On May 18, 2016, the police control room in Delhi received a phone call. A young girl – clothes torn, barely alive – had been found in a pool of blood along the railway tracks near a drain in Southeast Delhi’s Pul Prahladpur.
A preliminary medical examination revealed that Shalini, 11, had suffered “sexual assault”. There was a deep tear in the area between her vagina and rectum, and she had cuts on her neck and body. Her face was covered in bite marks.
Shalini, an orphan, had an intellectual disability and could not easily explain to the police what had happened to her.
A week later, Arjun Kumar, 20, was arrested. He worked as a ragpicker in the area.
Six years later, on April 28, 2022, a special Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act court in Saket delivered the verdict in Shalini’s case. Arjun was acquitted. No one else was accused of the crime, and the case was closed. Shalini was granted compensation of Rs 8 lakh for “rehabilitation”.
But, in a strongly worded judgement, the judge slammed the Delhi police’s investigation as “sloppy”, “shoddy”, “below par” and “absolutely negligent”. The judgement said the police “showed complete apathy” and “lacked professionalism”.
The court has sent a copy of the judgement to the Delhi commissioner of police so action can be taken against two police officers – investigating officer Manju Bala and then station house officer Sunil Kumar Singh. Singh has since retired as assistant commissioner of police. Bala now works at the Delhi crime branch.
Meanwhile, Shalini lives in a children’s shelter home in Delhi. She will have to leave once she turns 18 in three months, and she can choose where to go.
“Initially, she had serious anger issues. But then she started calming down,” said Nisha, who runs the shelter home. “Now, she attends special school and can speak a few full sentences.”
The events of May 2016
In 2013, Shalini was nine years old. Her father, a labourer, had just died of tuberculosis. Her mother would die a year later in an accident.
An only child with an intellectual disability, Shalini was sent to live with her grandmother in a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras.
A year later, her grandmother died too. That is when her uncle Santosh, who worked as a pantryboy at a hotel in east Delhi, brought Shalini to Delhi to live with his wife and two children.
This is where Shalini was living when she was raped.
Santosh vividly recalls the events of that day. It was a hot summer evening on May 17. He, his wife, his older daughter and Shalini set out to collect water from the neighbourhood water pump. An argument broke out at the pump, and Santosh, his wife and daughter got involved.
During the argument, he said, Shalini “slipped away”.
“I didn’t realise when but we then spent all evening trying to find her,” he said. “I think she must have got scared and left, thinking she’ll go home, but then lost her way.”
The family went to Gautam Puri police station to file a missing person complaint, but the police did not do so. This was the first major lapse in the case.
The next morning, the police received the phone call about a girl being found. They rushed to the spot and took her to the trauma centre at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
Curiously, the police did not check who made the call to the control room. The judgement in the case would later say the prosecution “failed to explain” the identity of the caller.
Apart from cuts on Shalini’s neck and multiple bruises on body, an AIIMS gynaecologist found “complete sphincter perineal tear 3 cm” – referring to a 3 cm tear in the region between the vagina and rectum. In the medical documents accessed by Newslaundry, the gynaecologist wrote “sexual assault complete”.
An examination by the AIIMS psychiatry department also revealed “moderate mental retardation of 75%” and noted that the condition is “not likely to improve”.
To find Shalini’s family, the police took photographs of her and showed them to people in the area where she had been found. Someone identified her as Santosh’s niece, and the family was contacted.
Santosh recalled that when he saw Shalini in the hospital for the first time, “it looked like someone had smashed a beer bottle on her”.
Shalini required two immediate surgeries, followed later by a colostomy – an operation that redirects the colon, or large intestine, through an opening in the abdominal wall to pass stools. This surgery is usually done when there are deep injuries to the anal or bowel region.
Shalini was bedridden for six months after the assault. A week after it had taken place, her case spurred . Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi met her in hospital, as did Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal who afterwards sought a meeting with then union home minister Rajnath Singh. Kejriwal said he would bat for full statehood for Delhi so “such incidents can be stopped”.
