New Delhi: On 16 August 2021, a 24-year-old rape victim from Ballia, Uttar Pradesh (UP), set herself afire outside the Supreme Court alleging a miscarriage of justice. The woman had accused a member of parliament of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Atul Rai, of raping her in his apartment on 7 March, 2018.
After being refused entry to the apex court, the woman and a male friend went on Facebook live and said: “The authorities have been forcing us to die since November 2020. We want all of you, the citizens of Uttar Pradesh and the country, to hear this”.
“The step we are about to take is painful and frightening,” were her last words. “We are also a little scared, but this fear is meaningless.”
In the widely publicised Unnao rape case too, the victim tried to set herself alight outside the home of UP’s chief minister Yogi Adityanath on 8 April 2018. She alleged that despite repeated requests, the police failed to act on her complaint against Kuldeep Sengar, a lawmaker from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Like the women of Ballia and Unnao several other UP women met similar fates, setting themselves ablaze and accusing the police, politicians and judges of protecting tormentors.
The Ones That Escaped The Public Eye
A quick search of media reporting reveals a series of self-immolations by women in rape and sexual-assault cases that did not come to public attention.
In November 2020, a 15-year-old girl in UP’s Mirzapur district set herself on fire and died after the police failed to stop frequent molestation by a neighbourhood boy despite several complaints.
In another case, a gangrape victim attempted self-immolation at the district magistrate's office in Unnao. Here too, her mother alleged that the police were not pursuing the case actively.
In UP’s Badaun, five members of a family attempted self-immolation in front of Vidhan Bhawan, the legislature, alleging police inaction against a local politician’s aide who allegedly abducted their minor daughter. In another incident, a 23-year-old woman from Lucknow set herself on fire outside Unnao SP’s office after a man she had accused of rape was given anticipatory bail by the court.
In May 2021, a woman lawyer in Mathura attempted to set herself alight over police inaction on a rape complaint. As recently as August 2021, a rape victim’s grandmother attempted self-immolation outside the SP’s office in Bhagpat.
These cases illustrate the lack of faith and injustice against women in UP. The fact that these women chose government buildings and offices to register their protest in the most extreme form (of self-immolation) signifies their anguish and desperation.
Self-immolation by women is not unique to UP. But since the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) does not provide such disaggregated data, a study of media reporting revealed a disproportionately high number of female self-immolation cases from UP, in particular those where victims alleged police apathy.
Crimes Against Women In UP
In a September 2021 reply to an RTI filed by investigative journalist Saurav Das, UP’s Crime Record Bureau stated that it had no centralised record of the total number of FIRs registered in the state.
The state Crime Record Bureau provides data that is incorporated in NCRB’s annual reports. If the UP bureau claims to have no record of FIRs, the UP data cited in the ‘Crime in India 2020’ report is questionable.
Even if the latest report is considered at face value, UP continues to be one of the worst states for ‘crimes against women’. It tops the charts for the highest number of murders associated with rape, kidnapping and abduction of women, sexual harassment and dowry deaths. For rapes under section 376 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, it recorded the second-highest number of cases, just behind Rajasthan.
Crimes against women have reportedly decreased in UP, India’s most-populous state with more than 200 million people. The NCRB report shows 59,445 crimes against women in 2018; 59,853 in 2019; and 49,385 in 2020.
However, Mala Bhandari, the founder of Noida-based NGO Social and Development Research & Action Group, among others, disagreed with the report’s findings and alleged that the decline in cases was on account of under-reporting and lack of access during the lockdown.
Ordeals By Fire: Ballia 2021 & Unnao 2018
An analysis of UP’s two most prominent cases of self-immolation by rape victims—in Ballia, 2021, and Unnao, 2018—reveals a pattern of political, judicial and police impunity, involving powerful men and retalitatory cases against the women, who fought to have the cases tried outside the state, even as they were harrassed.
Of Powerful Men
In both cases, the women accused influential men of committing rape, one a member of Parliament (MP) of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Atul Rai; and the other a member of legislative assembly (MLA), Kuldeep Sengar.
Rai remained absconding for over a month after a first information report (FIR) was filed against him and courts rejected multiple bail pleas that he made. He surrendered on 22 June 2019 before a special court at Prayagraj, after winning the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
In the Unnao rape case, the police initially refused to name MLA Sengar as an accused. The victim’s family alleged that they were ejected from the Mankhi police station when they insisted that Sengar be named in the FIR. Even a year later, no FIR was registered against him. Though Sengar was expelled from his party, the BJP, the decision came nearly 15 months after his arrest in the case.
