Unnao and Banda: A Tale of Two Rapes in Uttar Pradesh

Though separated by time, the two cases underline the continuity of systemic corruption and political patronage of criminal legislators.

New Delhi: For Sheelu Nishad, a resident of Uttar Pradesh’s Shahbazpur village in Banda district, the sordid Unnao rape case implicating an MLA of a party ruling her state, was “like deju vu”.

In 2010, Sheelu was raped by Purushottam Dwivedi, the sitting MLA of the district’s Naraini constituency, belonging to then UP’s ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Sheelu was employed as a help in the Dwivedi household.

The Unnano and Banda narratives appear to be bound by more than one similarity.

In 2010, Sheelu was all of 17, a minor like the victim in the 2018 Unnao case, implicating Kuldeep Singh Sengar. Like Dwivedi, Sengar is a sitting MLA of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which currently rules UP.

As per media reports then, Sheelu was abducted and allegedly sold to a man called Rajju from a neighbouring village. Given that the village head and a constable were behind the abduction, the girl’s father, Achhe Lal, after rescuing her in November 2010, went to Dwivedi, a BSP legislator, looking for redressal and justice. Lal knew Dwivedi well.

It was decided that Sheelu would stay at the Dwivedi household for protection and work there as domestic help. However, on December 10 and 11, 2010, Dwivedi repeatedly raped Sheelu in the presence of two bodyguards.

Sheelu escaped from Dwivedi’s residence and was later reportedly found by his men and the police in a nearby village. The police, instead of helping her get justice, booked her for stealing Rs 5,000, a mobile phone and clothes from the MLA’s house. On producing her before a local magistrate, she was sent to jail on the charge of robbery even though she was a minor.

“I couldn’t walk for days, the pain was so intense. I remember bleeding for 22 days straight. But I was broken mentally and emotionally too. I was threatened by the MLA, his sidekicks and party workers to stay mum, and when I didn’t because I couldn’t, a few days later, a case of robbery was slapped on me. I spent several days in jail, where I actually felt safe because everyone told me that they would kill me the very day I stepped out,” Sheelu wrote in an open letter to the UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, on behalf of the Unnao rape survivor. The letter was published in Khabar Lahariya on April 13.

The similarities between Sheelu’s traumatic ordeal and the Unnao case are too stark to ignore. The common features marking both narratives underline how the state administration tries shielding a rape accused when he happens to be a legislator belonging to the ruling party of the day. The narratives show  how powerful MLAs can use their political clout to manipulate the system, evade arrest and tamper with evidence. Not to mention the ease with which they can level charges against the victim and her family and push the administration to act on behalf of the ruling party.

While Sheelu’s father had to go underground following threats and intense pressure to withdraw the FIR, the Unnao victim’s father was allegedly beaten to death by perpetrators who colluded with police officials inside a police station. His crime: refusal to withdraw the charges.

While Sengar managed to keep his name out of the first FIR filed by the victim in June 2017 and allegedly brought in false charges against the victim’s father to take him into police custody, Dwivedi succeeded in levelling charges of theft on Sheelu, to get her arrested. When produced before the district magistrate, the DM, instead of evoking the Juvenile Justice Act and sending her for medical examination, sent Sheelu to jail, to comply with the MLA’s wishes.

The respective wives of the two MLAs were also seen making similar attempts to declare their husbands “innocent” before the media. While Sengar’s wife demanded a narco test of both the victim and her husband through media interviews, calling him “innocent and victim of political conspiracy”, Dwivedi’s wife, in a written statement then described the allegation as a “conspiracy by the opposition parties”, besides suggesting that the victim was “not of good character” and “he (Dwivedi) lacked the physical prowess to indulge in a heinous crime like rape”.

However, where these two similar narratives differ is in the handling of the cases by the two chief ministers: BSP’s Mayawati and BJP’s Yogi Adityanath.

The victim in Unnao accused the BJP MLA of rape in June 2017. Chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s government, however, failed to take action against Sengar even after nearly a year had gone by.

This stands in stark contract to the action Mayawati took against her own party legislator. After the initial report found Dwivedi guilty, Mayawati not only suspended him from the party but also had him arrested within ten days as Dwivedi went into hiding after getting an inkling that the party leadership wouldn’t shield him.

Based on the CBI-CID report and the chargesheet, the BSP chief minister suspended the jailor for failing to heed the jail doctor’s opinion in the rape case. A few other officials too were punished. Mayawati also referred the case to a fast track court.

