“आप बताना दीदी, मैं गलत बोल रही हूँ क्या…गरीब की बेटी की इज्ज़त नहीं होती क्या!”
“You tell me, sister, I am saying anything wrong … doesn’t the daughter of a poor person not have any not respect?”
We reached Gurmandi, about 10 km from the heart of New Delhi’s Connaught Place, at about 5.15 pm on 22 October, 2020. We were there to learn more about about the seventeen year old Dalit girl who was allegedly raped and murdered by her employer in Model Town on October 4. We turned into a narrow lane, and her house was upstairs, in a building at the end of the lane – just one room.
Her aunt, her mother’s younger sister, was settling the room after visitors had left, when we arrived. In the course of conversation, we discovered that she had not even had time to eat – she had returned from work and there were visitors, and we were there and she was trying to make us feel at home. This endless stream of visitors had become routine, since October 16. The girl’s older aunt lived not far away, and had also arrived to meet us.
Socioeconomic background of the family
The two sisters we met, aunts of the girl allegedly murdered, had never been to school. Both worked as domestic workers in the homes of people living in independent houses in Model Town. The older sister has been in Delhi for 20 years, and had arrived because her sister-in-law was already in Delhi, working as a domestic worker. The sisters, originally from UP’s Basti district, were born to landless a labourer who would farm land taken on rent. They would get wheat and rice from the fields, but it was hard to manage fuel for cooking or even edible oil, they said. To make ends meet, they came looking for work in the national capital.
The older of the two sisters had just become a grandmother three day ago, and she had her daughter-in-law and newborn grandchild waiting for her back home – she had left them at home to come and talk with us.
The younger sister had been in Delhi seven years, working as a domestic help in Kamala Nagar in Shakti Nagar. Her husband, a plumber, would set out to do whatever work he found, sometimes riding his cycle all the way to Dwarka, over 20 km away.
Both sisters think of their 17-year-old niece as a daughter. She too had never been to school. (It may be pertinent to mention here that the 19-year-old girl from Hathras who was raped and murdered in September had also dropped out of school since her family found it hard to let her out without the fear of harassment; also, a national highway had come up through Bhulgardi, her village, which made it difficult for her to access the school) The 17-year-old had lost her mother, who died in childbirth after bearing a son. Her father lives in the village with the young son. An older sister is married.
Her mother’s two sisters had taken the girl under their wing with great love. She lives with her younger aunt in Gurmandi. This was the first time she had begun to work, at the house in Model Town. She had earlier worked in a house in Rajori Garden, where she was expected to stay on as a full-time domestic help. She had started work on Republic Day this year. During the lockdown, the family that she worked for kept her back in their home, while her aunt, who lost her job in Delhi in the lockdown, returned to her village in UP. There were three domestic workers in the Rajouri Garden house – one left, and the 17-year-old was expected to take on additional tasks. She then told her aunt that she would like to return and look for work elsewhere. Her uncle went on his cycle to pick her up on September 24, and the two returned home.
The Nishad community that the family belongs to is listed as a Scheduled Caste in Delhi and among Other Backward Castes in UP. In UP, members of this group have been demanding recognition as under the Scheduled Tribe category.
On 25 September, the younger aunt had decided in a discussion with Renu Mittal, a resident of Kamala Nagar, that her niece would work there. On 26 September Renu Mittal said that she had found another girl to work there, but she said that her mother lived alone in Model Town and was looking for a domestic servant who would also take care of the old lady’s other needs. The aunt went to the place and met the lady, settled the terms and conditions of work and took her niece there. Between 26 September and October 4, when the girl was allegedly murdered, the aunt had only been able to meet her niece once. The girl and her aunt were both called to Renu Mittal’s house to meet. “There were four other men present at the table when we met. We were unable to speak with each other in private that time,” the aunt recalls. Even on October 4, at 3 pm, the last time that the two spoke on the phone, the elderly Drupadi Bansal had not allowed the girl to speak to her aunt in private; she handed the phone to her and expected the girl to speak in her presence.
Just one hour after that conversation, Dhrupadi Bansal had tried to reach the aunt over her phone, but she was away at work and had not taken her mobile phone with her. When the aunt returned at about 5.30 pm, she was called to meet the girl immediately by both Renu Mittal and her mother Dhrupadi Bansal. Renu Mittal took the girl’s aunt with her in her car to the Bansal house, and on the way, Renu’s brother Atul Bansal called several times to ensure that the aunt was indeed accompanying his sister.
Renu Mittal explained to the aunt in the car that the girl had locked herself up in her room, and policemen had gathered at the spot. She instructed the aunt to inform police if she was asked that the girl was 19 years old, not a minor. As they reached the young aunt saw many policemen in all directions. After the policemen found out who she was from Renu Mittal, an officer assured her that she was not to fear, she would soon be united with her niece.
