Dalit girl found dead in employer’s home, Delhi police cremate her at night

Her relatives allege that the 17-year-old was raped and murdered. The police insist it was suicide and have refused to register an FIR.

Dalit girl found dead in employer’s home, Delhi police cremate her at night
Shambhavi Thakur
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On October 4, Nitya, 17, was found hanging at the house where she worked as a househelp in north Delhi’s Model Town. According to her family, Nitya had no reason to commit suicide. Her aunt Sheila, who saw Nitya’s body, said it bore marks of torture and she alleged her niece had been raped and murdered.

Newslaundry met Nitya’s aunt two weeks after her body had been found. By then, Nitya’s family claims her body had been forcefully cremated at night against their wishes, the police had refused to file an FIR despite the family’s pleading and instead allegedly tortured them in the local police station.

Nitya’s family belongs to the Prajapati caste, which is listed among the Other Backward Classes in Delhi. However, in Uttar Pradesh, the family's home state, the Prajapatis were listed as a Scheduled Caste last year. The family members themselves say they are Dalit.

At her home in north Delhi, Sheila sits holding a printed copy of a photograph of her niece’s body hanging at her employer’s house. “She calls us saying she is feeling uncomfortable going into the driver’s room, and a little later we hear that she has died of suicide. When I saw her body I could see burn-like marks on her hands. Why should I believe that this was a suicide? I believe she was raped and murdered. I want an FIR filed and I want an investigation,” she said. “Will I ever know what happened to her?”

Sheila holds a printed copy of a photograph of her niece’s body.

Sheila holds a printed copy of a photograph of her niece’s body.

Credits: Nidhi Suresh

Suspicious death

Nitya lived with her aunt, uncle and three cousins in a single room in north Delhi. Her mother had died when she was four and her father was never around as he “was more interested in alcohol”.

For the past few years, one of her cousins said, Nitya had lived and worked in several homes as a househelp. On September 26, she went to live and work with the Bansals, whose house is only 20 minutes from Sheila’s place.

On October 4, at around 3 pm, Nitya called on her aunt’s phone. Sheila was out working, so her mother-in-law picked it up. She could only hear Nitya say “Masi”, meaning aunt, before the call dropped. “Ten minutes later, Nitya called again. This time she told us that her landlady was asking her to go and sit in the driver’s room but she didn’t want to. Before she could say any more, the phone was snatched from her,” said Sheila.

At around 5.30 pm, Sheila continued, the landlady called the family and told them Nitya had locked herself in a room and was refusing to come out.

It was 6 pm when Sheila returned from her work and learned about the calls from her mother-in-law. She showed Newslaundry her call log.

Sheila promptly phoned the landlady, who sent her daughter to pick Sheila up and take her to Nitya. In the car, when Sheila asked if she could speak with her niece over the phone, the landlady’s daughter said they were nearing the house anyway.

“As we got close to the house, the landlady’s daughter told me that police had arrived and if they asked me how old Nitya was, I should say 19 instead of 17,” Sheila recalled. “I started to get worried.”

The Bansals’ house was teeming with police, Sheila recalled, many of them in plain clothes. She was made to sit in the courtyard while the police asked her questions. “I just wanted to see my child. I had started crying seeing all these police officers. I kept begging them to show me my child and they kept saying I had to first give them information,” Sheila recounted.

After about 20 minutes, the police pointed her towards the room where she could find Nitya. Sheila said when she stepped into the room she saw Nitya standing with her back towards her. “Her head was tilted to the side. I thought she was angry or something. I called out to her and then ran towards her. It’s only then I realised that she was dead. She was hanging from a rod with a cloth tied around her neck. I immediately noticed she had burn-like marks on her hands. I know this is not a suicide.”

Sheila started screaming. She tried speaking to the landlady but her sons wouldn’t allow her near them. At 6.30 pm an ambulance arrived to take the body. Sheila and her mother-in-law stood in front of the ambulance, refusing to let it pass until they were told what exactly had happened to Nitya.

“At this point, the police made us sit in their vehicle and took us to the station. They said the body would come to the station but it did not. We waited until 2 am. Then the police said they did not know where the body was and that we should return the next morning,” said Sheila.

The next day, when Sheila and her family tried to talk to the police, they were again asked for details about themselves and the victim apparently because their statements from the previous day had been lost. “How many times must we give the same information over and over again? It was like they were playing a joke on us,” said Sheila.

