December 23, 2019 / 7:53 AM / a month ago

'You will do your reporting and leave, but I have to live here'

HINDU NAGAR, India (Reuters) - When we got to the village, I was surprised to see how many women came out to defend men accused of rape.

FILE PHOTO: People gather outside the house of a 23-year-old rape victim, who died in a New Delhi hospital after she was set on fire by a gang of men, which included her alleged rapists, in Unnao in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India, December 7, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis/File Photo

My colleague, Saurabh Sharma, and I had come to report in the village of Hindu Nagar, in northern India’s rural heartland.

A young woman from one of the village’s poorest families had accused men from the most powerful family of rape. Earlier this month, she was set on fire and hobbled into the village, burned beyond recognition. She told police she had been beaten and set afire by five men from the village, including two she had accused of rape last year. She died in hospital a day later – a day before we made the trip to tell her story.

Dozens of villagers and police crowded the mud-and-thatch house of the woman, where her family – including father, three uncles, and an aunt – sat outside in a row of chairs facing several television cameras and answering reporters’ questions.

Their faces partly covered with dusty mufflers to protect against the cold that winter morning, the family kept their heads mostly bowed in grief.

The gang rape and murder of a young woman on a Delhi bus in 2012 prompted India to enact some of the world’s toughest laws on rape, including the death penalty in some cases. But women’s rights activists say the reforms have had little impact. Conviction rates are low. Often victims and their families are up against economic and caste dynamics, particularly in rural India, that can stall investigations or delay legal proceedings.

The alleged crime scene in Hindu Nagar in Uttar Pradesh state showed that divide in stark terms and underscored how hard it can be to find witnesses and to report when women have died. Rumor-mongering is rife. Often the victim is reflexively blamed. Villagers depend on village heads for everything from loans for the marriages of their children to getting access to government benefits, everything from housing to having a toilet installed.

At the other end of Hindu Nagar, the families of the accused - all related to village headwoman - gathered. Many of the women screamed the men were innocent and that the victim had falsely accused them of rape and murder. They called for the men, who were under arrest, to be released.

As Sharma and I sat down with them outside their cement home, the women insisted the men were innocent. But they were more eager to talk about the woman: what she wore, who she hung out with, and how she had allegedly tried to lure one of the men she had accused into a “love trap.”

It was difficult to make out which side was telling the truth. But after listening to the various versions, we managed to procure the woman’s complaints from her lawyer, copies of the police reports on the case, and a copy of her dying declaration. That helped frame the story.

See Zeba Siddiqui's story on the Hindu Nagar rape case here

While reporting on this tragedy, I felt like I was back in Makhi – a village around two hours north of Hindu Nagar in the same Unnao district, which I had visited in July following another rape case. There, a young woman who had accused a powerful lawmaker of rape had been critically injured when a truck rammed into her car while she was with her lawyer one day. Her family accused the lawmaker of attempted murder to silence her.

Many women there supported the lawmaker and told me they thought he could do no wrong. One had told me: “My daughters go to the school he made for the village. How can he do anything bad to a woman?”

The lawmaker, Kuldeep Singh Sengar, was convicted of rape by a court this month. Investigations are continuing into the attempted murder case.

In Hindu Nagar, an elderly man who began to speak to us about an alleged love affair between the woman and one of the accused men stopped midway as I picked up my pen to take notes. “You will do your reporting and leave, but I have to live here under the same people,” he said.

Writing by Zeba Siddiqui; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan

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