Retaliatory Cases Of Forgery
In November 2020, Rai’s brother, Pawan Kumar, filed a police complaint for allegedly forging documents related to her date of birth.
According to Kumar, when the woman produced her high-school marksheet before the police in another case accusing a student leader of molestation in 2015, her date of birth was shown as 10 March 1997. However, when the woman filed the case against Rai in 2019, her marksheet showed her date of birth as 10 June 1997, he claimed.
In pursuing Kumar’s forgery complaint, the police were quick to register an FIR and told the court that she “remained untraceable despite several raids”, leading to a local court in Varanasi to issue a non-bailable arrest warrant against her.
The 24-year-old victim’s parents, however, rubbished the police’s claims denying that she ever went into hiding. Her father told The Indian Express: “My daughter has never gone into hiding. I don’t know why they issued a warrant for her arrest. She was angry and disappointed. I want the government to take strict action against the police officers. My daughter was harassed and tortured.”
According to a report, the victim’s brother too said that the police was more intent on harassing her rather than probing the case. “She was at home, but the police never came for an inquiry,” he alleged.
Later, two policemen, including Varanasi Cantonment station house officer Rakesh Singh and investigating officer Girija Shankar, probing the forgery case against the Ballia rape victim, were suspended.
Similar hurdles were placed before the Unnao rape victim. An FIR was registered against the rape survivor, her mother and uncle on charges of submitting alleged forged documents to police as proof that she was a minor during the time of the rape.
The Struggle To Transfer Cases
As in the case of the 24-year-old woman from Ballia, the Unnao rape victim too sought transfer of her case out of UP to ensure a fair trial. In both pleas, the victims said that they were being criminally intimidated and feared for their lives (here and here).
The lawyer representing the Ballia woman also brought to the notice of the court that “on December 18, 2020, when the victim went for court hearing with her witness. Both were beaten inside the court premises at Prayagraj and for which another FIR has been lodged”.
Even as the woman from Ballia succumbed to her injuries, her case is yet to be transferred to Delhi. As for the Unnao victim, it was only after she attempted to set herself on fire and the matter caught media attention that the case was transferred.
The extent to which the perpetrators, their aides and the police seem to have gone to harass the women in both cases is striking.
In each of the cases, the woman, on several occasions, accused the suspects and their aides of harassment and intimidation (here and here). Both repeatedly wrote letters to authorities alleging criminal intimidation and conspiracy on the part of the lawmakers and the police.
Rai had threatened the woman from Ballia of meeting the same “fate” as the Unnao rape victim.
According to media reports (here and here), in April 2018, Sengar’s brother, Atul Singh and his men tied the victim’s father to a tree and proceeded to beat him in front of his family until he lost consciousness.
On 28 July 2019, two of the Unnao survivor’s relatives were suspiciously killed in a road accident when the victim was travelling along with her family members and lawyers. The victim and her lawyer were severely injured.
The Allahabad High Court in one of its orders in the Unnao rape case had observed: “This is a classic case where we find that the accused persons have not kept a single stone unturned to terrorize not only the victim but her family members and other witnesses”.
A Delhi court too critiqued the Central Bureau of Investigation for selectively leaking witness statements and call detail records to weaken the girl’s case. “It appears that investigation has not been fair to the victim of crime and her family members,” the court said.
After the brutal murders of her father, aunt and a relative, nearly two-and-a-half years after the rape, Sengar was sentenced to life in jail.
Your Fire, Our Fuel
The UP police have a motto: “Your protection, our pledge”.
The cases of the women from Ballia and Unnao reveal how, instead of protection, UP state machinery, particularly in cases involving powerful men, works against victims of rape and their families.
It punishes and pushes them to the brink in so many cases that female victims of harassment set themselves on fire rather than wait for the criminal justice system to play out its role. The women may be the ones to light the fire, but the State’s inaction fuels their decision.
Robert Zaretsky, a professor at the University of Houston, in an essay on self-immolations for The Atlantic, put it thus: “To insist self-immolation results from problems particular to the individual is akin to insisting that an asthmatic individual has only his lungs to blame.”
The woman who had accused MP Atul Rai of rape died, but her family still seeks justice. "My daughter was very talented and she was preparing for civil services, said the father of the Ballia rape victim. “She would definitely have become something but she embraced death in agony.”
The Unnao rape victim, though alive, continues to struggle every day. In August 2021, she accused her personal security officers of curtailing her movement on “frivolous grounds”, but a Delhi court ordered her to “go out only when necessary”.
(Mani Chander is a lawyer based in New Delhi.)