Uttar Pradesh is India’s badlands, both in terms of crime and police atrocities. But even by its abysmal standards, the state has plumbed new depths with the Hathras rape case and its aftermath.
A Lakshman Rekha was crossed that night in a Hathras village when the police seemingly connived with the district administration to deny the victim’s family the right to cremate her and burnt the body themselves in the wee hours of the morning. There were no rituals to dignify the cremation; just a pile of burning logs to remove every trace of evidence that there was once a girl who was gang-raped and viciously tortured before she died.
Since then, the police and other authorities have thrown caution to the winds to beat back national outrage over the incident. They have resorted to a grotesque display of muscle power, brandishing lies and lathis to intimidate opposition leaders, the media and the victim’s family.
In retrospect, the Hathras horror was waiting to happen. The seeds were sown the day Yogi Adityanath was sworn in as chief minister in 2017. One of his earliest decisions was to give the police a free hand on the plea of restoring law and order, which he claimed had broken down in five years of Samajwadi Party’s “jungle raj”.
He gave the green signal for police encounters to cleanse UP of criminals. The order was “thok do (hit them)”, no questions asked. UP set a national record. In three years, the state has reported 6,145 encounters with 119 accused dead. No action has ever been taken against errant officers even when the encounter was obviously staged.
The most notorious such incident was the killing of Vikas Dubey, a small-time gangster from Kanpur. He had surrendered but was shot dead anyway on the excuse that he was trying to escape from police custody. His death raised questions about a nexus between him and the police. The matter has been hushed up.
The police was encouraged to flex its muscles with ordinary citizens too, through “anti-Romeo squads’’. The ostensible reason was to stop inter-faith marriages and the squads were empowered to pick up any couple on mere suspicion. The operation turned sour very quickly as the police went overboard with such unfettered power.
They forced their way into private residences, rounded up married couples and arrested even a brother and sister on the mistaken assumption that they were lovers. Not a single police officer has been hauled up for harassment or punished for wrongful confinement.
By the time protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill spilled out on the streets of UP last winter, the police was on a high thanks to the nod-and-wink attitude of the leadership. It manhandled the protestors, behaved in a vulgar manner with women, arrested whomsoever it wanted and framed prominent activists in criminal cases.
Police impudence went several steps further with the force putting up banners in Lucknow that carried photographs of arrested protestors along with their names and addresses. This was a clear violation of personal freedom and privacy. Ultimately, the Allahabad High Court intervened and ordered the removal of the banners.
Law and order in UP has been in steep decline for decades. But today, the state is rapidly descending into chaos under a force that does everything but police. Rapes, murders and caste atrocities bloody the landscape on a daily basis with UP topping the list of crimes in several categories, according to National Crime Records Bureau statistics.
This is hardly surprising when the man in charge is himself a tainted figure and doesn’t believe in the due process of law or respect for human dignity. Adityanath was a controversial figure long before he became chief minister. He came to the job with criminal cases pending against him.
It has become commonplace for MPs and MLAs to have a record of criminal cases. But political parties usually draw a red line when it comes to choosing someone to head a government. The BJP erased that line with Adityanath.
One of the first things the CM did after assuming office was to have all the cases against him withdrawn. And ever since, he has turned the police into a tool to run UP as his personal fiefdom where laws can be broken.
With assembly elections looming in early 2022, Adityanath could prove to be an albatross around the BJP’s neck.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 7, 2020 under the title “On His Watch”. The writer is a senior journalist