India’s Rape ScandalView film
Another case which has shocked the nation.
RAMITA NAVAI, Correspondent:
India has been experiencing a wave of shocking rape cases—
There seems to be no end to the shock and horror, with brutal rapes being reported on a daily basis.
The government has vowed zero tolerance, but dozens of politicians are facing charges of crimes against women, including nine recent rape cases.
Another woman was raped and no case was registered despite her approaching the cops.
And allegations of abuse and cover-up keep surfacing.
I travelled into India in March 2021, just before a lethal surge in COVID. I came to investigate two rape cases that had drawn police, politicians and even the Indian prime minister into controversy.
My destination was the state of Uttar Pradesh, home to more than 200 million people.
Uttar Pradesh the most populous state in India and the most electorally significant. It also holds a less impressive statistic: It has the second-highest reported number of rapes in the whole country.
This is the woman behind one of the cases. She told us that she's been receiving death threats and is under 24/7 police protection, making it impossible to do an on-camera interview with her. She's not been publicly identified, and we've agreed to call her Jaya.
The man she accused of rape is Kuldeep Singh Sengar, then a powerful politician in India’s ruling BJP party. He’s now in prison for Jaya’s rape but still has a loyal following.
We’ve pieced together the story of what happened from court records and our own reporting on the ground.
We’re following some local guides. They're on motorbikes up here, and we're going to get—we’re trying to get into Jaya’s village.
Jaya and her family are from Unnao, the area Kuldeep Sengar represented in the state legislative assembly. They lived in the same village and were neighbors.
Somehow word of our visit had reached the village.
Even though Sengar's in prison, he and his family still control the area.
They explained they didn’t want anyone associated with Sengar or his family to see them with foreign journalists.
You’re scared of being killed?
He will not forgive anyone if someone's against him. Against Kuldeep Singh Sengar.
Someone who has known Sengar for years agreed to speak to me, as long as we concealed his identity.
[Speaking Hindi] I’d describe him as a political criminal. He breaks all the rules, be it politics or land grabbing. He was good at these kinds of criminal activities. No law enforcement official could stop him. He’d have their families kidnapped. No one could report him.
In June 2017, Jaya, then 16 years old, was asked to visit Sengar’s house for a job interview. In her court testimony, she described what happened next.
JAYA’S COURT TESTIMONY
ACTOR’S VOICE [reading testimony]:
The door opened. We reached the courtyard. Sengar caught me by my hand and dragged me to his room. He stripped me of my clothes. He closed the door and subjected me to a sexual assault. When I opposed, he said, "If you raise a voice, I will murder you."
Jaya has testified initially she told only her aunt. But afterwards, some men who worked with Sengar went looking for her.
Just days after Jaya was raped by Sengar, she was kidnapped from her village, bundled into a car and brought here to the town of Kanpur, where she says she was held in a house and gang raped for over a week.
In testimony and public statements Jaya described what she said happened to her.
JAYA INTERVIEW, The Print
The men took turns to rape me. I recognized two of them as Sengar’s men. They kept me on sedatives. Once I even tried to flee, but I was caught and sedated again.
After eight days, police found Jaya alone in a house. They took down the names of the men she said kidnapped and raped her, but they refused to register her rape allegation against Sengar.
AISHWARYA S. IYER, The Quint:
People are petrified of Kuldeep Sengar. He is exceptionally strong locally, financially, politically, backed by goons, by thugs.
Journalist Aishwarya Iyer has investigated the rape case and other criminal allegations against Sengar going back years.
AISHWARYA S. IYER:
Her allegation is that she tried to get a complaint registered against Kuldeep Sengar, but his name was repeatedly dropped.
The Uttar Pradesh Police did not respond to our requests for comment. A former head of the force told me the case reflects a disturbing trend of politicians interfering in police matters.
V.N. RAI, Fmr. Director General, Uttar Pradesh Police:
They will promote a particular person, they will support him. They will get him appointed as the station officer. That's why you see that this lady kept on running from pillar to post and nobody initially listened to her. Nobody tried to help her.
Jaya wouldn’t give up. After two months she went to the state capital, Lucknow, where the chief minister was holding an open meeting for people to present their concerns.
