The night before his mother committed suicide, Shyam had trouble falling asleep. It felt like every time he opened his eyes, Kalavati was in a different part of the house – pacing, then sitting on the stairs, lighting the kitchen fire, cooking rotis in the dead of night. She went to bed only when the noise awakened his father, who yelled at everyone to let him sleep.

The next morning, on January 12, Kalavati took Shyam, who was running a fever, to the hospital. She bought the 15-year-old fruit and medicine, sent him home, and then killed herself by consuming poison outside a kabadiwaala’s shop.

In Chhapra village of Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district, the death of Kalavati, a 40-year-old community health worker, is believed to be the final chapter in a series of terrible events that began with her being raped and filmed as she was violated, blackmailed, and then humiliated when the video clipping went viral in her neighbourhood.

Four days later, a young woman in the village of Kailawda Kalan, barely an hour’s drive from Chhapra, filed a first information report with the police describing a similar set of events. She too had been filmed while being raped two years ago, and she too was blackmailed by the men in the video.

When she couldn’t pay the ransom, the clip was allegedly sold at mobile repair shops in Kailawda Kalan. In the week following her complaint, the young woman tried to kill herself four times – twice by jumping off a terrace, and twice by hanging herself from a fan.

The two stories bear similarities to a spate of crimes reported in Uttar Pradesh over the last two years: in Charthawal, Shahpur, Muzaffarnagar and Bareilly, women were raped and intimidated into silence with the threat of rape videos being circulated online. But more than this intersection of technology and sexual violence, and the need to investigate it, what has taken prominence at least in Chhapra and Kailawda Kalan is the fact that in both cases the alleged rapists are Muslim men.

'On the other side'

“There are three clips of fifteen minutes each, I couldn’t open one but I saw the others” Chhapra’s former pradhan Anil Kumar said. He looked around, before pulling a couple of screenshots of the video out of his pocket. “The first seemed consensual, but maybe she was drugged.”

In the past few weeks, Kumar has entertained several guests in the village – police, reporters, crowds of enraged community health workers from across the state, and drawn by their collective ire, Muzaffarnagar MP and Minister of State for Agriculture, Sanjeev Balyan. Kumar lost the last election, but the current pradhan, Shazad Alam, has been missing since Kalavati’s death.

Kumar and his cronies believe there are some good people “on the other side”, for instance those who informed him about the video and passed it on to him as well as those who helped the police apprehend the prime accused Shahib Khan. Further, when Chhapra experienced communal flare-ups in the past, leaders from both communities talked to the youth and discouraged them from escalating tensions. This time, Kumar said he is keeping his distance.

“Some say Alam, the pradhan, is close to the boy’s family, possibly even related to them,” Kumar said. “I don’t know, but I don’t have anything to say to the Mohammedans right now. They knew about what was going on before any of us heard of the clip.”

Shortly after BJP MP Sanjeev Balyan promised Kalavati’s family compensation, and her son Shyam a government job, Balyan travelled to Kailawda Kalan to meet the family of the 32-year-old rape survivor there. This time, he was less considered, giving the police an ultimatum to find the 32-year-old’s rapists within three days and book them under the stringent National Security Act. Failing this, Balyan promised he would hold a state-wide mahapanchayat to resolve the issue.

The last time a mahapanchayat was held in Muzaffarnagar, it was over the alleged molestation of a Jat girl by a Muslim boy. Riots broke out in the district shortly after, killing at least 62 people, displacing thousands and leading to the rape of hundreds of women.

Shadowed by fear

Unlike their colleagues in Sikkim, West Bengal, Karnataka and Rajasthan, community health workers (or ASHA workers) in Uttar Pradesh receive almost no benefits, apart from a uniform and a cell phone.

Yet Kalavati, who lived in a brick home with no door or toilet, played a crucial role in the community. At any time of the day or night, she could be summoned to deliver babies, administer polio drops, advise couples on contraception, check on new mothers and escort villagers to the closest government hospital.

On the day her troubles are believed to have begun, Kalavati was at the home of a young man named Shahib Khan, helping his sister-in-law deliver a baby. As she left the house after the delivery, the story goes that Khan grabbed her arm, refusing to let go. While everyone in Chhapra agreed that this is how Khan’s obsession with Kalavati began, from this point on, the details become hazy.

One confidante who wished to remain anonymous, terrified both at what had happened to her friend and at the possibility of a communal flare-up in the village, admitted that Kalavati had complained to her about Shahib Khan for a few months before the video became public.