On May 25, Arjun was arrested.
Arrested, bailed and acquitted
Arjun’s arrest was based on testimony from an eyewitness, Mukesh Tyagi, who claimed to have seen him with Shalini on the day the assault took place, and an unnamed “informer”. The police picked Arjun up and claimed he had “confessed” during questioning.
Mukesh Tyagi’s testimony was later called into question – another lapse in the case. We will explain this in detail later.
Arjun was arrested on May 25. According to the judgement, investigating officer Bala claimed she had received “secret information” that day that “the boy involved in the present case was sitting near the railway line in Aali Gaon”. She then accompanied this “informer” and found “one boy sitting at the railway track”, “sniffing whitener”.
Bala said the boy identified himself as Arjun Kumar and she took him to the police station. She deposed in court that he had confessed to the crime and showed the police the different locations where he had “raped” Shalini.
At no point did Bala disclose the identity of this “informer”.
Arjun’s confession figured in the chargesheet, which was accessed by Newslaundry.
In the chargesheet, Arjun stated that at 7.30 pm on May 17, 2016, he was on his way home when he saw Shalini. Shalini “seduced” him and he “took her to the bushes next to the Metro Service Station and forcibly raped this girl”.
“After a while again raped her and then left her,” it quoted him as saying. “I came out of there and kept roaming around. Then at around 10 pm in the night, the same girl met me in Aali village near the railway bridge behind the Sansi Camp Badarpur drain, on the side of the railway line bushes. After raping that girl and having anal sex with her, the girl started bleeding. I got scared and in haste ran away from the bridge of the track of Prahladpur MB road.”
Kumar Shailabh, the lawyer representing Shalini, pointed out Arjun’s confession “does not hold any evidentiary value”.
“Confessional statement cannot be relied upon since it was only recorded by the police officials and not before any other authority,” he said.
The chargesheet was filed on August 24, 2016. Ten days later, on September 3, a sessions court in Delhi granted Arjun bail on the grounds that the statements of “the so-called eyewitness” prima facie appeared “fabricated” and “indicated towards shoddy investigation by the police”.
In 2022, the court acquitted him, citing the failure of the police in discharging their duties and not placing proper evidence on record.
Importantly, forensics tests did not tie Arjun to Shalini’s assault.
When Arjun was arrested, Manju Bala said she had collected samples from both him and Shalini and sent them for forensic testing. The forensic evidence did not match.
When Newslaundry asked Bala about this, she said, “Now, if the forensics didn’t match, what can I do? I arrested the man who I thought was the accused.”
The bail order, chargesheet and judgement – all of which were accessed by Newslaundry – reveal major lapses by the Delhi police.
1) Not recording a missing person complaint
As mentioned before, after failing to find Shalini, Santosh and his wife went to Gautam Puri police station. It was around 8 pm on May 17, 2016, and they told sub-inspector Ranbir Singh that they wanted to file a missing person report.
Santosh said the police “asked them to wait for a while”, and did not file a report.
Ranbir Singh deposed in court that he had asked the family to file a written complaint. He claimed Santosh and his wife “said the victim was not mentally sound so they themselves would try to find her, and if they can’t find her, they would file a complaint”.
Ranbir Singh was suspended on May 19 for not filing the report. But a month later, on June 7, his suspension was revoked. During the cross-examination of Shalini’s aunt and uncle, it was revealed that Singh’s suspension had been revoked after he convinced the couple to submit a written statement saying he had sent police constables with them to search for Shalini.
The judgement says this was “not the case”.
“Had sub-inspector Ranbir Singh done his duty diligently, maybe the victim would not have suffered the fate she did,” the judgement said. “...Ranbir Singh could not and should not have been forgiven for his laxity/negligence ruined a 10-year-old’s life.” (Note: Shalini was 11, not 10 as stated in the judgement.)
