The tragic deaths of 14-year-old and 16-year-old girls, who were found hanging from a mango tree in an orchard seven years ago in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun, still haunts the family.
The tragic deaths of 14-year-old and 16-year-old girls, who were found hanging from a mango tree in an orchard seven years ago in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun, still haunts the family.

Badaun twin tragedy: Sanitation, dignity in tussle with poverty, customs

Badaun tragedy: Poverty, imbalance, sanitation — the horrors remain. The tragic deaths of 14-year-old and 16-year-old girls, who were found hanging from a mango tree in an orchard seven years ago in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun, still haunts the family.
By Dhrubo Jyoti, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON SEP 15, 2021 03:57 AM IST

Badaun

She wakes up at around 4.30am, before any other member of the household. She picks up a mug, adjusts the knots of her sari around her waist, and makes her way to the fields behind her house. Once she’s back, she starts her day – cooking for the six people in her family, sweeping the mud floors of her small house, cleaning the front courtyard, and laying out the charpoys for the men to sit.

Her morning ritual has remained unchanged through the decades, through a punishing pandemic, numerous village chiefs, elections and floods that force villagers to flee every few years in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district. She does not like going to the fields, but sums up her predicament in one word: “majboori” (helplessness).

Only one event in the past decade has given her pause: the tragic deaths of her 14-year-old daughter and 16-year-old cousin, who were found hanging from a mango tree in the local orchard seven years ago. The two girls went out to the fields the previous night, never to be seen again. She was the last person to hear the girls, saying they had a stomach ache. Even at the time, she hadn’t given it a second thought. It was simply a way of life.

The family alleges that the girls were raped and murdered, but the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) terms the incident as one of death by suicide. The incident -- famous in the headlines as the Badaun horror which brought law and order in rural Uttar Pradesh into sharp focus at the time -- is still being debated in the Allahabad high court.

Now almost 50, the woman says she feels uneasy going out after sundown. “Our girls were taken in these fields, so I feel scared sometimes to go alone,” she said. But the hesitation is short-lived. Even fear has no option but to bow before the lack of a viable alternative, and the thought of a crushing load of housework. “Sometimes I take one of the boys along to stand guard outside. But life has to go on, what to do.”

The deaths of the teenage girls in May 2014 was immortalised by the family standing vigil, refusing to bring the girls down from the tree until senior officials committed to an impartial probe – visuals that were beamed live into millions of homes and emblemised a toxic concoction of problems: Lack of rural sanitation for women, the pressure on maintaining family honour, the erosion of trust between the victims’ families and the administration, and the decisive influence of local politics in the countryside on every aspect of life – including crime solving.

“We were seen and weak, and weak people couldn’t fight the system and the dabangs (dominant groups) it sheltered,” said the victim’s father.

Seven years on, many of those thorns continue to prick the village, especially its women.

Lay of the land

The village is on the edge of Badaun district, an hour’s drive on a cratered road from the district headquarters. Fields of bajra ring the village of around 800 households that stands at a junction: the Ganga on one side, and borders of Shahjahanpur and Farrukhabad on the other.

Around 300 of those households belong to the Shakya community – classified under other backward classes – and the rest are Thakurs, Brahmins, Dalits, and Yadavs. The victims were also Shakyas. A single motorable road runs through the village, past its orchards, samosa stalls and the one store that sells refrigerated drinks.

Many young men and women drop out after Class 8, because the government school only teaches up to that level and the three private schools charge much higher fees. The nearest college is roughly 12km away, in the hamlet of Ushait, and medical emergencies force people to rent a four-wheeler to the Badaun district hospital.

Families are either trapped in a low-return cycle of agriculture, dependent on the monsoon and government doles, or send out their men to Badaun, Ghaziabad and Noida for manual labour. The women stay at home, until they’re married off – often with hefty dowry.

The mother remembers how her daughter played around on the courtyard, the dreams she had, and often rues the mistake she made in not following her out to the field that night. “Sometimes I’m making roti in the afternoon and their laughter floods my mind, and I can’t move anymore.”

The men have made stricter rules for the women after the incident. Earlier, when the two victims were alive – they shared a phone between them, and also had access to their father’s. But since investigators revealed to the father that around 400 calls were made between the girls and the main accused, Pappu Yadav, women of the household have been banned from carrying mobile phones.

They’re allowed to go out in the village, but any further journey often warrants a male chaperon, and all visits to the local fair have stopped. “Their security is more important. We cannot let anything happen to them,” said the victim’s uncle.

Shortly after the Badaun case gained national prominence, around 120 toilets were built in the village – three of them for the three Shakya brothers -- the parents of the two teenage victims and their younger brother. Yet, problems persisted. The Indian-style toilet has no water connection, like many others in the village, so water had to be carried to it either with a pipe or bucket.