The door of the driver’s room was opened by a policeman and the aunt said she saw the girl’s shoulder. She thought the girl was angry and was standing with her back to the door – but she realized that the girl was hanging from the ceiling fan, her head tilted to one side, a noose around her neck, her hands had turned blue. The cloth that was used to hang her from the ceiling was not the girl’s dupatta or any other cloth belonging to her – the only clothes on her were the black t-shirt and printed pyjama on the lifeless body of her niece.
The aunt was shocked by the suddenness of the revelation – after having waited to meet her daughter for so long – no one had informed her, neither had Renu Mittal indicated in the car that the girl had died; nor had Mittal’s mother while talking over the phone; nor the police.
What was worse was the total lack of concern or compassion – the policemen, including the S.P., and the Inspector, had been served Pepsi, and they bantered with the others in the house as the aunt sat dazedand confused, wondering what might have caused her beloved niece to take her life. “My daughter was hanging from a noose and these people were laughing over the body of a poor girl” the young aunt recalled.
The aunt insisted that until other members of her family arrived, the body would not be taken anywhere else. The policemen refused to heed this and forcibly carried away the body. The family insisted that the body be handed back to the family; in time, members of the family from the village also arrived on the spot. The police gave free reign to the members of the family in whose home the body was recovered – but all members of the girl’s family who arrived to seek her body were roughly carted off to the police station.
One woman working in the opposite house was passing by, and stopped to tell the policeman: “Beti bachao ab fansi lagao ho gaya hai’(The “save our daughters” slogan of the government has now become ‘hang our daughters!’) The police officer was so infuriated by this that he forced that woman to get into the police vehicle and go to the police station along with members of the girl’s family. Speaking with members of the family while together, this woman informed the family that similar situations had also taken place in the past in the Bansal household.
The police behaved very badly with the family – they neither filed an FIR, nor did the family receive the body of the 17-year-old daughter. In fact the police kept verbally abusing them. About 20 members of the family, including elders and women with their children, were made to wait in the police station until 2 am on October 5. The policemen produced some documents and asked them to sign with their fingerprints. Unable to get the body of the girl despite their protests, the family returned home.
The policemen refused to believe that the girl’s two aunts and other members of her family were actually her kin. Four days later, the policemen said the body would be sent for post-mortem and marked as an unclaimed body, given that they could not establish kinship with the girl. The angry family members went to the house of Bansal and raised slogans – someone saw the driver escaping from the house, the man from whose room the body was recovered. Someone hurled a stone at him as he ran, and the policemen attacked the family members and threatened them, saying such stone pelting caused damage to flower pots in the house. “An elderly woman lives in the house, she could have been hurt,” policemen said. The family was picked up and taken to the police station, where they were detained until midnight for causing damage to flower pots in the old woman’s house. The same police, so ready to file an FIR against the family over flower pots, however, was unable to lodge an FIR against those responsible for the death of their child or return the body to the family for four days.
On October 8, some members of the girl’s family were taken by the police in a vehicle. The policemen did not think it necessary to inform the family where they were being taken, and drove them to the hospital. Once they reached a guard told them it was Safdarjung hospital. The older aunt saw the body lying in a vehicle, as if it was an unclaimed body; that was the day of the post-mortem examination. They were only allowed to see the body from a distance, and wanted to have access to it for the final rites – policemen however just took them all straight to the crematorium. In the normal course, the body would have been bathed, the clothes would have been changed, mourning rituals would have been performed – the police allowed none of this to happen. The police inspector repeatedly asked how many people would arrive for the final rites. It was an attempt to estimate what the size of the gathering to view the body would be. At the crematorium, about 300-400 policemen had already been stationed in uniform.
Few people were allowed within the crematorium, and from the moment they arrived the police inspector seemed to want to finish everything fast. Logs had been gathered, and petrol had been kept ready to set the body on fire. The girl’s father was forced to light the pyre under duress by policemen – it was not just a cremation; it could more accurately be described as an attempt to destroy evidence of crime.
Model Town is very close to Delhi University, and several university students take rooms on rent in the area. When the family protested outside the police station, students too learned of the incident and sent out messages on social media. On October 16, as members of the family and Gurmandi residents gathered to protest at the police station, weary and angry over the loss of their daughter and unable to comprehend why police should refuse to file an FIR, students, lawyers and mediapersons too joined the protest. In the presence of some media people and students, police officers, specifically including the SHO, the SP, brutally beat up 12 members of the family who were on protest. The girl’s uncle was beaten so badly that he developed severe pain in one year and lost his hearing in that year. We met one 60-year-old who had black welts on her back, from that day’s beating. Even an 8 years old child was beaten. Among those beaten up was Caravan magazine journalist Ahan Penkar. One Muslim student who was part of the protestors was told that he would be chased back to his native village and beaten up; one Sikh student was stripped of his turban. The lawyer was treated badly with sexist abuses. The SP Ajay Kumar humiliated the family after beating them and told them they should jump. This continued for 8 hours simply because the policemen were infuriated that the family was insisting on their legal rights to an FIR. An FIR in the matter has not yet been registered, although there is circumstantial evidence to suggest rape and murder; meanwhile, an FIR has been lodged against protesting students for violating protocol in the time of COVID-19.
