IF IT WAS possible for a place to suffer from the middle-child syndrome, then Unnao, a district in Uttar Pradesh, would definitely have it. Sandwiched between two of the state’s biggest cities, Kanpur and Lucknow, Unnao boasts a leather industry and slaughterhouses. “Development has just passed this place by, it’s stuck in a time warp. And now there is this,” says Amit Mishra who runs a Suzuki dealership in the town. The “this” Mishra is referring to is what has since come to be known as the Unnao rape case, involving a minor girl and a powerful politician.
In April 2018, an18-year-old girl, accompanied by members of her family, tried to immolate herself in front of the Uttar Pradesh chief minister’s residence in a bid to draw attention to her plight. The girl alleged that she had been gangraped by Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) Kuldeep Singh Sengar and his associates in 2017 after being kidnapped from her village, Makhi, in the state. A long chain of events had already unfolded by the time the victim found herself in front of the chief minister’s residence. The police had refused to file her complaint even as her family was reportedly being harassed by the MLA’s henchmen. Her father, who was to later die in police custody, was brutally beaten up, allegedly by the MLA’s brother Atul Sengar, also accused of raping her. The police, instead, arrested the father after the assault on charges of illegal possession of a firearm. The girl’s attempt to immolate herself had come in the wake of this. Her father succumbed to injuries just a day later (custodial torture too was alleged) and it was then that the state administration swung into action. The case was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the MLA was arrested.
By 2019, the case, which had dominated headlines with the victim’s immolation attempt, had been relegated to the back pages and there it would have remained, if not for two developments. In July this year, the girl’s uncle was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a district court in an almost two-decade-old case. The timing of the sentencing was apparently suspicious, made even more so by the plaintiff’s identity, Atul Sengar. But the biggest development was yet to take place. On July 28th, a speeding truck rammed into a car in which the victim was travelling with two of her aunts and her lawyer. Her aunts died while the victim and her lawyer were critically injured. They were later airlifted to AIIMS, Delhi. The truck’s number plates were partially blacked out but OP Singh, the Director General of Police, Uttar Pradesh, was quick to issue a statement that “preliminary investigations” indicated that it was an accident due to overspeeding by the truck. Police officers assigned to the victim for her security were not in the car, leading to speculation about a conspiracy, with the state authorities, it was alleged, hand in glove with the accused. The accident led the Supreme Court to order the transfer of cases related to this matter to the Tis Hazari court in Delhi even as Kuldeep Sengar was to be transferred to Tihar Jail. The BJP, too, expelled Sengar.
On the surface, the Unnao case is a straightforward story of muscle, money and political power. But digging deeper, it’s a complex tale where patriarchy, family rivalries and perhaps a love affair turned sour came together to weave a tragic tale which has left three members of a family dead, even as those left behind—the victim, her mother and four siblings—fight for justice.
Makhi village, from where both the victim and the MLA hail from—a short, bumpy ride away from the district headquarters in Unnao—wears an unnaturally deserted look, even for a weekday afternoon. The only visible presence is that of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) contingent deployed after the car accident. Sengar’s presence looms large over the village, almost literally, as his house, enclosed within a sprawling compound, is the first one encounters upon entering the village. The girl’s house, an uncemented two-room structure, is across the road.
The gates to Sengar’s house are locked but he continues to be a larger than life figure for the villagers. He is the vidhaayak (legislator) with a heart of gold, who organised feasts on festivals like Holi and Diwali, who paved the village roads, who would solve all disputes. “I can’t remember the last time police came to this village over a dispute. Bhaiyya handled everything,” says a housewife, who lives a stone’s throw away from Sengar’s house. He was present on most occasions, happy or tragic, for the families in the village and would also help out financially when needed, she claims. It is not difficult to get the people of Makhi to talk about Sengar, with most referring to him in reverential terms.
It is when the talk turns to the other family, and specifically the victim, that doors start shutting in your face. No one claims to know much about her even though her family has lived in the village for generations. “She didn’t grow up here. She came to the village only two years ago. Before that I had heard she was living with her maternal uncle,” says Nita Singh, a housewife. Singh herself has a 16-year-old daughter who studies in the village’s Viren Singh Siksha Niketan Inter-College. It is owned by Sengar. “My daughter was not friends with her,” she asserts even as the girl stands quietly in the room. No, she never interacted with either the victim or her sisters, not even exchanged a greeting. “There is a certain way of being and behaving in our village and most girls stick to it. It’s straight to school and back, most don’t even have a mobile phone,” Nita says.
Open met a few other schoolgoing girls in the village, nearly all of them reluctant to talk. Smita (name changed), a sharp 16-year-old who goes to Unnao to study, says she had no idea about either the case or the victim. “We moved to this village only two years ago and don’t know anyone here. We go to Unnao to study, come back and stay inside the house.” The caginess may very well be prompted by current developments but Makhi is a traditional village where patriarchy rules the roost. The state average of sex ratio for Uttar Pradesh is 912 but in Unnao district it is 907. The female literacy rate for the district is 56.7 per cent but Uttar Pradesh, along with Bihar, also has the highest number of girls between the ages of 11 to 14 who do not attend school. Conservative attitudes coupled with financial woes are often cited as reasons for this.
