The Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the Uttar Pradesh government to file a response by Wednesday on its witness protection plan and whether the family of the 19-year-old Dalit gangrape victim from Hathras has access to a lawyer, Live Law reported.

Four upper-caste Thakur men had brutally raped and tortured the woman, who died on September 29. The Uttar Pradesh administration had then hurriedly cremated her body against her family’s wishes while they had been locked inside their home, triggering outrage and protests.

A three-judge bench led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A Bobde was hearing a petition seeking a Central Bureau of Investigation or a Special Investigation Team inquiry monitored by sitting or retired judges in the matter. The state has requested the Supreme Court to direct a CBI investigation not only into the woman’s gangrape but also into the case relating to an alleged criminal conspiracy to spread caste conflict by sections of media and political parties.

The court called the incident “extraordinary” and “shocking”. It also sought suggestions from all parties on the scope of proceedings before the Allahabad High Court and what it could do to expand it.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the state government, said he was not opposed to the petition but was concerned about the alleged “sensationalising of the death of a young girl”. “All kinds of people, political parties giving one narrative or another,” he told the court. “Your lordships must supervise the investigation and the purpose of it must not be lost.”

Advocate Indira Jaising, meanwhile, said the protection of the woman’s family was paramount. “Fair investigation warrants protection for the family,” she said.

Jaising added that the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, must be invoked and the matter should be transferred to Delhi, as was done with the Unnao rape case. “Your lordship must protect by way of witness protection the family of the victim,” she said.

The Supreme Court adjourned the matter to next week.

Midnight cremation done to avoid violence: UP government

Ahead of the hearing, the Uttar Pradesh government told the Supreme Court that the body of the woman was hurriedly cremated to avoid “large-scale violence”.

“The district administration at Hathras had been receiving several intelligence inputs since morning of September 29 of the manner in which the dharna had taken place at Safdarjung hospital and the whole issue was being exploited and a caste/communal colour was being given,” the state government claimed in an affidavit. “Extraordinary circumstances forced the extraordinary step of cremating the victim at night.”

The Adityanath-led government justified the midnight cremation, where neither the state police nor government officials had sought the permission of the family to perform the funerary rite, claiming that there was a high alert in the Hathras district because of the Babri Masjid demolition verdict a day later.

It also said no large gatherings were allowed due to the coronavirus pandemic. “In such extraordinary and severe circumstances, the district administration took the decision to convince the parents of the deceased to cremate her with all religious rites at night to avoid large scale violence in the morning to cremate the body of the victim that was lying for almost more than 20 hours after her death and post-mortem,” the affidavit read.

The government also informed the court that there were no signs suggestive of rape in the case. “The provisional medical report of JJ Medical Hospital Aligarh did not have prima facie findings of rape. The samples were sent to FSL Agra, which gave its final opinion ruling out rape,” the affidavit claimed.

The chief medical officer at Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College – where the woman was first admitted – had negated the forensic lab’s report, saying “holds no value” as it relied on samples taken 11 days after the crime was committed. Experts have also pointed out that since the samples for the test were collected many days after the crime was committed, sperm would not be present. The autopsy report of the woman had showed that she was strangled and suffered a cervical spine injury. The final diagnosis did not mention rape, but had pointed out that there were tears in her genitalia and there had been “use of force”.

The state government said after woman’s death last week, offence of murder under Section 302 and Section 376A (causing death after rape) of the Indian Penal Code was added against the four accused in the case.

“There has been a ‘vicious propaganda’ in social media, certain sections of media with some sections of political parties to deliberately mislead the public to create caste/communal disharmony in the state.”

— Uttar Pradesh government