Updated: July 19, 2016 6:15:22 am
The last five years have seen Buddheswar Ram narrate his daughter’s story several times. On a Sunday morning, he does it again and it takes him less than a minute to do so. In that one minute, Buddheswar Ram mentions his daughter’s name three times, his voice steely. “Meena”, he says once more. This time, the tears fall and his voice breaks. “Humri dil ko bahut kadta hai (It hurts my heart),” he says. He then stretches his hands a foot apart. “My heart was once this big. Ab itna hai (It’s this small now),” he says, his fingers an inch apart.
In July 2011, Ram’s then 15-year-old daughter, Meena Khalkho, was shot and killed by personnel of the Chhattisgarh police a few kilometres outside Kharcha village in the northern part of the state, near the Jharkhand border. Her death had caused a massive political furore in the state with the police claiming she was a Naxal while her family stayed adamant that Meena, an Oraon tribal, had nothing to do with Maoists.
Armed with a post-mortem report that suggested that she was sexually assaulted before she was shot twice, in August 2015, the Opposition raised the issue in the Assembly, forcing the state government to order a judicial probe. There were unsavoury comments from state ministers that suggested that Khalkho was “habituated to sex” and had “relationships with truck drivers” that queered the pitch further.
Yet, three years after it was formed, when the Justice Anita Jha commission report emerged, it was unequivocal in its findings — that Khalkho was not a Naxal, she had been killed in a fake encounter. And there was medical evidence to suggest that there had been force used during intercourse before she was killed. The report was tabled in the Vidhan Sabha in April 2015, forcing the government to file a case of murder against Nikodin Khes, the thana incharge of the Chando police station, and other “unidentified police personnel” and order a fresh CID investigation.
Earlier this month, while facing questions on the case during the monsoon session of the Assembly, Chhattisgarh home minister Ram Sewak Paekra said no challan had so far been presented before court, no section of rape had been added, and other personnel, apart from the thana incharge, could not be named “since the investigation is still on”.
Four hundred kilometres from where the minister spoke, a family is waiting for justice.
Close to a year after Meena’s death, Buddheswar Ram had made 30 copies of Meena’s small, passport-size photograph. Everyone who came — policemen, activists, and journalists — wanted one. This Sunday afternoon, as the family hunted for more photographs of Meena, they could find only three — the passports-sized one, her photo on the cover of a magazine called “Gondwana Samaj”, and another stuck on the pages of an old MNREGA job card.
“So many people come and I welcome them all. I tell them about my Meena, that she was not a Naxal, that she loved to take our goats out to graze, that she left school in Class V to help us at home. That evening, she had left the house, saying she was going to meet a friend and she never returned. I tell this to everyone over and over again. Because all I want is that the people who raped my daughter, and killed her, must be punished,” he says.
One of the many visitors to the village, almost immediately after the murder case was registered, was a CID team. “They came and recorded our statements. We told them exactly what we told the judge. They said they would act. From then, until now, I haven’t heard anything about the case,” says Ram.
Such is the significance of the case that senior police officers in the state police headquarters in Raipur say “there are instructions from the Cabinet not to talk about the case”. When pressed, Rajeev Srivastava, Additional DG, CID, says, “All I can say is that the investigation is in progress. We want to get our facts right.”
Among the police officers that The Indian Express spoke to there is a grudging acceptance that Khalkho was “not a Maoist” and that her death was an incident “gone horribly wrong”.
“Look, it is clear that her death is incorrect and somebody will go to prison. But the police have to go on evidence. Even if the judicial report says use of force during intercourse, it bases it on injuries, such as cracking of the ribs, which do not necessarily point to rape. Two reports from two labs say different things – which the commission itself notes – one of which says that there was no male DNA found on Khalkho’s body. (the other report, based on the post-mortem report, records the presence of male semen). Then, there were 25 policemen who went on patrol from Chando police station that night. Witnesses say three shots were fired. So not all of them could have fired and killed her. It was 3 am, and in the dark, the personnel may have mistaken her for a Naxal and fired,” says a senior officer.
Much has changed in Kharcha over these past five years. Naxals, once regular visitors from across the Jharkhand border, no longer make their presence felt. A tarred road cuts through the village. The streams in the village have bridges with bright white paint on their railings, built only two months ago.
But all of this seems to have passed one family by. Ram has has not been paid for two months of MNREGA labour and his youngest daughter Sajanti’s body is covered in sores. Sajanti was sent to Delhi once, with her aunt who lives in UP, but she needed an operation and returned without completing her treatment.
Sitting next to her husband, Meena’s mother Gutiyari Bai says close to nothing. As Ram begins to sob again, looking at his daughter’s passport photograph, she gently take it from him and plants it face down on the charpoy. Then, she speaks the only three words she says all afternoon: “Nyaya chahiye. Bas (I want justice. That’s it).”
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