Rapes or honor killings?

There is more to this case than you know, Abhinav smiles slyly as he stuffs a samosa into his mouth. Once he is done chewing, he says with more gravitas, “Things are not always as they appear, sister.” It is a theory that the 28-year-old telemarketer and his friends have discussed quite often since he returned from Moradabad to Katara seven days ago, following the gang-rape and hanging of two cousins from their village in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district.

The alleged inconsistencies they have noted are picked apart with some dramatic flair. “Supposing I liked you, suppose something happened between us and my friends came, or even if I raped you,” he continues unblinkingly, “the Ganga flows right here behind our village. If an incident had occurred, why wouldn’t the boys just cut the girls up and thrown them in the river?” The question, delivered with a professorial air, is answered by the youngest among us — Atul, a student at Badaun’s Shri Krishna Inter College.

“It’s not unusual to find remains of bodies in the river. This, what they say the boys have done…” Atul arrived at Katara before the bodies were brought down from the trees, and unlike Abhinav, cannot bring himself to speak of the hanging. “No rapist would do that. Any rapist would only try to hide his crime,” he says.

My tea-time companions, like many others skirting around the mango trees of Katara village, and most recently, like Samajwadi Party leader Ramgopal Yadav, espouse the theory that the young girls that brought the world to Badaun were actually the victims of an honor killing — carried out presumably, by their father and uncle, one of whom is a key witness in the double homicide.

While the villagers of Katara stand firm by the story that the girls were abducted, gang-raped and hanged by Yadav boys, for those who believe the boys are innocent, the honor killing theory is useful for multiple reasons — if the girls were killed by their own relatives, it will exonerate the Yadavs of murder. But it could also mean the girls had consensual sex with the boys, clearing them of the rape charge as well.

National Crime Records Bureau data indicates that UP has among the worst rates of crimes against women in the country — a fact that both the SP and the UP police are scrambling to cover up, as accusations fly thick and fast in the wake of Badaun. Just four days after the cousins were murdered, the corpse of a young woman was discovered in Bareilly with a plastic cord tied to her neck. Naked and disfigured, the woman had been gang-raped, forced to drink acid, her face burnt with petrol. Even before they were able to identify the victim, the Senior Superintendent of Police issued a statement on Sunday night, alleging that the case might be one of “honor killing or trafficking.” The implicit suggestions being — these things do not happen to all women in UP, they only happen to women who are “loose.”

“They were both having an affair with Pappu,” Atul’s elder brother, a mobile repair shop owner in Bareilly, Sunil declares. When I point out that there is no evidence to indicate this yet, he retracts the assertion and says, “They knew the boys. It’s a small village. Most people know each other here.”

The young men have other theories about why the rape charge might be concocted. They believe the NCRB figures are inflated due to a blatant misuse of Section 376 and 498(a), the rape and dowry laws of the Indian Penal Code. As we walk through the crime scene, they point out that the area where the girls went to relieve themselves is nearly 200 meters away from the place where they were allegedly dragged and raped. “Wouldn’t someone have heard them screaming?” Abhinav asks. “Do you know how quiet a night in the village is?”

Thus far, Pappu, Awadhesh and Urvesh Yadav, as well as two policemen, constable Chhtrapal and Sarvesh Yadav have been arrested for the crime (the officers have been charged with criminal conspiracy). If the girls had tried to scream, it is not hard to imagine them being overpowered by three young men who were between 19 to 21 years of age. The girls’ uncle, Baburam has since revealed that he did in fact hear the girls screaming and rushed to their aid, only to be threatened by Pappu’s pistol, at which point he fled, leaving the girls with a group of men. This does not deter Abhinav, a man of persistent, if morbid logic, “If there were a group of men there, why would they leave the uncle alive?” he inquired.

Finally, it is the fact that Pappu, Awadhesh and Urvesh were real brothers that had my guides convinced that they could not have raped the young women together. The emphasis on their fraternal bond conveyed a particular kind of reverence — boys could be boys in a gang of friends, but everyone behaves themselves in the presence of a big brother.

“When the police found Pappu, he was asleep in bed,” Atul tells me as I am about to leave. “What kind of person would rape and kill two girls, hang them on a tree and then go to sleep? They were young boys, not much wealthier than the girls. They were not hardened criminals, they were not so wild.”

Manoj Singh, a social activist from Gorakhpur, said the UP swagger comes from “new money” — cash trickling in to the coffers of a largely dominant-caste workforce. “In a situation like Katara, it doesn’t matter that the Yadavs are only slightly better off than the Mauryas [the caste the girls’ families belong to]. Think about it this way — of the nearly 22 police stations in Badaun district, 16 have only Yadavs in uniform,” said Singh.

UP’s chief minister and leader of the Samajwadi Party, Akhilesh Yadav, owes his seat to a significant Other Backward Classes vote bank, of which the Yadavs form the single biggest caste group, at 9.6 percent. His cousin, Dharmendra Yadav, is the MP from Badaun. As Singh points out, Akhilesh has taken several steps to ensure that his Yadav-saturated police force is well looked after. Just last year, he contributed funds for the modernization of the force, promising a new forensic lab, better weapons, and modern surveillance. Until the uproar at Badaun, policemen were allowed to choose their own postings, and almost every single one of them opted to lord it over their own home districts.

As more victims of dominant caste atrocities converge on Katara, it is evident that for constables like Sarvesh and Chhatarpal Yadav, it was routine to ignore duty for caste loyalty. While the larger narrative of caste, access to toilets and the privacy of lower-caste victims of sexual assault rages on, there is a danger of missing the subtext: The framing of consent, ideas of masculinity and impunity that course through Badaun, are no different than other parts of the country, where smart young men sleep easy, while silent young girls swing from the mango tree.

A link to the article can be found here.