Ram Shabd is suspended and facing a departmental inquiry for negligence. Yet, he gets to record victim’s family's statement against him.
“I was suffering from piles at the time. Please forgive me.”
That’s what Asha’s brother said police officer Ram Shabd told him at the police departmental inquiry.
“Piles! Really? That is why he couldn’t write it down when my sister kept saying she’d been gangraped?” the brother asked, aghast.
He is fed up.
Asha, a Dalit teenager, was gangraped on September 14, 2020 by four upper caste Thakur men named Sandip, Ramu, Luvkush, and Ravi. She died two weeks later. The men are in jail and being tried in a special court in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh.
Hours after her death, Asha was forcibly cremated by the Uttar Pradesh police. The role of government officials in botching up the investigation is now the subject of a case being heard by the Allahabad High Court.
Three weeks ago, on June 28, 2021, Asha’s brother, mother and father were summoned by Praveen Kumar, inspector general of Meerut, to appear for a departmental inquiry. Kumar has been appointed to look into the suspension of Ram Shabd, the circle officer who led the rape investigation initially.
Asha’s family, along with their CRPF guard and a police escort, including Hathras additional superintendent of police Prakash Kumar, traveled nearly 200 km to give their statement against Ram Shabd, only to find the inquiry officer absent and have their statement recorded by Ram Shabd, the accused officer, who also cross questioned them. Moreover, Asha’s brother alleged, the accompanying additional SP asked them questions in the first person, on behalf of Ram Shabd, in an attempt to confuse the family.
The statement was not read out to them, Asha’s brother added, and when they did eventually get a copy they found their words had been distorted by Ram Shabd. So, on July 3, Asha’s lawyers sent a letter of representation on behalf of her family to Mukul Goel, the state’s police chief, copying the chief minister’s office.
The letter protested that the inquiry hearing held in Meerut was “farcical”, “illegal”, and “a complete sham”. It was conducted the way it was to “create a false record that will help the accused persons and sabotage the criminal trial”.
The letter demanded that the statements recorded on July 28 be “expunged and set aside” and a fresh departmental inquiry initiated, and that criminal proceedings be launched against Ram Shabd for “manipulating and fabricating evidence”.
Who is Ram Shabd?
Asha was raped on September 14 last year but she told her family about it only two days later. The family, according to Asha’s mother, immediately approached the circle officer, Ram Shabd, but he wasn’t available. It wasn’t until five days later that the then Hathras police chief, Vikrant Vir, agreed to add charges of gangrape and name Ravi, Ramu and Luvkush in the FIR, which until then only named Sandip as the prime accused and booked him for attempt to murder and under the Scheduled Caste and the Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act.
On December 19, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed a chargesheet concluding that Asha had been gangraped and murdered by Sandip, Ravi, Ramu, Luvkush. The chargesheet, a part of which was accessed by Newslaundry, put Ram Shabd at the centre of the police’s shoddy investigation.
Five days after Asha was gangraped, she was examined and her statement was recorded at the Jawaharlal Medical College, the CBI chargesheet noted. The statement was recorded by a policewoman in the presence of Ram Shabd, investigating officer Sanjay Kumar, a constable named Munshi, and the entire exercise was videographed by a constable named Omveer Singh.
The statement mentioned simply that Sandip had molested and strangled Asha. So, the CBI chargesheet noted, the FIR invoked charges of molestation and not gangrape. However, a “minute analysis of the video recorded by Omveer Singh” showed that the victim had also accused Ramu and Ravi along with Sandip.
Asha’s brother remembers the day Ram Shabd came to take his sister’s statement at the hospital. “He asked my mother and father to step aside. He did not allow us to be with her when she gave her statement. So we don’t know what exactly she said and if they really recorded the truth or not,” he said.
On September 30, as allegations of shoddy investigation emerged, chief minister Adityanath constituted a Special Investigation Team.
Two days later, the SIT filed an initial report based on which the chief minister ordered Ram Shabd’s suspension. Vikrant Vir, inspector Dinesh Kumar Verma, senior sub-inspector Jagvir Singh and head constable Mahesh Pal were also suspended.
Ram Shabd’s inquiry hearing
Vibhuti Narain Rai, a former Uttar Pradesh police chief, explained that a police departmental inquiry is usually conducted to establish negligence by a police official.
The inquiry officer records the aggrieved person’s statement in the presence of the accused official, who can then question the aggrieved person.
There is “no excuse” for the inquiry officer, in this case IG Praveen Kumar, to be absent or not record the statement himself, Rai elaborated.