Nitya’s family told the police they found her death to be suspicious and asked for an FIR to be registered. But for three days, in spite of the family’s constant pleading, the police refused to do so. It was a violation of Section 166A of the Indian Penal Code which recognises the failure to register an FIR in a cognizable offence as a criminal act.

For three days, the police also refused to tell the family where Nitya’s body was.

On the very day of her niece’s death, Sheila had written to the SHO of Model Town police station stating that the Bansals had wrongly told the police Nitya was aged 19 even though she was only 14. In her letter, Sheila asked for the case to be handed over to the Crime Branch and tried under the Protection of Child Sexual Offences Act.

Sheila's letter to the SHO of Model Town police station.

Sheila's letter to the SHO of Model Town police station.

But Nitya was 17. Why did Sheila claim in her letter that she was only 14.

“At the time of writing the letter the family was unable to recall her accurate age and kept insisting that the girl was a minor,” explained Ashutosh Kumar Mishra of the Lawyer’s Against Atrocity collective who is representing the family. “The postmortem report confirmed she was 17. Later, when we calmly asked the family, they too recalled her age as 17, not 14-15 as they had previously said.”

The family told Newslaundry that Nitya didn’t have an Aadhaar card, or a school certificate since she never went to school.

In the days after Nitya’s death, Sheila said they also went to the Delhi Commission for Women, in the hope that it would get the police to register an FIR. She penned a letter to the DCW as well, narrating the sequence of events leading upto Nitya’s death and demanding action.

On October 7, Sheila, her family, and a few women from her neighbourhood went to protest outside the Bansals’ house, demanding the return of Nitya’s belongings. Their protest didn’t draw a response, and they started pelting stones. Soon, the police arrived and took them to the Model Town station. There, Sheila alleged, the family of eight women and four men were tortured for the next five hours.

“We women were beaten up even by male police officers,” Nitya’s grandmother, 55, told Newslaundry. “They pulled us by our hair and slapped us. Some of the policemen were drunk. They beat us with a cable wire and made the men jump continuously. At 9 pm, we were freed. They said they would burn the girl’s body and that they were only trying to help us. What we were doing was wrong, they said. We were only asking for justice.”

Nitya’s cousin alleged that the police not only beat them up, but also made them delete all pictures and videos of the protest from their phones.

That morning, Mishra, the lawyer, had met a relative of Nitya’s who narrated their ordeal to him. Mishra had given him his card and parted ways. In the evening, Mishra got a call from the relative telling him that Nitya’s family had been detained.

Mishra went to the Model Town police station without delay. There, the lawyer recalled, he witnessed policemen beating up the women and policewomen thrashing the men. “Most of these officers were in plain clothes and not wearing nameplates,” he said. “They pushed me out of the station despite me telling them I was the lawyer of the family.”

He asked the police why they were torturing the family, Mishra said, and was told the family had protested at the crime scene and “broken window panes and flower pots. So a case will be filed against them”.

Forced cremation

On October 8, four days after the incident, Sheila, her mother-in-law and Nitya’s father, who had come to Delhi from Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh, after being told about her death, were called to the police station to see the body. They were made to wait from 10.30 am until noon during which time they weren’t allowed to step a foot outside. At noon, they were taken to Babu Jagjivan Ram Memorial Hospital in northwest Delhi. “In a great hurry, they made us identify the body,” said Sheila. “We kept on asking where they were taking the body but they didn’t answer.”

The family were then taken to another hospital.

The police wouldn’t explain to the family why they were being driven from one hospital to another or where Nitya’s body was being taken, Sheila alleged. At their next stop, Sheila said, they kept asking the police which hospital it was. “No one told us,” she added. “We got to know from others that it was Safdarjung Hospital. They kept the body in an ambulance for half an hour, and then told us there would be a postmortem. The postmortem started at 4 pm.”

After the body had been taken for postmortem, Sheila recalled, the police asked her how many people would come for the funeral. She replied that she would like to take Nitya’s body home so that everyone could see her one last time. The police said after the postmortem, the body would have to go directly for cremation. Sheila said she pleaded with the police officials to let her take Nitya’s body home, but all in vain.

“I wanted to take her body home so that the other family members and neighbours could see her face. The police said no, and asked us to tell these people to come to the funeral site. But women in our community aren’t supposed to go to the funeral site and we don’t ever burn a body at night,” Sheila said.

The postmortem was done by 6.30 pm, and the police put the family onto a “big truck” alongside Nitya’s body. After dropping the women off near their house, the police took Nitya's father and her brother, who too had come from Bahraich after hearing of his sister’s death, to the cremation ground.

