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Darkness in Unnao: Three cases of rape & immolation have shaken the nation

Outside Bihar police station, women helpline numbers are written in red. That hasn't helped Unnao’s women.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jan 05, 2020, 10.15 AM IST
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UNNAO: It happened exactly a month ago. It must have been 4 in the morning on December 5. At a place called Bihar in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, a 23-year-old woman was walking to the railway station to catch an early morning train to Rae Bareli. She had to meet her lawyer for a case in which she had complained that she was raped.

She was surrounded by five men, including two whom she had accused of raping her, she later recalled in a statement that she gave to the police while struggling for her life in a Delhi hospital. They hit her leg with a log, stabbed her on the neck, poured petrol on her and set her on fire.

Ravindra Prakash, sitting in his small shop selling namkeen and noodles in the village of Bhatan Khera, recalls her running through the streets. “I saw her. She must have run a kilometre. Due to the fire, there were no clothes left on her body. Her skin had turned black,” he says. She asked him if she could use his phone. She called the police helpline 112.

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In pic: A sign for Bihar police station in Unnao; Helpline numbers for women outside the police station.

On two pillars outside the Bihar police station, women helpline numbers are written in red: 1090, 112. That has not helped Unnao’s women. Three horrifying cases have come out of there. Each of them shows, in different ways, women at the receiving end: the extreme sexual violence inflicted on a woman; their allegations of sexual exploitation by men who renege on the promise of marrying them; their dogged and desperate pursuit of their cases even when odds are stacked against them; and the lengths to which the accused could go to prevent the women from getting justice.

Since the Supreme Court has said that the names of those who are sexually assaulted should not be revealed — to protect their identity in a society that is quick to ostracise and blame the survivors — each of the three has come to be called the “Unnao woman”.

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These cases are also instances of unequal power relations. In the case involving the 23-year-old, Kundanpur gram pradhan’s son and husband are among those who are accused of stabbing and setting her on fire. In the case involving the rape of a 17-year-old girl, Unnao MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar, who was sacked from the BJP after public outrage, has been convicted. Sakshi Maharaj, BJP MP from Unnao, who went to meet Sengar when he was in jail as an undertrial and tweeted birthday wishes for the legislator, has been criticised for his closeness to him.

The 23-year-old woman’s family says if the media had not highlighted her case, it would have been brushed under the carpet and passed off as suicide, as the accused are still portraying it to be. Her sister Rohini, sitting on a charpoy in the courtyard of their kutcha house, alleges, “Savitri Devi, who is both the gram pradhan and the mother of one of the accused, used to tell us, ‘Court hamara, neta hamara, thana hamara (court, politicians and the police are with us). Who will listen to you?’” Five women police officers are stationed outside the house. The tulsi plant at the centre of the courtyard has wilted in the harsh winter. Her parents have gone to till the fields.

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“My sister had got a letter appointing her as an assistant in Grameen Bank. She just wanted a formal marriage with her longtime partner, Shubham, who kept raping her on the pretext of marriage. His cousin Shivam, too, raped her. When Shubham backtracked, citing caste difference and resistance from his family, my sister filed a case of rape against him. They threatened to kill us if we did not withdraw the case; they finally set her on fire,” alleges Rohini, covering her face with a dupatta to hide her wet cheeks.

The woman, who had suffered 90% burns, was airlifted to Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital and died the next day. In the statement given to the police in the hospital, she identified the attackers as Shivam, his father Ram Kishor Trivedi, Shubham, his father Harishankar Trivedi and one of their relatives, Umesh Bajpai. “A chargesheet was submitted on January 1. The five have been charged with murder under Section 302 of IPC,” Bihar police station’s second officer Gaurav Kumar told ET Magazine.

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A stone’s throw from the police station, a woman in her 50s is weeping on the steps of a temple. “Aaj naya saal hai, khane-peene ka din hai (It is New Year’s Day, it is the time to enjoy). Had Shubham been here, he would have been making merry with his friends,” she says. She is Savitri Devi, mother of the accused Shubham. She alleges that her “gora-chitta (fair and handsome)” son and his cousin Shivam were sleeping “when the girl set herself ablaze”.

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The accused are Brahmins, a community that is powerful and influential in the area. And their family and acquaintances collectively shame the woman. “Why was she out alone, early in the morning?” asks Savitri Devi. “I am also a girl; I would never be alone at those hours,” says Shubham’s cousin. Caste undergirds the case.

According to the girl’s neighbours, her father had approached Shubham’s family to discuss their marriage, but they were not keen on the alliance due to “social reasons”, an euphemism for “belonging to a lower caste”. “Had we agreed to the alliance with her, what would we have got? Tooti cycle (a broken bicycle)?” jeers a woman. “What can a Lohar give her daughter?” says another.

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Meanwhile, at her home, Rohini resolutely says her sister should get justice. “I remember her last words at the hospital: ‘Hum rahe na rahe, un logon ko saza milni chahiye (Even if I die, those men should get punished).’” At the village Makhi in Unnao, the home town of MLA Sengar, people are wary of pointing a finger at him even after his conviction by a Delhi district court, which sentenced him to life imprisonment on December 20. They still call him “vidhayakji”.

“We do not know about those charges against him, but there are many cases of land-grabbing against him in his constituency. He would give a pittance to the owner who would have no choice but to name the land in his name,” alleges a villager in Makhi, on the condition of anonymity. “Vidhayakji ka dabdabaa tha yahaan (He had a stranglehold on the place). He did not lose a single election he has fought. There were talks that he might get a Lok Sabha ticket from Unnao but then this happened,” says another villager.

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Unnao MP Sakshi Maharaj, who is believed to have won the seat on the back of “aadha Modi, aadha Lodhi” factor, says the Opposition is trying to malign the image of his constituency by highlighting these cases. “Freedom fighter Chandrasekhar Azad’s forefathers were from here. The poet Nirala’s family hailed from here. People must look at these aspects of Unnao as well,” he told ET Magazine. “I do not want to hurt anyone’s family but many times what is shown is not correct,” he says, refusing to elaborate on his allegation.

The Unnao girl has gone through hell. When the case was going nowhere, she tried to immolate herself outside Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s house in April 2018. Her father, who was allegedly falsely implicated in the case, died in police custody. The vehicle in which she was travelling with her aunts and lawyer was hit by a truck. Both her aunts were killed in the crash. Opposition leaders, including Congress’ Priyanka Gandhi and Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, have been visiting the Unnao girl’s family.

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“Where have all the claims of sushasan (good governance) gone?” asks Naresh Uttam, state president of the Samajwadi Party. His counterpart in the BJP says that since Sengar has been convicted, justice has been done. “He was expelled from the party immediately. The BJP does not tolerate any injustice,” UP BJP president Swatantra Dev Singh told ET Magazine.

About 45 km north-east of Makhi, in Hasanganj, a mother awaits justice for her daughter. On December 16, the 23-year-old woman immolated herself in front of the office of the Unnao superintendent of police after the man she had accused of raping her got bail. In the FIR, she alleged that he sexually exploited her on the pretext that he would marry her. But then he refused to honour his word. The mother told ET Magazine that they are getting threats from the man who is out on bail to withdraw the case against him or else face consequences. The shadow in Unnao lengthens.

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