And if the inquiry officer cannot attend the hearing, it must be postponed, he said. “Even in a courtroom if the judge is busy or not present, the hearing is adjourned, right? Have you ever heard of a situation where the accused takes down a statement against him?”
Rai sought action against the Meerut IG. “He should be given a stern warning and a censure entry must be made against him,” he said. A censure entry is a public record of an official’s blameworthy act or omission which has a bearing on the assessment of their merit or potential for promotion.
Newslaundry asked Prashant Kumar, the additional director general, law and order, whether Praveen Kumar would face action for skipping the inquiry hearing. He was not aware of what had transpired, the ADG said, but “if the family is unhappy, they can send a representation and we will address it”.
The family had been summoned to Meerut four times before they actually went, according to Seema Kushwaha, one of the lawyers for them. Twice they couldn’t go because it was the middle of the second wave of the pandemic. The other two times the state hadn’t arranged transport for them.
“This time, I had to call the superintendent of police, the Meerut IG and write to him repeatedly to make sure they had transport,” she added.
On June 28, when they reached the IG’s office, Asha’s brother recalled, they saw Ram Shabd. “Apart from them there was a typist, two-three officials in civilian clothes, the additional SP, and the IG’s personal assistant was sitting outside,” he said.
The IG didn’t show up and the hearing began without him.
“Ram Shabd himself started asking questions and writing down our statement. When I realised he wasn’t writing what we were saying I asked him why he was doing this,” Asha’s brother alleged. “He didn’t respond.”
Instead, Ram Shabd began apologising. “He told us,” Asha’s brother recalled, quoting the suspended official, “‘I made a mistake. I’ve two kids. Think about that. At that time, I was suffering from piles. Please forgive me.’”
When Asha’s brother asked Ram Shabd why he and not the inquiry officer was recording their statement, Ram Shabd allegedly told him that he had cleared it with the IG. “But nobody was supervising the hearing,” Asha’s brother said. “This is just so wrong.”
After this, Asha’s brother said, Prakash Kumar, the additional SP, began asking questions “in a misleading manner”. “He asked the questions in the first person. For example, he asked, ‘Did you complain to me that she was raped?” I said no and he wrote that down. I said no because I had complained to Ram Shabd, not him. We had no idea that he was asking on behalf of Ram Shabd.”
Prakash Kumar could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.
Praveen Kumar, the IG who is supposed to serve as the inquiry officer, confirmed he was not present at the hearing. “But it is not like no one else was there to supervise. There were two to three three-star officers,” he claimed but refused to name any of them.
Vrinda Grover, another lawyer for Asha’s family, refuted the IG’s claim. “This statement is entirely false. No one else was there to supervise the inquiry,” she said.
Why was the IG not present?
“You think I have only one job? That day there were four murders in Ghaziabad, so I had to prioritise that. Anyway this is a very preliminary hearing so it can be done again,” Praveen Kumar replied.
Based on the letter sent by Asha’s lawyers, will a fresh inquiry be initiated? “Yes, I have asked them to come again. I will give them another opportunity to record their statement,” the IG said.
Ram Shabd, however, denied recording the family’s statement in the first place. “The typist wrote everything,” he said, seemingly seeking escape in a technicality.
Did he question the family while they were giving their statement? “I can’t talk about this over the phone,” he responded, and hung up.
Impact on ongoing criminal case
Generally a departmental inquiry is seperate from a criminal matter and its outcomes will have no effect on the ongoing court proceedings.
Rai explained that suspension of police officials for negligence, which leads to a departmental inquiry, often functions as mere “eyewash” to escape public outcry and “give an impression that the government is serious”.
Nevertheless, in their letter, Asha’s lawyers argued that the inquiry hearing can “create a false record that will help the accused persons and sabotage the criminal trial”.
“There is prima facie evidence of what Ram Shabd has done to this Valmiki family. Why is there no case against him under section 166A? This is precisely how the police systematically dilutes the case, erases evidence which eventually results in grave injustice for dalit women,” Grover told Newslaundry.
The departmental inquiry is an “empty formality” which reflects complicity not only on the part of Ram Shabd but the UP police’s leadership, she said. “Despite this case having drawn so much attention, the UP police continue to manipulate the system to shield Ram Shabd, their brother in khaki.”
If the departmental inquiry clears Ram Shabd, he can be reinstated, regardless of what happens in the court case.
For Asha’s family, meanwhile, the pursuit of justice is becoming an endlessly difficult task. “We are intimidated in the courtroom, or our statements aren’t recorded, or our case is not listed for virtual hearing, or there is the pandemic,” Asha’s brother said. “We are fighting for justice but now it feels like we are fighting just to make a broken system work.”
Asha is a pseudonym used to protect the victim's identity and her family's.