The brutal rape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in India’s Uttar Pradesh (UP) region in September 2020 and the road leading to a subsequent verdict, raise questions about sex, caste, and class-based discrimination in India. The Hathras rape case, as it is colloquially known, clearly depicts the double discrimination faced by Dalit women. Dalit feminism is grounded in the idea that caste, class, and gender are intertwined. Dalits fall at the bottom of India’s caste hierarchy and face discrimination mainly by the upper caste. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s latest data, crime against Dalit women is rising, despite stringent laws. Despite societal advances in India, the mindset of people regarding Dalits has not changed much. In fact, Dalit women are more on the verge. In such cases, the attitude of government authorities and non-support of state mechanisms shakes faith in the complete investigative mechanism. The question often is not who burned down the towns but who handed them the matches.
According to news reports, the victim in Hathras was attacked by four upper-caste men while she was working in the fields. The victim was in critical condition and initially treated at a hospital in Uttar Pradesh and later transferred to a hospital in Delhi, where she died. The government authorities also acted in a very inhuman manner. The victim was denied the right to a dignified burial, as authorities forcibly cremated her body without family members’ consent. The case received widespread attention and sparked outrage across India. Allahabad High Court took the suomotocognizance and ordered for fair inquiry and investigation. The court quoted Oscar Wilde, stating, “Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses wearing above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace.”
After March 2, 2023, again, the victim will not be at peace, and again we witnessed the intersectional oppression of Dalit women in India. The Hathras is not an isolated case where society knows the wrong done, but authorities handle the case by protecting the accused and leaving the victim without justice. This was reported as a gang rape case, and CBI filed the chargesheet for the same. But the trial verdict found none of the accused guilty of rape, forget about gang rape. We are stupefied by the news of the acquittal of three of the accused and the conviction of one accused (Sandeep Singh) under section 304 of the India Penal Code, causing death by negligence.
The verdict reminded us of the famous case of Bhanwari Devi from Rajasthan in 1991. There also, because of a lack of evidence, the lower court acquitted the accused on the charges of rape. The court’s reasoning was preposterous as the judge stated, “An upper-caste man could not have defiled himself by raping a lower-caste woman.”
Specific Points in the Verdict
The primary contention in the timeline of the incident was that the victim gave a dying declaration and named Ramu Singh, Lavkush Singh, Ravi Singh, and Sandeep Singh. According to the news report, she gave four dying declarations—to her family, a doctor, a journalist, and the tehsildar, an executive magistrate. The rule on dying declarations is settled in Khushal Rao v. State of Bombay [AIR 1958 SC 22] and State of Uttar Pradesh v. Ram Sagar Yadav [(1985) 1 SCC 552]. Recently in State of Jharkhand v. Shailendra Kumar Rai @ Pandav Rai [Criminal Appeal No. 1441 of 2022], Dr. Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud J. reiterated that there is neither rule of law nor a rule of prudence that a dying declaration cannot be acted upon unless it is corroborated. How the trial court has looked into the dying declaration is really intriguing. In the Nirbhaya case, where there were three dying declarations, the court also considered the law regarding statements given before death. A Metropolitan Magistrate recorded Nirbhaya’s statement through gestures on December 25, 2012, and she succumbed to injuries on December 29, 2012. The Hathras case had a similar time gap between the declaration and death, so the time gap need not set aside the dying declaration. Why are the courts not following the precedents regarding dying declarations?
Another point that needs consideration is why charges of rape were denied and how the court is interpretating the law of rape. If we look into the recent judgment of the Hon’ble Allahabad High Courtin Suneeta Pandey v. State of UP (2023 SCC OnLine All 44), Justice Shekhar Kumar Yadav held that a woman can also be held guilty of gang rape under Section 376-D IPC if she has facilitated the act of rape with a group of persons. Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code states that a man commits rape by making a woman engage in sexual activity “with him or any other person.” Has the trial court decided that because there was no finding of semen on the victim’s body, the accused are not guilty? If rape charges are totally negated, why was the girl murdered?
We should question why the court convicted Sandeep Singh of causing death by negligence. Now that the court has dropped the charges of rape, the question is why was the victim attacked? Was it a hate crime against the Dalit girl? Furthermore, the victim’s dying declaration provides sufficient evidence to prove there was an intention to kill. The severity of the injuries, injuries to cervical spine, broken spine, and strangulation are more than enough to show an intention to kill. This should then be charged as murder under Section 302 and not Section 304.
We should consider changing our judicial process from adversarial to inquisitorial. As the judgment is out, we have started questioning the prudence of the judge in the case. Being optimistic and reposing faith in our judicial system, it must be seen that they are merely looking into the shreds of evidence both parties gave. We should not bring a preconceived notion about the judges.
Without endorsing the method, the naive question that might randomly cross one’s mind is that in UP, the government deals iron-handedly with mafiyas with the bulldozer action (razing down houses or properties with bulldozers and taking strict action against illegal properties), so why was there no bulldozer action in this specific rape case. In the Hathras case, police did not register a complaint, officials doubted if there was an act of rape committed, and the government did not take any expeditious action. Further, a Kerala journalist, Siddique Kappan, was arrested while on his way to report the case.
We should never compare cases of violence against women, particularly sexual violence. But can we trace any incident where the rape and murder of an Upper Caste women in India was dealt with in such an inhuman manner? The same story repeats in cases of rape and other violence against Dalit women. The mechanism for them to get justice in India is difficult. In sexual harassment cases, there is always doubt over whether there was a rape. Administrative authorities are not supporting these women, and most of the time, the police even don’t acknowledge the wrong. The judicial mechanism also fails to recognize Dalit women’s hardships and protect their rights.
Dalit feminism as a movement never emerged in India, and a crime against them is not treated differently. There is no separate provision for rape or sexual offense against them, but we should recognize that they need different treatment. Dr. Suraj Yengde argues in Caste Matters that Dalit women are victims of the cultures, structures, and institutions of oppression, both externally and internally.
We hope this judgment is not in line with the Bhanwari Devi case (trial court) or Mathura Rape case, where all of the organs of the state failed to perform their duty. We are hopeful that the judgement will be challenged in appeal. These issues should be considered before a final deliberation. After the recently celebrated Women’s Day, we need to consider why this story repeats for Dalit women. Can the institutions in India be more supportive and empathetic?
Dr. Ankita Yadav is an assistant professor at Dr. RML National Law University, and is interested in the areas of constitutional law, media law, and criminal law. Vaibhav Gaur is a fourth-year law student at the same university, and is interested in areas of gender studies, human rights, and constitutional law.
Suggested citation: Ankita Yadav and Vaibhav Gaur, An Inter-Caste Rape Case in India Illustrates Institutional Failure JURIST – Academic Commentary, March 24, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/03/yadav-gaur-hathras-case-institutional-failure/.
This article was prepared for publication by Hayley Behal, JURIST Commentary Co-Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at email@example.com