2) A ‘planted’ witness
Arjun Kumar’s arrest was based almost solely on the testimony given by one Mukesh Tyagi, who ran a tea stall near the area where the assault took place. Tyagi would later tell the court the police often visited his stall and sought information from him on different cases.
Tyagi gave two statements to the police on Arjun Kumar – the first on May 19 and the second on May 30, five days after Arjun’s arrest.
The timeline – of Tyagi’s statements, his “identification” of Arjun, Arjun’s arrest – does not add up, and this was pointed out in the judgement too. Both statements were recorded in the police diary.
In his statement on May 19, Tyagi said he saw Shalini at 7-7.30 pm “in a lane with a boy”. He said he would “recognise” the boy if he saw him again, but he did not know this person.
Arjun was arrested on May 25, following the sequence of events involving Bala and the “informer”.
Five days later, on May 30, Tyagi was taken to Tihar jail to “identify” Arjun – and he did. He then submitted a statement to the police, this time saying he saw Shalini with a “dark, lanky man who is a ragpicker”.
“I know him very well,” he added, in contradiction to his May 19 statement.
As the trial went on, Tyagi turned hostile. He told the court he did not know anything about the case and that he also did not know Arjun. He also told the court he had never made a statement to the police about seeing Shalini with Arjun.
During his cross-examination, Tyagi was asked how he identified Arjun in Tihar jail. Amazingly, Tyagi said that an hour before he was taken to the jail, the police purportedly showed him a photo of Arjun on a mobile phone. He was then “asked to identify Arjun Kumar on the basis of the photo shown to him” – which he did.
The court asked investigating officer Manju Bala about these inconsistencies, but Bala was unable to explain them.
The judgement therefore concluded that it “cannot be completely ruled out that he [Tyagi] was a planted witness, just introduced to boost the prosecution’s case”.
Importantly, this isn’t the only “planted witness” to figure in the judgement.
3) The role of Rahul, and a dubious ‘recovery’
Another lapse involved Rahul, a driver, whom the police listed as a witness in the case.
Typically, when a case takes place in public, the police ask members of the public who were in the area to join the investigation. Most of them decline. In Shalini’s case, Rahul was the only member of the public to participate – a fact that the judgement also called “strange and surprising”.
Rahul’s statement in court was that at around noon on May 25, 2016, he had been crossing the road when the police brought Arjun, who had been arrested, to the scene of the crime. Rahul said Manju Bala asked him to join the team, which was on its way to “recover some articles” from the crime scene.
Rahul obliged. An anklet and a pair of pants were recovered at the scene, he said. Both Bala and Rahul confirmed the items were recovered from crowded, public places.
The judgement flagged multiple issues with these events.
First, section 172 of the CrPC says a police officer conducting an investigation must maintain a record of everything done on a daily basis. This would include Rahul joining the investigation that day – but the case diary made no mention of it.
Additionally, the anklet and pants were recovered from a public place, not from a “hidden place which was in the exclusive knowledge of the accused”. The judgement said, “This also creates doubt about the recovery proceedings.”
Third, Rahul said in his deposition that the police had photographed the crime scene and the recovered materials. But at no point during the trial did the police place these photographs on record as evidence. In fact, during her deposition, Bala said “no photographs were clicked at the place of recovery of pejab [anklet] or pant”.
The judgement said, “After going through the case diaries, it seems that independent witnesses are being introduced to show that the police are able to solve the case.”
The police also did not contact Shalini’s family to verify whether the pants or anklet belonged to her, as mandated by and deal with the procedure and the legality of the Test Identification Parade, or TIP. According to this, a TIP should have been organised where Manju Bala should have called Santosh and his wife to identify the pant and anklet, in order to verify whether they actually belong to Shalini or not. This identification parade was never conducted by the police.
The judgement said the prosecution never explained why the TIP was not conducted.
“In the absence of TIP proceedings, the prosecution has miserably failed to prove that the anklet and pant belonged to the victim,” the judgement said. Thus, “the entire testimony of PW4 [Rahul] loses its significance”.
