In the silence of Shahjahanpur, lies a storyhttps://indianexpress.com/article/india/the-silence-of-shahjahanpur-chinmayanand-rape-sexual-harassment-case-law-student-up-6055439/

In the silence of Shahjahanpur, lies a story

It’s one-and-a-half months since a 23-year-old LLM fellow student of this college accused former BJP minister Swami Chinmayanand of rape and sexual harassment . In a town where the 73-year-old’s writ runs large, they only talk about ‘her’ in whispers.

Chinmayanand case, Chinmayanand rape case, Swami Chinmayanand, Chinmayanand BJP, UP law student, UP law student case, UP law student rape case, Shahjahanpur law college, UP law student sexual harassment, India news, Indian Express
The silence of Shahjahanpur: With dismal literacy rates, sex ratio, the district is among UP’s worst performers. (Express photo by Gajendra Yadav)

In that, lies a story. Of a town reliant on a former Union minister’s educational institutions, of people not unaware of what it might hide, of a young woman’s dreams, and of might vs a “middle-class family’s resolve for justice”. Somya Lakhani reports.

Kuchch bol nahin rahen hain… iska matlab yeh nahin ki kuchch bolne ko hai nahin humaare paas (We are not saying anything… that doesn’t mean we have nothing to say),” says a law student angrily, wrapping her dupatta closely around her face outside her college in Uttar Pradesh’s Shahjahanpur. The classes for the day over, other students are milling around her. Looking around, she adds, “My parents will pull me out of college if they come to know I am speaking to a reporter… I feel bad for her, we all do. But we have to mind our business in such cases.”

It’s one-and-a-half months since a 23-year-old LLM fellow student of this college accused former BJP minister Swami Chinmayanand of rape and sexual harassment . In a town where the 73-year-old’s writ runs large, they only talk about ‘her’ in whispers. Any voices have been muffled further by her arrest on the charges of extortion.

Chinmayanand case, Chinmayanand rape case, Swami Chinmayanand, Chinmayanand BJP, UP law student, UP law student case, UP law student rape case, Shahjahanpur law college, UP law student sexual harassment, India news, Indian Express
FIR, Counter-FIR in the Chinmayanand case.

Says her lawyer Anup Trivedi, “The SIT investigation is problematic. The woman’s complaint that details the rape has not been turned into an FIR, while her hostel room and Chinmayanand’s Divya Dhaam (where the alleged rape happened) were sealed after a delay. Crucial evidence has gone missing.”

Advertising

Located around 70 km from Bareilly, Shahjahanpur, with its literacy rate of 59.54% (female 49.57%) and sex ratio of 872, figures among the poorest performing districts in Uttar Pradesh. With its government colleges barely meeting demand, the five educational institutions run by Chinmayanand’s Mumukshu Ashram trust fill a void.

Also Read | Chinmayanand case: Law student’s father to move HC for bail

This is where the story of the woman, a student at a law college owned by Chinmayanand, who turned 24 behind bars on October 1, falls.

******

At her nine-room house located near the college, six police officers note down names, phone numbers and entry and exit timings of all visitors — mostly journalists and lawyers. Neighbours, relatives, have stopped coming. Says the mother, “My daughter was very reserved, she didn’t make friends easily.”

The 45-year-old, a teacher, who has not gone to work since the allegations broke, adds that she always wondered how her three children, growing up amidst a large, conservative joint family, learnt to “dream so big”. The family members run small businesses. “My younger daughter, 10, talks of going to the moon, my son hopes to become an engineer. The eldest, she wanted to become a judge… She couldn’t stand any wrong, injustice, even as a child,” the mother says.

When, after Class 12, she decided to join a law college managed by Chinmayanand’s trust in 2013, there were fights at home, the mother adds. “Her father opposed it because of Chinmayanand’s reputation… This is not the first case against him, there was one in 2011 too. But since there is no other good law college in Shahjahanpur, he had to agree.” The mother says the father insisted that the woman spend as little time as possible at the college during her five-year LLB course — demanding that she go “twice a month”.

Chinmayanand case, Chinmayanand rape case, Swami Chinmayanand, Chinmayanand BJP, UP law student, UP law student case, UP law student rape case, Shahjahanpur law college, UP law student sexual harassment, India news, Indian Express
Chinmayanand’s ashram in Shahjahanpur. (Express photo by Gajendra Yadav)

In 2011, the principal of a college run by the Mumukshu Ashram had alleged rape by Chinmayanand at his ashram in Haridwar. Police filed a chargesheet and last May, the Chief Judicial Magistrate Court of Shahjahanpur rejected a government plea to withdraw the rape case. Currently there is a stay order on the case.