Sheila said neither Nitya’s father nor brother dared argue or fight with the police. After they had left, she and the rest of the family rushed to the cremation ground. By then, the pyre had already been assembled.

“We arrived just as the body was going to be burned. After lighting the pyre, they pushed us outside the gate. We kept telling them we didn’t want to have a funeral at night but they kept saying the body had to be burned or it would start stinking,” said Sheila.

Nitya’s cousin said even at the funeral they were not allowed to take pictures or videos. They did manage to take a few, however. She also said most policemen who oversaw the cremation were in plain clothes.

The autopsy report from the Safdarjung Hospital, dated October 8, records asphyxia as the cause of Nitya’s death, indicating that she died of strangulation. It rules out poisoning or intoxication.

Sheila and her mother-in-law at their home in north Delhi.

Sheila and her mother-in-law at their home in north Delhi.

Credits: Nidhi Suresh

Police harassment

Rajveer Kaur, a PhD student at Delhi University, learned about Nitya’s death from a lawyer friend on October 14. She met her family the next day. On October 16, she and Ravinder Singh, a fellow member of a DU student organisation called the Bhagat Singh Chhatra Ekta Manch, organised a protest outside the police station, demanding that the police file an FIR.

“At 3 pm, a few of us students and family members gathered at the station. Around 4.30 pm, the police who were trying to disperse us started dragging us inside the station,” said Kaur. Ten people were taken into custody, five women and as many men. The women included Kaur and Sheila, the men included Ravinder and Ahan Pankar, a reporter for the Caravan magazine. They were booked under the Epidemic Act, the Disaster Management Act and penal sections that punish criminal conspiracy and disobeying a public servant.

Singh told Newslaundry that the assistant commissioner of police, Ajay Kumar, came and threatened to thrash the detained men with a steel rod. He didn’t use the steel rod, but for the next few hours the men were thrashed with shoes, slapped, and cursed. “At one point, my turban came off,” Singh added. “They started telling us that if we continued our student politics we wouldn’t be able to study.”

Panekar told Newslaundry that despite telling the police he was a journalist he was beaten up and made to delete all the photos and videos from his phone.

According to a press note released by the police, Nitya committed suicide on October 4 and was “found hanging from a T-iron with the help of a bedsheet”. It adds that a postmortem was conducted at the Safdarjung Hospital on October 8, after which “the body was cremated by the family members at cremation ground, Wazirpur”. “No foul play has come to notice so far in the investigation,” the press note claims.

On October 16, the statement states, the protestors tried to “put pressure on local police and tried to give the incident a different narrative”.

Mishra, the lawyer, said he would be registering a complaint under Section 156 of the Criminal Procedure Code asking for a magistrate to order an investigation into the case. “This is a case where the family is alleging cognizable offences. How can the police deny them the right to file an FIR?” he asked.

On October 18, the family decided not to go to the police station without their lawyer. But last night, former Congress MLA Kanwar Karan Singh and his daughter, former Congress candidate from Model Town Akanksha Singh, visited the family at their home and then, according to Sheila, “dragged us to the station”.

“We told them we didn’t want to go there as our lawyer had told us to wait. But these politicians forced us and said we must go demand the registration of FIR,” she alleged.

At the police station, the family, the politicians and ACP Kumar sat down to discuss the matter. When the family said the girl was only 17, Kumar turned to Sheila and asked, “So she was a minor? Why did you send her to work then? That’s child labour.”

Kumar also wanted to know if Nitya was really Dalit.

This correspondent was present at the police station when this conversation took place.

After a while, the police realised we were from the media and they promptly shut the door to the ACP’s office. A policewoman in plain clothes sat with us for the two hours that we waited at the station. Finally, when we met the ACP, he said, “I cannot comment on this case.”

The former Congress MLA told Newslaundry that despite their discussion with ACP Kumar, no FIR had been filed, but he had “faith in the police investigation”.

At the Bansals, meanwhile, there’s desolation. The smashed window panes on the ground floor have been covered with newspapers. A security guard said that nobody was home except the old landlady. “I myself was appointed here only two days ago. Previously, there was no security guard,” he said. The landlady spoke to us from the first-floor balcony. Nitya had committed suicide, she insisted, but refused to say more.

A neighbor told Newslaundry that all she knew was that a girl had committed suicide in that house. “There was a protest there a few days ago. And so nobody in the community is going to talk to you. Moreover, the Bansals themselves hardly interact with anyone,” she said.

The names of the victim and her family members have been changed to protect identities.

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