If I will not fight for my daughter, then who will?

08 December, 2018

In her debut book, No Nation for Women, the journalist Priyanka Dubey, formerly a staff writer at The Caravan, reports on incidents of sexual violence against women in India, and covers cases of custodial rape, caste atrocities and human trafficking. Dubey travelled across the country for over six years to bring attention to unreported incidents of rape that escaped public scrutiny, as well as revisit prominent cases and their surrounding circumstances. In the following excerpt, Dubey recalls visiting Uttar Pradesh to report on the custodial rape and murder of a 14-year-old teenager in the Nighasan police station, in the state’s Lakhimpur Kheri district, in 2011. The teenager’s mother recounts the day of her daughter’s death and the harrowing experience of discovering her dead body against a tree near the police station. When the mother refused to take the body home, she recalls, the police threatened her: “Jaise teri ladki ki laash giraayi hai waise hi teri bhi gira denge.” (We will kill you just like we have killed your daughter.)

I travel around 450 kilometres away from Delhi to reach the Nighasan police station area in the Lakhimpur Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh. Almost a 10-hour drive by road from Delhi, Lakhimpur Kheri is the largest district of Uttar Pradesh. Situated on the northern tip of the state, it shares one side of its border with Nepal. The highways were patchy in parts but smooth for the larger part of my road trip to Nighasan.

I stopped around 200 metres before the Nighasan police station and waited in the car. It was mid April 2015. The weather was humid and hot. But as you move towards Nepal, the burning sensation of the afternoon sun is a little less scathing.

After a couple of minutes, I could see 40-year-old Rabiya walking towards me. She was wearing an orange sari, her head and hair all covered with her pallu. We exchanged greetings and decided to have a detailed conversation at her house. But before that, she wanted to show me something.

We both started walking towards the Nighasan police station. A large part of the building was newly constructed and painted. As we entered, I saw a couple of policemen hanging around in the courtyard of the building. Rabiya did not looked up or greet any one of them. She kept looking down at her feet and walking ahead. I followed her. She took me to the backyard of the police station and raised her finger towards an old dilapidated building lying abandoned a few metres ahead of us in the backyard. There was an abandoned tractor lying next to this decaying, eerie building. And there were plants and greenery growing unchecked around the abandoned tractor as well as the ramshackle concrete structure.

She pointed her finger towards the ruins and said, “This is the building where Nighasan police station used to exist in June 2011. My daughter was found hanging from a tree in this compound. They raped her, murdered her and then hanged her from a tree in the compound to make it look like a suicide. After the matter came out and charges were framed, the government constructed a new building which you now see working as the Nighasan police station.”

As we started walking away from the police station towards Rabiya’s house, I kept looking at her. She came across as a confident and warm woman in the first few minutes. It was only later during our conversation at her house that I discovered the many layers of courage, vulnerability and steel-like strength inside her.

It took a brisk walk of five minutes to reach Rabiya’s house from the Nighasan police station—a two-room red-brick construction standing on its own without any cement, plaster or paint. She walked me in to the front room of the house. There was an old bed and two plastic chairs lying around. Her husband, 45-year-old Imtiyaz, was sitting on the bed.

As Rabiya offered a glass of water to me, I could see tears brimming at the edge of her kohl-laced eyes.

“I had seven children. Now after Zoya, six are left. Three boys and three girls. Zoya was my second born. And she was a lovely child, very close to my heart. Maybe I loved her more because she was destined to leave us early. But I never imagined that she will leave us like she did.”

Rabiya is crying now. I am sitting silently next to her. I want to hold her hand but I feel like I will intrude on her grief. I request the husband to fetch a glass of water for her. He leaves the room and I sit quietly, waiting for her to feel a little better. Rabiya’s gaze is fixed on the wall before her. There is nothing on the wall. She is lost in her thoughts.

After a couple of minutes, she speaks again.

“10 June 2011 was the date. Hindus were holding a huge puja in the village, and for us, it was an important prayer day of the week—a Friday. So everyone everywhere was in a bit of a rush that morning in the village. We had a buffalo in our house and she had given birth recently. Around 10 am that morning, the calf somehow got running. My 14-year-old daughter Zoya ran after the animal. Her three-year-old brother also ran after her. The calf entered the police station compound and my children entered the compound, running behind it. After that point, both my children went missing. When they did not come back for one hour, we started looking for them. They were nowhere in the village. We looked everywhere. After three or four hours, my youngest son who went missing with Zoya came home running. He was crying and sweating. He told me that Zoya is at the police station. I ran towards the police station. There was a house constructed next to the boundary wall of the police station compound. I entered this house and peeped inside the police station compound from the boundary wall. I could see her sitting down under the tree. A white duppata was tied around her neck and then to the branch of the tree. From a distance, she looked like she was sitting in Namaz. I had no idea that she was dead. I thought she was sitting. I immediately jumped from the boundary wall and ran towards my daughter. I touched her back and said, ‘Zoya ... Zoya!”’

But Zoya did not answer.

Her tongue was protruding out of her mouth and her eyes were open. She was wearing loose black pants and a ragged old off-white t-shirt. The moment her mother touched her back, her body collapsed in her arms.