The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh is Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu nationalist. He's also one of the most powerful men in the country. Within a year of becoming chief minister, he ordered the withdrawal of thousands of criminal cases against politicians. These cases included violence against women.
Adityanath is a senior member of the ruling BJP party and often touted as a future Indian prime minister. Jaya told us she was able to meet him and he assured her that her allegations would be dealt with. He then asked her to leave.
I.P. SINGH, Former BJP politician:
[Speaking Hindi] I was in the BJP at the time. I was the BJP's spokesperson.
I.P. Singh was expelled from the BJP in 2019 after calling its top leadership "thugs."
[Speaking Hindi] The rape victim came with her family. They said, "Please, Chief Minister, give us justice." But they were not given justice. Instead, the chief minister insulted them and told them to get lost.
Because Sengar was with the BJP, the entire government, along with the chief minister, were trying to save him to protect the image of the government.
Court documents show the chief minister’s office passed Jaya’s allegations to the police but no action was taken. Meanwhile, Sengar telephoned Jaya’s uncle to pressure her to stay silent. I’ve been given a recording of one of these calls, later used in evidence.
KULDEEP SINGH SENGAR:
[Speaking Hindi] Tell everyone, whatever happened is done! So just stop them and call it off.
[Speaking Hindi] Sure.
But Jaya didn’t drop the accusation. In April 2018, Jaya’s father, Surendra, was attacked by a group of men he said were led by Sengar’s brother, Atul Singh. A journalist filmed Surendra afterwards, inside the police station.
[Speaking Hindi] They kept beating me. And the police didn’t save me. They beat me until I was unconscious.
[Speaking Hindi] Who hit you?
[Speaking Hindi] Kuldeep’s brother, Atul Singh. He and four of his men.
Instead of helping Surendra, local police officers arrested him, claiming he owned an illegal weapon. Phone records show that Sengar spoke to the officers 10 times during this period. Surendra suffered internal injuries and would later die.
After the attack, Jaya, her mother and sister went to the chief minister’s residence.
[Speaking Hindi] Father!
Jaya doused herself in kerosene.
AISHWARYA S. IYER:
The girl tried to burn herself. Obviously she wanted media attention. She wanted someone to listen.
The policemen and security put blankets on her, ensured that she wouldn’t die. But I think that’s when we all woke up.
[Speaking Hindi] The BJP is saving him. The government is saving him.
Until this moment, Jaya’s case had received little publicity. Now there was a national outcry about it. Sengar publicly confronted the allegations for the first time.
KULDEEP SINGH SENGAR:
[Speaking Hindi] Oh, they’re low-class. It’s just a plot by criminals. They’re just criminals.
The controversy drew in India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has promised zero tolerance for rape.
[Speaking Hindi] The incidents in the news in the last two days are shameful for any society.
The prime minister ordered in federal detectives. Within days, Kuldeep Singh Sengar was arrested. It was 10 months since Jaya first went to the police.
KULDEEP SINGH SENGAR:
[Speaking Hindi] I've come here of my own accord.
He was later charged with rape and manslaughter.
We asked Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath for comment on how the case was handled, but he didn’t respond. Publicly, he rejected criticisms that Sengar had been protected.
[Speaking Hindi] The government will not compromise with the accused, in this case or any other.
A month before Jaya was due to give evidence in Sengar’s trial, there was a new development. Jaya, her two aunts and her lawyer were traveling to a meeting. That day the police security detail protecting her wasn’t with her.
Jaya never reached her destination. Their car was rammed by a truck with blacked-out plates.
A rape survivor who suffered critical injuries in a car-truck collision was airlifted to New Delhi.
Her two aunts and her lawyer died. Only Jaya would survive.
From prison, Sengar denied he had anything to do with the crash.
[Speaking Hindi] What do you have to say about the victim’s car accident?
KULDEEP SINGH SENGAR:
[Speaking Hindi] In regards to the victim’s accident, I ask that we all pray for her and her lawyer’s recovery.
India’s Supreme Court ordered 24/7 police protection for Jaya and moved Sengar’s trial from his home state to the capital, Delhi.
AISHWARYA S. IYER:
I really had to be there. There was heavy security outside. Sengar was brought in. He seemed scared. He was nervous about what the judge was going to say.
