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In Hathras Shooting Case, Police Inaction As Much Cause for Worry As Impunity of Accused

The killing of a 50-year-old farmer by the man accused of sexually harassing his daughter was preceded by many threats, which the police did not act upon.

New Delhi: Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras is once again in the news, this time for the killing of a 50-year-old man in broad daylight. Awanish Kumar Sharma, a farmer, was killed by Gaurav Sharma, a resident of Bahraich district, along with 5 others, who shot at him multiple times using unlicensed guns.

Subhash Chandra Sharma, the deceased’s brother told The Wire that the murder was executed because Awanish had refused to withdraw a case he had filed in 2018 against Gaurav Sharma for sexually harassing his 23-year-year old daughter.

The five accused have been charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), including those related to punishment for rioting, rioting armed with a deadly weapon, punishment for murder and punishment for criminal intimidation.

The impunity of the accused may shock some, but the inaction of the police in the case is even more disturbing. Members of the victim’s family told The Wire that Gaurav Sharma had threatened Awanish several times, pressuring him to withdraw the case.

When a video of Awanish’s daughter describing the gruesome incident and seeking justice went viral on social media, senior police officials acted swiftly and arrested two of the assailants. The 23-year-old said that arresting the main accused, Gaurav Sharma, will ensure that her father gets justice, though it will not compensate the family’s loss.

Speaking to The Wire, she said that she was scared when she faced sexual harassment in 2018. “My father was the one who showed courage and filed a case against the perpetrator. He was not like other fathers; he was not afraid or ashamed like others in the village to fight for his daughter who had been sexually harassed. His actions also gave me confidence and I stepped forward to file the case,” she said.

While some reports have said that Gaurav Sharma and the 23-year-old woman were supposed to get married a few years ago, the woman’s uncle told The Wire that this is not true. The accused had expressed an interest in marrying the woman, but her family and the woman herself were never interested, he said. His harassment also began after this rejection, the uncle said.

The 23-year-old woman recalls, “He started by asking me to become his friend on Facebook. After I refused, he started harassing me. When we filed an FIR, he was sent to jail but was released soon after. The same year, he started to pressure my father to withdraw the case.”

The FIR filed in July 2018 booked Gaurav Sharma under IPC sections 452 (house-trespass after preparation for hurt, assault or wrongful restraint), 354 (any act of criminal force committed on a woman to outrage her modesty) and 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation). If found guilty, section 354 could lead to imprisonment for up to two years. Sections 506 and 452 could lead to imprisonment for up to 7 years.

Gaurav Sharma was jailed for a month and was released on bail later, with the trial pending.

Also Read: No State for Women? Why Crimes Against Women Are Rising in UP

His release from jail emboldened Gaurav Sharma, the woman says. In February 2019, she says that her father was attacked. “On February 19, he found my father working in the fields and tried to attack him. He threatened him once again to withdraw the case. My father managed to escape,” she says.

They wrote a complaint to the police, a copy of which The Wire has managed to secure. The complaint, written by Awanish Kumar Sharma, reads, “He [Gaurav Sharma] started running after me and threatened to kill me…please investigate.”

However, when The Wire contacted the station house officer of Sasani police station, where the complaint had been submitted, he denied that such a complaint was ever registered. “There is no such complaint in our record from 2019. There was one FIR in 2018 in which the boy had gone to jail for a month,” he said. He added that security was currently deployed outside the victim’s house after the murder. When The Wire’s correspondent asked him why action against the perpetrator was delayed despite the family being under constant threat, he said, “There was no such delay.”

The woman’s family kept receiving threatening phone calls from Gaurav Sharma for many months. They breathed a sigh of relief when the accused got married in 2020 and had a daughter soon after. The 23-year-old woman says recalls, “I thought, now that he is married, he will not do such things. He even had a daughter, so I thought he will not torture someone else’s daughter. But I was wrong.”

Representational image of activists holding placards and light candles demanding justice for rape victims and to prevent crimes against women. Photo: PTI/Mitesh Bhuvad

What happened on March 1?

On March 1, before the killing took place, the 23-year-old and her elder sister had gone to pray at a nearby temple in the morning. There, they encountered Gaurav Sharma’s wife and aunt. “They threatened us to withdraw the case, hurled abuses at me and finally when I asked them to leave, they said ‘there will now be violence’. It means that this crime was pre-planned and well thought out,” the woman told The Wire.

