“She is not a number, you know? She is a person, in flesh and blood,” Radha, 70, said. She was talking about her granddaughter Divya, who has been missing for the past two months.
Divya, 17, lost her mother when she was two and her father at 12. She can’t hear or speak and has a 75 percent intellectual disability. “She can make some sounds to communicate her needs to us,” said Radha, with whom Divya had been living for the past five years in Seelampur, Delhi.
Radha whipped out a photo of Divya on a phone. Divya is wearing a shirt, her hair cut short, and she’s looking playfully into the camera. “She always dressed like a boy,” Radha said.
Divya’s life is anything but playful, however. The past few years especially have been unimaginably horrifying for the teenager.
Searching for Divya
November 30, 2020. Divya went out to play in the afternoon and when she didn’t return by nightfall, Radha alerted her other family members who live in the same area.
At around midnight, Divya’s aunt, still out searching for her, happened upon a house, four lanes over, whose gate was open and the front door ajar. “I got suspicious and opened the door. I saw that a boy was forcing himself on Divya. He saw me and ran out the back door. I picked up the girl. Her pants were on the floor and her clothes were soaked in blood,” the aunt later wrote in her statement to the police.
The boy tried to run, but was caught by the police, who had been immediately called to the scene. Abid, 13, lived with his father and worked at a meat shop in the neighbourhood.
Divya was moved to the Swami Dayanand Hospital where, after an examination early in the morning, she was confirmed to have been raped. The doctor recorded that she was still bleeding from her vagina.
The same morning, the police filed an FIR against Abid charging him with rape and for sexually assaulting a child under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.
Two weeks later, Divya, with the help of a special educator, recorded her statement. Abid was sent to a juvenile observation home.
On January 5, 2021, the Child Welfare Committee assigned Sunaina Tourangbam, a restorative care worker at the NGO Haq Centre for Child Rights, to Divya’s case.
Tourangbam was tasked with providing post-trauma care to Divya and help with the legal procedures involved in the rape case. “It’s not easy to build a rapport with her. It was only at our third session that she talked about the rape,” Tourangbam said.
On February 4, the police provided their investigation report to Divya’s family. It concluded that “there is a lot of evidence against the accused”.
In time, Divya’s grandmother said, “she went back to being the chirpy girl that she was”. “Her aggression had increased and her sleep was disturbed but overall she seemed fine,” Radha said. “We even enrolled her in a school nearby. We thought she should do something with her life.”
Abid, meanwhile, secured bail and moved out of the area with his family.
As the Covid pandemic had shut down the courts and Divya struggled to articulate her trauma, her lawyer, Zishaan Iskandari, asked for more time before she could depose. “Divya was assigned an interpreter and she was given to familiarise with her. After multiple sessions, we felt she would be comfortable enough to record her statement by July 8,” Iskandari said.
Searching for Divya, again
But on June 6, Divya went missing again. She had finished lunch with her grandmother at around 3 pm, and stepped out to play. “My heart started pounding when she didn’t return after a few hours,” said Radha. “I kept thinking, ‘Not again, not again, please god, not again’.”
The next day, after Radha had filed a missing persons report, the local police took in four people: three likely witnesses and one suspect. “The police officer in charge told me to speak with the witnesses while he interrogated the suspect. So I went into a room and began speaking with each witness separately,” recalled Tourangbam.
Akshay, 14, Ajmal, 13, and Sunita, 22 had all seen Divya the day she went missing. The suspect was Rahul, 13.
Tourangbam said Akshay told her at the police station that Rahul had come to him at around 4 pm and allegedly said, “The mute girl is injured, she is naked, come let’s have some fun with her.”
Akshay declined to go with Rahul. Later, walking home, he said he saw Divya in a neighbourhood park with Sunita. “I called out to Divya and told her to go home,” he recalled to Tourangbam.
Ajmal claimed that he had seen Divya being beaten up by three boys. “Two of them dragged her towards a tomb-like structure. I followed them quietly. When I peeped inside, I saw one of the boys raping her,” he told Tourangbam.
Sunita reported that she had seen Divya with Rahul between 3 and 4 pm. At 5.30 pm she went to a paan shop and the shopkeeper told her that “something is happening behind the ruins, go and see”. “I went to where he had pointed and saw Divya being raped,” Tourangbam recalled Sunita telling her. “As soon as I went in, the boys ran away. I made Divya put on her clothes, took her to a public toilet, washed her up, bought her some snacks and took her to the park. She couldn’t speak or hear. She played for some time, then I told her to go home and left.”
