“MAJOR RUCKUS IN THE village right now,” Tanushree Pandey, a correspondent with India Today TV, tweeted at 1.44 am on 30 September 2020. “UP cops & officials forcing kin to cremate body overnight. Family begging that let us at least take the girl home one last time.”
Pandey was in the village of Boolgarhi, in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district. There, two weeks earlier, a young Dalit woman had been raped by four men of the dominant Thakur caste. She was left paralysed and with a severed tongue. Uttar Pradesh authorities tried to ignore the atrocity, but as details emerged and public outrage mounted they arrested the accused. The victim died from her injuries at a Delhi hospital on 29 September. Her body had just been brought back home.
At around 3 am, Pandey tweeted, “ABSOLUTELY UNBELIEVABLE. Right behind me is the body of #HathrasCase victim burning. Police barricaded the family inside their home and burnt the body without letting anybody know.” An accompanying video showed a solitary pyre aflame in the darkness, with the police keeping a few onlookers at bay.
Pandey’s tweets went viral, adding fuel to an already raging crisis for the Uttar Pradesh government under the Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ajay Singh Bisht. Many lauded her for exposing an attempted cover-up. The BJP, meanwhile, was hard at work to diminish the gravity of the crime. Amit Malviya, the head of the party’s information-technology department, posted an earlier video of the victim describing the attack to suggest she had suffered strangulation but no sexual assault. (Malviya seemed not to care that, by exposing the rape victim’s identity, the video violated Indian law.) The Uttar Pradesh police cited a forensic report to also claim the victim had not been raped.
Pro-government trolls and media outlets attacked Pandey’s character and credibility. OpIndia accused her of coaching the victim’s family to say they were under pressure from the Uttar Pradesh administration. It based this on a clip from a leaked phone call between the journalist and the victim’s brother that, it soon became clear, had been taken out of context and misconstrued.
Pandey’s employers publicly jumped to her defence. “India Today first asks why was the telephone of our reporter, who was covering the Hathras murder, being tapped?” the organisation said in a statement. If it was the brother’s phone that was compromised, “then the government needs to answer why are the phones of the grieving victim’s family under surveillance.” The statement continued, “Persuading a victim’s family to speak out in the face of government intimidation and threats is very much a part of what a tenacious journalist must do.”
But a different story was playing out within the organisation. A former employee of the India Today Group told me that Pandey, before she posted about the forced cremation on Twitter, had tried to alert her editors about events in Hathras using a shared WhatsApp group. “But nobody replied,” the former employee said, until the story blew up. The channel had to take notice especially after Rahul Gandhi, of the opposition Congress party, shared Pandey’s video of the cremation…..