Muzaffarpur shelter home case: Brajesh Thakur- under his care 34 girls were ‘sexually assaulted’https://indianexpress.com/article/india/bihar-muzaffarpur-shelter-home-case-bihar-scandal-brajesh-thakur-paratah-kamal-sexual-abuse-under-his-care-5292021/

Muzaffarpur shelter home case: Brajesh Thakur- under his care 34 girls were ‘sexually assaulted’

The story of Brajesh Thakur, newspaper owner, local power broker and the man who ran the shelter where 34 girls, most of them children, were allegedly sexually assaulted. The Indian Express investigates the man and his networks.

Muzaffarpur shelter home case: Abuse under his care
There is no mention of the case that has now found an echo in the political corridors of Patna, given the Opposition a handle to take on the Nitish Kumar government, and pitchforked this murky world of small-town media, politics, sex and exploitation to the world outside. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

At first look, it’s an abandoned house — unkempt lawn, doors bolted with rusted locks, reams of soggy newsprint in the courtyard and a stray dog on a stroll in one of the rooms. But a little closer and the world of Brajesh Thakur unfolds, one storey at a time.

A tilted board, held up by wires, at the entrance of a narrow lane on Muzaffarpur’s Sahu Road announces the office of Pratah Kamal, the Hindi daily that Thakur’s family has been running since 1982. Inside the compound, there is more than just a newspaper office.

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Spread across three buildings are a common lobby, employee residences, a printing press, the family home and the now infamous shelter from where 44 girls were rescued on May 30 following allegations of sexual abuse.

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An FIR lodged on May 31 named Thakur’s NGO, following which 10 people, including Thakur, were held. One person, former chairman of the district Child Welfare Committee, Dilip Verma, is absconding. The girls have since been moved to shelters across the state and the newspaper has stopped printing here.

Besides Pratah Kamal, Thakur brought out Urdu daily Halaat-e-Bihar and English daily News Next from the same premises.

“Pratah Kamal has 12 employees, including the reporters and printing staff. But there has been no one here for days now. Till last week, three of us would help with the printing at night, but now no one comes. The newspaper is being printed from an undisclosed location,” says Shyam Singh, an employee of Pratah Kamal who stays with his family on the first floor of the newspaper office. He is now the only person on the premises.

A small flight of steps from the first floor leads to the shelter, but like the three other entrances, this gate is locked.

In the lobby on the ground floor, adjoining the printing press, is a large portrait of Thakur’s father, Radha Mohan Thakur, that’s covered in cobwebs. There is also a framed picture of B R Ambedkar, a scene from the Mahabharat and an old calendar with an image of Goddess Durga. Outside, the pit that police dug up last week to investigate the allegation that a girl had been beaten to death and buried there, has been covered with banana leaves.

On a table are copies of the July 30 edition of Pratah Kamal, a day after the CBI took over the investigation of the case. Yet, headlines of the newspaper focus on the annual ‘Shravani Mela’ and the ‘security of kanwariyas’.

There is no mention of the case that has now found an echo in the political corridors of Patna, given the Opposition a handle to take on the Nitish Kumar government, and pitchforked this murky world of small-town media, politics, sex and exploitation to the world outside.

Local journalists and politicians in Muzaffarpur and the Thakurs’ neighbours on Sahu Road say Brajesh Thakur only took off from where his father Radha Mohan left. Radha Mohan, they say, displayed more ambition for himself and his two sons — Brajesh and the younger Rajesh — than what his monthly salary of Rs 1,200, as a government middle school teacher, allowed him.

In the late 1970s, while he was still a teacher, Radha Mohan started Vimal Vani, a Hindi daily. But the daily never took off and in 1982, Radha Mohan closed it to start Pratah Kamal, a 12-page daily Hindi broadsheet.

Around the same time, Radha Mohan started another business — an agency to supply newsprint to hundreds of Bihar’s small and medium newspapers. Most of these newspapers had inflated circulation figures and would print only a few copies, just enough to be sent to government offices as a way for their owners to make their presence felt. Radha Mohan reportedly earned huge profits by diverting unused newsprint to bigger media houses.

RM Palace hotel in Muzaffarpur (Ashok Sinha)

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By the late 1980s, the school teacher would come to be known as “Thakur Saheb”, a title that coincided with his rising clout.

In the mid-1980s, a CBI probe into the alleged illegal sale of newsprint in several districts of the state, including Begusarai and Muzaffarpur, put Radha Mohan under the scanner. Though the status of the case is not known, by 1986, Thakur shut his agency.