Sunita was found lying dead on rail tracks in Seelampur on June 21. She had apparently been hit by a passing train.
Rahul confessed during the interrogation to “going out with Divya to Seelampur”, but denied raping her. “He said he met the girl often and they went for walks, as they did the day she went missing. I went to his house and the SHO, too, spoke to him. We didn’t have evidence to hold him. We let him go after two days,” said Vivek Nanda, the investigating officer.
A few days later, the police found CCTV footage from a petrol pump in Seelampur. The video, seen by Newslaundry, is from 7.29 pm on June 6 and shows Divya walking just behind two boys, one of them masked. It appears that she is following them.
There is no other surveillance camera within a 500-metre radius of the petrol pump, Nanda said. “So I’m not able to tell where exactly she went after that.”
And the “lack of continuity in surveillance footage”, Iskandari said, “has really proved to be a problem”.
On June 10, a bus conductor in Anand Vihar recognised Divya when the police were going around showing her picture. “He told us Divya had boarded his bus with two boys and they got off near a petrol pump in Meerut. He also said Divya did not seem to be struggling or resisting,” said Nanda.
The police showed the CCTV footage to Radha and recounted what the conductor had said. “They said Divya didn’t look like she was struggling and it showed she had gone of her own will,” she recalled. “They tried to tell me that she might have eloped. Divya is deaf, mute, and mentally challenged. Have the police forgotten that? You give her a chocolate, she’ll go with you. How can you tell me that she has eloped?”
On June 12, Radha went with the Delhi police to Meerut. They searched for two days but there was no trace of her Divya.
Given that Divya had disappeared just days before her deposition, Nanda summoned Abid to the police station. “But he did not seem involved in her disappearance. So I let him go,” the investigating officer said.
Three days later, a garbage picker told Radha she had seen Divya a few days earlier sleeping in Nand Nagri, about eight km away. “The police went there but no CCTV camera in the area was working so they didn’t really find anything,” said Tourangbam.
On June 13, Iskandari filed a habeas corpus petition in the Delhi High Court. Such a plea legally obliges the police to produce the missing person before a judge or remain answerable to the court about the investigation.
Nearly 6,000 children go missing in Delhi every year. This year until April, as many as 1,878 children went missing. As of August 2020, the union women and child development ministry’s tracker recorded at least 20 children going missing a day. These are government figures, and likely undercounts.
Waiting for Divya
At the last hearing on the habeas corpus petition, Iskandari asked for the CBI to investigate Divya’s disappearance. “The judge did not allow investigation by CBI, but ordered that a special investigation team be formed,” he said.
The next hearing is on August 22. “This has now become a blind case with no leads. I don’t know what to do,” said Nanda. The police would soon release a picture of Divya in newspapers and declare a reward of Rs 60,000 rupees for finding her, he added.
The POCSO court trying Divya’s rape case will proceed without her. The hearing is set for August 26.
As days have turned to weeks and months, Radha’s hope, and resolve, of finding her granddaughter has started to waver. “I have a big family to look after. We are not rich people. For how long will I drop everything to go look for Divya?” she asked. “How do I stop also?”
Update on August 22
On August 14, Divya was found at a women’s shelter home in Meerut.
Investigating officer Vivek Nanda said that according to those running the shelter home, a local had come across Divya at Ghaziabad’s Kavi Nagar. The local took her to the shelter home a few days after she disappeared.
“When word got around about her, the shelter home contacted the UP police who contacted us,” Nanda said.
Divya was brought back to Delhi on August 17. A medical examination was conducted and “no internal or external injuries” were recorded, Nanda said. Her 164 statement was also recorded with the help of a special interpreter.
“She was handed over to us in court after her statement was recorded. We’re just glad she is back home,” Divya’s aunt told Newslaundry a week after Divya returned.
She added that Divya does not talk about her time away. “We also don’t want to make her think of traumatic things. She’s slowly started to play with other kids again.”
Advocate Zishan Iskandari told Newslaundry that Delhi High Court disposed of the habeas corpus petition he had filed in June. Meanwhile, the POCSO case will be next heard as scheduled on August 26.
Update on August 26: A previous version of this story said the Delhi High Court dismissed the habeas corpus petition. The court disposed of the petition; this has been corrected.
Names of the victim, her family members, the accused, and the witnesses have been changed to protect their identities.
Aali Dadhich assisted with translation.