Many times over the past year, a young woman from northern India who had accused a powerful politician of rape warned the authorities that her life was in danger.
If you want to live, she was told by the politician’s friends, you better drop the charges.
She had reason to be afraid. Last year, shortly after her father spoke out about the rape allegations, he was beaten to death.
On Sunday, the young woman, who the authorities said is around 19, was traveling on a rural highway in a car with two aunts and her lawyer when a truck smashed into them, head-on.
The young woman, the key witness in the rape case, is now in critical condition, fighting for her life. Her two aunts died.
Her family and women’s rights advocates say that the man accused of rape, Kuldeep Singh Sengar — a state-level politician and member of India’s governing party — is trying to kill the witnesses, and that the crash was a deliberate attempt on her life.
The mere possibility that a lawmaker involved in a highly publicized rape case might have ordered the death of the victim has stunned India. It has provoked walkouts in Parliament and become what many see as a test case for the abuse of power.
“This girl made 33 complaints in the past one year to authorities, but no action was taken against anybody,” said Swati Maliwal, the chairwoman of the Delhi Commission for Women. “In our country, a girl is raped by a man once and then the entire system is raping her.”
State police officers said there appeared to have been no foul play and that the accident had been caused by the truck “over-speeding,” but the Central Bureau of Investigation said on Wednesday that it was opening a homicide investigation and named Mr. Sengar, the truck driver and more than 20 others as suspects.
Mr. Sengar, who is believed to be in his early 50s, has been in jail since April 2018, when the federal authorities arrested him on suspicion of rape and kidnapping. He has denied the charges.
But the young woman and her family told the authorities that Mr. Sengar’s allies had threatened them many times before the accident. In one police complaint, an uncle of the young woman said that the family was explicitly warned: “Compromise with M.L.A. Kuldeep Singh Sengar, otherwise you all will be killed in one way or the other.”
M.L.A. means member of the legislative assembly; Mr. Sengar was in his fourth term.
Some Indian officials are ducking for cover. The young woman’s family said they had written to India’s chief justice, Ranjan Gogoi, several weeks ago detailing the threats to her life, but Justice Gogoi said Wednesday that he had not seen the letter.
The case began in June 2017, when the young woman was invited to Mr. Sengar’s house in Unnao, a midsize town near the Ganges River, on the pretext of interviewing for a job, family members said.
She said that Mr. Sengar had locked her in a room and raped her.
“I screamed,” she said, according to Indian news reports from last year. “I knew people were sitting outside in the corridor, but no one came to help me.”
Afterward, she said, “he wiped my tears and told me that he would get me a good job. When I told him I would file a complaint, he threatened to kill my father and 4-year-old brother.”
She said that police officers in Unnao had refused to allow her to pursue a case against Mr. Sengar, who has switched political parties several times, most recently joining the Bharatiya Janata Party, the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Sengar family owns a jewelry business and is considered one of the most prosperous and politically influential in Unnao.
According to police officials, Mr. Sengar’s brother viciously beat the young woman’s father in front of police officers; the father died a few days later in police custody.
The young woman grew so despondent that she marched to the house of Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of her state, Uttar Pradesh, and threatened to set herself on fire.
With protests growing, federal investigators lodged formal rape charges against Mr. Sengar in July 2018. Since then, opposition politicians have demanded that Mr. Sengar be expelled from the governing party and the state legislature. He has been suspended, but not expelled.
Twice this week, opposition lawmakers staged a demonstration on the floor of Parliament, chanting, “We want justice!” before walking out.
The case has been slowly making its way through the courts — far too slowly, women’s advocates said.
On Sunday, the young woman and her aunts were on the way to visit an uncle who was serving a sentence for attempted murder. The family says the case was yet another form of intimidation.
That’s when the truck swung across the highway.