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OP-ED: Hathras and the failure of the Indian state

  • Published at 11:47 pm October 8th, 2020
Hathras Gang Rape
An undeclared emergency REUTERS

The UP gang-rape has sent shockwaves through the country

According to the Indian government’s own National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), at least one rape is reported every 16 minutes, and giant Uttar Pradesh registers around 10 cases per day, the abysmal worst next only to Rajasthan. Over the years, without respite, the country has become mostly inured to this never-ending criminal disaster. 

Thus, it’s first of all rather surprising that India has become seriously roiled by the violent gang-rape of one 19-year-old woman in a field in UP’s Hathras district on September 14. 

Part of the reason lies in the family backgrounds of the victim (she was Valmiki, from a cluster of castes that have been historically excluded and oppressed as “untouchable” or Dalit) as well as her assailants (they are Thakur, another set of social groups that claim the status of “Rajputs”).

There’s also the open-and-shut nature of this incident: The young woman was grievously injured, and eventually succumbed (her autopsy report lists evidence of strangulation and severe cervical injuries), but took pains to record her “dying declaration” with a magistrate, where she named Sandip Singh, Ramu Singh, Ravi Singh, and Lavkush Singh, and detailed the nature of their vicious attack.

Yet, as horrific as this crime was, it is the cynical, heartless cover-up that has stunned and galvanized people across India and the world. Immediately after the young woman died on September 29, even under the full glare of national media, the Uttar Pradesh police seized her body, transported it back to Hathras, and cremated it themselves.

In a part of the country obsessed with rituals, the afflicted family was not allowed to perform them, and denied even a final glimpse of their relative. 

This struck a deep chord: The Allahabad High Court immediately intervened with suo moto notices, saying the issue was of “immense public importance and public interest as it involves allegation of high-handedness by the state authorities resulting in violation of the basic human and fundamental rights not only of the deceased victim but also of her family members.”

Since then, it has been non-stop chaos in Hathras and UP, with the state apparatus desperately trying to save face the only manner it knows: Threats, intimidation, scurrilous insinuations, and violence. All of this is playing out on national television and social media in an extremely disturbing lowlight reel, and unmistakable indication that the Indian state is failing in fundamentally important ways. 

In one especially chilling video, the District Magistrate of Hathras (it is an all-powerful administrative post) Praveen Kumar Laxkar openly threatened the victim’s father to withdraw the rape charge made by his daughter on her deathbed, saying: “Half of the media people have left today, the other half will leave by tomorrow. Only we will stand with you. It is up to you whether you want to change your statement or not.”

Later, the additional general of police (law and order) of the UP police made the absurd claim that rape couldn’t have occurred because semen couldn’t be detected in the forensic samples taken from the victim’s body 11 days after her assault. Then came his own threats: “It is clear that some people twisted the matter to stir caste-based tension. Such people will be identified and legal action will be taken.”

Meanwhile, the State Chief Minister Ajay Bisht -- who is called Yogi Adityanath by his supporters -- went further, alleging an international conspiracy to defame him, and warning that his government would “handle” agitators the same way it silenced protestors against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, and “those who, during the corona pandemic, sheltered the Tablighi Jamaat to try and spread the disease.”

It was no idle threat. As the Indian Express put it in an unblinking editorial on October 7, “What kind of a regime would see, after the death of the 19-year-old Dalit woman assaulted by upper caste men in Hathras, not the grief of the family that lost its daughter and was denied even the right to conduct her last rites, and hear not the ringing demands for lawful justice -- but only a conspiracy to defame its own reputation? As Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath spoke of ‘anarchists’ and ‘conspiracies’ against his government by those who ‘want to incite caste and communal riots,’ his police force, in the dock themselves for their brutish action, obediently took their cue and registered a spate of FIRs -- 21 and counting.”

That same day, the UP police arrested the Malayalam journalist Siddique Kappan and three friends, who were on their way to Hathras, and levelled the outrageous and extremely serious charges of sedition, “outraging religious feelings,” and “promoting enmity between groups,” some of these under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. It is hard not to agree with acclaimed journalist Rana Ayyub, who promptly tweeted: “Booked under terror law. This is an undeclared emergency in the country.”

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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