Throughout the mid ’90s, says Santosh Gupta, 53, visitors, many of them strangers, would land up at the vernacular paper’s office, where he worked as a reporter in Ajmer, with one question on prospective brides: “Is she one of those girls?”
“They all wanted to know if the woman they were marrying was among the girls exploited in the blackmail scandal. The details of the case spread through word of mouth really fast back then,” says Gupta, who broke the story in 1992.
When Suhail Ghani Chishty, wanted for 26 years in connection with the case, surrendered at a court in Ajmer on February 15, it was a reminder that the closure that the city has sought for nearly three decades is still a long way away. “It’s a case that nobody in Ajmer wants to talk about because of the nature of the crime. It’s a blot on our city’s history,” says Musabbir Hussain, joint secretary of the Anjuman Committee, which oversees the Ajmer Dargah.
It began on a sleepy morning in April 1992, when Ajmer, synonymous with the mysticism and philosophy of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, woke up to a report by Gupta that exposed a dark underbelly of deceit and exploitation. His report carried explicit photos of women allegedly sexually abused by men.
An FIR was lodged against eight accused. Further investigation led to a total of 18 men being charged, many of them from families of the influential Khadims, who serve at the dargah and identify themselves as descendents of the original followers of the Sufi saint.
According to police, the gang would blackmail the women after clicking inappropriate photographs and use a victim to lure her friends, creating a chain in the process. “The accused were in a position of influence, both socially and financially, and that made it even more difficult to persuade the girls to come forward and depose,” says retired Rajasthan DGP Omendra Bhardwaj, who was then posted as the deputy inspector general of police, Ajmer.
In the 28 years since, a majority of the victims have turned hostile even as the trial is underway against some of the accused.
Of the 18 accused, one committed suicide while another, Farooq Chishty, a former Youth Congress leader, was declared mentally unstable. In 1998, a sessions court in Ajmer sentenced eight men to life imprisonment but the Rajasthan High Court, in 2001, acquitted four of them. In 2003, the Supreme Court reduced the sentences of the other four convicts, Moijullah alias Puttan, Ishrat Ali, Anwar Chishty and Shamshuddin alias Meradona, to 10 years. Six of the men are still facing trial and with Suhail Chishty’s arrest, only one accused, Almas Maharaj, is absconding and is believed to be in the US. The CBI has issued a red corner notice against him.
In 2007, a fast track court in Ajmer convicted Farooq Chishty, who had earlier been declared mentally unstable. In 2013, the Rajasthan High Court upheld the decision though it reduced the period of sentence from life imprisonment to the period already served by him.
“Only Salim Chishty, who surrendered in 2012, is in jail. Suhail is in police custody and the others have been granted bail,” says Ajay Verma, the lawyer of the accused.
He claims that some of the victims had consensual relationships with the men. “The rape allegations have no truth. There was also pressure on the victims from police, segments of society and the media to give statements against my clients,” he says.
For the alleged victims, however, the case has been nothing short of an ordeal. Police suspect that there were between 50 and 100 victims but few came forward to depose; only two have stuck to their statements.
Gupta, who now looks after public relations at a private hospital, says that right from the start, police focused more on preventing what they believed would lead to la aw and order situation as a result of the scandal, rather than ensuring justice for the victims.
The 2003 Supreme Court order in the case said, “Unfortunately many of the victims who appeared as witnesses turned hostile and one can appreciate the reason why they did not want to depose against the appellants as that would have exposed them as well, and would have adversely affected their future life.”
“There was a time when people would say, ‘Ajmer ki ladki hai to pata kar lenge ki kuchch iss tarah ki to nahin hai (Because she is a girl from Ajmer, we will find out what kind of a girl she is)’,” says Anant Bhatnagar, state general secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties and a resident of Ajmer.
Such was the social stigma, says author Anuradha Marwah, a former Ajmer resident who has written a book on the case, that even institutions where the girls studied were looked down upon. “My mother was the vice-principal of one such college. I remember she came home in tears one day, saying that a young girl, who was one of the victims, had committed suicide. The case was like a wound that wasn’t allowed to heal,” Marwah says.