Gang raped, filmed, blackmailed and murdered: The long and tortured road of the Unnao rape victim

On 5 December, five men set a 23-year-old woman from Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district on fire. Last year, the woman had accused two of of them of raping her. This marks the second rape case from Unnao that has made national headlines, after the BJP MLA Kuldeep Sengar was arrested in April 2018, nearly a year after he was accused of raping a 17-year-old girl. Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
07 December, 2019

On 5 December, five men set a 23-year-old woman from Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district on fire when she was about to leave for a court hearing in a rape case she had filed in Rae Bareili. She had accused two of the men of raping her, and described the horrific details of her ordeal to the Rae Bareli district court in December last year. In an application seeking the initiation of criminal proceedings, the woman stated that Shivam Trivedi, a resident of her village in the state’s Unnao district, took her to Rae Bareli and raped her, recorded a video of the incident and then sexually abused her multiple times, under the threat of making the video public. She noted that he also kept her locked in a room in Rae Bareili for at least a month, where he repeatedly raped her. On 12 December 2018, she wrote in the application, Shivam and his friend, Shubham Trivedi, had raped her at gunpoint, following which she filed a complaint at the Lalganj police station in Rae Bareili.

But the police did not take any action on her complaint. Eight days later, the woman sent a written complaint to the superintendent of police, but he, too, did not initiate any proceedings. The woman then filed the application before the district court seeking an investigation against the accused persons. It was only in March 2019, following the court’s directions, that the police finally registered a first-information report against the two accused individuals. But eventually, like the police, the judiciary, too, failed her.

On 25 November 2019, two months after he was arrested, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court released Shivam on bail—according to a police statement to the media, Shubham had been absconding since the registration of the FIR. Ten days later, when she was on her way to a court hearing, Shivam, his father Ram Kishore, Shubham, his father Harishankar, and a mutual friend, Umesh Bajpai, attacked her at the railway station in her native village, Hindu Nagar, and set her on fire with kerosene. She reportedly walked for over a kilometre with ninety percent burn injuries before she found any help. At 11.40 pm on 6 December, she succumbed to her injuries in Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital.

This marks the second rape case from Unnao that has made national headlines, and took place just days after a veterinarian from Hyderabad was raped and murdered by being set on fire. The police and public response in the Hyderabad case, however, was diametrically opposed to that in the two Unnao cases. In the former, the police arrested the accused two days after the complaint was filed, whereas the police did not act on the complaints against the two Trivedis till compelled to do so by the Rae Bareili district court. Similarly, in the earlier rape case from Unnao, the Bharatiya Janata Party member of legislative assembly Kuldeep Sengar was arrested in April 2018, nearly a year after he was accused of raping a 17-year-old girl. An apparent distinction in the cases is the profiles of the perpetrators—in contrast to the Hyderabad case, the Trivedis are Brahmins and Sengar is Thakur, both socially empowered upper-caste communities.

In July this year, the complainant in the case against Sengar was on her way to Rae Bareili from Unnao with her lawyer and two aunts, when a truck hit their car, killing her relatives, and leaving the survivor and her lawyer fighting for their lives with the support of a ventilator. In August, the Supreme Court had directed that the trial against Sengar should be completed in 45 days, but the case is still ongoing. Both the rape cases from Unnao expose the sham claims by the Uttar Pradesh government about the robust law and order prevailing in the state.

In the case of the 23-year-old woman, the state police appear to have seized multiple opportunities to announce that they arrested the five accused soon after the woman was attacked. On 6 December, the UP Police tweeted, “103 criminals killed and 1859 injured in 5178 police engagements in the last more than 2 years.” Yet, if the woman’s accusations were treated with any gravity by the police, it is surprising that the police did not register a case against the two Trivedis in December last year itself, and even more so that Shubham remained absconding till 5 December. The police statements on social media and to the media after the woman was set on fire only referred to a complaint against Shivam, and do not address their failure to register a case until directed to do so by the court. When I called the state police’s media cell in-charge, he cut the call while I was speaking, after stating that he had no information about the case.

It is a settled principle of law, established by the Supreme Court in the 2013 landmark case of Lalita Kumari vs Government of Uttar Pradesh, that the police must register an FIR within seven days in cases of serious offences, including rape. The application by the woman, which was subsequently registered as her complaint in the FIR, made grave accusations that the police did not act until directed to do so by the court. According to the FIR, the offences described in her complaint took place in the time period between January and December 2018.