The victim indeed did not grow up in Makhi. She lived with her maternal uncle in a village in Raebareli district. Her formal education is believed to have only been till Class 6 or 7 and she moved back to Makhi only a couple of years ago. Those who are willing to talk describe her as any other teenage girl, although perhaps a little more outgoing than her counterparts in the village. “Her uncle lived in Delhi and she would often travel there, so she wasn’t exactly a village girl. Also, the men in her family have a history of criminality. They were hardly ever around. One uncle had died long ago, one was in Delhi, and the father would come and go. There was only an elderly grandmother apart from her mother. So, there wasn’t anyone as such to impose restrictions ,” says a villager familiar with the case.
HERE ARE WHISPERS of a love affair gone wrong, perhaps an elopement, though the victim in her initial complaint had alleged abduction by three people in the village: Shubham, Naresh Tiwari and Brijesh Yadav. Her mother had even filed a missing persons complaint in June 2017. All three were arrested on the basis of the complaint. “Her family wanted her to get married to Shubham. Bhaiyya tried to convince the boy’s family but his father refused,” says an ASHA worker from the village. “It is then that the uncle threatened the MLA and he was named in the second complaint,” she says. In her complaint, the victim had alleged that Shubham’s mother Sashi Singh took her to the MLA’s house that night on the pretext of getting her a job. Sashi, too, is behind bars.
Ever since the case hit the headlines, the victim and her family, in spite of police protection and a CBI inquiry, have alleged constant pressure and harassment from the MLA and his henchmen. An impression pieced together from conversations with the villagers is that of an apparent feudal lord who ran Makhi with an iron grip even as his acolytes ran amok. “If only Atul was named in this case, I wouldn’t be surprised, I wouldn’t even care,” says a villager who wants be identified only by his first name Mahendra. Atul Sengar, who allegedly beat the girl’s father, is the man the village fears. He reportedly shot an IPS officer in 2004 (the officer survived) and got away with it.
Caste privilege has its limits when gender and a powerful adversary are involved. Just ask the victim, a Thakur herself. When questioned about this, most villagers just turn their heads away
Share this on
The Sengar family’s business concerns include cold storages, brick kilns and educational institutes. Gossip, however, also alleges the brothers’ involvement in khannan, the vernacular for illegal sand mining. The IPS officer is believed to have been shot at when he got a tip-off about illegal mining on the banks of the Ganges and reached the spot. Although Atul allegedly carried out all the dirty work, it was seemingly with the approval of his sibling.
Sengar’s influence in the village can be traced to two factors: his caste (Thakur, the village’s dominant caste) and his family’s hold on the post of gram pradhan. His maternal grandfather, Biren Singh, had held this post and is still spoken of highly. His mother, too, was a pradhan. The current pradhan is his sister-in-law Archana Pradhan. Sengar’s wife, Sangeeta, is the chairperson of Unnao Zila Panchayat. In fact, the locals allege that it was the grampradhan election that became a bone of contention between the victim’s family and the MLA though resentment had been brewing for a long time. “The victim’s father and two uncles were the right-hand men of Sengar for many years,” says a farmer from the village’s Yadav community. No one knows exactly what led to the initial falling out but over 15 years ago a case was registered against the victim’s father and uncle for attempted assault on Atul Sengar. It was this that led to the uncle moving to Delhi, returning to Makhi only years later. Till the accident happened and Sengar was expelled from the BJP, his sisters were regular visitors to the village home, with the villagers showing up to pay their respects and offer tacit support.
“No one in this village will tell you the truth about that man. They all live in fear of him. He has the entire district in his grip,” says Man Bahadur Singh, father of the victim’s lawyer. A CRPF contingent is stationed outside their house also. “The police couldn’t stand up to him for one of their own, so what will the common man do?” asks Singh. His son, he says, never discussed the case or any fears he may have had with him.
Sengar is a four-time MLA who started his political career with the Congress but became an MLA in 2002 on a Bahujan Samaj Party ticket from Unnao Sadar. By 2007, he had joined the Samajwadi Party (SP) and won the election from Bangermau. He fought the 2012 election too on an SP ticket, but from Bhagwantnagar. In 2017, he moved to the BJP and fought and won from Bangermau again. “It’s not the party but the man people vote for,” says a Lucknow-based political observer. Adding a layer of complexity to Sengar’s already strong influence is the seeming resurgence of Thakur dominance under the stewardship of present Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a Thakur himself. Important posts like district magistrate and police superintendent are now dominated by Thakurs. “You need to understand the extent of Sengar’s influence and actions in this case through this lens. There was complete belief that he will be protected at every step of the way,” says Sunil Singh Sajan, the SP’s Member of Legislative Council from the Lucknow-Unnao seat.
But even caste privilege has its limits when gender and a powerful adversary are involved. Just ask the victim, who is a Thakur herself. When questioned about this, most villagers just turn their heads away—some offer her family’s purported criminal history as an excuse while others simply shrug their shoulders. At the funeral of the victim’s aunts, the villagers did gather but few offered any support. The mother meanwhile has been reported as saying that she will not rest till justice is served. But it seems to be a lonely battle ahead.