CPM leader and trade unionist A R Sindhu says the interaction with the parents of the Hathras gang-rape and murder victim haunts her even days after visiting the family. Sindhu, who was part of a Left delegation that visited the remote village in Uttar Pradesh recently, firmly believes that the Hathras incident was a brutal assertion of casteist and feudalist powers.
In an interview with Onmanorama, Sindhu, a Central Committee (decision-making body) member of the CPM and one of the secretaries of the CITU, said atmosphere of exploitation prevailing north Indian villages, manifested through incidents like the Hathras incident, opens up the scope of a mass movement meant to eradicate the evils of the caste and class hierarchies.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Can you tell us about your visit to Hathras? What did you see and experience there?
I was part of a delegation of the Left-wing organisations that visited the family of the Hathras rape victim. The girl who lost her life was a Dalit. She belonged to a farmer’s family. The delegation had representatives from various organizations working for the farmers, the labourers and the women.
When we reached the house, the Special Investigation Team (SIT), constituted by the state government, had been recording statements from the family. We couldn't understand why did the SIT record statements for a second time, especially after a CBI inquiry was declared? They had spent around four hours at the house. Meanwhile, a medical team had come in to monitor the health of the victim’s father. Usually, when a tragedy like this happens in a village, the neighbours and the villagers would visit the family to console them and extend their support. However, here, everyone was scared and they hesitated even when someone asked them the directions to the girl’s house. The atmosphere at the village was quite intimidating.
The statement recording lasted for around four hours. We spoke to the girl’s father, mother, sisters and sister-in-law. We didn’t want to push them into trauma by making them recount everything, especially after undergoing questioning for long hours. Besides, they had already narrated all these in front of the media earlier. More than that, we enquired about the ongoing investigation, the general situation in the village and also about the threats that they were receiving. They stated that they had no trust even in the CBI investigation that had just been announced. The mother wailed in agony when she said she was not allowed to see her daughter’s mortal remains for one last time. They also spoke about how they were unhappy with the police and also about how they were offered money to retract their statements; they were even threatened with police cases. You cannot say that the rule of law happens there. Instead, we could clearly see the rule of criminals.
What exactly had happened in Hathras?
The girl’s mother told that she, her son and daughter had gone to the fields to chop grass. While the mother chopped the grass, the girl made them into stacks and her brother carried them away to their house. The mother and the girl decided to do one more round of chopping and stacking before calling it a day. The incident had happened when her brother had taken away the stacks. The mother, meanwhile, went ahead, chopping the grass thinking that the girl was right behind her. After some time, she began wondering whether the girl had gone home. But the mother found the girl’s slippers and looked around for her. She soon found blood marks on the ground and saw her daughter, lying unconscious, covered in blood. The girl was dragged into the bajra field, in the broad day light, from near her mother. The situation there is such that the Takurs deem Dalit girls as their private property. Someone had tried to attack this girl earlier too. So, the families didn’t let the teenage Dalit girls go to school, fearing for their lives. The girl had just gone out with her mother and brother.
When the mother found the girl, she cried aloud and everyone came running. The girl swallowed the water that they gave her and that is how they realized that she was still alive. She was then rushed to the hospital.
When we asked the mother whether she knows her daughter’s attackers, she told us that the girl had clearly named them and had narrated what had happened.
Did the police arrest the same people named by the girl?
Yes, they are the ones. One of the reasons why she remembered it was that a Takur man, Sandeep, who is the main accused, shared the same name as her son. She told that they were being threatened saying that one Sandeep wouldn’t rot in jail while the other one walked freely outside. Earlier, even in the Unnao case, we have seen that the landless, lower caste people like Dalits are often falsely accused and cases are charged against them. I even wonder whether all of us, including the media persons and politicians, would be falsely charged for plotting against the government.
How was the initial reaction of the local people and politicians to the incident?
In the first two days, everyone, especially women from all the castes, had reacted strongly against what had happened. However, things began changing after a few days as caste affinities play a pivotal role in UP. Instead of allowing everyone to go there and speak with the family, the Dalit families were restricted and curfew was announced in the village. Section 144 was declared to prevent the poor people from interacting with others. The khap panchayats headed by the upper castes were convened everywhere to exhibit support to the government. A centralized nexus of Takurs, Brahmins and rich landowners, led by the RSS and the BJP had been formed. As a result, false narratives of honor killing and defaming the girl by saying that she was trying to seduce her attacker have been spreading. The police, meanwhile, have been trying to fan these baseless rumors and tamper with the evidences.
The most important thing is to deliver justice to the victim in this case. Moreover, a public opinion should be formulated to make new laws that protect the victims and to keep a check on the loop holes in the existing laws. You can see nothing but a criminal raj there. An effort must be made to expose them and to exert political pressure to make sure that these governments do not thrive.
What is one visual from Hathras that still haunts you?
The memory of the horrible tragedy is in fact the gravest one. As social workers we constantly see cases like these. We often wonder how we are able to sleep after watching and experiencing something like this. The father and mother of the girl were eager to welcome us; more than sharing their pain, they wanted to genuinely interact with us. Their great humility is what touches us the most.
