MUZAFFARNAGAR, Uttar Pradesh — When the 38-year-old woman began making a string of sharp, wailing sounds, the din of voices around her was silenced.
Then, the woman, who can’t hear or speak, used sign language to describe the charred remains of her 14-year-old daughter, who was allegedly gangraped and burnt alive on the intervening night of 23 and 24 May in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh.
By moving her hands up and down, she was saying that while the cot in which her daughter had slept was placed vertically, the teenager was found lying in a horizontal position.
She opened her mouth, pointed inside and clasped her neck, conveying that her daughter’s mouth was stuffed with a cloth.
She ran her fingers down her hands and then shook her head vigorously from side to side, explaining that the skin had peeled off her daughter’s hands, exposing her bones.
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And finally, the woman, who has four surviving children, ran her hand under her waist and rapidly shook her head.
All the while, the grieving mother didn’t stop keening.
Almost a week after the girl was pulled out of a burning shanty next to the brick kiln where she and her father worked, a short distance from Badhai Kalan village, the local police appears determined to dismiss her death as a tragic accident. But some villagers and local Dalit activists are pressing for a fair investigation.
While seven people have been booked for murder and gang rape under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, no arrests have been made so far.
While the woman was mourning her daughter, her 52-year-old husband was at a police station 10 kilometres from the village, getting ready to drop the case against the accused, which includes his employer.
Later in the day, he told HuffPost India, “I am going to compromise. This is not a fight that I can win.”
‘What happened to my daughter?’
A relative who had accompanied the woman to the crime scene on the morning of 24 May, and seen the girl’s burnt body before it was pulled out of the shanty, spoke on behalf of the heartbroken mother.
After the men in the village left the small courtyard, the relative said that the way the body was positioned on the bed gave them reason to believe that girl had been sexually assaulted.
As her relatives and neighbours looked on, the mother, dry-eyed and stoic, twisted her palms into an arch and shook them.
The relative said, “She is asking, ‘What happened to my daughter?’”
The 14-year-old, who had dropped out of school after Class 5 to help with the household chores, is remembered for her sunny disposition. Her 17-year-old elder sister said, “She was my friend. We did all the household work together. I miss her.”
The post-mortem report and the medical report of the vaginal swab, police officials told HuffPost India, have ruled out rape, and found the cause of death to be asphyxiation and burn injuries.
Circle Officer Harish Kumar Bhadoria, who is in charge of the case, told HuffPost India that the “investigation is still going on.″ In the next breath, however, he said, “There was no crime. It was a fake FIR.
“Some elements just want to make things political and take advantage,” he said, accusing local Dalit activists of stirring up trouble.
Only two out of the seven persons against whom the FIR was registered are named. They are Pravin Kumar aka Guddu, a Jat and the owner of the brick kiln, and Jagveer Singh, his accountant.
The Dalit workers at the brick kiln refer to them as “maalik” and “munshi.”
What happened to my daughter?
Scene of the crime
It was too hot to work at the Shri Krishna brick kiln on Wednesday afternoon.
As the mercury touched 44 degrees Celsius, fans whirring in a few of the windowless shanties circulated hot air, providing little relief to the Dalit workers and their children sleeping on the floor.
The girl, her 12-year-old brother and their father lived in one such brick shanty, which they called home for 4-6 months that they worked at the kiln each year.
On 23 May, the father had to rush back to the village to take care of his wife who had fallen ill, leaving the two children alone at the settlement, which has 300 shanties, butted up against each other.
Their neighbour Mantalesh, a mother-of four, recalled that dawn was breaking when she stepped outside to urinate and noticed there was smoke coming from the house next door.
She ran to an old woman who was feeding fodder to a cow and together, they raised the alarm.
Joginder Singh, who lives in front of the girl’s house, broke down the door with the help of two other men, said Mantalesh.
“The door was locked from inside. A huge ball of smoke and fire came out. You could not stand anywhere near it,” she said. “The girl was completely burnt. She was dead.”
The neighbours insist they saw nothing strange.
Some speak of a slipper that was found in the fields behind the brick kiln. Others talk of how the girl’s feet were caked in mud. But they give no explanations.
A video, taken by a neighbour on a mobile phone after the girl was pulled out of the house and laid on a cot, shows that her face and body were burnt beyond recognition, but her feet are covered in mud.
The neighbours do not speak of Guddu, the maalik, who, they said, hadn’t come by the kiln ever since the FIR was registered against him.
Singh, the munshi, was present at the site.
Captain Ajad Singh Rao, a local Dalit activist, says that given how close the shanties were to each other, it would have been “impossible” for the neighbours not to hear, see or smell something.
