When she heard the knock on the door, the 16-year-old girl was waiting to hear if she’d been accepted into a new school. She was a beautiful, bright girl who left her impoverished village in Bihar and moved to Calcutta, India’s intellectual capital, with dreams of one day becoming a teacher.
But, instead, at her door were six young thugs who dragged her away, raped her by turns and then unleashed a campaign of terror that shocked a country which campaigners had hoped was finally offering justice and protection to women after the gang-rape and murder of a Delhi student one year earlier.
Hours after reporting the assault she was kidnapped and raped again, her family was driven from its home, gang-members warned that they would kill her father and rape her yet again if she did not withdraw her police complaint.
Finally, when she refused, she was doused with kerosene and set alight in her home.
She died eight days later on New Year’s Eve, pregnant by one of her rapists.
On Friday, her distraught parents, shellshocked with grief, told The Sunday Telegraph how they had been abandoned by the police, the state government, and finally by her doctors, who refused to move her to a specialist burns unit.
“She was beautiful, she had white skin,” her mother, 45, said as she remembered how the girl had died, her face swollen, bloody and blackened by burns, her lips magnified and split, in chronic pain.
They have now taken sanctuary in the headquarters of the pro-Communist Centre for Indian Trade Unions. Officials at the centre said the family had been persecuted because their daughter’s rapists were from a gang linked to West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress party. Mamata Bannerjee, the party’s leader and state chief minister, has dismissed the growing campaign around the case as an attempt by the opposition to undermine her development policies.
The teenager’s mother and her father, a taxi driver who earns 5,000 Rupees (£50) a month, said the authorities had sought to drive them out of Calcutta and back to their native Bihar - rather than protect them from their tormentors.
Their terror began on the evening of Oct 25 last year when the father received a call from his wife at his taxi stand to say she had returned to their home in Madhyamgram, a village on the northern outskirts of Calcutta, to find their daughter missing. He reported her disappearance to the local police but she did not return until 6am the following morning.
“She was in a terrible condition, harassed, crying, her neck had finger marks on it,” he said, his head shaved according to Hindu tradition and eyes rheumy as he performed a puja ceremony on the banks of the River Ganges to mark his daughter’s passing.
When he reported the gang-rape, he was detained at the police station until late in the evening. When his wife and their daughter headed home in a bicycle rickshaw, they were headed off on an isolated road by her rapists. They bundled her into their rickshaw, and took her to a building close to the railway station where she was raped again.
“There were three or four of them, the same people who raped her before. It was raining, there were no houses, it was isolated and no one came to help. I fought them, but I failed and cried. I pleaded with them to release her. My daughter was shouting 'please save me’, but no one heard her voice,” said her mother.
She was discovered later by railway police and brought home. She had been threatened with further attacks if she did not drop her police complaint.
The family fled their home a few weeks later to a one-room house in Moti Lal Colony, a neighbourhood of narrow cobblestone lanes close to Calcutta’s Airport at Dumdum, but the relations and associates of the six men charged with the gang-rape soon found them and began a new campaign of terror.
Large gangs of young men laid siege to their new home on four occasions, kicking the door, hurling stones and shouting threats that the teenager would be raped again and her father murdered if she did not withdraw the rape charges.
“The goondas (hired thugs) came to the house, 30 or 40 of them, saying we must withdraw the case. It was a horrible situation, they were kicking the house and threatening,” her father explained.
Then on Dec 23, their tormentors returned while their daughter was home alone, and carried out their threat.
“Her mother had gone to the market and when she returned, she found our daughter was burned with kerosene,” he said.
Her father sped home in his taxi and rushed his daughter to hospital where doctors refused to transfer her to a specialist burns unit and left her untreated on a plastic sheet on the floor, he said. He and his wife told the police they believed it was a suicide attempt, but when detectives visited her on Boxing Day, when they said her condition appeared to be improving, she told them she had been attacked by two men who had poured kerosene on her and set her alight.
“In the presence of the doctor … we asked four or five questions about the incident, she said she was set on fire. She was a young girl and she wanted these two people in jail. Her statement was clear, they set me on fire and latched the door, please see that they are in jail,” Police Commissioner Rajiv Kumar said last week.
On New Year’s Eve, she died from septicaemia and organ failure resulting from burns to 40 per cent of her body.
Her uncle said even after the murder, when her body was brought home, a gang of thugs threatened the family again in front of senior police officers.
“An Indian Police Service officer said, 'I will not protect you in this place,’” he told The Sunday Telegraph. Instead, the officer urged the family to go home to their village in Bihar, he said.
Later, the police tried to cremate the teenager's body without her family’s approval to prevent it being taken to a protest rally.
Mr Kumar, the police commissioner, denied there were political considerations in their handling of the case. “We take all these cases and treat them with utmost sincerity. Sometimes there are unfortunate incidents,” he said.
The two men initially charged with assault for setting the girl on fire have now been charged with her murder. One of them is the son of the family’s landlady, Bila Sil, who last week told The Sunday Telegraph she had originally liked the family “but then when we knew she had been raped by criminals we asked them to leave”.
She had heard the teenager’s screams on the morning she was set on fire but had not bothered to check on her, she said.
What has shocked women’s rights campaigners is that a gang-rape victim could be so abandoned by the authorities just weeks after four of the six men convicted of the Delhi gang-rape and murder were sentenced to hang.
Brinda Karat, a former Communist MP from Calcutta and one of India’s leading women’s rights campaigners, said the impunity displayed by the victim’s rapists and killers reflected the lack of justice in parts of the country where criminals have political patronage.
“In West Bengal a leaf does not stir without the approval of the political boss, the Trinamool Congress. It’s impossible for the police to have been responsible for such criminal negligence unless they were in collusion,” she said.
She also criticised the state’s chief minister for her failure to support victims of sexual violence.
“The language she uses is never in support of the victim but always to defend either criminals or the government. In this case her spokesman said this is a conspiracy against the government. Is it not bizarre that a girl gang-raped twice, punished for reporting it and then murdered becomes a conspiracy against the government?” she asked.
Back in the sanctuary in Calcutta’s trade union headquarters, the teenager’s mother is being comforted by relatives. She turns the ruby and silver bangle on her wrist and strains to control herself as she tries to describe her only child and the family’s future without her.
She was homely, she loved cooking, helping her mother with the chores, she said.
“She was such a good girl. A beautiful-looking girl, she had a knack for education, we hoped she would be a teacher or a government officer and have a good future.
"Now we want these goondas to hang and protection for our family. We still feel afraid, but we will stay in Calcutta and fight.”