At that time we didn’t even know if the girl was going to survive or not. They set up a makeshift court in hospital for her to give her statement. And the judge said that her testimony was unblemished, truthful and of sterling quality.
DHARMENDRA MISHRA, Jaya's attorney:
This case came to the conclusion with the finding that the Kuldeep Sengar has been convicted for rape under 376 IPC.
Sengar received life in prison for Jaya’s rape and 10 years for manslaughter. Seven others, including two police officers, were also sent to prison for their roles in the killing of Jaya’s father. The men charged with kidnapping and gang raping Jaya are still awaiting trial.
AISHWARYA S. IYER:
It’s incredible how strong-willed this woman is. To see death so close, to see your family being consumed by a complaint that you are raising and to still be at it, how you are it, I think that's why it's significant. It's a stunning, stunning story.
Nine months later, another alarming rape case, in the Hathras area of Uttar Pradesh, raised more allegations of political cover-up.
We’re about to meet a journalist, Nidhi Suresh, who’s been investigating the Hathras alleged gang rape and the alleged cover-ups, and she says she’s got information to share with us.
In September 2020, she spotted tweets from a family asking for help because their 19-year-old daughter Manisha Valmiki said she'd been raped by four neighbors.
NIDHI SURESH, Newslaundry:
When we got there, there was zero press. Her mother and her aunt walked us to the crime scene.
Nidhi Suresh's footage
It was just a small clearing—which, by the way, the police had not sealed. It was open completely. She just kept saying, "Something bad happened to my daughter, something bad happened to my daughter," and she spoke about how she found her without any clothes.
RAMA VALMIKI, Manisha's mother:
[Speaking Hindi] What a sight to see, as a mother. [Cries]
We traveled to Manisha’s village. The Indian caste system is powerful here. Manisha’s family is from a lower caste. The men she said raped her are Thakurs, an influential high caste who own the majority of land here and include many police officers and politicians like the chief minister, Yogi Adityanath.
The parents of the men Manisha accused agreed to meet me. Their sons are in jail awaiting trial. They insisted that Manisha hadn’t been raped but that her own family had beaten her up as punishment for having a relationship with one of the accused men.
RAMVIR SINGH, Father of the accused:
[Speaking Hindi] Rape has never happened here. It doesn't happen here. It's all fake.
MUNI SINGH, Mother of the accused:
[Speaking Hindi] Their lives are wasted now. Who will employ them? Who will marry them? How will they ever be accepted?
After Manisha’s mother found her, she was taken to the local police station to report the attack. She’d been strangled and her spinal cord was damaged. A journalist happened to be there and filmed her.
[Speaking Hindi] Why did they strangle you?
[Speaking Hindi] I didn't want him to force himself on me. I resisted him while he was forcing himself on me.
In their report, the police noted she'd been violently assaulted but did not include her allegation of rape.
Eventually, Manisha was taken to Aligarh Hospital. Manisha’s cousin was with her.
NEERAJ KUMAR, Manisha’s cousin:
[Speaking Hindi] She was on a stretcher. She couldn't move her neck, arms or legs. Her eyes were red and streaming with tears.
Three days later, as the story began to get out, Manisha was filmed by another local journalist.
[Speaking Hindi] He strangled me. Then, inside—he took me. He strangled me. He tried to force himself on me. I refused, and so he strangled me. That’s it.
The hospital has not asked her if there’s been a sexual assault. No rape examination is conducted. Crucial evidence is lost. So according to the family, the doctors tell them that till they have a police complaint which registers rape, they’re not going to do anything about it.
The family went back to the police to try to get them to record the rape allegation.
[Speaking Hindi] We went to see the superintendent. We waited for three hours. No one came.
The government, the party, is trying to squash this because the men are from the same caste. They’re Thakurs, Yogi Adityanath is a Thakur and our state representative is a Thakur.
No one from the police would respond to our questions about how the case was handled. But according to official records it wasn’t until eight days later, as media reporting was gaining pace, that the police fully registered the rape allegations and asked doctors at the hospital to gather forensic evidence.
They don't find semen. But again, it's been too long after the incident. One of the doctors we spoke to said there were quite a few people among them, the medical staff, who were asked to sign a statement saying she did not look raped.