4) Not recording Shalini’s 164 statement
A 164 statement – officially section 164(a) of the Code of Criminal Procedure – is testimony of a rape victim recorded by a magistrate within 24 hours of the police being notified of the incident.
The provision lays down that if the person making the statement has a permanent or temporary disability, either physical or mental, then the magistrate must take the assistance of an interpreter or special educator in recording the statement. In this case, the process must also be videographed.
The also mandates that a court seeks the assistance of a “special educator or any person familiar with the manner of communication of the child” to obtain statements or testimonies from children with disabilities.
Shalini’s 164 statement was not recorded by investigating officer Manju Bala, according to Arjun’s bail order. When asked why, Bala told Newslaundry: “It was impossible to communicate with the child. She could barely speak.”
Kumar Shailabh, the lawyer representing Shalini, said Bala “did not make any effort to comply with these provisions” of section 164.
“Therefore, one of the most crucial statements in a criminal trial was not recorded,” he said.
He added, “The 164 statement is the most reliable document in a case especially since it is recorded within 24 hours of the incident. The survivor's memory is fresh and there are the least possibilities of influencing the victim/witness. But they never did that in this case”.
In January, when the trial was coming to an end, the judge once again pointedly asked whether Shalini was in a position to give this statement. According to Shailabh, a doctor who conducted a psychological reevaluation of Shalini told the court she was “not in a position to depose as she falls under the severe retardation category”.
The doctor also said that since six years had passed, “it will be a struggle for her to articulate now what she struggled to articulate back then”, Shailabh said.
Had Shalini given the statement under section 164, the statement would have been “sine qua non”, the judgement said, or essential to the prosecution’s case. The absence of her statement had, the judgement said, “sounded [a] death knell”and had “seriously dented” and “proved fatal” for the prosecution’s case.
The judgement did note that special educators had eventually been called in 2016, 2017 and 2022, but Shalini had been unable to record her statement due to her disability and the passage of time.
Bala told Newslaundry she had submitted an application with the Child Welfare Committee for an interpreter to help record Shalini’s statement, a day after the police learned about the case.
“But there was a lot of delay in finding an interpreter,” she said. “So then I filed the chargesheet and arrested the man we found.”
She added that after the chargesheet was filed, an interpreter did come to court but due to “payment issues”, it “didn’t work out”. Yet again, Shalini’s statement was not recorded.
Newslaundry asked Bala if she was aware of the consequences of the absence of Shalini’s statement.
“You have to realise this is not only our fault,” she replied. “It is the system. Where was I to get an interpreter from? I asked a few friends who have helped me before, but they were not available. Also, there was much political pressure that we had to act fast, so we arrested the man.”
Shalini’s uncle ‘misappropriates’ funds
Bala was transferred to the crime branch shortly after the chargesheet was filed.
After Arjun was granted bail, the court gave Shalini a total of Rs 8 lakh for her “rehabilitation”.
Lawyer Shailabh said that while it’s “deeply unfortunate” the case has been closed, “the sensitivity of the court with regard to the welfare of the child, and the manner in which it pointed out the shoddy investigation of the police, must be appreciated”.
Additionally, a year after the incident, the court had granted Shalini an interim compensation of Rs 1 lakh. Shalini’s uncle Santosh used this money for the construction of his house.
“Shalini did not have a bank account and because she didn’t have an Aadhar card, it was taking a long time to create an account,” Santosh told Newslaundry. “So, they transferred the money to me. I thought since she will come home at some point, I used the money.”
While delivering the verdict in Shalini’s case, the Saket court accused Santosh of misappropriating the funds and directed him to deposit Rs 1 lakh, with interest, into a bank account opened for Shalini.
The names of the victim, her relatives, the accused, the shelter home’s head and the witnesses have been changed to protect identities.
This is the first part of a story on Shalini’s case. In the second part, we will look at the role of special educators who are called in to assist police and courts in cases where crimes are committed against children with intellectual disabilities.
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