(This article was first published on 30 September 2022. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives three years after the Hathras gang-rape.)
When the media descended upon their home in Hathras in September 2020, and stayed on intermittently for a few months after, the family of the Dalit gangrape victim felt like the nationwide outrage would help them achieve justice for their 19-year-old daughter soon.
After she succumbed to her brutal injuries two weeks later, on 29 September 2020, she was cremated in the dead of the night by the Hathras police and administration – inviting shock from across the country. But two years on, the family lives in what they describe as ‘house arrest’ – CRPF forces guarding them, seemingly for their own protection and safety, but also constantly keeping a check on who comes to visit them and if they have ‘permission’ to do so.
The family lives in constant dread of having to reside in a village that continues to see widespread support for the four accused Thakur men; theirs is one of the only two remaining Dalit houses in the Thakur-Brahmin village.
Safety At Risk For Dalit Family In A Village That Supports The Thakur Accused
When The Quint arrived at the residence of the deceased victim's family in a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district, we were asked to sign the entry-book by the CRPF forces guarding the home. Following this we were told to get permission from the district authorities if we want to interview the brothers of the victim. After a lot of convincing, we were finally allowed to sit down with the brothers.
“It’s been two years, we are practically living in house arrest. We aren’t being able to go for any work or job. Because it would be unsafe to travel to any crowded area in the village,” said the second brother of the deceased victim, who is handling most of the legal dealings of the rape and murder case.
This isn’t to say that the family doesn’t recognise the importance of the security—the fear of what could potentially happen if the CRPF forces are removed haunts them endlessly.
“If the security is removed, every minute we spend here will be a risk to our lives,” he said.
The family’s fears aren’t unfounded.
On 4 October 2020, days after four Thakur men were arrested for the alleged rape, BJP leader and former Hathras MLA Rajveer Diler had led a rally in their support, the participants of the rally included members from the Bajrang Dal, RSS and Karni Sena.
The brother says the support for the accused hasn’t dwindled in the village, but only strengthened with time. “No one from the village has come to meet us even once since our sister was raped and killed. They haven’t even come to give us condolences. Because they stand with the accused. All the people here stand with the accused,” he said.
'The Men Should Be Released, They Are Innocent'
The family's house is surrounded on all sides by those from Thakur and Brahmin castes. In many of those homes, people continue to assert that the accused men have been wronged.
"All four were wrongfully arrested. They were innocent. Everyone in all the villages around will also tell you they were innocent," said Ram Kumar, sitting next to a temple.
Others around him nodded emphatically in agreement.
"The allegations levelled by the girl's family were all false," said Vijay Singh, another villager. "The rape never happened...it never happened. The children (accused men) should be released."
In December 2020, two months after the victim's demise, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had filed a chargesheet stating the accused had gangraped and murdered the victim.
Mathan Singh, a neighbor of the Dalit family, is in complete denial about incidents of crimes against women in Hathras.
"Women get all the luxuries here. While we (the men) work endlessly," he said.
What about the rape that took place here 2 years ago then?
"That was nothing...that wasn't true," he said, exasperated.
It isn't just the men, the women of the village also echo the sentiment. "No one troubles women here. All of us are living here safely," said Unnati Gehlot.
The victim's brother says the villagers' support for the accused is purely due to their shared caste.
"They can’t see that something wrong happened with a daughter. All they can see is caste. Caste is of prime importance to them, not human life," he said.
'We Go To Dalits' Weddings...But Don't Eat There'— Casteism In The Village
Even a mere mention of caste, or casteism, elicits a defensive response from the villagers.
"There is no casteism in the village. Whenever there is a wedding in a Dalit household, we go and give money to the bride and groom," said Vijay Singh.
He quickly added a caveat. "But we don't eat there...how can we eat at a Dalit house? Impossible."
Asked if marriage between a Thakur and a Dalit has ever happened in the village, or would ever happen in the future, he said, "No, that doesn't happen here."
Another village resident, Surendra boasts of knowing everyone in the village, including Dalits. "Of course I know Dalits. I know everyone in the village, so I know the Dalits too," he said.
Asked if he is friends with any Dalit, he squirmed and laughed sheepishly. "No...what friendship. There is so much unemployment and trouble in the villages, who has time to make friends."
Surendra then added, "the most oppressed people are the Thakurs. Only in movies they are shown to be dabang (fearless) but they are the most oppressed in real life."
When the Hathras gangrape took place on 14 September 2020, there were four Dalit houses in this village. "But in the months after, two of the Dalit families fled out of fear for their lives. Now there is only ours and one more left," said the victim's brother.
The brother says that there is no other way to describe the villagers' behaviour and attitude towards the family as "anything but casteism."
"The oppression against Dalits across the country is ongoing. Untouchability still occurs. What happened with us too, and is continuing to happen, is casteism," he said.
UP Govt's Unfulfilled Promises To The Family
After the victim passed away on 29 September 2020 at Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital, the UP government had made a series of promises to her family. These included Rupees 25 lakh as compensation, a government job for a family member and a house. Of these, only the compensation promise has been met.
On 26 July 2022, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court said that the Uttar Pradesh state authorities should give a government job to a family member of the victim, as per the promise made to the victim's family in writing. The bench also directed the state authorities to consider relocation of the victim's family outside Hathras.
"The compensation that the government gave is also quickly running out. Once it gets over, what will we do. We have to use that money to run our household, to go to court for the hearings. We have to arrange all that by ourselves. There is no other help from the government," the victim's first brother said.
The lack of job also means that the family doesn't have any source of earning. But the most important thing for the family is relocation, not just out of Hathras, but ideally out of UP. "Everyone has some connection within UP. And the UP government is here. If we go out of UP, the atmosphere might be different. Wherever you go in UP, society is the same," the brother said.
The rape and murder case is being heard in the Hathras district court, and the government had said that the matter will be fast-tracked.
"But it's been two years and we aren't any closer to a verdict. Initially the case was being heard once every week, but then due to covid, there were no hearing for many months. When hearings resumed, they take place once in 15 days," said Seema Kushwaha, the victim's lawyer.