At approximately 2: 30am, the pyre was lit.
- A young woman in Uttar Pradesh reported her rape in late September
- She later died from injuries sustained during the alleged attack, including a broken spine
- Her family say her body was cremated by police without their permission
It had been two weeks since a 19-year-old woman had been allegedly raped and assaulted by four men from her village of Hathras in India.
She suffered injuries so horrific she was left paralysed and died in a Delhi hospital two weeks later.
“We want justice,” the victim’s brother said.
“She was captured, strangulated, brutally attacked and assaulted.”
Her grieving family had hoped to perform last rites.
But they say they were given mixed messages in the hours after her death about when they could retrieve her body.
It later became clear police intended to cremate the body with or without the family’s blessing.
As police took the young woman’s body away to be cremated in the dead of night, her family pleaded with authorities to not go through with it.
In desperation, the victim’s mother launched herself in front of an ambulance carrying her daughter’s body.
Police had already begun to set up a human barricade to try and stop journalists and villagers from getting close.
The ambulance went ahead and the woman’s body was burned.
“They [the police] want to suppress us,” the victim’s brother told the ABC from his small village in Uttar Pradesh.
“Why did they forcefully burn her body in [the middle of the] night? Why did they destroy evidence?”
The woman was a Dalit — the lowest rung on the Hindu caste system, formerly called “untouchables” — while her alleged attackers are upper-caste.
And while the news of her death may have slipped away as the media cycle moved on, this story has evolved into something much bigger, dominating national media and sparking protests across the country.
It has also prompted fierce debate about police corruption, political interference, media freedoms and caste politics.
How the case unfolded
Authorities in Uttar Pradesh had been under increasing scrutiny at the time of the woman’s death due to accusations an investigation was opened late and her transfer to a Delhi hospital was also delayed.
But news of the late-night cremation ignited widespread outrage.
Delhi-based journalist Tanushree Pandey was embedded with the family and tweeted a serious of videos to reveal the unfolding events.
“Mother is begging in front of the cops, please let me take the body home once, only once,” another reported.
Officers initially tried to claim the family had given their blessing.
Police even stated the victim’s grandfather was at the cremation, which was impossible because he is dead, the victim’s brother said.
“They are telling a different story every day,” he said.
The victim, who is not being identified according to Indian law, spoke about her rape while she was in hospital.
A video recording shows her describing sexual assault to police in the hours after the attack, but this was not recorded in the complaint, according to the BBC.
A senior figure of the BJP party, which is in power in Uttar Pradesh and federally, released a video of the victim in hospital to claim she had not been raped.
Officers also used a medical report to claim the woman had not been raped, because a medical examination conducted 11 days after the assault could not find traces of semen.
Hospital doctors rubbished the statements, stating the samples were unreliable given the amount of time that had passed.
After the cremation, journalists flocked to the small village in Uttar Pradesh only to discover police blocking their access.
Phone taps and wild accusations
The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, alleged an international conspiracy was using the rape and cremation to “incite caste and communal riots”.
Indian media has also reported the State Government hired a PR firm to push the line the woman was not raped.
A journalist has since been charged for allegedly inciting caste violence under the state’s anti-terror laws and several more are under investigation.
Members of the federal opposition trying to enter the village were also arrested.
A private conversation between journalist Tanushree Pandey and the victim’s brother was leaked.
That prompted concern that authorities had tapped her phone and leaked the call to try and discredit her or punish her for breaking the news of the cremation.
Broadcaster India Today has defended its journalist, stating journalists should be able to report “without fear or favour”.
“When I was there, there was no political angle,” journalist Pragya Mishra said.
“It was only justice for the girl and why cremate the body.
“But after I was there, I’m watching the TV and see all these people try to polarise this issue. That’s not right.”
The case is now in the hands of federal police and four men have been charged with gang rape, murder and crimes against a member of the Dalit community, who are given special protections under Indian law. The accused deny the charges.
Five local police officers, including the village’s local district police chief, have been suspended for negligence and laxity.
Top Government officials will be hauled before the state’s High Court, with the district magistrate describing the events as a “violation of basic human and fundamental rights not only of the deceased victim but also her family members”.
It’s asked local police to go back and look at the state’s rape laws, after the alleged rape was left off the forensic report.
Government officials have defended the late-night cremation, stating it was necessary to prevent caste unrest.
Uttar Pradesh is dangerous for women
The state of Uttar Pradesh has reported the highest number of cases of violence against women and the second-highest number of rapes, according to official data.
In India, one Dalit woman is raped every 15 minutes.
The way police and the State Government behaved in this case fits an established record of upper-caste offenders being given preferential treatment, according to the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly.
“There has been a crackdown on critics, claims this is a political narrative, blaming journalists and denying rape,” she said.
“Now this whole case has been filed against protesters alleging this was part of an international conspiracy, somehow linked to the Black Lives [Matter] movement.”
Prakash Singh, a former director of Uttar Pradesh police and advocate of police reform, criticised officers for claiming no rape had occurred.
But he did not believe evidence had been destroyed in the late-night cremation.
He also said late-night cremations had been done in the past to quell brewing unrest, but such measures were not necessary in this case.
“It was undignified,” he said.
Mr Singh’s criticism was, in this case, levelled towards India’s opposition Congress party, stating it has tried to use the woman’s death to smear the BJP Government.
But he also said states across India had failed to implement reforms to ensure police were not politicised.
“The states are playing dirty games. They want to retain their stranglehold over police.”
Ms Ganguly said the ruling BJP party had failed to implement protections for lower-caste women.
“I find it odd they are so bent on denying rape as though a woman with a fractured spine and severely injured tongue … is acceptable,” she said.
“Is it that this Government doesn’t care about women? Is it that this Government doesn’t care about Dalits?”