“She was supposed to check on the baby every few weeks, but she was scared of returning to Shahib’s house,” she said. “Kalavati told me the house was too dark, and that Shahib had behaved strangely with her. Soon after, she became scared of going anywhere, always afraid that he would be lurking on the streets, waiting to grab her when he got the chance.” The friend described two separate incidents, one in which Kalavati asked her to accompany her on a house call but the two found Shahib blocking their path, and another when she found Kalavati in a state of extreme distress, saying something “terrible” had happened to her.

“Her salwar was torn, and she had tied it up and hidden it with her kurta,” the confidante said. “I asked her what happened, but she was close to tears, and just remained silent.”

In Chhapra, more than one person mentioned Kalavati’s great beauty and youth, combined with the fact that her husband was a heart patient, an alcoholic and several years elder to her. It was as if they were suggesting that she may in fact have simply succumbed to a younger man’s charms. In the absence of Kalavati’s testimony, it is impossible to divine the precise nature of her relationship – if any at all – with Shahib Khan. Yet the entire village is animated by a single question: why didn’t she speak to anyone about the violence and humiliation she had endured?

Judgement by video

The explanation for Kalavati’s silence could be found in Kailawda Kalan, in the story of the 32-year-old rape survivor who endured sexual assault and blackmail for nearly two years, before she filed a complaint with the police. Before this, her attempt to seek help from her husband ended with immediate separation, forcing her to return to her home in Kailawda – the village where all the young men in the neighbourhood had seen and circulated the video.

Soon after she filed an FIR and made a statement to the local magistrate, a report appeared in the Times of India on January 19 in which Inspector General of Meerut Alok Sharma declared that the police had arrested the main accused. But according to Sharma, “The case (did) not stand even in the first stage of investigation” – because to the police the videos appeared consensual.

What is so problematic about Sharma or the avid commentators of Kailawda and Chhapra trying to determine a woman’s consent from a video clip, viewed out of context and shared without permission? It is this – if the woman’s behaviour does not correspond to each viewer’s private imagination of what a rape scene should look like, the act on screen is deemed consensual, regardless of what the woman herself says. This is an overruling of her agency, not unlike rape itself.

The consequences of such unthinking judgement can be fatal. Kalavati’s confidante recalled a phone conversation with her friend shortly after she first learnt of the video. The confidante heard Kalavati ask her 13-year-old daughter for some privacy, so she could speak freely on the phone. The confidante’s blood ran cold when she heard the teenager’s retort: “What do you want privacy for now? We’ve all seen what you did with that man.”

On the 13th day after Kalavati’s funeral, Chhapra’s schoolyard was covered in a green felt carpet.

A crowd of ASHA workers sat to one side – their colleague’s death had galvanised a state-wide movement among the health workers. The women wanted the state government to give them a helpline, a monthly salary, and a guesthouse in each district for them to stay in during late night duty.

Seated among the grim crowd of men to the right was a bright splash of saffron in the form of Muzaffarnagar riot accused Sadhvi Prachi. Once the pandit finished the rites, Muneesh, a tall and dignified ASHA Sangini wearing a skull cap, rose to address the gathering:

“What happened to Kalavati could happen to any of the women in this village,” she said. “It will happen again, unless you look in your homes, speak to your sons and husbands, and teach them to respect women. Kalavati’s husband is a drunkard and will not be able to care for her children, they are still young. Do not let this family down, and do not forget this day.”

If Muneesh’s speech caused an uncomfortable ripple among the villagers, the reflective mood instantly changed with Sadhvi Prachi’s arrival to the dais. After a brief, emotive speech on the status of women in the country, Prachi suddenly thundered:

“Why isn’t the pradhan here today? Where is Shahzad Alam? Who will save you now?”

Looking around triumphantly, she added: “You must save yourselves from these monsters. They do not care about you, the Shahzad Alams of the world. Arm yourself, protect yourself now. Put these monsters away under the NSA. Raise your hands, those of you who want Rasuka [NSA] for the accused, raise your hands if you want to protect yourself from the monsters.”

Hands flew up all across the field, and yet, Alam was nowhere to be seen. His pet peacock, standing on the pradhan’s roof, surveyed the crowd in silence.

As the memorial service drew to a close, the villagers dispersed, and Shyam finally began to cry. He fell to the ground sobbing, his sister and younger brother stood motionless by him. Balyan had promised Shyam a job with the government in another three years, but his sister was dropping out of school for good – someone had to stay home and look after the family. The ASHA workers began to stuff the children’s pockets with notes, place food and sweaters at their feet.

“You have a hundred mothers now,” each woman repeated, embracing Kalavati’s children, then leaving to catch a bus to return to her own.

Names of the rape victim and her family members have been changed to protect their identities.