On August 6, additional sessions judge Vijeta Singh Rawat sentenced a temple priest, Vishwa Bandhu, 76, to life imprisonment. Bandhu was found guilty of two children, aged seven and nine, for a week in August 2014 within the premises of a temple in Satbari village, around seven km south of Delhi’s Mehrauli.
Pronouncing the judgement, Rawat said, “He did not even care for the respect and faith attached to his office as a priest and has also desecrated the temple where the children should have had a carefree and safe time.”
Bandhu’s conviction comes just a few weeks after a nine-year-old girl was at the Delhi Cantonment crematorium. In that case as well, one of the accused, Radhey Shyam, is a priest.
In the aftermath of Bandhu’s sentencing, residents of Satbari village are divided. Some think this is a “misunderstanding”, others are trying to come to terms with their rage.
Satbari is an unassuming village off the main Chhatarpur road. When Newslaundry visited at 6.30 am on August 12, the narrow lane to the village led us to a group of people setting up for a wedding later in the day. When asked where the Maata Mandir was, they told this reporter to continue walking down the road; the temple was in the middle of the village.
“You can’t miss it,” a villager said.
The ‘desecrated’ temple
But Maata Mandir, with its pink walls, was easy to miss. The temple was nestled among the homes of the villagers, at the very heart of Satbari. Its only discernible features were its arched entryway and spiked gates, recognisable from a on the rape of the two children.
Apart from a few cows and a dog in front of the temple, there was no sign of life.
The walls inside the temple were pale yellow; a cobweb-covered bell swayed in the breeze from a slow-moving fan. Behind the bell were seven marble idols: Ganesh, Hanuman, Ram, Sita, Saraswati, Sai Baba and Krishna.
The children had been raped during Janmashtimi, a festival that celebrates the birth of Krishna.
The thick incense smoke within the temple indicated that someone else was there. Soon enough, a middle-aged woman walked in and she sat on a cot. She played a devotional song on her phone but it was drowned out by the loud Gayatri Mantra that blared on loop from an unseen speaker.
This was Meena Tiwari whose husband, Naresh Tiwari, took over as head priest of the temple after the rapes in 2014. Originally from Chitrakoot, Madhya Pradesh, the couple moved to Satbari eight years ago.
A Krishna idol in the temple.
Cows outside the temple.
“My husband was a priest in Chitrakoot but wanted to leave the city and get a government job,” she said. “So, we moved here in 2013, but he was unsuccessful. It's very difficult, as you know. He gave up the search and started working here in this temple. In 2014, after the old priest left, my husband became the head priest. I like it here, people from the village come here everyday, and it's a good community.”
Meena was evasive on why the former priest, Vishwa Bandhu, had “left”.
“He was very old and left the village,” she told Newslaundry. “He went back home to Rajasthan.”
But wasn’t he convicted of rape?
“Nothing of the sort happened here,” she said firmly. She then walked away.
Vishwa Bandhu was arrested on August 18, 2014, after the parents of the girls lodged a complaint against him the same day at Mehrauli police station. As per the court order delivered on July 16, Bandhu was taken into custody on February 26 this year after being convicted for offences punishable under Sections 376(2) and 506(2) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 6 read with Section 5(l) of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.
According to a Hindustan Times , the incident came to the fore when one of the victims complained to her mother of pain in her lower abdomen and difficulty in passing urine, before finally breaking down and telling her about the repeated assault. The mother checked with her daughter’s friend, who admitted that she too was sexually assaulted by the same priest.
The stated that the medical evidence corroborated the testimonies of the victims. The defence did not examine any independent witness and was unable to prove that the crime had been committed as a result of “mental stress or emotional distress”.
Soon after Meena’s departure, an old woman and a little boy, no more than five years old, walked into the temple and knelt before the Krishna idol. The idols, harshly illuminated by a white CFL bulb, did not hold the boy’s attention for long. He was more enamoured by a swarm of ants nearby.
The woman, Kamala Devi, 72, also denied that Bandhu had raped the children, despite his conviction.
“I live right down the street and have lived in this village all my life. Nothing like that has ever happened here. We live in harmony and my people don’t commit such disrespectful acts.”
However, Kashmiri Tiwari, 60, who runs a shop metres away from the temple, told Newslaundry that the incident had taken place, though she added that such depraved acts were out of character for the community. She also downplayed the rapes.
“Nothing happened. They made a big deal out of nothing,” said Kashmiri, who also regularly volunteers, or offers seva, at the temple by sweeping it. “The children were from families who are not from here. They lived here on rent and worked menial jobs. The priest was also not from here. The children complained to their parents that the priest had done something with them. Then the priest was kicked out of the village and the families also left after that.”
It was just a misunderstanding, she maintained.
‘Some people even blamed my sister’
Back in front of the temple, Satish Kumar, a 35-year-old taxi driver, washed his car while his two sons played music from within it. Newslaundry asked him about the rape.
Pausing for a moment, he said, “Yes it happened here only, in this temple. The two children used to play here and one day, they told their parents that the priest had been violating them for a week. Several villagers, myself included, then went in to confront him, and we found him in his underwear lying obscenely on the temple floor.”
Satish Kumar, who was one of the people who 'confronted' Bandhu.
Meena Singh, who says she urged the villagers to call the police.
Satish said he remembered feeling an indescribable rage when he saw the priest. He said, “We beat him, that old priest. We beat him with sticks, our hands, anything. It was only because he was very old that we stopped beating him. If he was younger, we would have killed him. We then handed him to the police.”
Satish’s chachi or uncle's wife, Meera Singh, 48, also talked about the day. The window in her home looks straight into the temple and she remembered watching a crowd of men beat Bandhu.
She said, “I was the one who stopped them from killing him and urged them to call the police. I felt sick at what he had done. I am sure the family will be relieved to know that he will die in jail. They still live here, a couple of lanes away from the temple.”
She pointed towards a boy playing with marbles nearby. “His sister was one of the girls.”
The boy, who was 16, confirmed this to Newslaundry, saying his sister had been seven years old at the time. The nine-year-old victim had been their neighbour, but the family moved away a few years ago.
The boy said. “It was difficult being here right after it happened, but now people have mostly forgotten. Some people even blamed my sister and said that she continued to go to the temple because she liked it. She was seven, how could she have known? But now she has grown up and has put it behind her.”
Does the family still visit the temple? No, he said.
“We don’t go there. But there is a different priest now who people say has a family. He won’t do something like that if he has a family,” he said.
Has anything been done to make the temple feel safer? He said, “The priest was changed, which is good. Maybe they can put CCTV cameras inside to prevent anything like this happening again. But we will never go back.”