The Big Story: A death in Unnao

Several tragedies lie folded in the death of a 50-year-old man held in police custody in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh.

For a year, his 17-year-old daughter had alleged that she was raped by Bharatiya Janata Party legislator Kuldeep Singh Sengar but the police did not file a complaint. When the family tried to immolate themselves in front of Chief Minister Adityanath’s house in order to stir the authorities to take action, they were taken away to a police station. In the dark inverted logic of the Uttar Pradesh police, one of the accusers, instead of the accused, was taken into custody for an old case under the Arms Act. After the father’s death in police custody, the rest of the family have been forced out of their home by the fear of Sengar, who seems to be all-powerful in their village.

Finally, for all the appearance of action – the arrest of Sengar’s brother for alleged involvement in the custodial death, the formation of a special investigation team, the notice issued by the National Human Rights Commission to the state government and police chief, the plea in the Supreme Court for a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry – there have been no costs for the legislator so far. There is still no first information report against him and he has refused to resign from his seat, brushing off the charges as a “conspiracy” and his accusers as “low class people”.

The rape of a teenager and her father’s murder open out into other tragedies in Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh: the death of the justice system where might is right, where “low class people” cannot expect redress when they bring charges against legislators, where violence has been wired into police processes. A custodial death cannot come as a surprise in a state where the chief minister himself endorses so-called encounter killings. When there are 40 deaths in 1,200 such incidents in just 12 months of a government’s tenure, it is clear that extrajudicial killings are not exceptions but policy. Such violence, moreover, is believed to be wielded as a political tool, especially against sections of society not favoured by the government: mainly Muslims, but also Dalits and Other Backwards Classes.

The spectacle of a rape survivor and her family trying to immolate themselves before the house of an indifferent chief minister also gives the lie to one of Adityanath’s main electoral promises: women’s safety. But the chief minister’s idea of ensuring this was to order the formation of “anti-Romeo squads”, or groups of police staff deployed near colleges to defend the “honour” and “security” of women. It turned into a reactionary crackdown on couples and mixed groups or just young men who looked like “Romeos”. A year later, no noticeable decrease in crimes against women has been reported. Besides, when it comes to murderous violence, the police and its political masters seem to melt away. Deaths like the one in Unnao have happened before and will most likely happen again in Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh, and they will cease to shock beyond the first few headlines. That is perhaps the biggest tragedy.


  1. In the Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta on when identities become inimical to freedom.
  2. In the Hindu, Rakesh Sood on how pragmatism has finally taken root in Kathmandu and Delhi.
  3. In the Telegraph, Ramachandra Guha on the hollowness of the “America First” doctrine.


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