For an ordinary citizen, the first step to seeking justice is the police. But what happens to the ordinary person when policemen drink Pepsi with the accused and oppress those seeking justice? The members of the girl’s family are quite convinced that the Bansal family has paid offthe police.
In the short while that she worked at the Bansal home, there was one occasion when the elderly lady stepped out and locked the house, leaving the girl out of the house. When informed that she had been locked out, the elderly Bansal lady instructed the girl to rest in the driver’s room. The driver was in his room, so the girl refused to enter it and waited near the stairs for four hours. The girl had told her aunt about this over the phone.
Some questions that the girl’s family is asking:
- If it was indeed a case of suicide, why was the body not returned to the family? Why would the police pick up the whole family and take the to the police station?
- Why was the post-mortem examination conducted four days after the death? Was it an attempt to obliterate evidence of rape?
- If it was indeed a case of suicide, why could the family not have taken the body for their ritual bath and to covered it in new clothes for the final rites? Why did such a large contingent of about 400 policemen gather at the crematorium, and what was the need for hurriedly gathering up wood and keeping petrol at the ready to light the pyre?
- Atul Bansal, son of the elderly lady, was in the house at the time of the incident. Did he too rape the daughter along with the driver? Why is the old lady protecting the driver?
- Assuming that the girl and the driver had entered into a relationship, does it make sense for her to commit suicide? She was a girl of strength, quite brave. The family refuses to believe that she hid something from them, or decided to end her own life.
- If the policemen have not received a bribe from the Bansal family, then why are they not filing an FIR in this case?
These are questions that the family placed before the fact finding team, inquiring how they can be explained if the policemen are not conspiring with the accused in this matter. What possible pressure could lead to the policemen not filing an FIR? Do the police think that this injustice meted out on a poor, minor girl is a small issue and want to dispose of it? Or do their actions suggest that they are going to lengths to hatch a conspiracy to claim a rape murder is a suicide, and make the evidence disappear to protect the accused?
We are still grappling with questions over the role of the police in what happened in Hathras, UP, when this rape-murder of a 19-year-old Valmiki girl occurred in the national capital. Instances of policemen not acting in accordance with the law in cases of atrocity against Dalits in this country, especially women, have given a boost to the impunity with which criminals act, leaving girls and women vulnerable and justice a far cry.
‘We have never let her know any want’
While reminiscing about leaving her daughter at her workplace, her aunt said she had told Mrs Bansal that her daughter was well loved, well fed and well taken care of, with no shortage or want. She had asked the Bansals to ensure that her daughter was treated the same way and never lacked in food and rest. She requested that Mrs Bansal too take good care of the young girl. Since the girl had not yet been enrolled for an Aadhaar number, the girl’s aunt had used her own Aadhaar number as the necessary identification document for purposes of police verification. Within two to three days of the girl working there, Mrs Bansal had told the aunt that the girl would roll out perfect rotis, but she was still not so skilled at cooking rotis on the tawa. The aunt had told her that the girl was not accustomed to domestic work, and would learn with a little practice and instruction. The aunt said she had entrusted her daughter to the family and had expected that her faith in them would be well placed. Now she feels cheated. Did the Bansal family not have a responsibility to the victim? Do the rich have no responsibility to those whose labour they seek to benefit from?
The girl had no phone of her own, coming from a family of daily wage workers, and was dependent on Mrs Bansal to call her family. Every time the girl got an opportunity to talk to her aunt, she tried to go a little away to hold a private conversation, but Mrs Bansal would stop her and insist to the girl “say what you want to in my presence; there was no need for privacy”.
This dependence on Mataji’s phone contributed to the victim’s helplessness. How can the oppressive class and caste “maliks” suppress the fundamental rights of poor, dalit or OBC workers in this society by taking advantage of their helpless situations? How can people who belong to a ‘higher’ caste and class justify snatching the same rights they hold dear, away from people of another caste or class! We say that every human being is free in this country, but still the owners of capital treat workers as if they have purchased the life of the these workers for their measly salary of only 10,000.
This incident showed us how insecure and helpless the life of a poor minor girl of a Nishad community, is in a male dominated, patriarchal, casteist, classist society. It also shows how caste and class dominate your access to justice even after death. Neither can the people of the exploited castes lead a life of peace and self-respect, nor can even they even in death get justice and dignity from the Brahminical patriarchal society. The girl got little privacy or dignity in life, and her family gets no justice now, after her death – it is like dignity, justice and privacy are all just privileges of the rich in independent India.
