cleaning in the school as well. In this village, most girls drop out by class 8 and boys tend to stop studying after class 10. And within our community, why should we go to a place where we are discriminated against so much? They cannot say one sentence to us without using a cuss word. They will always refer to our elders as tum but our elders have to call even their babies aap.”

Asha’s brother, the lab technician, pointed out that the Dalits are not allowed even inside the village temple.

***

After speaking to Asha’s family, we went to the Thakur household and were initially met with hostility. But when we introduced ourselves as journalists, Ravi’s father sat down to talk to us.

On the day of the incident, he had gone out to buy medicine when the police caught him. He was released in the evening and returned home to find that all the men, including Ravi, had run away. “I don’t know where he went but I later found out the police had caught him,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ramu’s brother claimed that Ramu was working at a milk chiller plant on the day of the incident. After hearing about the incident he too ran away from the village.

Both Ravi’s father and Ramu’s brother claimed that all four men had been falsely accused. “Why did she only name Sandeep first?” Why were three names added only later?” asked Ramu’s brother.

According to him, the three other men were arrested on the basis of a Facebook post by Hathras BJP legislator Rajivir Diler’s sister, Manju Diler, where she named Ramu, Ravi and Luvkush, along with Sandeep.

Vir, the police superintendent, however, clarified to Newslaundry that the three men were arrested only after Asha named them in her statement.

Relatives of the accused speak with Newslaundry.

Ramu’s brother said he was taken into custody for four days before being named in the FIR and released, only to be arrested again on September 26.

Neither Ravi’s or Ramu’s family have spoken to them since the arrest. “We’re being targeted by Rajvir Diler and his daughter because they are relatives of the victim,” said Ramu’s brother.

Newslaundry couldn’t verify if the legislator is related to Asha’s family in any way. Diler belongs to the same Valmiki caste.

Diler told Newslaundry that before the assault on Asha, “everything was fine and everybody in the village lived happily with each other”. “There is no such thing as a caste system in the village,” he claimed.

SP Vir echoed this view. “On ground, there’s no particular caste-based tension. We have invoked SC and ST Act because the attackers are from one caste and the victim is from another,” he claimed. “As such there is no caste system.”

Fear and uncertainty

An eerie silence has descended on Chandpa since the assault on Asha. There’s a crowd of PAC and police personnel in the village and along the road leading to it. The tension among the Dalit and the Thakur communities is palpable.

But there is a sense of divide within the Thakur community as well. Sitting on a charpoy about 10 meters from the house of the accused, an old Thakur man spoke of Ravi’s violent history.

“Once he barged into someone’s house and tore off the man’s earlobe in a fit of rage. These boys who are always drunk are spoiling our Thakur name,” he said. “They will bring us all down, they should be hanged. Only then can we live in peace here.”

Asked about Ravi’s violent past, his father pointed to his three grandchildren, a girl and two boys. “My son is a loving father and he is innocent,” he said.

Vir, the police chief, said Ravi had been involved in the attack on Asha’s grandfather, while Sandeep had a history of “high alcohol consumption”. Ravi’s father confirmed that he had been jailed in connection with the attack on Asha’s grandfather.

Asked if their family feared attacks from the Thakurs, Asha’s lab technician brother said, “Someone told us they have been saying, ‘How many of us will you hang?’ Yes, of course we are scared. Right now our relatives are here, the police are here, what will happen after they leave and we are alone?”

Asha’s mother responded fiercely, saying she had nothing left to lose. “They nearly killed my daughter, why should I be afraid of anything now? Anyway, the bad word about my daughter will go far and wide, so what’s left to fear now?”

***

Bhim Army chief Chandrashekar Azad visited Asha at the Aligarh hospital after evading the police on the evening of September 27.

Hathras Congress leader Shyoraj Jivan Valmiki claimed he had visited Asha more than three times in hospital and was “shocked” at how she was being treated. “Why is the hospital not confirming or denying rape? If she belonged to an upper caste, people would have been out with candles. The doctors and the police are working hand in hand. Why are atrocities against the Dalits still being suppressed?” he asked.

He claimed that he was stopped from going into the hospital on September 27.

Regarding the transfer of Asha to a Delhi hospital, he said it was done simply “to control the situation” in Uttar Pradesh.

Calling the incident “shameful and blasphemous”, BSP leader Mayawati last week asked the Adityanath government to pay attention.

***

Newslaundry met Asha’s father at the Aligarh hospital on September 26. He narrated that when he sat down next to his daughter in the ICU, tears rolled down her cheeks and she mumbled, “Papa, please take me home.”

“I told her she needed to be strong to fight, and once she was healed we would take her home,” he said. “I assured her that once this was over, we would live a happy life.”

Folding his palms, he pleaded, “Our daughters are no longer safe. We are helpless, I request the nation to stand with us, help us get justice for our daughter. Please.”

This morning, her brother told Newslaundry that at around 6.30 am, doctors had informed him that Asha had breathed her last. “I just saw her body. They told me her heart had stopped beating,” he said.

He sat alone in the Safdarjung Hospital, trying to hold back tears.

Some names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.

Adnan Khan, an independent journalist in Uttar Pradesh, provided inputs for the report.

***courtesy News Laundry

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