There is slush and open drains outside the house – the streets haven’t been paved despite the beeline of top politicians to the house since 2014 – ensured knee-high waterlogging and rendered the toilet unusable until it was rebuilt on a higher platform.

Worse, a household of 16 – 10 from one brother and six from the other – only have a couple of toilets at their disposal. This forces the victim’s father and uncle to go to the fields. “We use the toilet when we can, but when there are so many people, how long can you wait?” asked the father.

Probe and discontent

Around 9.30pm on May 27, the girls went missing, only to be found around 5am, hanging from the tree. The family suspected the Yadav family, especially their youngest son, Pappu, of having raped and murdered their girls.

They accused the local police of trying to shield them – two of the constables shared the same caste as the suspects and did nothing in the crucial hours after the disappearance – and the standoff only resolved once senior officials arrived on the spot.

A postmortem report done two days later concluded that they were raped and strangled, igniting nationwide protests against the then Samajwadi Party government, which counted the Yadavs as its biggest vote base.

The CBI took over the case in June 2014, and in November that year concluded that the postmortem exam was conducted in violation of standard medical protocols, and that the girls had died by suicide. Investigators said the older girl was in a relationship with Pappu, and was afraid after she’d been spotted by a relative.

The family rejected the report, and in December, so did a local court in Badaun. The judge summoned Pappu, the accused went to the Allahabad high court, and so did the victim’s family. And hence, seven years after one of India’s most notorious crimes roiled the country, the case is nowhere near closure.

“They got away because they were Yadavs, they ran the government at the time, and the police listened to them. We got exhausted screaming the truth and still, we weren’t heard,” said the victim’s father.

He believes that no local officer could give them justice because village power structures would translate to familial connection to the Yadavs – who are far more dominant socially despite also being OBCs. He blamed CBI of falling in the same trap as the state police. CBI, for its part, blamed the family of inconsistent and contradictory statements, and the local police and medical teams of poor investigation.

The Yadav family refused to speak to the press. Three brothers of the family -- Avdesh, Urvesh and the youngest, Pappu -- along with their father, Veerpal, were among the accused. They told the investigators that Pappu’s two elder brothers were nowhere near the girls that night, and that the 400-odd calls between the girls and the main accused indicated a relationship.

Sanitation and social attitudes

Experts say whichever theory may be correct, the sensational twists and turns served as an indictment of the social structures that led to the crime and the criminal justice system that failed to prosecute it swiftly.

“The issues it brought up: of women’s sanitation, the burden on women of carrying the family honour, the lack of transparent policing remain unresolved. Women are still vulnerable socially and economically, and the pressure of running families as unemployment rises is taking a toll,” said Padma Singh of the Stree Mukti Sangathan,a non-governmental organisation that filed the first public interest litigation in the case.

The case was also the first big test of the bolstered rape laws that were modified after the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder – and the lack of closure hints that changing social mindset is just as important as legal statutes.

Social attitudes is also an important factor, or hurdle, in eradicating open defecation, citing health concerns and family pride. Since 2014, the government has pushed to improve rural sanitation and built thousands of toilets in Badaun district. District magistrate Deepa Ranjan said all eligible people were provided toilets and monitoring is done using village committees of elders. Yet, coverage remains patchy.

“This is also a problem of mindset, on the part of the bureaucrats and society. Questions of gender equality and rights of women are not given any importance. Until that happens, this problem of sanitation will niggle,” said Bezwada Wilson, founder of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a body working for sanitation workers and against manual scavenging.

Changes, but not for better

The grisly deaths catapulted the humble village to international notoriety and struck fear in the hearts of local residents, who were afraid to relieve themselves in the fields. Yet, time and necessity forces them to go back, even if reluctantly.

All five people in village resident Saraswati Devi’s family are forced to go out, but they have no field of their own. “So when we go to other people’s field, they abuse us. I feel bad but what choice do I have,” she said.

The Shakya families say they’re less scared of the Yadavs, partially because they are no longer in power (the SP lost the 2017 assembly elections), and therefore have less political heft to throw around. “Earlier, they could even steal cattle from our cowshed or abuse in the open, and police wouldn’t take our reports. Now, at least they hear us,” said Sarvesh Kumar, a local resident.

But one definite fallout has been a constriction in the liberty of women –- a reality Sapna Boudh confronts every day. An activist, Boudh shares a boundary with the victim’s family and is their immediate neighbour.

Over the past few years, she’s tried to help local women in distress but run into a wall on every occasion. “People are just not ready to let women out. If a woman has some urgent work, she needs to wait for a male member to accompany her. And all this is due to the case,” she said.

Boudh says the problem of sanitation is more acute among the poorer, lower-caste part of the village, where houses give way to huts and women have nothing other than a buffalo to subsist on. Sometimes, daily earnings can be as low as 50.

“People abuse me when I ask them to let girls be free, strong. They are scared but also want to control our lives. The case may not have been solved but it has snatched away our freedom.”

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