The alleged rape and death of an Anganwadi helper in Budaun has once again highlighted the lapses on the part of the Uttar Pradesh administration in investigating crimes against women. Anuj Kumar reports on the brutal death of a woman who was the lifeline of her family, involving a temple priest and his aides
On the bitterly cold evening of January 3, when the skies of western Uttar Pradesh were a menacing grey, a middle-aged woman left her home in Kyawali village in Sahswan block of Budaun district to go to the Thakurji temple in the neighbouring village of Mevli, her mayka (mother’s village). She walked for 3 km through fields to reach the temple, surrounded on three sides by farmland and a god-fearing neighbourhood on the fourth. Given the inclement weather, she was in two minds whether or not to go, but the temple priest, Satyanarayan, had insisted over the phone that she come.
The habitual visit ended in unspeakable tragedy, however. The woman, a mother of five, was dumped in front of her house in Kyawali at midnight by Satyanarayan and his two aides, Vedram and Jaspal. Her faith had been betrayed, her private parts oozed with blood, and her rib cage and left leg were fractured. Within minutes, the woman, an Anganwadi helper, died in the arms of her son and two minor daughters. The priest and his aides made a hasty retreat into the darkness and clambered into their SUV, the lights of which were turned off, before the children could confront them. Their father, who was tending to his ailing brother in the neighbourhood, rushed home, but by then, his wife had almost lost her battle with life.
Had life not been snuffed out of her, the woman would have been contributing to the COVID-19 vaccination programme being rolled out today. The alleged gang rape and murder of the Anganwadi helper in a place of worship has, yet again, raised questions about women’s security in U.P. In October 2020, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath launched the Mission Shakti programme for the security of women. He promised that those committing crimes against women in U.P. would be punished swiftly. The three accused have been arrested, but accounts show that there were multiple lapses on the part of the administration in the investigation. Mediapersons reached the crime spot before the police did. Two police officials have been suspended so far.
Delay in investigation
The morning after the incident, when the woman’s family members gathered the courage to go to the police station in Ughaiti, merely 2.5 km away, they were told that the police were busy. By the time the police collected the woman’s body and took it to Budaun, 42 km from Ughaiti, it was evening. Curiously, the post-mortem started only on January 5 at 3 p.m., and was not videographed.
It was only after the Chief Medical Officer confirmed injury to the private parts, signs of dragging, described the case as “prima facie a case of rape” and said that the woman had died of “excessive bleeding and trauma” that the administration woke up. The family was asked to give a written complaint and a First Information Report was lodged under Sections 376 (punishment for rape), 376D (punishment for gang rape) and 302 (punishment for murder) of the Indian Penal Code against the three accused. By then, at least 48 hours had passed from the time the crime took place.
Till then, Satyanarayan kept telling the villagers and the local media that the victim had fallen into the dry well in the temple premises, and that he had responded to her cries. Everyone including the Station House Officer (SHO) of the Ughaiti police station, Raghvendra Pratap Singh (now suspended), and the local pradhan fed his version of the story to the senior officers in Budaun. By January 5 evening, Vedram and Jaspal were arrested, but Satyanarayan had quietly slipped away. It took the police another 48 hours to nab him. Surprisingly, he was found hiding in Mevli whereas four teams of the Budaun Police and the U.P. Special Task Force were looking for him in the neighbouring districts.
Locals say that when mobile surveillance revealed Satyanarayan’s presence in the area, the message spread in the village that he must be handed over, else every household would be checked. “‘Lath bajega (everyone will be caned),’ said the officials on the ground. Policemen in civil clothes covered the entire village. Soon after the warning, those who were hiding the priest backed off. Within 10 minutes, Satyanarayan was nabbed in the fields just outside the residential areas of the Thakurs and Mauryas,” says a local, requesting anonymity. “The baba [as Satyanarayan is called in the village] was not a hardened criminal and could not have survived in the cold on his own,” he adds.
There were other lapses too. The local media declared that the age of the victim was 50. Her Aadhaar card says she was 38 and the post-mortem report records her age as 40. Officials haven’t put her correct age on record.
‘The most industrious daughter’
Wailing in her rat-infested residence in Mevli, the mother of the victim describes her daughter as the most “industrious” of her four daughters. Her son-in-law, she says, is “moti buddhi (slow-witted)”. “Wohi kamati, khawati thi (She was the one who used to earn and feed the family). She would buy me medicines and pass on her saris to me. She was helping me renovate this house,” she says, pointing at the tin-roofed residence that has an electricity meter firmly attached to the unplastered wall.
The victim’s mother lost her husband early and single-handedly raised her four daughters. “Like me, she sent all her children to school. I could afford to educate her only until Class 9. She made sure that her two older daughters completed intermediate education. Her son is in the first year of graduation.” To those pointing fingers at her daughter’s character, she says they are undermining her struggle. “Do they mean I also ‘compromised’ to give my children whatever I could,” she asks.
The mother says her daughter often visited the temple in the evening. “She knew she could stay back with me and return home the next morning to work. But on January 3, I had no idea that she was in the village,” she says.
