High Court pulls up UP govt for Hathras night cremation
The Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court on Monday criticised the Uttar Pradesh government’s decision to forcibly cremate a Dalit rape victim in the middle of the night in Hathras district, as it started hearing the sensitive case that roiled India and sparked angry street protests.
A division bench of justices Pankaj Mithal and Rajan Roy recorded the statements of five family members of the 19-year-old woman who died roughly three weeks ago, and senior state government officials. It fixed November 2 as the next date of hearing. Media was barred from the heavily secured hearing attended by roughly 15 people.
The victim’s family also demanded that the high-profile trial be shifted out of the state, said their lawyer Seema Kushwaha.
The court took serious note of the Hathras district administration’s decision of cremating the woman’s body at 2.30am on September 30, said Seema Kushwaha, the victim family’s lawyer. “During the hearing, the court asked the officials ‘if the girl belonged to your family, then would you have done the same thing’?” said Kushwaha.
HT could not independently verify the exact observation by the bench because the media was not allowed inside the courtroom.
The bench also asked the government whether the victim would be cremated at night if she belonged to a rich family, instead of a poor one, according to Kushwaha.
Hathras district magistrate Praveen Kumar Laxkar told the court that the decision to cremate the victim was taken due to the law and order considerations and there was no pressure from the state government. The government had received intelligence inputs that law and order could deteriorate due to protesters the next morning, the court was told in an affidavit.
“A police officer of the level of additional director general of police will appear before the court at the next hearing. The court has exempted the family from appearance at the next hearing,” said additional advocate general Vinod Kumar Shahi, who represented the state government. “The family members of the victim have presented their side. We have presented our side,” he added.
Senior advocate J N Mathur, who was appointed amicus curie by the court, pleaded that every citizen had the right to be cremated with dignity by the family members as per their religious practices. He cited Article 25 of the Constitution on the right to practice one’s religion freely. The family, through Kushwaha, told the court that police presence in the village was enough to control any situation, especially when the district’s borders were sealed.
In court, Kushwaha presented three demands: keep facts related to the probe and the special investigation team’s (SIT) report confidential, transfer the trial out of Uttar Pradesh and provide security for the kin until the case concluded. “The family wants the case to be transferred to Delhi or Mumbai,” she told reporters outside the court.
The victim, who hailed from the Valmiki caste, was raped on September 14 by four men from the dominant Thakur caste when she had gone to the fields to collect cattle fodder. She died in Delhi in the early hours of September 29. At 2.30am the next day, the police forcibly cremated her in a field near the village – triggering protests by Opposition parties and Dalit groups.
The government set up an SIT and a separate probe into an alleged international conspiracy to defame the state administration, and suspended five police officers. The government has also denied the woman was raped, citing a forensic report, though experts have noted lapses in protocol and pointed to her dying declaration, where she said she was raped. Four accused – all from the Thakur caste – are in jail.
The HC took suo-motu (on its own) cognisance of the case on October 1.
On Monday, the court recorded the statements of the woman’s father, mother and three brothers. All travelled from Hathras to Lucknow under tight security in a convoy of six cars.
The court also recorded the statements of additional chief secretary (home) Awanish Kumar Awasthi, director general of police HC Awasthy, additional director general of police (law and order) Prashant Kumar, Laxkar and Hathras superintendent of police Vineet Jaiswal.
Mathur said the court ordered the state government to ensure that such incidents of rape did not take place in the future. In response, Awanish Awasthi assured the judges that the government would finalise a plan.