The registration of multiple police cases in Uttar Pradesh on charges of conspiracy and sedition is an insensitive, albeit unsurprising, response to the legitimate outrage sparked by the way in which its officials had handled the aftermath of the gang rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Hathras. The State administration is seeking to convert the outcry and political advocacy into a putative conspiracy to foment caste discord. There seems to be inadequate recognition that initial attempts to deny that any rape took place and to prevent political leaders and the media from meeting the girl’s family pointed to an administrative posture hostile to the doing of complete justice. It was only to be expected that such an attitude would create a backlash against the State government. The only way to restore its image is to display empathy for the victim and treat protests seeking justice as legitimate. Even though the suspects named by the 19-year-old before her death in a Delhi hospital have been arrested and the FIR includes the charge of gang rape, there are clear signs that the Yogi Adityanath government is adopting dubious tactics to prevent what it sees as the crystallisation of public opinion against itself. Recognising that the formation of an SIT did not help undo the damage to the government’s image, the Chief Minister recommended a CBI investigation. However, even that came across as a move to fob off any adverse order from the Allahabad High Court, which has taken suo motu cognisance of the matter.
Remarks by senior police officers to the effect that there was no evidence of rape — citing the absence of semen in swabs taken for forensic analysis — indicated an official reluctance to acknowledge the gang-rape part of the offence. Latest reports suggest that a journalist on his way to Hathras and three others have been detained. They are also sought to be linked to the Popular Front of India, an organisation whose name came up in connection with recent riots and anti-government protests. This raises the suspicion of an attempt to control the narrative by resorting to a template of identifying members of a communal organisation as alleged conspirators and instigators of violence. The template includes the use of penal provisions relating to sedition and conspiracy and the projection of a theory that all protests and political activity against it constitute a plot to overthrow the government. A responsive government would have endeavoured to extend a healing touch, reassure the victims, and reserve its wrath for the offenders. Instead, the Adityanath government is focusing on blaming political leaders, pressuring the victim’s family and preventing the emergence of a united voice against sexual violence, attacks on the marginalised communities and the devastating effect an unregenerate caste hierarchy has on society.