Radha Mohan’s name then began figuring in other controversies. In the mid-1980s, a few local newspapers ran a campaign against him, alleging that he kept one floor of a Paharganj hotel booked for most time of the year.

“In those days, there were over a hundred small-time newspapers and weeklies. Their status can be gauged from the fact that in the late 1980s, the editors of two of these weeklies were arrested on charges of gambling. Radha Mohan was a little more sophisticated and managed to flourish despite these occasional controversies,” says a senior journalist who knew Radha Mohan well.

Around the same time, the family moved out of their modest house at Jhulan Chhapra locality to the house on Sahu Road, in the heart of Muzaffarpur town.

In April 1987, Radha Mohan and his elder son Brajesh Thakur set up an NGO and, over the years, it ran a home for girls, an old age home, a Swadhar Kendra (residential vocational training centre) and an ‘open shelter’ in Muzaffarpur; a women’s shelter in Betiah; and a centre for handicrafts and link workers (a NACO project for AIDS awareness) at Samastipur. All these shelters are now closed.

By the 1990s, Thakur, groomed in the ways of the wheeling-dealing that keeps small-town businesses going, had established himself as the head of the NGO and the newspaper business. Radha Mohan’s younger son Rajesh mostly stayed out of Muzaffarpur.

Says a senior police officer who was part of the initial probe against the NGO, “The estimated cumulative earning from his NGO projects would be no less than Rs 2.5 crore a year. If the earnings from his three newspapers are added, Thakur made at least Rs 3 crore a year.”

While in records of the Information and Public Relations Department of Bihar, Thakur remains a “correspondent” of Pratah Kamal, earning a monthly salary of Rs 18,000, as a member of the press accreditation committee of the state government, he also had a say in who should be given accreditation. The state government has now delisted Thakur’s newspapers and also cancelled the accreditation of its five journalists, including Thakur.

Kumar Dinesh, a senior Patna journalist who works for Aaj, a Hindi daily, says, “I never got an accreditation from the state government but someone like Thakur was among those who would decide who could be accreditated. That says a lot about our system.”

The old-age home on Pusa Road (Ashok Sinha)

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An investigation by The Indian Express, corraborated by police findings, showed that Thakur’s Pratah Kamal published only about 300 copies a day, but inflated its circulation figures to 60,682 daily copies. Sources say his newspapers would get advertisements worth Rs 40 lakh annually from the government.

“While Pratah Kamal was Thakur’s passport to fame and earned him proximity to politicians, bureaucrats and influential people in the mainstream media, his real business was the NGO, which landed projects from successive governments,” says a Muzaffarpur journalist who has followed Thakur’s rise.

The Indian Express had reported how the Social Welfare Department gave grants to his NGO — the five Muzaffarpur shelters alone got about Rs 1 crore every year.

In a supervision report filed after the May 31 FIR against his NGO, Town DSP Mukul Ranjan alleged that Thakur “ran a sex racket and supplied girls to officials to get tenders” for government projects.

The DSP’s report identified Thakur’s family assets as the “two and a half-storey house”, the adjoining three-storey building that housed the newspaper office, the shelter home for girls and the RM Palace hotel in Muzaffarpur town, besides the family’s old house at Jhulan Chhapra. The report said Thakur also owned a flat at Raj Nagar Extension in Delhi, besides a house near Patna Museum, a paternal house and about 10 bighas of agricultural land at Patahi in Samastipur. Police said they had papers to show how Thakur’s family had purchased plots at Darbhanga and Betiah and allegedly “usurped” two flats in Patna.

Around 2000, Thakur made another addition to his growing portfolio: politics. His newspaper business and the NGO had brought him close to several politicians, among them Anand Mohan of the Bihar People’s Party, who would later become a Samata Party MP and is now serving a life sentence for the lynching of then Gopalganj district magistrate G Krishnaiah.

In the 2000 Bihar Assembly election, Thakur contested on a BPP ticket.

“Anand Mohan’s BPP and his anti-Lalu Prasad politics had briefly caught the imagination of the upper castes in the 1990s. The BPP aligned with the NDA for the elections that year and got two seats to contest. Brajesh Thakur contested from Kudni and all top NDA leaders campaigned for him. He was the runner-up in that election,” says Dr Harendra Kumar, who contested that election as an NDA nominee from Paru in Muzaffarpur.

Kumar says Thakur was also “very close” to former Union minister and RJD leader Raghunath Jha who died last year.

“As Anand Mohan’s BPP was a political non-entity, after the 2000 polls, Thakur remained close to Jha,” says an RJD leader.

