The Allahabad High Court on Monday pulled up top Uttar Pradesh government officials, after taking suo motu cognisance of the gangrape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman by four upper-caste Thakur men in Hathras district and the events leading up to the victim’s cremation, The Wire reported.

The family of the woman appeared before the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court and recorded their statements. The Adityanath-led government justified the hurried late night cremation of the complainant in an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court, where neither the state police nor government officials had sought the permission of the family to perform the last rites, claiming that it was done to avoid “large-scale violence”.

A bench of Justices Pankaj Mithal and Rajan Roy asked Hathras District Magistrate Praveen Kumar Laxkar if he would have cremated his own daughter in a similar way, according to India Today. The woman’s parents accused the district magistrate and the police of neither allowing them a last glimpse of their daughter’s body nor permission to be present at the cremation site.

Security arrangements made at the Allahabad High Court on Monday ahead of the hearing. Credit: PTI

The father also disclosed how Laxar had allegedly told the family: “You are getting Rs 25 lakh from the chief minister’s fund, do you think you would have got that if your daughter had died due to coronavirus?” Earlier this month, a secretly recorded video of Laxkar showed him issuing a veiled threat to the Dalit woman’s father, asking him to soften his stance about the case.

“Would you have burnt the body if the victim was from a well-to-do family,” the court asked Laxar, according to The Wire. Laxar told the judges it was his decision to cremate the body the same night the woman died and one taken in view of the law and order situation.

Meanwhile, District Superintendent of Police Vikrant Vir said that he had not received any “instructions from Lucknow”, denying that there was any pressure on him from the government or higher officials from the state capital on how to manage the case.

Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order) Prashant Kumar, citing alleged intelligence inputs, told the court that he wanted to ensure that the situation did not get out of control in Boolgarhi village of Hathras district. He claimed people were conspiring to incite trouble and create a law and order problem in the village.

The court also chastised the state government for claiming that the woman was not raped. “How do you know she wasn’t raped,” the judges asked Kumar, according to NDTV. “Has the investigation concluded? Please go through the new rape law of 2013.”

The woman’s family was represented by advocate Seema Kushwaha – who was also the legal counsel in the 2012 Delhi gangrape case. The Uttar Pradesh government was represented by additional advocate general Vinod Shahi.

Seema Kushwaha said the family had three main requests and all of them were considered by the Allahabad High Court, The Hindu reported. This includes transferring the case outside Uttar Pradesh, the details of the investigation not be revealed through the media as it “builds a different kind of narrative” and security be ensured for the members till the trial is concluded.

The court will hear the case again on November 2 after the state government requested for additional time to file its replies. It also directed Kumar and the special secretary, home, to appear during the next hearing.

Women hold placards during a protest after the death of a rape victim on a street in Mumbai, India, October 6. [Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters]

The case

A 19-year-old Dalit woman succumbed to her injuries at a hospital in Delhi on September 29 after four upper caste Thakur men raped and tortured her on September 14. The four accused in the case have been arrested. However, Sandeep Thakur, the main accused, has written to the state police chief from jail claiming that the men are being framed. He had also claimed that the woman was victim of honour killing as her family was opposed to their “friendship”.

The Uttar Pradesh administration has consistently denied that the woman was raped, based on a report from the forensic lab that had said there were no traces of sperm in samples taken from her. However, the chief medical officer at Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College – where the woman was admitted – said the forensic lab’s report “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”.

On October 3, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath had recommended a CBI inquiry as protests erupted in several parts of India. The state government had also 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 state police have also filed 19 first information reports in Hathras against unidentified persons for allegedly attempting to incite caste-based conflict.

The Central Bureau of Investigation on October 10 took over the inquiry into the case. A team comprising forensic experts will soon be sent to the spot where the incident took place.

A three-judge bench in the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A Bobde, while hearing a petition seeking a CBI or a Special Investigation Team inquiry monitored by sitting or retired judges, did not pass any directions in this regard on October 6. The court, however, called the incident “extraordinary” and “shocking”. It had also asked the Uttar Pradesh government to file a response on its witness protection plan and whether the family of the victim has access to a lawyer. The matter will be heard this week.