We spoke to several doctors involved in Manisha's treatment, but they were too frightened to appear on camera. They told us police and local officials asked them to downplay any evidence of rape.
By now, Manisha’s case had captured the attention of Chandrashekhar Azad, who leads the Bhim Army, which fights for lower caste rights.
CHANDRASHEKHAR AZAD RAVAN, Leader, Bhim Army:
[Speaking Hindi] Our local team went to the village and realized that the police were not taking action
because of pressure by local politicians and the government.
Chandrashekhar recorded his journey to Hathras, swapping vehicles to dodge the police.
CHANDRASHEKHAR AZAD RAVAN:
[Speaking Hindi] The police had blocked the whole area. I reached the hospital by motorcycle. I had to fight my way through and I demanded to see the girl.
He reached Manisha and began filming.
CHANDRASHEKHAR AZAD RAVAN:
[Speaking Hindi] She’s unable to speak right now. Her oxygen levels and blood pressure are also fluctuating.
Fearing Manisha would not survive, her family had a video statement from her made that could be used in court.
[Speaking Hindi] So they saw your mother and ran away. Were you conscious?
[Speaking Hindi] Semiconscious.
[Speaking Hindi] Semiconscious. OK, so you were raped?
[Speaking Hindi] Yes.
[Speaking Hindi] What happened after?
[Speaking Hindi] My mother put water on my face and asked me what happened.
By then she had suffered paralysis on all four of her limbs. She was having breathing difficulties. There were protests outside the hospital. And on 29th she passed away.
That evening journalists followed the police taking Manisha’s body back to her village. The family’s request for an independent postmortem were ignored.
[Speaking Hindi] They arrived here at 1:30 a.m. The district magistrate arrived amidst the family members, who were being pushed around by police. They were pressuring us to cremate her at night,
saying it would be difficult in the morning.
[Speaking Hindi] She's my daughter. I gave birth to her. How can you be so inhumane? [Crying]
[Speaking Hindi] What do you want?
[Speaking Hindi] I want to take my daughter home. I want to respect our Hindu traditions by performing her last rites. I want to apply turmeric on her before the cremation. I want to do this one last thing. She will never come back. [Cries]
Manisha’s cousin told me the family were confined to their homes and in the dead of night the police cremated her body.
[Speaking Hindi] We weren’t even allowed to look at her one last time.
In the aftermath, one of Uttar Pradesh’s most senior police officers denied Manisha had ever been raped.
PRASHANT KUMAR, ADG, Uttar Pradesh Police:
[Speaking Hindi] In the samples taken, there was no semen.
Some BJP politicians also publicly denied any rape had happened.
RAJVEER SINGH, BJP politician:
[Speaking Hindi] There was no incident. There was no rape. This is all false. It's all lies.
The day after after Manisha was cremated, her family was visited by the district magistrate, who encouraged them to withdraw the rape allegation. Neeraj filmed him.
[Speaking Hindi] You should think about revising your statement. I’ll leave that up to you. Soon the media will be gone and we’ll be the only ones here for you then.
[Speaking Hindi] They didn’t want it investigated. All this makes me question how can I be Hindu?
I keep questioning that.
The video went viral and fueled more unrest around the case. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath blamed the outrage on opposition parties and an international conspiracy to undermine him.
The trial of the four men Manisha accused has been delayed by COVID. Their lawyer claims Manisha’s video statements about the rape were fabricated.
There have been allegations that the Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's office has been trying to cover up this gang rape and has been trying to protect the accused.
A.P. SINGH, Lawyer for the accused:
[Speaking Hindi] This case was a conspiracy to defame the government. Yogi Adityanath would never protect a perpetrator. He would never do that.
Cases like Manisha’s and Jaya's continue to polarize India, pitting politics against families’ search for justice. One of India’s most respected and senior legal figures told me these cases should be a wake-up call for more accountability when it comes to violence against women.
MADAN LOKUR, Fmr. Supreme Court judge:
It's completely inexplicable. Why should anybody—not only the prime minister, or not only the chief minister—why should anybody remain silent when something like this happens? They should speak out. It doesn't matter who the perpetrator is. The government, the state, the police machinery, everybody should come out in the open and say that this is wrong.