Early on Monday morning, she reached the temple premises soon after her son-in-law came and broke the news to her, she says. “The baba was sleeping on a cot. When my son-in-law woke him up, I saw that his clothes had bloodstains. I also saw my daughter’s shoe and the string of her petticoat lying in the room.” When they confronted Satyanarayan, she says he told them that the woman had fallen into the well and his clothes got stained while he was trying to pull her out. “He had no answer when asked why my daughter would undress herself and then fall into the well. Also, why would she go into that quarter, considering that it is nowhere close to where the idols are placed and secured by doors,” she asks. The mother says they wanted to take the priest to Kyawali but the local pradhan refused as he felt that Satyanarayan would get beaten up by the villagers. “He promised us that he wouldn’t let the priest escape till the police came, but he didn’t stand by his promise,” she says.
Suresh Shakya, the pradhan, denies that he helped the priest in finding refuge in the village or brokered any deal on behalf of the priest after the incident. “I had no role in the case. Let the police investigate,” he says.
Death and the morning after
In Kyawali, the Anganwadi helper’s son, aged 18, is struggling to come to terms with the death of his mother who was building their home brick by brick. A section of the roof is still covered by tarpaulin. One room was built by his mother under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna and the rest was being built after selling half of the six bighas of land.
It was the son who forced the administration to act when he spoke to the local media about the brutal treatment meted out to his mother. “We froze on seeing her that night. My father is not of much help, but on that day he was not home when the baba arrived with his aides,” he says. “I knew them all. The baba had visited us twice in the past. He told us she had fallen into the well. Vedram said my mother was lying outside the well when he reached the temple premises. Before I could say anything, they left. She was barely breathing. Her leg was twisted and she was bleeding only from her private parts. After a few minutes, my father came,” he recounts.
He looked for the only phone that the family had, which his mother carried. “I found it in the clothes she was wearing. It was smashed. I approached a neighbour, borrowed his phone and called up my brother-in-law who lives in Palpur, 7-8 km from our village,” he says.
The brother-in-law says he could go to the house only at around 4 a.m. the next morningas it was raining on January 3 night and he could not get any transport. “Later, I went to Mevli along with my father-in-law and some others to confront the priest. Satyanarayan said he had taken my mother-in-law to a private hospital in Chandausi after taking her out from the well with the help of his aides. But when the hospital refused to admit her, he dropped her home, he said. He took us to the well. In the torchlight, I could see a shoe of my mother-in-law lying in the well,” he says.
The victim’s son says Satyanarayan had called his mother at around 4 p.m. on that fateful day. “She left home at around 5 p.m, saying she would stay at my grandmother’s place at night. It was not unusual as she used to go to the temple every 8-10 days.”
After returning from Mevli, where they had gone to confront the priest, the son says they approached the Ughaiti police station, which falls between the two villages. “But we were told that the police were busy elsewhere. At noon, I called up 112. The police then took the body for post-mortem,” he says.
In a leaked video, the victim’s husband could be heard telling someone that his wife told him before dying that she fell into the well. This was not mentioned in his complaint lodged on January 5. On January 11, his second son-in-law, who was in Delhi at the time of the incident, says the victim’s husband was hospitalised in Budaun after he tried to hurt himself. “He might have been tutored to say this as part of the deal that the pradhan and a ration dealer tried to broker on January 4,” he alleges.
Character of the priest
In Mevli, there are multiple opinions about Satyanarayan, a Thakur from Aonla town, Bareilly district. Some say he indulged in tantrik practices. Some say he used to roam around the village trying to impress upon women to visit the temple. Om Pal Singh, a neighbour of the victim’s mother, asks why the priest failed to inform the mother and other relatives of the incident if he was innocent. “One of the daughters of the victim is married in Mevli [She and her husband were in Delhi at the time of the incident]. Why were her in-laws not informed? It is clear that he wanted to hide something,” he says.
“He doesn’t have any knowledge of the scriptures. He doesn’t even have a flair for words that babas usually have,” says an officer who was present during the interrogation.
Local media reports suggest that the priest took drugs but police officials say he was addicted only to tobacco, which was what forced him to come out of his hiding place. This is corroborated by Mahesh Chandra Gupta, the old grocery store owner at the corner of the lane leading to the temple. “The baba’s behaviour was never in question. Otherwise he would not have survived in the village for seven years. Yes, there were rumours of his relationship with a 50-year-old woman, but the villagers had more or less accepted it. This is his first real transgression that has come to light,” he says.
Tikam Singh, a Jatav who was not allowed to enter the temple, says the baba believed in untouchability and did not accept any charity from his community. “But there was nothing else that made us doubt his character or intentions. He was feeding off the goodwill that the previous mahant had nurtured over decades. Devotees, especially childless couples, used to come to seek the blessings of the deity, not the priest. They believed that since the priest was the chela(disciple) of the previous guru, he must also have some knowledge. Even if two of the 200 people visiting the temple got the desired result, the priest’s influence remained intact,” he says.