This verbal altercation apparently took place a few hundred metres from the temple, near the victim family’s farm. “When my father intervened and politely asked them to leave, Gaurav Sharma’s wife said that she will get him killed, and that ‘shots will be fired’ if he doesn’t withdraw the case,” the 23-year-old recalls.

Awanish asked his daughters to go to the house, hardly 200 meters from the farm, and lock themselves inside carefully. He continued to work at the farm. “When my sister and I went to the farm with our father’s lunch, he told us that Gaurav Sharma had called him at around 11:30 am and threatened him once again with murder. He was very worried and did not have his meal,” the woman said.

At around 1 pm, the 23-year-old called a trusted police officer named Dharmendra at the Sasani police station, which is 7-8 kilometres away from the village. He told her to call 112 – an emergency number – as it would take him time to reach the victim’s location.

“I thought I will call 112 if Gaurav Sharma came to threaten us. But when they did, I was in no condition to make any calls,” the 23-year-old told The Wire.

At around 3:30 pm, Gaurav Sharma and five others came in a car, parked nearby and started walking towards the farm where Awanish was working along with other labourers. The 23-year-old told The Wire, “They came and fired pistols in the air first to scare away the other workers, all of whom ran away. Their target was papa. I was hiding behind the tube well nearby when they shot my father, multiple times. After he fell, one of them shot him from close range to make sure he was dead. I saw it all happen. I was frozen.”

She added that a bullet had escaped her mother, who was also present nearby during the shooting. The victim says that she recognised four of the six assailants – Gaurav Sharma, Nikhil Sharma, Lalit Sharma and Rohitash Sharma.

After the shooting, a crowd gathered and the police arrived. The murder victim was first taken to a government hospital and then to a private hospital, where he was declared brought dead.

Also Read: Average 87 Rape Cases Daily, Over 7% Rise in Crimes Against Women in 2019: NCRB Data

Sole breadwinner

Awanish Kumar Sharma had two brothers and four sisters, none of whom live in the village. “My bade papa and tauji [uncles] both live away from the village. Our father was the only man of the house and the sole breadwinner. It is true that we have farms, but without him, my mother or I cannot work there. Tthere is no man to take care of us and this house now,” the 23-year-old told The Wire, breaking into tears.

According to the woman’s uncle, Subhash Chandra Sharma, Gaurav Sharma had political aspirations and was a member of the Samajwadi Party. “He used to repeatedly threaten my younger brother. He had called him more than ten times in the past two years,” he said. He told The Wire that an elderly relative of Gaurav Sharma had tried to convince Awanish to withdraw the case. “Unhone kaha ki jawan ladka hai, garam ho gaya hoga, jaane do baat ko (He told my brother that the boy is young, and he must have done something because he is hot-blooded, let it go),” he said.

Subhash Sharma is worried that Gaurav Sharma may escape to Nepal if the police do not arrest him soon.

Rajkumari Sharma, the 23-year-old victim’s mother, said she feels very unsafe. “There is no one to support us. I am scared. When the [police] security leaves, they can again harm my daughter like they killed my husband. And the police will once again come only after the incident has happened,” she told The Wire.

police

Representative image of Uttar Pradesh police. Photo: PTI

UP, a hotbed of crime against women

In September 2020, a case of alleged gangrape and murder of a 19-year-old Dalit woman by four upper-caste men in Boolgarhi village of Hathras shocked the country. The UP police had come under the scanner for two things: cremating the body of the victim in a hurried manner without the family’s consent and constantly denying the possibility of rape in the case.

Later, in December, the CBI, which had taken over the case, said in its chargesheet that the victim was gang-raped and killed.

Data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau for the year 2019, the most recent available, revealed that 4,05,861 cases of crime against women were reported in the country, up from 3,78,277 in 2018. Uttar Pradesh topped the list with 59,853 cases, followed by Rajasthan (41,550) and Maharashtra (37,144). The conviction rate in rape-related cases stood at 27.8% even though the rate of filing chargesheet was 76% in such cases.

“If the police want, they can always stop crimes from happening. They are well equipped to do so,” said Seema Misra, a criminal lawyer associated with the socio-legal organisation Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives, a feminist, women’s rights group based in Lucknow as well as Jharkhand’s Ranchi which works on cases of violence against women.

“The problem arises because of their misogynistic attitude. They usually blame the victims instead of being in their favour. This happens everywhere in the country, but more so in UP. The police must be held accountable for their action – or inaction,” she told The Wire.

Speaking about this specific case, she said that because Gaurav Sharma was repeatedly harassing the victim’s family after being out on bail, it should have been cancelled and he should have been sent back to jail.