September, 2018: For three decades now, the Indian government has been making amendments to the laws relating to sexual offences to make them tougher. In what seemed like a strong deterrent to crimes against minors (children below 18), it enacted a special legislation in 2012 called the POCSO or the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.
Several reports have told us that such crimes have only increased since, and that major blame lies with the police failing in proper implementation of the laws and pursuing these cases with rigour. Now add to this inefficiency a fear against touching minorities, thanks to sustained scaremongering by the media-activist-politician nexus, and what you get is an atmosphere where criminals from a particular community perpetrate crimes with impunity.
This is really how a recent case in capital city New Delhi – already called one of the most unsafe cities for women – looks like. The case is of a 32-year-old man luring his 14-year-old neighbour into eloping with him. The girl, a Dalit, remained missing for three weeks.
Here’s how the police messed up the case right from day one:
- The local police refused to name the man in the first information report (FIR) fearing the case would turn “communal” as he is a Muslim
- Living up to the police’s dubious reputation of dealing with Dalits, the SC/ST Act (Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act) wasn’t invoked
- Displaying shocking insensitivity and ignorance of laws, a senior Delhi police officer has been recorded as saying that the girl “eloped of her own will” even when the law doesn’t recognise consent of minors and treats such cases as kidnappings
- The crucial POCSO wasn’t applied
Little attempts were made to find the girl in the first two weeks, until activists from a rights organisation stepped in. Thanks to sustained pressure from them and subsequent intervention of National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), the matter has been referred for top-level investigation now. No less than the National Investigating Agency (NIA) has been asked to intervene. A reward of Rs 50,000 was announced on the accused.
Here’s the detailed story of the shocking case told in five sequences:
1. Girl Missing, So Is Accused’s Name From The FIR
Swarajya met the victim’s family on Wednesday, who live huddled in one room in a decrepit multi-storey building in Sultanpuri. Each room houses a separate family; incidentally all other families in the building are Muslims. The victim’s mother Manju narrated the events of the fateful day on 13 August, the day the youngest of her three daughters went missing: “My daughters left for school like any other day, around 6.30 am, after which I also left for work (Manju works as a househelp while her husband is a driver). Two of them returned on their usual time around 1.30 pm while my youngest daughter didn’t. It was only when I returned in the evening around 5pm that they told me she is missing. They told me that our neighbour, Saddam Ansari, met them on their way to the school and took them to a park a little faraway in Rohini, where they all stayed till afternoon. They never showed up at the school that day at all. When the girls decided to return home from the park, Saddam told them to leave the youngest one behind. When my girls resisted, he threatened them with dire consequences.”
The eldest daughter, also a minor, told Swarajya that Saddam and their missing sister had planned the outing in the park the previous evening. In the morning, she told her sisters to take a casual dress along so they could change and sit in the park without raising suspicion of passersby and cops. They went to the park as planned but didn’t change into the casual clothes. Around 1 pm, Saddam called up one of his friends, Kailash, to escort the girls home. “When we realised that my sister wasn’t returning with us, we held her arm forcefully but Saddam shouted at us. He said she is not coming with us. We were scared but we thought he would drop her home later,” she told Swarajya. She said Saddam had been routinely talking to the girls over the phone secretly, and had gifted the youngest daughter a wristwatch recently.
Manju said, “I looked everywhere, in the parks, in the neighbourhood, but failed to find her. I went to Saddam’s house but his parents rudely told me they don’t know anything. Around 8 pm, we went to the police station.”
Thus began a cycle of humiliations for the family.
Manju’s 24-year-old brother Deepak, who accompanied her sister and elder niece to the Sultanpuri police station, told Swarajya that assistant sub-inspector Dharam Singh registered an FIR but refused to note down the details of the accused after hearing his name. “He asked us why we are even talking about the man when our concern is only our daughter. He said he has nothing to do with the man and told us to bring the girl’s photograph on our next visit,” he said.
Contents of the FIR (a copy of which is with Swarajya) reveal the police’s questionable approach to the case right from day one. It records Manju’s statement that “she fears that an unidentified man has lured her daughter and took her away” (translated from Hindi by Swarajya). This is despite Manju’s elder daughter, who went to the police station as an eye-witness, mentioning Saddam’s role in front of the cop. The FIR says the girl went to school in her uniform but carried a green-coloured salwar suit with her.
The next day, Manju handed the cops a photograph of the girl. But when the family visited Dharam Singh again a day later to inquire about the progress, he told them the photograph had been misplaced and the family must furnish a new one. Manju told Swarajya, “They want the photograph in a particular format that cost Rs 500. We are already poor and their negligence forced us to spend twice the amount.”
She said that on her insistence, the cops called Saddam’s younger brother Afsaar to the police station but “were soft on him and let him get away easily”. Two weeks passed, and the case didn’t move forward, she said.
That’s when activist Satish Vaid, who is associated with a Hindu rights organisation named Agniveer, approached the victim family.
2. Activists Step In, Police Calls Them “Communal”
Vaid, a resident of Delhi, told Swarajya that he got to know about the case through a post on social media, after which he somehow traced the family’s phone number, contacted them and went to the police station with them on 23 August. “When I questioned the cops on why they had not named the accused in the FIR, Anil Kumar (SHO of Sultanpuri station)said we are making it a Hindu-Muslim issue,” Vaid said. Manju told Swarajya that Kumar accused her of attempting to give the case a communal colour. Vaid said the police refused to accept certificates of the girl’s Dalit and minor status, saying they were not necessary. When told to add POCSO Act, Kumar told the activists to not teach him law. (Kumar is under NCSC scanner now).
The same day, the girl’s father, with the help of Vaid, wrote a letter to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) and Deputy Commissioner of Police (outer) Seju P Kuruvilla, a copy of which is with Swarajya. The father says in the letter that Saddam kidnapped his daughter forcibly and Sultanpuri police station refused to accept the details and photograph of the accused, which makes him wonder if the police has entered into a compromise with his family. The letter says he fears that the minor may have been trafficked and pushed into prostitution.
3. Finally A Raid, But Victims Must Provide For ‘Petrol Money’
In what the family says was the result of pressure by the activists, the police finally acted and retrieved the call details of Saddam that were traced to Bijnor in western Uttar Pradesh. Bijnor is where Saddam’s family hails from.
On August 24, three cops including Dharam Singh and havaldar Ravindra Chauhan, took Afsaar and Deepak to carry out a raid in Bijnor. As per Deepak, the cops got the car’s fuel tank filled for Rs 1,300 and Ravindra Chauhan asked him to give “petrol money”.
Deepak told Swarajya, “I was carrying Rs 1,000 for food and other expenses. But he took it away. Afsaar said he wasn’t carrying any cash so he was spared.” (Ravindra Chauhan is under NCSC’s scanner for this, details of which will come later in the story).
More humiliation followed. Deepak says the cops even made him clean the car’s carpet. When the team finally reached the house of Saddam’s grandfather in Bijnor – where they found only the elderly couple – the cops asked Deepak to go carry out a search of the house by himself.
“I felt like a fool looking for my niece under the bed, inside the almirahs, behind the furniture. The whole time, I was worried that a woman might be inside one of those rooms,” Deepak says.
“The law requires lady police to accompany the raiding teams in such cases. Not only this was not followed, the cops relaxed on the cot while making Deepak do their work,” Vaid says.
The search was futile and the team went on to visit other relatives of Saddam in the district. The same drill was repeated, says Deepak. “When we entered Saddam’s uncle’s house, he said he doesn’t know anything. We had not even mentioned the purpose of our visit yet. Doesn’t it sound like they knew something? But the police didn’t question them,” said Deepak, calling the raid a “sham”.
After two days, the team returned, empty-handed. But by then, the NCSC had scheduled a hearing on 28 August where several officers were pulled up.
4. NCSC – First Hearing
On 28 August, NCSC vice-chairman L Murugan held its first hearing in the matter with Joint Commissioner of Police Madhup Tiwari, Additional Deputy Commissioner of Police (outer Delhi) Rajendra Singh Sagar, and the victim’s parents.
He made some scathing observations on the conduct of the police as recorded in the minutes of the meeting (a copy of which is with Swarajya).
- The NCSC took grave objection to the fact that when it contacted Seju P Kuruvilla to inquire the status of the case, the latter said the girl eloped on her own will, even when the law states clearly that in the case of minors, eloping is treated as kidnapping. The NCSC called Kuruvilla’s statement “highly regrettable and irresponsible”
- The NCSC asked the police to provide an explanation for its inaction in the first two weeks, and why POCSO, SC/ST Act and other sections of the IPC weren’t added
- The police was asked to provide an explanation for why they didn’t name the accused in the FIR and also why they asked for money for petrol during raid
- The NCSC observed that the police have acted with “grave insensitivity” and “carelessness” in the matter
- It asked for action against Sultanpuri SHO Anil Kumar and havaldar Ravindra Chauhan under Section 4 of SC/ST Act that deals with neglect of duties by a public servant.
Meanwhile, the Sultanpuri police announced a reward of Rs 50,000 on Saddam and advertised it in Bijnor on auto rickshaws. This was reported by local newspapers in Bijnor.
5. NCSC – Second Hearing
The NCSC held an important meeting on September 4 where it asked for no less than NIA to step in.
Here are the details as recorded in the minutes of the meeting (a copy of which is with Swarajya):
- The police finally added SC/ST and POCSO Act to the original FIR. The accused’s aunt (chachi) filed for anticipatory bail but it was rejected.
- The NCSC asked Home Ministry to refer the case to India’s premier anti-terror probe agency, National Investigating Agency (NIA), observing that girls have been found to be trafficked to other countries in similar cases.
- It also asked the ministry, under which the Delhi police functions, to ensure that the SC/ST Act is invoked in all cases of kidnappings of Dalit girls and POCSO in all cases of minor girls.
- The NCSC asked the Delhi Police to retrieve bank details of the accused, his family members and even relatives to see if there was any major transaction in the days prior to the kidnapping. The NCSC said the case looks pre-planned as even the accused’s sisters went missing the same day and were found in Bijnor by the police
- The NCSC observed that there are past cases where abducted girls have been used in human smuggling and sold to terror organisations. So alert must be sent out at borders with Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
- The NCSC also asked the madrassa, where one of the accused’s sisters studies, to be raided and the maulvi questioned. It also rejected the police’s explanation in the “petrol money” incident that the girl’s uncle paid for it on his own will, and held the police guilty on this account.
Update: The girl was rescued and the accused arrested late Wednesday evening (5 September)