The family members of a Dalit girl in India who died after she was gang raped have accused the authorities of forcefully cremating her body in the middle of the night without their consent.
The 19-year-old from a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district, 200km (124 miles) from the Indian capital New Delhi, was raped in a field near her house on September 14 by four suspects belonging to upper castes in the Hindu religion’s hierarchy.
Officials said she suffered paralysis due to severe injuries to her spinal cord and died two weeks later in a New Delhi hospital on September 29, triggering nationwide outrage, protests and the detention of opposition leaders.
The teenager’s body was cremated in an open field in Hathras around 3am on Wednesday (21:30 GMT on Tuesday) in the presence of nearly two dozen police and other officials.
But the teenager’s family members alleged the cremation was carried out against their wishes, with neither of her parents present.
“We told the administration we want to cremate her in the morning as per Hindu rituals, but they did not listen to us. They locked us inside our home and burned her body,” the girl’s brother told Al Jazeera.
“We kept shouting from inside the house but they did not listen to us and cremated her using petrol. Petrol is never used for the last rites but why would they care?”
The family said they wanted to see the girl’s face once more before her cremation, but the authorities refused.
“The last time we saw her face was just after the post-mortem [autopsy] was done. They did not even accord us the basic dignity of allowing us to watch her face one last time,” her brother said.
On Tuesday night, moving footage of the girl’s female relatives and villagers throwing themselves on the bonnet of an ambulance carrying her body was broadcast on Indian television.
The girl belonged to the Dalit community, at the lowest rung of the complex Hindu caste hierarchy, which has been subjected to systematic discrimination and violence for centuries.
All four men arrested so far in the case belong to the influential Thakur community.
The state administration, however, rejected claims the girl’s body was cremated forcefully and without permission, terming them “baseless”.
“Everything happened with the permission of the family members. There was a risk of a law and order situation getting out of hand in the village. So, we asked the family members for their permission to cremate the body at night and they allowed the same,” Brahm Singh, a senior police official, told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, a senior Uttar Pradesh police official on Thursday declared the victim was not even raped because the samples collected from her body did not contain semen.
“Autopsy report confirmed [that] no sperm was present in the sample. She died due to trauma of her neck injury,” Prashant Kumar said during a news conference in the state capital, Lucknow.
The victim’s family accused the authorities of trying to cover up the case.
“How can we ask them [police] to cremate our sister without us being present there? They are making such shameless allegations against us just to save themselves. There is a limit to telling lies,” the victim’s brother said.
In the past week, Uttar Pradesh has reported at least two other rape cases as anger over the law and order situation in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-governed northern state grows.
On Tuesday, another Dalit woman, aged 22, was raped and killed in the state’s Balrampur district. She was also cremated in the early hours of Wednesday.
Experts blame police inaction and state impunity provided to upper caste perpetrators in cases of sexual harassment for an increase in rapes against Dalit women.
Last year, more than 500 Dalit women were raped in Uttar Pradesh alone, according to the data provided by India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which added that more than 3,500 Dalit women were raped across the country in 2019.
India reported a total of 32,033 rapes last year, the NCRB data said, with Uttar Pradesh accounting for just under 10 percent of those cases.
“We know so many cases where the family of Dalit rape victim first goes to the police station, but they are chased away. This happens most of the time,” Asha Kowtal, general secretary of All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, a prominent Dalit women’s rights group, told Al Jazeera.
“In this case also, police were reluctant to do their work right from the start. There is no SOP [standard operating procedure] and there is absolute state failure in protecting our right to life.”
The death of the Dalit girl also sparked protests across the country, leading to dozens of arrests.
In New Delhi, Kush Ambedkarwadi, spokesman for the Bhim Army, a group advocating for the rights of Dalits, said 50 protesters, including 15 women, were detained by the police.
He also alleged Uttar Pradesh police were trying to save the accused “because they belonged to the upper caste”.
“In her [victim’s] village, Thakurs are in majority. There are just a few Dalit families residing there. Had she belonged to the upper caste, no one would have dared to burn her body in the dead of the night without her family being present there. She was treated like this because she was a Dalit,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It was being done to make sure there is no evidence against the culprits. Everything is planned just to protect the perpetrators,” he said.
On Thursday, opposition Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra were also detained while on their way to Hathras to meet family members of the victim. Videos on social media showed Rahul Gandhi being manhandled by the police on a highway.