Protection for domestic workers
Girls are hired as 24 hours domestic workers in some of the larger houses, which are called Kothis. They are paid to look after everything from the cleanliness of the entire house to the cooking to attending to and providing comfort to the homeowners. Before hiring a woman or a girl, she is thoroughly investigated, an Aadhaar card or some other document is demanded so that the domestic worker can be caught if there is a theft in the house or something goes wrong. This doubt is investigated at the foundation. This investigation is a socially and institutionally sanctioned way of providing security to the houseowners.
But when harassment or exploitation happens in these kothis with the same worker, then they do not have any kind of institutional or social security. On the contrary, their character is questioned. We understand that in a non-equal society, the scale of suspicion and security is determined by casteist, patriarchal norms. While measures are in place for police verification of workers, this is only for protection for the employer – there ought to be provisions in law to protect domestic workers, especially those living full time in large, independent houses that the working women call “kothis”. There is need for institutional protection for women working in such situations – there is little social security in such work, and women risk their lives and honour in such work.
In the past also, domestic workers have raised many issues regarding the safety and working space of women. This incident has again raised this question around how the safety of domestic workers women can be ensured. Cases of sexual violence, harassment by owners, caste discrimination and untouchability have become commonplace in domestic work. Sexual abuse is common, and when charges are made, aspersions are cast on the character of the working woman. When domestic workers go to work at someone’s home, they enquire about the area of the house, the room, the type of work, and the salary, to decide whether to work there or not. But in view of the increasing incidence of sexual exploitation, it is now necessary for working women to investigate the attitude of the owners and the conditions in which they keep workers in their homes. This can be possible only when domestic workers can come together and raise such questions and decide for themselves the way to solve their problems. Especially when all the government and non-governmental organizations of the country work only for the people of a certain caste, class, religion and gender, only the unity of the working women can get them justice. Attempts must be made to form stronger unions of women engaged in domestic work, so they can bargain collectively for better conditions of work.
The fight for justice
“You tell me, sister, if I am saying anything wrong, if someone will not give me my daughter’s corpse for 4 days, what could we do other than get angry and throw stones. Why does this happen to us poor people? Isn’t our daughter a daughter? If even a dog or a cat in one of those kothis dies, then the entire police force is put to work. Here my daughter is raped and murdered, whom should we go to? Those people are not even willing to write an FIR. People of our own caste are discriminated against. Does not the daughter of the poor have any respect? We will fight for justice not just for our daughter, but for every daughter of society”. In the same vein, both the aunt and her family are talking in the utmost level of detail to every media-worker, lawyer, social worker, local leader, political party leader, who has been arriving to meet the family since October 16, in the hope that there will be someone who will listen to them and get justice. But the FIR has not been filed yet!
These types of employers are murderers who are being protected by the state structure and caste class networks. The role of that employer in this rape and murder needs proper investigation and strict punishment. Strict action should also be taken against all those policemen who have avoided performing their duty and have not followed the law.
Some media people too have been insensitive – one India Today reporter filmed the story. When the girl’s uncle called the reporter to ask if the video that he had taken had been shown on TV, the reporter said, “You’ve got Rs15 lakh, and you’ve not thanked me yet.” “Are we celebrating something? Should we be thanking the media?” the girl’s uncle asked. Some people from political parties also came to meet the family, talked big, said encouraging words, yet they have still not been able to get an FIR registered! One team even went to the crossroads and took pictures; another leader wrote a letter that he is not happy with the investigation of the police, but still nothing has been done on this. According to the victim’s lawyer, there is no hope from the National and Delhi Women’s Commission and they are not raising the issue.
Some families in the neighbourhood have stood with this family through these trials; some of them, also with young daughters in round-the-clock domestic work, have now asked their daughters to leave work and return, in fear. The anger in people is turning to fear, fear that they will not be heard, they will not get justice.
We consider the rape and murder that took place with the working class girl of the poor minor Nishad community in this unequal, casteist, patriarchal, society as a murder mediated by these structures and systems. Through this report, we want to bring the grief and suffering of the family to the general public, so that with the support of all of you, the family and the people standing with them will feel supported, united and can shed their fear and turn their grief and anger towards a battle of justice.
- An FIR should be registered in this matter without further delay
- There should be a fair, impartial probe. Drupadi Bansal, her daughter Renu and son Atul, along with driver Subhash should be questioned.
- Model Town ACP Ajay Kumar, SHO and other officials should be charged with the assault of protestors, including members of the family of the victim and journalists.
- IPC 166A (public servant disobeying direction under law) should be invoked against the policemen.
- Measures should be considered under law for proper protection from sexual harassment of women domestic workers.