Her name was a synonym for seductive beauty. That is how they remember her in the hamlet of Bhatan Khera, where she lived. But on the morning of December 5, as she ran shouting “Bachao, Bachao!” (save me, save me), Ravindra Prakash Jaiswal, who was out to tend to his buffaloes, thought a chudail (witch) was coming his way. Jaiswal’s immediate reaction was to pick up a wooden rod to shoo her away.
“I had never seen anything like that in my life,” he said. “The skin on her left thigh and right arm was falling off. There were no clothes on her though she wore socks and shoes. There was a bag on her shoulder. She showed me a charred mobile and asked for a phone to call the police.” Jaiswal owns a provision store on the road that leads out of the village of Hindu Nagar, in which Bhatan Khera is a hamlet. The charred woman then dialled 100. She asked for water but Jaiswal refused, believing it would worsen her condition. After the phone call, she ran away from the shop.
The “chudail” was a 23-year-old. In a statement she gave the medical officer in charge of the Sumerpur Primary Health Centre at 5:35am, where she was taken for immediate medical attention, she said that she had been on her way to catch a train to Lalganj at the Bainswara train halt when she was accosted by five men—Harishanker Trivedi, Ram Kishore Trivedi, Shubham Trivedi, Shivam Trivedi and Umesh Bajpai. They held her hands and legs and put a knife to her neck before pouring petrol over her and setting her on fire. “On December 12, 2018, Shubham Trivedi and Shivam Trivedi had raped me and a case was registered at the Lalganj thana [police station]. I was going to Rae Bareli for that case,” reads the statement. The victim’s medical report reads, “90 per cent burns... no other injury”.
Ram Kishore is Shivam’s father. Harishankar is Shubham’s father and the husband of Bhatan Khera’s village chief, Savitri. Umesh is a panchayat-level functionary. All five belong to Bhatan Khera’s dominant Brahmin caste. The victim was from a backward caste and her father, a blacksmith.
On January 19, 2018, Shivam and the victim had signed a declaration in the civil court of Rae Bareli, under section 11 of the Special Marriage Act, stating that they had married in a temple on January 15 and were living as man and wife. Shivam’s mother, Saroj, says that she had no knowledge of the marriage. “If there was a marriage, we would have received some kind of notice. Had they married, we would have accepted it. My son never spent a night away from home. How can I believe that he was living with her? He was four years younger than her. She had seduced him and was constantly asking him for money”, Saroj told THE WEEK. She has no answer as to why she never intervened to stop these demands.
On November 30, Shivam had returned home on bail after spending 70 days in Rae Bareli jail based on the victim’s police complaint. While the other four named by the victim in her declaration were at home when the police came looking for them, hours after the attack, Shivam was out. His mother says he had gone to check on the bore well in the family’s farm. “After I heard the police had picked up Shubham, I called him and asked him to stay away. Later, I told him to go and surrender in the Bihar police station,” said Saroj. (Bihar is the name of the police station.)
In Bhatan Khera, almost everyone that THE WEEK reached out to, knew of the relationship between Shivam and the victim. Somewhere along the way, the bond had soured. For some months, the families tried to reach a compromise. “The pradhan’s (village chief’s) family however would have none of it. They said that if they would allow the marriage, every lower caste woman in the village would want to marry a Brahmin boy. The social distance was too great to bridge,” said one resident.
The victim’s father too was unhappy. “I was very angry initially when she told me,” he said. “But then I said to her, ‘I am a man of little education, you know what is best for you. Do as you deem fit.’”
On the day of the alleged rape, the victim was at the home of her paternal aunt in Lalganj. The aunt had gone out to the market. “When I returned, she told me that one of the boys had come home and taken her out on the pretext of reaching a compromise. The two had then raped her in a wooded area near a temple. I said to her, ‘Let us go and report the matter in the Lalganj police station.’ But the police refused to listen to us,” said the aunt.
Savitri says that as mother of three daughters she can understand the trauma of rape. “The law is misused constantly,” she said. “It is commonplace for women to threaten men with Section 376. If my son is guilty, punish him. My husband is unable to walk properly, yet he has been accused of burning the girl. Conduct a fair inquiry into the matter.”
In Bhatan Khera, questions are raised about why the victim ran away from, and not towards, the village, for a distance of almost 700m, after she was burnt. And also, why she was out to catch a train that was not running on the day of the accident. (It has been verified by THE WEEK that the Allahabad Passenger that the victim used to board for Lalganj had been suspended a few days before the incident. The service has since been resumed.)
“Burn injuries are very painful and as unlikely as the fact of her running after being burnt might seem, it is not impossible,” said Pradip Tiwari, senior consultant and plastic surgeon, Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Hospital in Lucknow, where the victim was brought that morning. “There is an initial adrenaline surge which could cause the victim to do so. She had sustained burns from the roots of her hair to her feet. She was shouting for water and was in no condition to speak.” Tiwari also accompanied the victim to the Lucknow airport at 6pm that evening, from where she was airlifted to Delhi for treatment at the Safdarjung Hospital, where she died the next day of cardiac arrest.
On December 9, the Uttar Pradesh government announced the setting up of 218 fast track courts for rape cases. Vikas Kumar Pandey, the investigating officer for the case and the station house officer of Bihar police station, told THE WEEK: “We have strict orders to ensure that the case reaches the fast track court in a month. We have the statements of three people whom she had asked for help. The evidence we collected from the site has been sent for forensic examination. We will ask for the remand of the accused if we need to interrogate them later.”
Amidst this, in a lonely field, buried as per the family’s traditions and guarded by the police, lie the remains of the young woman who, despite her beauty, was unable to seduce life.