New Delhi/Lucknow: In less than 48 hours, the Yogi Adityanath government made an about-turn in its strategy to deal with the controversial Hathras gangrape and death of a 20-year-old Dalit girl Wednesday.
On Saturday, the government opened up Boolgarhi village near Hathras, where the alleged rape of a 20-year-old Dalit woman took place on 14 September, to Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. The leaders, who were accompanied by their party colleagues, were allowed to meet the victim’s family.
Earlier in the day, the media was also allowed to report from the village, after being banned from it for two days.
These changes followed the appointment of Navneet Sehgal as additional chief secretary (Information) to replace Awanish Awasthi at the state’s Information Department (Media-Communication) in Lucknow Thursday.
This was a marked departure from the heavy-handed response the Yogi Adityanath administration had delivered so far.
On the intervening night of Tuesday-Wednesday, local authorities had forcibly cremated the body of the woman. They had followed it up with restriction on media movement in the area, the house arrest of the victim’s family, and denial of rape charges in the case.
A video emerged in which the District Magistrate was seen threatening the family, saying the “media will leave, we’ll be here”.
Even the Gandhis and Trinamool Congress leaders, including Derek O’Brien, weren’t allowed to meet the victim’s family.
According to sources in the BJP, the Yogi government amended its strategy after the party high command in Delhi, which was concerned over the outrage the case sparked, stepped in.
The high command was alarmed over the initial mismanagement by senior civil servants in the state, with public opinion threatening to travel beyond the state’s boundary, and even hostility from ‘friendly’ media outlets.
Even the possibility of the Dalit factor making an impact in this month’s Bihar polls weighed on the minds of the party leaders.
The sources said these concerns were relayed to the Yogi government, which then decided to make amends.
A senior BJP leader and strategist said, “Normally, we count one day as news cycle for any negative incident during which we try to manage perception, take steps to do course correction. But when continuous coverage prolongs for more than two days, we review the entire strategy.”
He added, “In this case, from early on, there was a flaw in handling. We antagonised several friendly media outlets by restricting them, attacking them, so we reviewed and strategy was changed.”
The BJP strategist said the Yogi government was seen protecting police officials earlier. This was later felt unnecessary.
Four police officials, including Hathras Superintendent of Police (SP) Vikrant Vir, were suspended late Friday.
A BJP general secretary said, “In battle, the first bullet is taken not by the army chief but by soldiers. Here we were offering the army chief’s head, without offering that of the soldier.”
A BJP minister said, “There is resentment among police officers after suspension. They are blaming IAS lobby, particularly district magistrate and one Lucknow bureaucrat, for the entire fiasco. But this is not time to save and protect someone. When people are questioning the chief minister’s intention and it is denting BJP’s image, heads should roll. Although, it should have been done on the first day.”
Another BJP leader said the high command called the CM to take Hathras incident as a precedent and fight it politically and not in a bureaucratic way. It asked the CM to allow political leaders, not shun criticism.
After this diktat, the Yogi government allowed Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Rahul Gandhi to visit Hathras.
On Saturday, Sehgal also decided to allow media cameras into the village to interact to defuse hostility and address anger. He also advised the CM to allow the Congress leaders’ visit to normalise the situation. He also suggested that senior police officials to visit the family Saturday.
The BJP even fielded Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani, who was conspicuously absent so far, to do damage control.
The events that led to changes
Firstly, the hurried late night last rites, without the presence of the Dalit victim’s family members, sparked nationwide outrage.
This prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to call up CM Yogi to take strict action against the accused. The CM then constituted a three-member Special Investigation Team to probe the crime. He also announced that the case will be put on trial in a fast-track court.
But on the ground, police officers and the District Magistrate continued their mishandling of the case, alarming BJP leaders.
In a leaked video, the DM was heard telling the family that it should not depend on the media as it will leave. This put a question mark on the intention of the government, which was already facing embarrassment due to the late-night cremation.
Even local BJP MP Rajveer Diler had criticised the DM for late night last rites. Other BJP leaders, including Uma Bharti, also criticised the government over the case.
Next, UP Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order) Prashant Kumar tried to deflect the controversy by saying there was no rape, citing a forensic report. This also backfired and was severely criticised.
Several legal experts punctured this spin, saying after the Nirbhaya case, the victim’s deathbed testimony is enough to establish rape. In this case, the victim had made a statement to the police naming the four accused who, she said, had raped her.
Then, the local police stopped Rahul Gandhi’s march to the village Thursday and pushed the Congress leader to the ground, giving him publicity.
Initially, BJP leaders projected Gandhi’s fall as ‘nautanki’ but when ABP News showed minute by minute footage of his fall, BJP spin doctors were forced to change their stand.
The next blunder by the administration was to stop the media from entering the village and pressurising family members not to even step out from their home. Even a type-written statement by the victim’s father added suspicion to the administration’s motives.
Moreover, 24-hour live telecasts in ‘friendly’ media outlets, which started turning hostile, also prompted the government to overhaul the mismanagement by state officials, particularly Awanish Awasthi, who was Additional Chief Secretary of Home, and a key figure in the Information department.
The leaked phone conversation of an ‘India Today’ reporter with the victim’s family also severely dented the government’s image, raising eyebrows in the BJP establishment.
“As soon as you restrict the media, half the battle is lost. In any case, if you allow them there is always elbow room to feed your version to respective media,” a senior civil servant and media strategist in Lucknow said on condition of anonymity.
“Restricting the media is never a good strategy. They will not stay for three days for the same conversation if you allow them but if you restrict them, they will make a campaign. That was the reason we allowed them to interact with family members (Saturday),” he added.