New Delhi, October 7:  A 19-year-old Dalit gang rape victim was cremated in the dead of the night last week to avert an extraordinary law-and-order problem posed by protesters and political parties intent on stoking caste clashes, the state government told the Supreme Court, which on Tuesday described the incident as “horrible” and “extraordinary”.

A three-judge bench of the apex court was hearing a public interest litigation seeking a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the case.

The bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde, directed the state government to place on record the steps taken to ensure protection of witnesses even as the UP government acquiesced to a top court-monitored CBI probe into the September 14 incident and the woman’s death on September 29 that triggered nationwide protests, Hindustan Times reported.

“It is a horrible incident. It is extraordinary. We want to know from you whether witness protection plan is in place. File an affidavit,” CJI Bobde told solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who was representing the UP government.

The court also asked the state to ascertain whether the family engaged a lawyer and sought details of the scope of proceedings relating to the incident before the Allahabad high court. The next hearing is on October 8.

The court proceedings came a day after the state government ordered a probe into an “international conspiracy” to destablise the administration.

In a 129-page affidavit, the state government contended “intelligence inputs” pointed to political parties and organisations trying to exploit the situation on September 30 – a day after the victim died at Delhi’s Safdarjung hospital, triggering street protests.

“Intelligence inputs were specifically received late at night on September 29 that lakhs of protestors of both communities (communities of the accused and victim) along with supporters of some political parties and media will assemble in the morning of September 30 at the village which is likely to turn violent and will lead to major law-and-order problems. The [Hathras] district administration took the decision to convince the parents of the victim to cremate her with all religious rites at night to avoid large scale violence in the morning,” the affidavit said.

The affidavit also noted that the district was on high alert because of the Babri Masjid demolition verdict, which was pronounced on September 30, and large gatherings were banned under central government guidelines to curb the spread of Covid-19. “In such extraordinary and severe circumstances, the district administration took the decision to convince the parents of the deceased to cremate her with all religious rites at night to avoid large scale violence in the morning,” the affidavit contended.

The victim’s family has repeatedly said their consent was not taken before the cremation and that no member was present at the last rites, which was conducted at 2.30am without traditional rituals.

Along with the affidavit, the state attached screenshots and materials recovered from a website it is investigating for criminal conspiracy. The attachments, allegedly recovered from, showed details of protests, trending hashtags, and resources to avoid detention and police action —which made several references to Black protesters, American cities such as Phoenix and New York, and asked protesters to wear ski masks — appeared to have been lifted from the Black Lives Matter movement in the US.

The affidavit also said that there could not have been any “bad intention” in hastening the cremation because the victim’s post mortem examination was already done at Safdarjung hospital. Activists and opposition politicians have alleged that the police cremated the body to destroy evidence of the crime. The affidavit went on to blame a “vicious propaganda” unleashed on social media and by sections of the media and some political parties to “deliberately mislead” the public and to create caste and communal disharmony.

“There have been orchestrated efforts to malign the image of government on social media by attributing baseless comments and building up a distorted narrative on the Hathras case,” the affidavit read. The state also sought a CBI investigation into the alleged criminal conspiracy to spread caste conflict, instigate violence, and into the propaganda unleashed by certain sections of media and political parties.

The Dalit woman was allegedly gang raped by four members of the Thakur caste on September 14 and the assault left her partially paralysed. She was rushed to the hospital in Aligarh town, and when her condition deteriorated, shifted to Delhi on September 28. She died the next day. The state government’s handling of the case has come under sharp criticism from activists and opposition parties, who alleged that the victim’s kin were intimidated. The state government has denied the woman was raped, citing a forensic report, though experts have raised doubts about the examination conducted eight days after the crime.

The Allahabad high court took suo motu cognisance of the incident on October 1 and ordered the state’s additional chief secretary/principal secretary (Home), director general of police, additional director general, law and order, district magistrate, Hathras, and superintendent of police, Hathras, to appear before it on October 12.

“What is the present scope of the proceedings before the high court and how can we widen it and make it more relevant?” asked the bench, also comprising justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, directing Mehta to respond to the same at the next hearing. Mehta told the top court the state government was not opposing the plea for CBI probe but requested that it should be done under the supervision of the SC. “We (UP government) are not treating this as an adversarial litigation. There are different narratives in the public domain. One innocent life has been lost. It should not be sensationalised,” Mehta said.

Senior counsel Indira Jaising, representing a few woman lawyers, asked the SC to ensure that witnesses are protected. She also pointed out how certain lawyers were trying to secure the brief of the victim’s family and asked the top court not to allow that.

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