Eyewitness accounts and CCTV footage have helped “conclude” that Sitamarhi BJP leader Manoj Baitha was driving the SUV that ran over nine schoolchildren crossing a road, Bihar police said Tuesday. Police also believe Baitha was treated for injuries after the accident, including 24 stitches, before leaving the country.
While trying to flee after running down a 65-year-old woman near the Dharampur middle school on February 24, Baitha had allegedly lost control of his SUV — registration number BR06PA7084 — and ran over a group of students crossing National Highway 77, killing nine children aged between seven and 13. Ten more children, injured in the accident, are being treated at hospitals in Muzaffarpur and Patna while Minapur police has registered an FIR against Baitha.
Minapur police station in-charge, Sona Prasad Singh told The Indian Express: “We have concluded that Baitha was driving. We have taken statements of several Dharmpur villagers who have said as much. There is consistency in the statements of villagers of having seen a kurta-pajama clad man leaving the scene. Besides, footage from the Runi Saidpur toll plaza has helped prove that he (Baitha) was driving the SUV.”
Police sources said Baitha, dressed in white kurta and pajama, had left his Fatahpur village in Sitamarhi at 10.30 am and had crossed the Runi Saidpur toll plaza at 12.42 pm. Police said that after running over the schoolchildren, Baitha’s SUV had veered off the road, went down a slope and stopped after hitting a tree.
Kailash Choudhary, an accountant at a cement shop near NH-77, said: “As almost all villagers were busy attending to the injured children, Baitha, dressed in white kurta-pajama, was taken out of the SUV by some villagers. We do not know what happened next and how he managed to escape.”
A resident of Fatahpur — Baitha’s paternal village — said, requesting anonymity: “Baitha was taken to at least a dozen houses before someone took him to Sitamarhi via village roads. He was admitted to a private nursing home where he received 24 stitches on his jaw and other parts of his face. He was here till Sunday afternoon. A vehicle was arranged to take him to Nepal.”
The Malangwa border with Nepal is only 13 km from Baitha’s Fatahpur village. A joint team of Sonbarsha and Minapur police first searched for him at his Fatahpur house on Sunday evening and later again on Monday.
The Minapur police confirmed Baitha sought treatment. “After we learnt about a private nursing home run by one Dr Varun treating Manoj Baitha, we spoke to Dr Varun, who confirmed Baitha had visited his hospital but said he refused to treat him and asked him to go to Sadar hospital, Sitamarhi. Sadar hospital records do not show Baitha was treated there,” Minapur police station in-charge Singh said.
Singh said that police would examine CCTV camera footage of the private hospital — Nandi Pad Memorial hospital, Sitamarhi — to confirm Baitha’s visit or treatment. Dr Varun could not be contacted for comment.
Police have also used CCTV camera footage from the Runi Saidpur toll plaza to confirm Baitha was driving the SUV. CCTV footage that is 15 seconds long, shows the vehicle number and a board that reads “Padesh Mantri, BJP” clearly. Though his face was not captured by CCTV cameras, a man, dressed in white kurta and pajama, is seen in the driver’s seat. The footage shows the driver was alone.
According to Singh, “Earlier, there were reports of three people in the vehicle but we are also concluding that Baitha was driving. We have already booked him for negligent driving and culpable homicide not amounting to murder”.
“A special investigation team has been formed under DSP (East). The police has conducted over a dozen raids at Sitamarhi. We suspect Baitha has escaped to Nepal,” he said.
Baitha’s relatives and fellow villagers boasted of his journey into politics, from a washer man to an employee with a mobile phone company to politics. In politics for over a decade, he was with the RJD for six years and joined the BJP in 2014. He was made state general secretary of the party’s Dalit cell. Recently, Baitha has held the position of Sitamarhi district general secretary and was suspended from the party on Monday.