Standing barely 100 metres from the spot where his daughter’s body was found in Halaila village, the 60-year-old stood with his head bowed and hands clasped to convey his gratitude to the hundreds who had assembled for a Gayatri Path, a prayer meeting the family had organised on Sunday.
His 16-year-old daughter, the sixth of his seven children, was found in the Halaila forests of Mahasu in the apple-rich Kotkhai area, 56 km from Shimla, on July 6, two days after she went missing on her way home from school. The postmortem report had confirmed rape and death by strangulation, and revealed that she had deep injuries all over her face and body. The girl’s death had triggered protests across Shimla, prompting the state home department to hand over the case to the CBI.
The girl and her younger brother studied at the Government Senior Secondary School in Mahasu, a journey of around 5 km that took them an hour as they walked from their hilltop village overlooking Theog town through a winding mud road with tall deodar trees on either side.
That day, the father says, while his son stayed back in school for the sports day, the 16-year-old decided to come home. “My son and daughter usually come home together, along with some other children from school. But my daughter wasn’t participating in any event that day, so she came back on her own,” says the father.
“I had always warned her about wild animals, that she should watch out, especially for bears, on the way, but she would say, ‘Relax, papa… No one can harm me’. I wish I had warned her about men who are worse than beasts,” he says, breaking down.
On July 13, police announced the arrest of Ashish Chauhan, 29, of Shaaral village in Kotkhai, the son of a prominent orchard owner. Later, the same day, a Special Investigation Team (SIT) confirmed the arrest of six persons, including Chauhan and the main suspect in the case, Rajender Singh alias Raju, a 32-year-old from Mandi who lived in Halaila village in Kotkhai and worked as manager-cum-driver at an apple orchard.
According to police, the incident happened on July 4 when the victim was returning from school. At Halaila, 4 km from her home, Raju allegedly offered her a lift in a private carriage vehicle. Four other accused — Subash Singh Bisht, 42, and Deepu, 38, from Garhwal in Uttarakhand, and Surat Singh, 29, Lokjan, 19, from Nepal — were also in the vehicle, said police. The four are farm labourers who work on apple orchards, along with Raju.
The girl’s father, who owns a small patch of land in the village, also worked on other people’s apple orchards. Locals say that even with his meagre earnings, he ensured his children went to school.
It’s only this year that the 16-year old — in their campaigns, the protesters have nicknamed her ‘Gudiya’ — and her younger brother shifted from the Government Senior Secondary School in Janahan, 6 km from their home. “There were only nine children in Class 10 in the Janahan school and all them had failed. So she shifted to the Mahasu school and this year, both she and her younger brother were in Class 10,” said Theog DSP Manoj Joshi, who is investigating the case.
The girl’s elder sister, who is married and lives in another village in the area, says, “We have never heard of women facing any trouble in this belt. So we never thought it was unsafe for her. Besides, so many other children take that route to school.”
Standing next to her husband, the girl’s mother, tears streaming down her face, says, “Didn’t anyone hear my daughter’s cries? Weren’t people passing through that area? A little after my daughter, several children from the school, even a teacher, passed that way. And nobody saw or heard anything? I am certain my daughter was kidnapped, taken somewhere, drugged, raped and finally, her body was thrown here.”
Police say the girl’s uniform and other belongings lay beside her body.
Metres from the spot where the body was found, on the other side of the main road, is a mud path that leads to main accused Raju’s house, where he has been living with his widowed mother for the past 30 years.
“I am absolutely certain my son is innocent. If he is guilty or involved in the shameful act, I would have asked you to skin him alive, even hang him. But I know he has been framed. He has never been involved even in a fight. I can’t imagine that he would do such a thing,” says Kesari Devi, 62.
She says that on July 4, Raju was home around the time the incident happened. “He ate his dinner, made my bed and went to his room to sleep. The next morning, he took me to Shimla for a check-up at the cancer hospital. The medicines he got for me are proof of this,” she says, spreading out strips of medicines.
“What will I do with these tablets now? I am illiterate and I don’t even know when I should be taking these… He did everything for me. I brought him up all by myself after my husband died some years ago. My heart’s sinking. I can’t take this anymore,” she says.
With protests being staged in Kotkhai and Shimla, no one is buying the police theory or are satisfied by the SIT probe. Why did the accused leave the body next to their house, and why did the migrant labourers stay back in Halaila, they ask.
“We have decided to hand over the case to the CBI, in view of the public sentiments and gravity of the crime. The protesters have no reason to agitate any more. I see politics in this, which I will deal with sternly,” says Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh.
Back at the spot, the people at the prayer meeting agree to hold a protest on July 18 at Gumma, a small town on the Theog-Kotkhai road, to demand the fast-tracking of the CBI case.
As a group of children from the girl’s school offer their condolences, the father breaks down again. “Let God and Ma Ganga give me strength to fight for justice for my child. I want to see each one of the guilty hung to death. But I appeal to police, please don’t frame innocents.”