As the crow flies, Gurugram is about 250 km away from Kotkhai in Himachal Pradesh. On the surface, the two places couldn’t be more different. One is the proud, if somewhat shaky, symbol of the aspirations of 21st century India. The other is a place where time has mostly stood still. And yet they are now linked in the public imagination by two separate but similar tales of horrific murders of school-going children.
Common to both incidents is the widespread public outrage that they rightly aroused, the serious charges of incompetence and complicity against the respective local police, and the dramatic twist in the two investigations that came about after the cases were handed over to the CBI.
On July 6, 2017, the body of a 16-year-old girl was found in the forest near Kotkhai, a town approximately 80 km from Shimla. Mourned in public as Gudiya, she had been missing since two days. Rape and murder were evident from the scene. The Himachal Police rapidly constituted an SIT headed by the then IG Shimla. In less than three days, the SIT claimed to have cracked the case and arrested six accused. However, widespread public anger forced the state government to transfer the case to the CBI. Even as that process was underway, one of the accused died in police custody, supposedly at the hands of a co-accused. The CBI took up the investigation and within a few days ended up arresting two senior members of the SIT, including the then IG Shimla, a senior IPS officer.
While the CBI too has not been able to solve the rape and murder case, their investigation into the subsequent actions of the police suggests a tale of shocking police brutality and criminality, sheer insensitivity, and outright incompetence.
Two months later, on September 8, seven-year-old Pradyuman Thakur was found murdered in the toilet of the Ryan International School in Gurugram. His throat had been slit. A few days later, Gurugram Police claimed to have solved the case and arrested a school bus conductor named Ashok Kumar and also recovered a knife that was allegedly used in the attack. However, the parents of the victim were not satisfied. On September 22, the CBI took over the case. On November 8, the CBI claimed to have solved the case with the arrest of a Class 11 student of the same school for this gruesome murder. According to the agency, the knife that was recovered in the case by the Gurugram Police is the actual murder weapon, but wielded by a different accused. The family of Ashok Kumar are predictably relieved at this exoneration by the CBI, and justifiably indignant at the accusations levelled at them earlier. Not surprisingly, it is the turn of the family of the juvenile accused to scream blue murder.
The two cases are yet to be finalised and much work remains to be done in both investigations. And it would be unwise to hazard a guess as to their final outcomes. However, for our civil society, the conduct of our first responder in these gruesome cases, the state police, has rightly raised many troubling questions. Why would the police falsely implicate innocent people? Even if they were not able to identify the guilty correctly, why couldn’t they establish the innocence of those wrongly accused? During the initial investigation, at what level of the police hierarchy was the available evidence analysed and conclusions drawn? Conclusions that now lie in tatters and are subject to widespread public suspicion and ridicule. What was the role of the media? Was there external pressure to take shortcuts and conclude the investigations? And most important, what can be done to ensure that an Ashok Kumar or a Suraj Singh are not falsely accused of murder and suffer dishonour or worse, torture and death, allegedly at the hands of the police during the investigation itself?
It is not just the media and an outraged public that are asking these questions. All of us in the IPS, or at least those of us who still wear the uniform with pride and honour, and there are quite a few of this variety as well, are asking these troubling questions. We are not just leaders of these supposed brutes in khaki. We are citizens too. As we are children and parents, brothers and sisters, friends and acquaintances of so many of our fellow citizens, whose lives we are sworn to serve and protect. Without fear or favour.
It is both fear and favour that are now writ large, across the two discredited initial investigations. Certainly the fear of failure to solve the cases. Less certain is the role of favour. But that doesn’t really matter. In the Kotkhai case, it is the widespread public belief that the police knew the real perpetrators and were somehow influenced by them to frame the six initially accused. Just as in the Gurugram case, the belief is that the investigation was botched to help the influential owners of the school. Once a doubt has been created in the public mind, facts cease to matter. Only perception does. And for us in the police, it is not a pretty sight. Even for those of us not directly responsible for solving these cases, it becomes awkward to answer our friends and families. It becomes awkward to face ourselves in the mirror every morning as we prepare to don the uniform. The brass and medals never felt so heavy.
But if some of our brethren in khaki have let us down, others with their meticulous investigation and adherence to the law give us cause for hope. The CBI does not come from outer space. This just goes to show that given the right kind of environment, the same policemen can find answers, even if they implicate their own.
As I see it, these murders should be a wake-up call for the entire IPS leadership of the country. We need to ask ourselves, who do we serve and who do we protect. Granted, there is a lot that needs fixing about the police system that is simply not in our hands. The chronic under-investment and under- staffing, the relentless political interference, the bureaucratic stonewalling and increasingly, the judicial meddling in our professional working, the unconscionable delay in implementing the 11-year-old SC judgement on police reforms. All of these do hold us back in significant ways.
However, there’s a lot within us that we have no one else to blame for. Succumbing to media pressure and falling prey to the desire to become instant heroes in the public eye by quickly “solving” cases is a tendency no one else can be blamed for. When the media and the public are baying for blood and seeking instant answers in sensational cases, it takes leadership to step up to the limelight and resist the pressure for instant answers. There are no instant answers in heinous offences. And sometimes there are no answers at all. It takes courage to acknowledge that publicly. And it takes courage to rein in brutal and corrupt subordinates who are unscrupulously offering instant solutions in such cases, often for extraneous considerations. Courage that is in increasingly short supply in the age of instant tweets and more instant justice.
If the IPS are to remain relevant in the 21st century and provide reform-oriented leadership to the police, it is this kind of leadership that must come to the fore. We owe it to Gudiya and Pradyuman. As we owe it to Ashok Kumar and Suraj Singh.