Thakur, meanwhile, openly flaunted his political connections, appearing prominently in photos with Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar.

He is also known to be close to Ram Nath Thakur, JD(U) Rajya Sabha member and son of former CM Karpoori Thakur. The JD(U) MP admits his ties with Thakur but denies doing him any favours.

“I did know his father Radha Mohan very well. I even visited their house during Nitish Kumar’s Nyay Yatra in 2005. I have known Brajesh well since 2005, but he never sought any favours,” he told The Sunday Express.

Both the RJD and the JD(U) have, however, distanced themselves from Thakur.

The ‘open shelter’ in Teen Kothia shut down a year ago (Ashok Sinha)

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RJD spokesperson Mrityunjay Tewari says, “Politicians are public figures and anyone can get photographed with them. The question is not whether Brajesh Thakur was close to the late Raghunath Jha or Lalu Prasad, it’s why the JD(U) and BJP awarded government projects and huge advertisements to his businesses.”

JD (U) spokesperson Neeraj Kumar says, “Photographs with public figures do not suggest anything. Where is the evidence to show Thakur was close to any of our leaders?”

“Brajesh Thakur was the kind who could touch anyone’s feet to get something. His political connections ensured that his NGO flourished through both the RJD and NDA regimes,” says Kumar, adding that Thakur also contested the 1995 Assembly polls from Kudni in Muzaffarpur but did not campaign “because of a threat from an Independent candidate”.

With his political career failing to take off, Thakur confined himself largely to Pratah Kamal and his NGO. Yet, say sources, he regularly hosted politicians at home and elsewhere. In 2005, a top JD(U) leader is said to have attended a family function. In 2017, he invited Bihar State Women Commission chairperson Dilmani Mishra to his house.

Talking about Mishra’s visit, Thakur’s daughter Nikita Anand, says, “When Dilmani Mishra visited our home, she had praised the functioning of the shelter home.”

Mishra, however, refutes Nikita, saying she had gone there not to inspect the shelter but to attend a family function.

Nikita also denies her father’s political links and his association with the NGO. “We have only rented out our premises,” she says.

The Indian Express had reported how the Registrar of Societies, under which the NGO is registered, records “Brajesh Kumar” as “chief functionary”.

On June 4, the day all newspapers carried news of Thakur’s arrest, Pratah Kamal carried a flier with the headline: “Nirdoshon ko nahi thi aasha, kalankit kar degi bhasha (the innocent had not expected the criticism)”. The six-column story, an unsigned piece, blamed the arrest of the newspaper “owner” on “conspiracy”.

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Speaking on the phone, a member of the editorial staff of Pratah Kamal too denies any connection between the shelter home and the newspaper. “Why are we being dragged into this? We print all important news. As for the shelter home, the investigation is underway and once the facts come out, we will see.”

Nikita’s brother Rahul Anand, the editor of Pratah Kamal, has not yet appeared before the media. He had unsuccessfully contested the zilla parishad polls in 2016 and divides his time between Delhi and Muzaffarpur.

In the neighbourhood where Thakur’s home now stands locked, families say the developments of the past two months have left them “shocked”. “We have known the family for years and always thought they were involved in social work. They had a lot of money,” says Rizwan Ahmed, 54, a scrap businessman.

Another neighbour, who does not wish to be identified, remembers the “lavish weddings” the family hosted. “Most people here are not very well off. But they invited us for their weddings,” she says, adding, “We had seen some of the girls, but they never showed any signs of torture. We would have taken the case to the police had we known.”

A few metres from the Pratah Kamal compound is Arun Kumar’s dairy store. For the 46-year-old, the shelter home case is one of “betrayal”, one that led to the arrest of his wife Manju Devi, 40, one of the seven workers at the shelter home who have been arrested. “We never let the women of our house work. But I thought this is an NGO and my wife will work with the girls. So I let her join in 2014. She earned Rs 4,000 a month and that was useful for the family. But she was arrested on June 2 and has been in jail since,” says Kumar.

“She had studied till Class 12 and helped the counsellors. Her shift timings were 10.30 am to 5 pm. Uska likha-padhi ka kaam tha (She dealt with files). How could she have been involved in these crimes? I met her in jail today and she is devastated,” he says.

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As for Thakur, Kumar, now handing packets of curd to customers, says, “The rules at the shelter were so strict that even I was not allowed to enter the compound; only the staff could. Who knew he was up to this? Poora Muzaffarpur ke badnaam kar deye (He has defamed the whole of Muzaffarpur).”