According to the 23-year-old woman’s complaint, Shivam coaxed her into falling in love with him, and then tricked her into accompanying him to Rae Bareli, where he raped her and filmed the act on his mobile phone. She wrote that Shivam then started blackmailing her that he would publicly release the video if she did not let him rape her. Using the threat of the video and a false promise of marriage, the woman submitted, “Shivam Trivedi repeatedly raped the applicant against her will.” (In keeping with the general format of submissions before a court, the woman refers to herself in the third person as “the applicant” throughout the application.)

When the woman insisted on the marriage, she noted, Shivam put her in a rented room in Rae Bareli, where he would rape her regularly. According to the complaint, Shivam told her that “he would not let her step out from the room and keep a watch on her. He would threaten her with death if she would ever dare to go out.” During this period, she narrated, Shivam would often take her to different cities and “pressurised the applicant and continued to rape her.”

Meanwhile, after the woman insisted on getting married, on 9 January 2018, Shivam took her to a civil court and got a marriage registration contract prepared, according to the complaint as recorded in the FIR. He had kept the document ready, but never officially registered their marriage. She wrote that she remained in the rented room in Rae Bareli for a month, following which Shivam took her back to her native village in Unnao and left her with her parents. When the woman persisted further about their marriage, she stated that Shivam evaded her questions before ultimately refusing to marry her and threatening her that he and his friends would kill the woman and her family. Fearing for their lives, the woman wrote, “The applicant felt hopeless and scared, and started living quietly at her aunt’s home in Saket Nagar, in Rae Bareli.”

Yet, the FIR noted that on 12 December 2018, “Shivam somehow figured out the address of her aunt’s home and reached there on a motorcycle with his friend Shubham Trivedi.” They began convincing her to return to Shivam, urging her that they would all go to a temple, where he would “touch an idol and take a vow of reconciliation,” her statement mentioned. On this false pretext of taking her to a temple, she wrote, Shivam and Shubham took her to a field and both of them raped her at gunpoint. They then had abandoned her in the field, according to the complaint.

It is after this incident that the woman approached the police—first at the Lalganj station and then through a letter to the Rae Bareli superintendent of police. But the police did not take any action, following which she filed an application under Section 156(3) of the Code of Criminal Procedure seeking a police investigation into her complaint. In March 2019, the police registered an FIR against the duo for the offences of gang rape and criminal intimidation. But despite the FIR, none of the accused were arrested till September.

In August 2019, Shivam and Shubham approached a sessions court in Rae Bareli seeking anticipatory bail. Their counsel argued that the two Trivedis had no criminal antecedents and that judicial custody would tarnish their reputation. But the sessions judge rejected their application, noting that the facts presented by the counsel in their defence were not “satisfactory” considering the nature and gravity of the crime. The next month, the police arrested Shivam, while Shubham evaded arrest and the court reportedly ruled that he was absconding.

Two months later, Shivam applied for regular bail before a sessions court. This time, his counsel argued that the woman and Shivam were married and she was his wife. The court orders suggest that the woman had not engaged any private counsel, and was represented by the government advocate present in the courtroom. The government advocate denied that the two were married, and argued that Shivam had, in fact, raped the woman, filmed her, and also gang raped her with his friend. On 25 October, the judge rejected Shivam’s bail application.

Shivam moved the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court for bail in November. According to the court order, his counsel, while seeking bail for him, argued that Shivam and the woman got married on 9 January 2019—a whole year after the marriage contract referred to in the complaint—and that she had lodged the FIR because Shivam’s parents did not accept her. Shivan’s lawyer also argued that the woman had lodged the FIR two years after the rape was committed. Pertinently, the lawyer also appeared to have produced only an agreement of marriage, and not any certificate or registration of marriage, which would also show that it had been solemnised.

Meanwhile, the court’s record noted that the government advocate who represented the woman conceded that she had not made any complaint for two years after the rape. The counsel does not appear to have made any argument about the police’s failure to register a case in the immediate aftermath of the gang rape, nor of the rest of the context to the case. Instead, as per the order, the government lawyer appears to have only argued that Shivam gave a false promise of marriage.

Rajeev Singh, the presiding high court judge, released Shivam on bail. In the bail order, he wrote, “Considering the rival submissions of learned counsel for parties, material available on record as well as totality of fact and circumstances, and without expressing any opinion on the merits of the case, I am of the view that the applicant is entitled to be released on bail.” The first condition of the bail noted that Shivam must “not try to influence the witnesses or tamper with the evidence of the case or otherwise misuse the liberty of bail.” Ten days later, he was arrested for setting her on fire.

The state police have since arrested all five men, including Shivam and Shubham, and registered a new case against them for attempt to murder—one which must now be changed to a charge of murder.