Ompal, a Jat, hints at the hegemony of the Thakurs and Mauryas/ Shakyas in the village. “They are in a majority and perhaps that’s why they made a Thakur the priest,” he says. The victim comes from a Marwari Thakur family. Hers was one of the many families that migrated from Rajasthan years ago, say villagers.
Meanwhile, at Vedram’s residence in Mevli, empathetic relatives gather around his mother Shiv Devi. “He was trapped by the baba because my son had blind faith in him,” Shiv Devi claims. “The baba called him around 9 p.m. on January 3 and asked him to come to the temple as there was an emergency. He didn’t tell him what the emergency was,” she claims.
Pulling out medicines that her son was purportedly taking for a respiratory disorder, Shiv Devi says her son, a carpenter, came under the influence of Satyanarayan ever since he lost his wife.
Local sources say one more person helped Satyanarayan take the victim out from the well. His name is not being made public because he is not named in the FIR, they say. A senior police official says there is a strong possibility of another person being involved.
Official clarifications and beliefs
On the basis of call records, local intelligence and Satyanarayan’s statement during interrogation, a senior police officer claims that the priest was in a relationship with a 50-year-old woman, who, along with her two sons, tilled a section of the agricultural land of the temple, the proceeds of which go to Satyanarayan. “The woman got a hint that the priest was now moving on to a younger woman. Possibly, on the date of the incident, she came to know about the Anganwadi helper’s presence in the temple premises and confronted him. It could have spiralled into a series of events that will become clear once the forensic reports come out,” he claims. Asked how the woman went inside the shed where the dry well is located, he says it looks as though she visited the place using the back door.
The official adds that Satyanarayan’s claim that he took the victim to a private hospital in Chandausi, 32 km away in Sambhal district, has been corroborated by the CCTV footage of the hospital.
About 14 bighas of land separate the 50-year-old woman’s house from the temple premises. As the wheat crop is still young, she can see the temple clearly. “I went to the temple twice on Sunday evening but couldn’t find the baba. I called him over the phone to ask why he had left all the doors open in such weather. He said he had gone out to buy tobacco and would return soon. When the police picked me up for questioning, I told them the same thing,” she says. She lost her husband in 2018.
Devendra Singh Dhama, the SHO of Ughaiti police station and investigating officer of the case, says he is pretty sure that the victim fell into the well. “But what circumstances contributed to that is still not clear,” he says. Dhama went down the well. It is 32 feet deep, he says.
Whether she fell into the well or not does not absolve the former SHO of laxity, says Senior Superintendent of Police Sankalp Sharma. “That is why he and the outpost in-charge, Amarjeet Singh, have been suspended and charged with dereliction of duty under Section 166A of the IPC. He tried to reach conclusions before the investigation and didn’t keep senior officials in the loop,” he says.
Sharma admits that sometimes, the constabulary fail to take into account the changed rape laws that followed the gang rape of a woman in Delhi in 2012. He reels out figures to defend Mission Shakti. “We have taken remand of the accused for further questioning as some of their claims are not matching with our investigation. A forensic team from Lucknow has come to reconstruct the crime scene. Their report is awaited. We will also seek medico-legal opinion on the post-mortem report,” he adds.
The post-mortem report has not been given to the family. The District Magistrate, Kumar Prashant, has ordered an inquiry into the leaking of the post-mortem report to the media. When asked whether this is a priority, he says the post-mortem report is an important document of the investigation process. If leaked, it can help the accused plan for the trial even before the charge sheet is filed, he says. It also compromises the dignity of the deceased, he says.
Yashpal Singh, Chief Medical Officer, admits that videography of the post-mortem was not conducted. “It is the administration’s job. They didn’t ask for it,” he says. Sharma says the police will examine why the post-mortem was not videographed.
On the delay in conducting the post-mortem, Singh says while the body was with them, they were waiting for a three-member panel to be formed. A doctor took time in reaching the hospital. “It didn’t affect the forensic investigation and the slides were formed well within time,” he insists.
Prashant says the case will be heard in a fast-track court. The administration, he says, is contemplating invoking the National Security Act against Satyanarayan. “It is because of him that the peace and tranquility of the area remained disturbed for three days,” he says. He says the formalities of the U.P. Rani Laxmi Bai Mahila and Bal Samman Kosh, that provide ₹1,00,000 to the family of a victim of rape and murder, had started. “The victim’s son could be absorbed as a 4th class employee in the municipality of Sahaswan. As an Anganwadi helper, she was also insured under a scheme of the Integrated Child Development Services. At our level, we have provided ration and refilled the gas cylinder of her mother,” he says.
Meanwhile, Sunita Devi, an Anganwadi worker in a neighbouring village, says women’s security remains a major issue. “When we go out for work, some men pass obscene comments. They can’t digest the fact that women are working. We listen and move on. Recently, an Anganwadi worker ended her life because the pradhan allegedly called her to his residence,” she says.
The Thakurji temple remained sealed in Mevli on Lohri but a priest offered prayers in the Ughaiti police station.
courtesy the Hindu