“Ah! They will never cremate in the dead of night. Not possible!” is what I was saying sitting in my car on the way to Hathras with my cameraperson Pawan Kumar.
A few hours later, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A pyre had been lit at 2:30 am in the middle of a dark field in western Uttar Pradesh with only a handful of cops and no family. A 20-year-old woman who had been gang raped was being cremated furtively by authorities while family members were locked up in their home.
It was a stunning end to the drama of the day that involved driving some 200 km from Delhi and discovering no one knew where the body was until almost the very end.
We set out from Delhi at around 8 pm on Tuesday and reached Hathras around 11:30 in the night, much before the body arrived.
On our way, we saw the local police station which falls on the way to the village packed with cars. We spotted the commissioner’s car and it seemed there was some kind of meeting going on inside.
I asked some officers if I could get in touch with them. They said there’s some high-level meeting going on with top police officers at the station.
But this was unusual for such a small police station. By this time, suspicions surrounding the body and the intention of authorities were growing. There was no clarity on where the body was – Delhi, Kanpur or Hathras.
On our way, a few locals I was in touch with told me over the phone that they saw someone carrying piles of wood and guessed that it must be for the cremation. I thought it would be too bold of a move for the police to make and body won’t be cremated in the night. But scenes at the local police station also made me think that they might just do so.
When we reached the entry point of the village, our car was stopped and we were told by the police that if wanted to go ahead, we must proceed on foot.
Finding it very difficult to contest this arbitrary restriction, Pawan and I started walking through the deserted fields in the dark towards the home of the woman, some 1.5 km away.
Halfway there, we were a bit startled by a red van with flood lights that zoomed past us and went into the dark.
When we reach the woman’s house at around 12:45 am, we didn’t see the vehicle and wondered where it went.
At her home, there were a large number of police personnel and local media.
I then asked the Joint Magistrate who was present there, Prem Prakash, where the body is. He said, “I have no idea. As soon as we get information, we will update.”
Two to three minutes after this conversation, the ambulance carrying the body and the family members reached the house. Behind the ambulance, we saw the woman’s father and brother in a Scorpio.
The ambulance did not stop at the house and went past it.
Villagers and family started resisting, saying the body won’t go beyond this point without stopping at the house first.
They started following the ambulance, saying “Ambulance nahi jaaygi aage (Ambulance can’t go further).”
I followed the ambulance and ran after it.
The cries of “Body aage nahi jaegi (Body can’t go further)” grew louder.
In the middle of the commotion, I spotted police officials and the Joint Magistrate wearing helmets. The Joint Magistrate came out and told the locals: “DM saab is coming.”
Soon, the District Magistrate appeared, also wearing a protective vest and a helmet.
The woman’s father said, “I will take responsibility (for the cremation). There won’t be any problem in the morning.”
The District Magistrate told the father: “Aapko subah karni hai ya abhi karni hai… abhi hi kar dar dijiye. (You have to do it now or in the morning… why not do it now?).”
“You were saying on the way that you will get it done tonight?” the DM insisted.
By now people had started banging the ambulance and its windows. It was brought back to the house and parked outside.
One of the officials said, “Let’s take the body out”. But nothing happened.
Staring at the coffin, the thought struck me how this woman had struggled for over 14 days for her life and her ordeal was did not seem to have ended even after she had left this world.
Around 2 am, when the father and other relatives had gone inside the house, the authorities stepped up efforts to persuade them to have the cremation done as soon as possible.
Pawan’s camera light was turned on and I was standing away from him. The District Magistrate entered the house and asked Pawan to turn off the camera and leave.
I silently sat behind a relative, inside the house. I hid my mic to quietly listen in to what they say. I knew they wouldn’t be their real self, knowing a media person was listening to them.
The District Magistrate tried to convince them again. He said I will talk only to the father.
A cop also joined in, trying to appeal to the father emotionally. “This is an unusual situation. Even I wouldn’t have been here under regular circumstances,” he said.
Then, Tanushree Pandey of India Today entered the house. The District Magistrate noticed her coming and said, “Ma’am I can’t talk in front you.”
She bravely replied, “I haven’t switched on my camera and mic. Why can’t I stand here?”
I stepped outside to see the woman’s mother on the ground in front of the ambulance, crying and beating her head.
A policeman approached me and took me aside to apparently tell me something. “All journalists are being called there. Our sir will speak to you,” he said.
I knew nobody would be there and it was an attempt to keep us away from the ambulance. I headed back and that’s when the ambulance engine roared back to life and sped away. I managed to take a shot of the ambulance and people running behind.
We also started running behind it. When we reached an open area, I saw two big flood lights and then I was able to connect the dots. The vehicle that we saw on our way to village was carrying lights for this moment.
Despite the lights, we were kept in dark. The police formed a human chain on the road and did not allow the media. We tried to reason with them but to no avail.
Around 2:30 am, we saw that that the pyre has been lit. We went into the field to get a clear view. I recorded my piece to camera or “P2C” there.
I was stunned at how policemen were doing all this. I kept looking around to see if the father was there.
Pawan suggested we must go to her home to see if family was there. On reaching the house, we saw that it was locked from inside. I asked for the father. The relatives said he is unwell and that he is resting. They said they (officials) are not giving the body.
I informed them that the body had already been cremated.
I reached my hotel at 4 am. I saw the Joint Magistrate’s statement to news agency ANI, saying that the cremation is over and that things are under control. He said the police and other authorities will make sure that perpetrators are brought to justice.
My gut feeling was challenged that night. I had not expected a cremation but I slept with visuals of the pyre playing on repeat in my head. To die with dignity is also a privilege that poor of this country miss on.
(Arun Singh is a reporter with NDTV 24×7)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.