By Ajaz Ashraf
After the Uttar Pradesh administration hurriedly cremated, in darkness, the 19-year-old Dalit girl of Hathras, who died because of a brutal gang-rape. Yet the haze of incomprehension would lift once you rewind to February 27, 2002. On that day, a coach of the Sabarmati Express, bringing back pilgrims from Ayodhya to Gujarat, was set on fire in Godhra. Fifty-nine passengers were charred to death. Instead of handing over the bodies to their relatives in Godhra, the administration decided to transport them to Sola Civil Hospital, in Ahmedabad, where a large crowd assembled the following day, frothing with anger.
This decision was identified, in contemporary media accounts, as the trigger for Ahmedabad and the state to erupt. The chief minister of Gujarat then was Narendra Modi, who surfed the wave of Hindu anger to grow from strength to strength and the Bharatiya Janata Party went on to acquire an aura of invincibility in the state.
It is, therefore, surprising that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath should appear so petrified of a dead Dalit girl. This is evident from his administration’s decision to disallow her family from carrying out her last rites and obstruct Opposition leaders from visiting Hathras. And to think, he is the leader who has made encounter killings a veritable state policy; that he spearheads the party so deft at squeezing out advantages from the politics crafted around dead bodies — as, for instance, was done with the jawans who perished in the Pulwama attack last year.
It does seem the Hathras girl was hastily cremated because the BJP wished to deny the Opposition an opportunity to create a narrative against Adityanath. Perhaps this was also why the administration insisted she had not been raped, bolstering their claim by citing the forensic report which said no semen samples were found on the body of the girl. The administration forgot that the offence of rape need not necessarily involve, according to the Supreme Court, “the complete penetration of the male organ with emission of semen…”
The Hathras girl testified to having been raped by four men in her dying statement, which is legally considered trustworthy. By citing the forensic report, the administration sought to discredit her. Perhaps it wishes to project Uttar Pradesh as safe for Dalit women, in sharp contrast to the picture that emerges from the National Crime Records Bureau figures. These show that the state accounted for 17.79 per cent of Scheduled Caste women raped in India in 2018. This figure slid to 15.5 per cent in 2019, although the number of Scheduled Caste women raped in Uttar Pradesh that year was 545, up from 526 in 2018. Hard to portray Adityanath as an exemplary protector of Dalits.
Perhaps his administration worries that the assailants of the Hathras girl are Rajput, the caste to which Adityanath belongs. This fact reinforces the extant narrative that Rajputs flout laws because of the impunity they enjoy under his rule. Not too long ago, the BJP spread the propaganda that although the Samajwadi Party claims to represent the interests of all backward castes, the benefits of power accrue only to the caste of its supreme leader – the Yadavs. This was also the BJP’s strategy to wean away several Dalit subcastes from the Jatav-controlled BSP. In much the same vein, the brutalisation of the Hathras girl could well become a metaphor for the return of the exploitative Rajput rajas and zamindars of yore.
The Hathras girl is also an eloquent symbol of the superficial unity of Hindus that Hindutva forges by othering the Muslims. This should worry Adityanath no end. Dalits account for 21 per cent of Uttar Pradesh’s population, of whom the Jatavs constitute 55 per cent. The Hathras girl was a Valmiki, a caste which has consistently voted for the BJP and accounts for three per cent of the Dalit population. Their alienation could dent the BJP’s vote base, besides providing the Jatav leadership the chance to harness the similarity of the experiences of different Dalit subcastes to rebuild the subaltern unity witnessed two-three decades ago.
The more the narrative of Rajput rule gains currency in Uttar Pradesh, the greater the likelihood of reaction setting in among other social groups. They will tend to ascribe their woes, imagined or real, to Adityanath’s partiality towards his caste brethren. Yet, do not think Uttar Pradesh is outraged over the Hathras girl. I spoke to several activists to check whether her death has penetrated Uttar Pradesh’s calloused soul. Their response was unanimous: Dalits are the only people who are outraged, barring liberals-Leftists, who matter little in Uttar Pradesh. They said large segments of upper castes and the powerful landowning Sudra communities – the Yadavs, Kurmis, Jats, Gujjars, etc – feel it is their right to subjugate Dalits, including sexually exploiting their women.
Sadly then, Adityanath fears the Hathras girl only because her death has manifested Uttar Pradesh’s caste contradiction, not because people are outraged at the horror visited upon a person who did not belong to their community.
(The writer is a senior journalist. The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper)