Last month, around two years after an independent audit of shelter homes in Bihar revealed widespread sexual abuse of minor and adolescent girls, a Delhi court 19 people of aggravated sexual assault under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, rape, and related offences connected to one shelter home.
However, the justice received by the victims can, at best, be described as partial. The Central Bureau of Investigation failed to establish specific charges, including that the victims had been drugged or filmed while they were raped.
The verdict runs into 1,546 pages, but does not address several key allegations.
Timeline of the case
In 2018, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, audited 110 shelter homes in Bihar under the state social welfare department’s supervision. Its report, published in April that year, blew the lid off a racket involving sexual abuse of young girls living in these homes. It flagged 17 shelters as being of “grave concern”. Balika Grih, a shelter home in Muzaffarpur, was the first of these to be investigated by the police, and later the CBI.
The issue was spotlighted by the media one month later when the Bihar police acted on the report and charged 11 people. They included Brajesh Thakur, a local politician whose NGO, Seva Sankalp Ewam Vikas Samiti, ran Balika Grih; Dilip Kumar Verma, chairperson of the Muzaffarpur District Child Welfare Committee; Vikas Kumar, a member of the Child Welfare Committee; Ravi Roshan, a child protection officer; and Rosy Rani, assistant director of the child protection unit.
In fact, several of those convicted last month were welfare officers who had attended meetings to discuss rehabilitation of the victims once the crimes came to light.
In July 2018, the Patna High Court took suo motu cognizance of the matter based on media reports. It also received two PILs. However, Bihar transferred the investigation into the case to the CBI.
In August 2018, the Supreme Court took cognizance of the issue, describing it as a “state-sponsored incident”. Asking if the credentials of Thakur’s NGO had been checked, Justices Madan B Lokur, Deepak Gupta and KM Joseph observed, “If you are doling out funds to NGOs without verifying their credentials, it almost amounts to state involvement. It will appear that all their wrongdoings are state-sponsored.”
In September 2018, the CBI recorded statements of several of the victims. Some of them, who became witnesses for the prosecution, later recalled the horror they had suffered in their court depositions. In all, the CBI charged 20 persons in what came to be infamous as the Muzaffarpur shelter home case. Of these, nine were women.
The apex court transferred the trial to a Delhi court in February 2019. Eleven months later, on January 20, it delivered its verdict. Additional Sessions Judge Saurabh Kulshreshtha convicted 19 people, including Brajesh Thakur, Dilip Kumar Verma, Vikas Kumar, Ravi Roshan, and Rosy Rani.
Slipping through the cracks
On January 14, the Caravan magazine that 12 victims, in their statements to the CBI, had spoken of murders being committed at the Muzaffarpur shelter home run by Thakur’s NGO.
“Thirteen said ‘outsiders’ raped them, and many said they were taken to hotels as well or knew of girls being taken of the home — suggesting offences of trafficking or forced prostitution,” the report said. “Nearly all the witnesses said they were regularly subjected to unnatural sex and rape. The statements all named Thakur as the main perpetrator.”
Since quoting a POCSO judgement isn’t allowed, Newslaundry is relying, for this report, on depositions and statements made by the victims.
In this particular case, 45 victims were identified, aged 12 to 20. Except for six, they are all minors. Two of them are deaf and mute. One of the victims in her deposition spoke of the abuse of a six-year-old girl. That young victim is not a part of this case.
Several witnesses spoke of how two of the victims had been told to kill a mentally disabled girl. When they refused, the witnesses alleged, Thakur threatened to kill them instead. One victim also deposed that she saw one of the convicts carry a gunny bag dripping with blood.
Several of the witnesses deposed that they were also raped by “Kiran Aunty”. “Kiran Aunty” allegedly danced naked before the girls and compelled them to do the same. She allegedly fingered several girls and slept with them. However, since her direct victims didn’t depose against the “aunty”, the court observed that the prosecution could not prove these charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
The depositions of the victims belie the apathy of the people tasked with caring for them. The statements of 25 victims more or less match, painting a clear picture of what went on inside the four walls of the shelter run by Thakur’s NGO.
Almost all the victims spoke of being given intoxicating drugs or sleeping pills. They were told these were deworming medicines. The drugs left them semi-conscious, or in deep sleep. The victims recounted waking up, any time between 8 am and 10 am, with pain in their abdomens and vaginal areas.
Almost all the victims spoke of being beaten daily and made to survive on a meagre ration of dal chawal with sabzi. The staff often withheld food from the victims.
One victim recalled how the parents who came searching for their daughters were misled by the staff and told their wards didn’t live at that home. Another described how the female staff forced them to wear skimpy clothes and dance for men, some of whom were known to them and some unknown. They were made to dance to Bhojpuri songs and “Dilbar Dilbar”, one victim said, adding that they were taught vulgar dances instead of being given the education they sorely wanted.
Some of the victims described being gagged and bound as they were raped. In fact, the deposition of the star witness who had been bound and gagged proved to be the nail in the coffin for convicting some of the accused. Sometimes, the girls said, they were filmed while being raped.
Several witnesses spoke of children being murdered at the home. One girl spoke of how at least two victims were threatened with death if they didn’t kill some children.
They spoke about a girl committing suicide after she was assaulted and about how their pleas for help were ignored by those they approached.
The CBI, however, failed to conclusively prove these particular charges. It also failed to conclusively prove that the victims had been drugged or filmed while being raped. None of the convicts were charged with murder.
Day of reckoning
When the Delhi court delivered its verdict on January 20, almost all the 19 convicts broke down. Ravi Roshan wept and walked to the front of the courtroom, saying he wanted to speak to the judge. “Hum chue tak nahi. Hum suicide kar lenge,” he kept saying. I did not even touch the girls. I will commit suicide.
Another convict was inconsolable, repeating, “We are just farmers. Why have you convicted us?”
But Thakur was calm, showing no emotion as the judge read out his conviction.
Witnessing this outpouring of emotion, the judge simply said, “Yaha se nahi hoga. Aapke paas appeal karne ka right hoga.” You won’t get relief here. But you have the right to appeal.
There was pandemonium outside the courtroom as those convicted clustered with family members, weeping. A police official kept a close eye on the proceedings.
The mood in the courtroom was different on February 11, when the convicts were sentenced. The judge and the lawyers bantered as they waited for the 155-page sentencing order to be printed. Most of the convicts appeared relaxed; they just sat and spoke among themselves. One or two shed tears.
Five of the 19 convicts, including Thakur, were sentenced to rigorous life imprisonment until their death. Six were sentenced to 10 years in jail each.
Thakur was also handed a fine of Rs 32.6 lakh, “keeping his financial considerations in mind”. The other convicts were fined varying sums, depending on their financial conditions.
One of the victims, who suffered more than the others, was awarded an additional sum of Rs 9 lakh as compensation. This amount will be borne by the convicts and the state. If the convicts fail to pay the compensation amount, the state will pay the entire amount.
Delivering the sentences, the judge said in a contemporary society, it was lamentable that minor girls in a state-sponsored, state-monitored and state-funded shelter home were subject to horrendous acts of rape.
In his order, the judge ruled that given the facts of the case, the convicts warranted no leniency. He pointed out that it had not been a singular act of rape; it had been a planned conspiracy where those tasked with looking after the girls became their predators.
The judge described Thakur, who faced 34 charges, as the kingpin of the criminal racket.
An alarming fact that came to light during the trial was that the victims had been subjected to finger tests by medical examiners to check for ruptured hymens. The medical reports of several of the victims read “vaginal orifice one finger loose” or “two fingers loose”. This is illegal; the finger test was by the Supreme Court in 2013.
The court noted that all the “aunties” at the shelter home were aware of the abuse but did nothing about it, even though it happened over a long period. He said it’s important that an employee at a shelter home displays empathy, and any form of abuse cannot be justified.
The saga that unfolded in April 2018 ended less than two years later in February 2020. A judiciary often accused of delays came together to give partial justice to almost 45 victims of the shelter home.
But this is just one home. For the victims from other shelters, this is just the beginning.
In November and December last year, chargesheets were filed against people associated with seven other shelter homes. Last month, the CBI submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating it had completed its investigation into all 17 cases pertaining to the Muzaffarpur shelter home case.
The affidavit added that the agency had requested the Bihar government to blacklist NGOs and their office bearers who were mentioned in its final report.
The CBI found no evidence of crime in its preliminary enquiry into four of the shelter homes falled by the audit. No FIR has been filed against these four.