“I was devastated. I started screaming and shouting. The villagers heard and people started gathering inside the police station compound. Everyone was watching the show but no one helped me. The policemen came out of the police station and asked me to take away the dead body of my daughter. I refused to lift her body from the ground and accused them of killing my daughter. But they threatened to kill me and said, “Jaise teri ladki ki laash giraayi hai waise hi teri bhi gira denge.” (We will kill you just like we have killed your daughter.)

Zoya’s father was not at home at the time of this incident. A wedding was scheduled in his extended family and he was distributing invitation cards in neighbouring villages. Meanwhile, Rabiya lifted her daughter’s dead body in her arms and walked home alone.

“The moment she collapsed in my hands didi, the moment I realised that she was dead—something changed inside me. I still don’t know how I lifted her up in my arms and brought her home. The whole village had gathered in front of my house but no one would touch the body of my daughter because it was a matter in which the police station was involved. Everybody was scared of the cops. But she was my daughter. I pulled the curtain on the main door and removed every piece of cloth on her body. I saw her with my own eyes. She was bleeding down there. Her right leg was slightly deformed and uplifted. Her teeth looked like they were chattering. There were scratch marks, nail marks and bite marks all over her breasts and thighs. I knew instantly she was raped. My youngest son later told me that they took him and Zoya inside the side room in the police chowki. There they laid her on the cot and assaulted her. The boy was made to stand right there and was beaten up to keep quiet.”

The memory and narration of a three-year-old child can be faulty but scientific reports and evidence do not lie. As the matter came to light, it immediately shot into the national headlines. All 11 policemen present at the Nighasan police station on the day of the crime were suspended.

Post-mortem report said that the girl committed suicide. The family alleged that it was a cover-up to protect the cops. After the media glare, another post-mortem was conducted and it concluded murder by strangulation as the cause of Zoya’s death. All the doctors who conducted the first post-mortem of the girl were eventually suspended.

Rabiya tells me stories about how she was pressurised by the local administration and police to back out. “They first said that my daughter committed suicide. But gave no reason why. Why will my playful cheerful child kill herself? She woke up smiling that morning. Perhaps she did not even know what killing means. When the [Crime Branch-Crime Investigation Department] started investigating the case, they refused to give me any detail or any paper related to the case. When I went to ask for copies of the FIR and post-mortem report, they treated me like a dog. They would shoo me away. Earlier, local police officers had offered me Rs 5 lakh to settle the case. I said I will give you ten lakh, can you bring back my daughter? Are our children out there for sale?”

With the visits of Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav to Rabiya’s house, demands of a CBI enquiry started gaining voice. “Rahul bhaiya and Akhilesh bhaiya came to my house and assured me that my daughter will get justice. Since the local police is involved and tried to bribe me, I had no hopes of a fair investigation from them. I was demanding a fair enquiry from a higher investigative agency for a long time. But my request was considered only after Rahul bhaiya and Akhilesh bhaiya visited our house. After that all big officers started coming in from the district headquarters and soon our case was handed over to the CBI.”

Three weeks after Zoya was killed, the then cabinet secretary of Uttar Pradesh, Shashank Shekhar Singh, told reporters in a press conference that a constable named Atique Ahmed has confessed to the crime. Atique was attached to the circle officer of Kheri as his gunner at that time.

Press was informed that the constable killed the girl after she raised an alarm. “On June 10, the constable tried to lure the girl and started sexually assaulting her. But when she raised an alarm and started shouting, he strangulated her with her dupatta ... Thereafter, the gunner offered namaz and then hanged the girl’s body from a tree in the police station,” he said.

Initial investigations by the state police’s special investigative agency CB-CID suggested that the girl was murdered by constable Atique inside his room in the police station.

Later, the CBI took over the case from the CB-CID and filed charges against five police officers—sexual assault, murder and then trying to cover up the case by portraying it as a suicide. The five cops charge-sheeted in this case are: Atique Ahmed, Shiv Kumar, Uma Shankar, Ram Chandra and Ayotullah Khan. They were all on duty at the Nighasan police station on the morning of the incident. Atique Ahmed remains the prime accused in the case.

As the trial goes on in the CBI court of Lucknow, blind wells of fresh battles have opened up for Rabiya.

Her husband complains to me that she is not paying attention to him, to the house and to the rest of her children due to Zoya’s case. “Ladki ka case ladne ka matlab ye to nahi ki bahar gair logon se milte raho aur ghar aur bacchon ko chod do!” (Does fighting the case of Zoya mean meeting unknown men every day and not paying attention to your own house and children!)

I keep quiet.

Rabiya starts speaking again. She is crying once more and I can now see the second blind well in which she is circling clearly.

There is a rage in her voice when she says, “Jab aurat aawaz uthaati hai, toh aadmi usko dabaata hai. Kyonki uska maqsad aurat ke nyaay ke liye ladna nahi hai. Wo sirf use ghar pe baandh ke rakhna chahta hai. Inko meri har baat se dikkat hai. Apni beti ke liye main nahi ladoongi to kaun ladega?” (When a woman raises her voice, a man tries to suppress her. Because the man is not concerned if the woman gets justice or not. All he is concerned with is keeping the women chained at home and under his control. If I will not fight for my daughter, then who will?)

This is an excerpt from Priyanka Dubey’s book, No Nation for Women, published by Simon & Schuster India.