What was the initial response of the local people and politicians there? What did you understand from interacting with them?
In the first two days, everyone, especially women from all the castes, had reacted strongly against what had happened. However, things began changing after a few days as caste affinities play a pivotal role in UP.
Instead of allowing everyone to go there and speak with the family, the Dalit families were restricted and the curfew was announced in the village.
Section 144 was declared to prevent poor people from interacting with others. The khap panchayats headed by the upper castes were convened everywhere to exhibit support to the government. A centralized nexus of Takurs, Brahmins and rich landowners, led by the RSS and the BJP had been formed. As a result, false narratives of honour killing and defaming the girl by saying that she was trying to seduce her attacker have been spreading. The police, meanwhile, have been trying to fan these baseless rumours and tamper with the evidence. For one thing, these people are scared to open up to strangers. It was the women folk who at least showed some courage to speak with us. They were firm in saying that something like this shouldn’t have happened to anyone. They also expressed concern about their lives there in the future. The neighbours confirmed that the family was being threatened with false cases. We had interacted with the local politicians as well. Polarizations based on caste have happened there and it is evident from the multiple versions of the incidents that are being circulated.
The Samajwadi party which is one of the prominent political parties there didn’t even react to this incident in the first two days. It was only when they saw that it was gaining national attention and giving a political mileage for Congress, they took up the issue. When political pressure is built up from all the sides, all the parties including the BJP are forced to take a stand and condemn violence against women and Dalits.
As far as Mayawati is concerned, it must be because of the political pressure that she is nowhere to be seen when it comes to raising voice against the BJP. She only focuses on addressing the issues that happen in their constituencies. This failure of BSP has caused organizations like Bhim Army to gain wide popularity as the champions of the Dalits.
The UP congress decided to react only after a strong stand was taken by the party in the national level.
Rape, especially in the Indian context, has been described not just as a means to satisfy sexual desire but as a form of imposing the patriarchal and caste powers. Do you think there had been a violent imposition of power in the Hathras case?
It is indeed true in the Indian context. Dalit girls and women have mostly been falling victims to it. This was a case of gang rape and it doesn’t happen spontaneously. No rape is related to sexual desire, but it is used as a means for the powerful to impose their will. This is especially used as a controlling tool against the lower castes. It is clearly evident in this case. If rape was just about satisfying sexual desire, then why have they brutalized her? Her tongue was cut and her spine was broken. A living human body was mutilated in the most horrible way. How can this be called sexual desire? This clearly is a case of imposing upper caste patriarchal powers. This girl and her family had been traumatized earlier as well.
How is Hathras incident different from other rape cases in the country?
We know, across the country when such a case happens police act anti-women and anti-Dalit. Even our laws are anti-women and anti-Dalit. We could see that in every incident including the Walayar case (in Kerala). What makes Hathras different is the way the government, including the CM and other ministers, handled it. The girl's body was burned in the cover of the night. The rich and the upper castes always try to influence the system. Most often, they succeed also. However, here ministers and MP s were making public statements in favour of the accused and defaming the victim. The brazen collusion between the government and the Savarna Hindu feudalists makes Hathras case different.
Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi’s visit to Hathras has attracted national attention. It was after their visit that your delegation too had gone there. Do you think their visit to the victim’s family has caused any significant changes?
I cannot say whether it has brought any change in the way people speak or think about the incident. Congress is the main opposition in India and Rahul and Priyanka represent that party. UP is the main arena of their political activities. Besides, Rahul Gandhi had been an MP of the state as well. Not allowing them to enter the state was indeed a clear violation of the democratic principles; they had been denied of their political independence. The agitations that followed had forced the UP government and the BJP to backtrack on their motives. It is commendable that the duo were ready to take up this issue.
Do you think the Hathras case would influence or change the political situation in the state?
All these incidents and atmosphere of exploitation in north India opens up some possibilities for us. A political change will be possible only through a mass movement against the upper castes and the upper class. Political parties in power may change. However, fundamentally no change happens in the lives of the Dalits and the downtrodden. If it should happen a change in politics driven by a mass movement is needed. The incident opens up such a possibility. In the backdrop of the ongoing labour and farmers' agitations, this incident assumes more importance. We see such a possibility not only in UP but in Bihar, where elections are on, and elsewhere in north India.
The case has happened at a time when institutions including judicial system is accused of being influenced by the powers that be. Do you believe that the victims in this case will get justice?
In the existing judicial system, the accused may not be punished. At the same time, I have faith in the people of this country and their movements. Only the eternal vigilance of the people has brought justice at least in some cases. Already many women and political organisations have gone there. Th only chances remaining to get justice in this case is such interventions. However, the governments in India and Up are fascist regimes that brazenly manipulate all institutions and have no shame in openly speaking about it. Hence, without the people's pressure justice won't be served in the case. Such interventions at least give a guarantee to the family's lives. All of us have to ensure that.