Like in the Unnao case, Mayawati too was under immense pressure, both from media and opposition parties, to act against her MLA. Yogi, coming under media glare and opposition pressure, has formed a special investigation team (SIT) to look into the allegations. But the BJP chief minister  failed to get Sengar behind bars even when the SIT report didn’t find him above board. Worse, the chief minister has not suspended the accused from the party.

Unable to neutralise the allegations against Sengar and his brother’s role in beating the victim’s father to death in custody, the chief minister was forced to hand over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). But that the accusation of rape was excluded from the charges clearly shows the intent to protect the legislator. 

Though the Mayawati administration didn’t take a lot of time to act against the MLA, it nevertheless insisted that the theft case against Sheelu was “true”. It was only a few hours before the Banda district court intervened that Mayawati ordered her release from jail after four weeks of incarceration. The BSP leader, however, ensured adequate security for her and her family. She even publicly called the allegation of theft against the girl “a conspiracy of the MLA to hide his misdeeds”.

In the BJP MLA’s case, it was the Allahabad high court which stepped in on April 13, and directed the CBI to arrest Sengar. The court, acting on a letter written by senior advocate Gopal Swaroop, which was turned into a PIL, also directed the CBI to “carry out further investigation/reopen the investigation of crime (rape) registered on June 20, 2017, along with other three crimes”.

The court pulled up state police and the administration for failing to take action even though the SIT report “reveals as to how police personnel and doctors were/are under the influence of Kuldeep Singh and how they tampered with evidence and tried to create terror and intimidated the prosecutrix and her family members”.

It said, “What is disturbing… is that the father of the prosecutrix, for no reason, came to be arrested and was in custody, where, we are informed, he was mercilessly beaten and succumbed to injuries.”

In the open letter to CM Yogi, Sheelu too spoke about facing intimidation, “My relatives, neighbours, everyone advised me to let it go, out of fear. My own chacha (uncle) relocated, fearing his life. I don’t blame him. I too was very, very, afraid. There was social pressure on me and my family to settle – “samjhauta kar lo”. There were threats – political honchos would come to my village and speak of setting people aflame if they supported me. I was a poor farmer’s daughter, I was a child, and I was both confused and frightened out of my wits.”

Her father went into hiding and secretly contacted Sampat Pal, the commander of the powerful Gulabi Gang for help.

“I decided to fight for justice. I filed a complaint. I spoke with media…I went to Delhi and appeared on news debates…I was the first woman in Banda to have registered a case against a sitting politician, it was a historic moment,” adding how she got support from opposition parties to help her to continue her fight for justice.

What really came to her rescue was the Supreme Court’s intervention. In mid-January 2011, senior lawyer Harish Salve filed a petition in the apex court, seeking a judicial inquiry and questioning the role played by police officials and the district magistrate. A PIL was also filed in the apex court by advocates Raja Ram and Irudaya Nathan seeking an independent probe. The advocates observed that an impartial investigation in the case was not possible given the involvement of the ruling BSP legislator and his aides in the crime. The petitioners also alleged that the authorities had committed a grave error by foisting false cases on the victim who was a minor and entitled to protection under the Juvenile Justice Act.

In September that year, the SC asked the UP government to hand over the case to the CBI.

While in the Sheelu case, the court castigated the magistrate for sending a minor to jail, in the Sengar’s case too, the Allahabad HC took strong objection to the UP Advocate General’s submission that Sengar could not be arrested on mere registration of an FIR. Both cases underlined the subversion of the justice system by using political clout.

“The approach of the learned Advocate General is not only appalling but shocks the conscience of the Court in the backdrop of the instant case…(It) not only exudes an unpleasant flavour, but raises doubts about the bona fides of the police authorities at the highest level,” the court reportedly said. 

In June 2015, a CBI court sentenced Dwivedi to 10 years imprisonment besides asking him to pay Rs 1 lakh to the victim as compensation. Two of his associates, Ram Naresh Dwivedi and Virendra Kumar Shukla, were sentenced to two years in jail.

In the Unnao case, hours after the Allahabad high court intervened to push the central investigating agency to act against the BJP MLA, Prime Narendra Modi broke his silence under media and opposition pressure. Without referring to the case, he said, “Our daughters will definitely get justice.” 

“Until and unless the governing party comes forward, this case too will fall into the usual cycle of dabaav, dhamki, samjhauta. I request Adiyanathji and Modiji to ensure the CBI enquiry is conducted in an unprejudiced, just manner, and the accused convicted,” Sheelu wrote in her letter.

All eyes are now not just on the court, but also on the BJP leadership.