Hundreds of people gathered in protest at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi on October 2, demanding justice for the 19-year-old Dalit woman who was gangraped and murdered in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. Civil society members and students were joined by several political leaders, including Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Bhim Army Chief Chandrashekhar Azad.

CM Kejriwal demanded strict punishment for the accused, stating, "The entire country wants that the culprits should be given stringent punishment. Some people feel that attempts are being made to save them. At this time, the victim's family needs all the possible help.”

Public outrage grew over the victim’s family alleging the police had cremated the body earlier this week, without consent, in the dead of night and in the absence of family members. "The police burnt her (victim's) with petrol even though the family did not give permission. She was burnt like garbage. They have no right to do that,” Chandrashekhar Azad said while speaking to the crowd at Jantar Mantar.

The 19-year-old was allegedly gangraped by four upper caste men and succumbed to injuries sustained during the assault on Tuesday at Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi.

While cries for justice reverberated at the protest site, news emerged that the Uttar Pradesh government had reportedly suspended Hathras Superintendent of Police Vikrant Vir, Circle Officer Ram Shabd, Inspector Dinesh Meena, Sub Inspector Jagveer Singh and the head constable probing the case.

Calls for the suspension of Hathras District Magistrate Praveen Kumar Laxkar also began doing the rounds with the emergence of a video on social media where the DM is allegedly heard issuing a veiled threat to the victim’s family. “Half of the media have left today, the other half will leave by tomorrow. Only we will stand with you. Now it is your decision, if you want to change your statement or not,” the media reported the DM as saying in the video.

Criticism mounted yesterday as the media was prevented from entering and reporting in Hathras. The Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) released a statement expressing their shock at the “arbitrary censorship” and blockage of all reportage from Hathras.

“The rape victim’s family’s phones have been seized and no one is being allowed to go to the village to meet them. Camera crews and reporters are standing on the road to the village but police has blocked their entry,” DUJ stated. They also referred to the incident where Trinamool Congress MPs Derek O’Brien, Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar and other leaders from the party were barred from entering Hathras and “roughed up”.

The day before, Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra were detained by the UP Police when they were attempting to reach Hathras to meet the victim’s family. Rahul Gandhi was pushed and physically manhandled by the cops.

On October 1, a senior UP police official had stated that as per the forensic report, the victim had not been raped. "The post-mortem report says the victim died due to her neck injury. FSL (Forensic Science Laboratory) report hasn't found sperm in samples, making it clear that some people twisted the matter to stir caste-based tension. Such people will be identified and legal action will be taken," NDTV reported the official as saying.

DUJ stated that the announcement raised suspicions, “besides being a misinterpretation of the rape law as it stands today. The hasty midnight cremation of the body precludes the possibility of a second post-mortem that could have cleared all suspicions in this matter.” Alleging mishandling by the UP government, the statement added, “When there is no transparency, questions are bound to be asked about what the government wants to hide and who it needs to protect.”

The protest on October 2, which was initially planned at India Gate but later shifted to Jantar Mantar due to prohibitory orders in Rajpath area, witnessed several calls for the resignation of the incumbent state government.

Left leaders, including CPI (M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, CPI general secretary D. Raja and politburo member Brinda Karat, present at Jantar Mantar along with other protestors demanded the resignation of the Yogi Adityanath-led government in UP.

"The silence of the central government and the top leadership of the BJP on such a heinous crime and the UP government's response thereafter speaks volumes about the authoritarian and anti-democratic 'chehra', 'chaal', 'charitra', and 'chintan' of the ruling party... "The Uttar Pradesh government has no right to stay in power. Our demand is that justice should be served,” PTI reported Yechury as saying.

Bollywood actor Swara Bhaskar, who joined protestors at Jantar Mantar, addressed the crowd: "People from different groups are here, this shows how enraged people are against what happened in Hathras, Balrampur, Azamgargh...there is a rape epidemic which has spread in the country, especially the kind of news we are getting from Uttar Pradesh.”

Besides Hathras, similar cases of rape and assault have been reported from the state this week. A 22-year-old Dalit woman died Tuesday after being allegedly raped and assaulted by two men in Balrampur district, UP. Two cases involving minors emerged from Azamgarh and Bulandshahr districts—an eight-year-old girl was allegedly raped by a 20-year-old man in Azamgarh while a 14-year-old girl was reportedly raped by her neighbour in Bulandshahr, all within hours of the Hathras victim succumbing to her injuries.

“What is happening in Uttar Pradesh is goondaraj,” PTI quoted activist and lawyer Prashant Bhushan at the protest site. “The police have surrounded the village, are not allowing opposition leaders and mediapersons to enter it. They have taken away the mobile phones of the family members of the victim,” Bhushan said.

According to reports, BJP leader Uma Bharti requested CM Adityanath to allow mediapersons and political leaders to meet the victim’s family in Hathras. In a series of tweets, she stated that if she were not COVID-positive at the moment, she would have visited the family herself, reported The Indian Express.

She tweeted that though she was reluctant to speak at first, believing the CM would be taking appropriate action, “However, the manner in which the police barricaded the village has raised several doubts, irrespective of whatever arguments.”

“UP police’s suspicious action has dented the image of BJP, UP government and the state chief minister Yogi Adityanath,” The Indian Express quoted Bharti’s tweets.

Women’s groups have also circulated a statement condemning the brutal incident and demanding immediate action against state officials responsible for “mishandling the case, destroying key evidence, and further traumatising the family and community.”

They allege that the incident is a blatant case of “upper caste power and patriarchy operating through both, socially sanctioned violence and through state agencies” with the police mishandling the case—from refusing to file an FIR to denying her rape and inhumanly cremating her.

“It is evident that the ruling powers have no interest in pursuing the cause of justice and holding the guilty accountable for their heinous crimes,” the statement read.

While many enraged protestors at Jantar Mantar called for capital punishment for the culprits, the women’s group’s statement said that the state must not push a rhetoric of death penalty for rape, reminding all that the hanging of those held guilty in the December 2012 gangrape and murder case barely six months ago, has not stopped such incidents from occurring in Hathras, Balrampur, Azamgarh and Bulandshahr most recently.

Some of the endorsers’ demands include the resignation of the present UP government, an independent enquiry against the guilty by the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court, prosecution of both criminals and negligent state officials for caste atrocities, and the safety and security of the victim’s family.