“You hear this silence. It speaks volumes,” he said.
You hear this silence. It speaks volumes.
A traumatised child
“Did you hear something? Did you see something? You must have seen or heard something,” a woman constable said, speaking sternly to a thin, spindly-legged boy in a blue shirt.
The 12-year-old stood silently in front of a crowd of villagers as the policewoman continued to lob questions at him. “You must have seen or heard something. Tell us.” she said.
“Nothing,” he replied in a voice that was barely audible.
The boy was sleeping on a cot in front of the shanty in which his sister was burnt alive.
As the macabre scene played out under the blistering afternoon sun, a young man in the crowd shouted, “He is so young. He is scared. Take him aside and speak to him gently.”
Two women, child welfare workers who had come with the constable, took the boy to a shady patch in his mother’s courtyard and offered him a glass of water, which he refused.
“Don’t be afraid of the police. They are here to help,” one of them said.
“Tell us what happened. It’s okay, you don’t have to be afraid. The entire village is with you,” said the other.
In bits and starts, the boy revealed that as he was falling in and out of sleep that night, he saw three men outside the house. He identified two of them as Neetu and Bhandari, who, he said, also worked at the brick kiln and lived in a village named Kasaria.
When asked how he had recognised them in the darkness, he replied, “By the moonlight.”
“They said that if I told anyone, then they would cut me,” he said.
They said that if I told anyone, then they would cut me.
Compromise at the police station?
Two men from Badhai Kalan village, Shesh Pal and Govardhan, were agitated as they waited for the girl’s father to emerge from the police station in Rohana town.
As they stood under a tree, Pal said, “The bhatta maalik (brick kiln owner) and his people are here. The police is pushing for a compromise.”
Govardhan added, “This is not right. No amount of money can be acceptable. It is disrespectful of the community. They need to find the truth of what happened to the girl.”
The two villagers said that the man had gone to get his passport-sized photo clicked, which, they believed, he was planning to stick on his affidavit withdrawing his FIR.
It was another hour before Circle Officer Bhadoria, who is in charge of the investigation, returned to the police station.
While entering his office, this reporter heard him tell a junior police personnel to accompany the father to the brick kiln and complete all the tasks before retiring for the day. “Varna phir khel kharab kar denge, poora poora (they will spoil the full game again).”
Turning to this reporter, Bhadoria said that while the investigation was going on, he believed that the FIR was fake and politically motivated.
Bhadoria said that the father had changed his story thrice, and had alleged gangrape only under pressure from local Dalit activists.
“It is neither rape nor murder,” said Bhadoria, while launching into an account of how a mosquito coil may have fallen on the floor, setting fire to a blanket and dung cakes nearby. “The suffocation from the smoke, the Mortein (coil), may have caused her to faint. We found soot particles in her lungs. It is all very scientific.”
Bhadoria said that he had found no reason to arrest the two men named in the FIR, while the five unnamed accused had not yet been identified.
“We have taken a location chart. The bhatta maalik was at home,” he said. “If anyone wanted to burn her, why do it in the middle of so many people? Why not in the middle of a forest?”
When asked if this was a case of caste violence, Bhadoria said, “No. If someone had to extort money from the bhatta maalik, filing a false case against him would be the way to do it. And then, they will drop the case.”
Back at the crime scene
It was dusk by the time the girl’s father reached the brick kiln, which was billowing smoke from its chimney across the horizon.
Surrounded by workers and flanked by policemen, the man sat facing a camera, with his back to the shanty in which his daughter had died.
Manoj Kumar Sharma, an inspector from Rohana, interrupted him as he answered questions from two reporters.
When one reporter asked about the contents inside the house, Singh said that there were utensils, rice and wheat. Sharma interrupted to say, “a cot, a quilt and things that a person needs in the course of life”.
In a surly tone, the father told the reporters that only god knew the truth. “How do I know what happened? Was I here? I’m tired of these questions,” he said.
Later, as he moved away and lit his beedi, the man told this reporter that he believed his daughter had been raped.
When asked on what basis he had complained against seven men, he said simply, “On suspicion.”
He added that he intended to file an affidavit to withdraw his FIR and drop the case in the next few days. “I’m taking it back. It’s done.”
It’s not over yet
But on Thursday, HuffPost India learnt that the villagers of Badhai Kalan had opposed the compromise and urged him not to drop the case.
Further, when the police reached the village to pick up the father, the villagers made sure he was away.
Rao, the Dalit activist, said, “The villagers told him whether it’s murder, rape, suicide, let’s find out the truth. Why are you so scared? We are with you.”