The Mumukshu Ashrams are governed by the Rishikesh-based Shri Daivee Sampad Mandal. A Chinmayanand aide said that in 1989, he was given the responsibility of the ashrams. Two years later, Chinmayanand was elected to the Lok Sabha from Badaun, and won twice again. “Now he is not in any political party but does a lot of work for the BJP. It’s an old relationship,” says the aide.

There are at least 17 Mumukshu Ashrams across the country, but the trust runs schools and colleges only in Shahjahanpur. The law college was started in 2003.

Also Read | UP law student rape case: Congress leaders detained before protest march, Jitin says ‘UP not Kashmir yet’

Explaining their success, Shahjahanpur District Magistrate Indra Vikram Singh says, “In rural areas, government infrastructure is a bit weak and anyone with some money wants private institutions for their children.”

Chinmayanand case, Chinmayanand rape case, Swami Chinmayanand, Chinmayanand BJP, UP law student, UP law student case, UP law student rape case, Shahjahanpur law college, UP law student sexual harassment, India news, Indian Express
Shahjahanpur on map.

******

The college where the woman enrolled has 1,300 students in LLB plus LLM. “At least 25-30% are women,” the principal says.

She confirms that during her LLB, the woman hardly attended college. “All her documents have been submitted to the SIT.”

In 2018, after her LLB, the woman again fought with her family to get enrolled in LLM. In the September 5 complaint that she filed at Delhi’s Lodhi Colony police station, which is yet to be converted into an FIR, the woman said that at the time of admission to the Masters course, the principal asked her to meet Chinmayanand.

A student of the college who graduated this year says this was the “norm”, that college authorities would “select some female students during admissions and find an excuse to introduce them to Chinmayanand”.

Refusing to be identified, he adds, “Chinmayanand would be invited to cultural programmes. Women students would be asked to welcome him, he would show interest in their education, and then find them on a social media platform and chat with them.”

Another former student, who is as reluctant to identify herself, says, “During the admission process, the men wouldn’t have much trouble… somehow, their paperwork was always complete. But with women, that was not the case… I was lucky to have not come under Chinmayanand’s radar.”

Also Read | Shahjahanpur: Court rejects bail pleas of Chinmayanand and law student

Initially, after admission in LLM following her meeting with Chinmayanand, the woman stayed at home. One day, the mother claims, she said Chinmayanand had offered her a job as a supervisor at the college’s e-library. “She was reluctant to join… Her father didn’t want her to join either, but she felt it may help her earn some pocket money.”

The principal denies the job was given to the woman on Chinmayanand’s insistence. “She asked for the job herself saying there were financial problems at home. How can I say no to a student who comes for help?”

In her complaint, the woman said she was paid Rs 5,000 a month, and alleged that her troubles started with the job, as it required her to stay till late in college. The authorities next told her to move to a hostel, she said.

The principal denies this too. “I asked her why she needed a hostel when she lived so close. She said her parents fought a lot,” he says.

In the complaint, the woman said she was allotted a hostel reserved for OBC students though she is not an OBC, and that she had a shared bathroom. She believes this was deliberate and told The Indian Express earlier that Chinmayanand blackmailed her by showing her a video of her taking a bath.

******

Spread across a few acres, the Mumukshu Ashram in Shahjahanpur wears a deserted look on a Friday afternoon. Behind the gates is a nursery with potted plants and flowers. In a nearby parking, stands an SUV. The premises hold a Sanskrit school, a temple, quarters for the staff, and Chinmayanand’s room ‘Divya Dhaam’, where the alleged rape happened, and which is now sealed by the SIT with a chair and a stick. “Swamiji manages everything, there is no other head,” says a guard.

Chinmayanand case, Chinmayanand rape case, Swami Chinmayanand, Chinmayanand BJP, UP law student, UP law student case, UP law student rape case, Shahjahanpur law college, UP law student sexual harassment, India news, Indian Express
An SIT source said that filing of the FIR “is under the jurisdiction of the Shahjahanpur police.” (Express photo by Gajendra Yadav)

The woman has alleged that her harassment began in October last year, when Chinmayanand got her to give him a daily massage at 5.30 am at Divya Dhaam. She said she would be escorted to his room by his bodyguards, and he would be undressed at the time. After her classes, the woman wrote in her complaint, she would be made to return to his room, where he would sexually assault her and often record the same. She wrote that she sometimes lied about having periods to be spared, and that he threatened to kill her family if she told anyone.

It’s then, she said, that she decided to use spectacles with a hidden camera to “trap” Chinmayanand. She had told The Indian Express she handed over 35 videos to the SIT.

She told police that she decided to run away in August, after Chinmayanand threatened her that “more people would do to me what he had been doing”. “I had sufficient evidence against him anyway.”

SIT sources said that the woman had given them 43 videos, which were being investigated, but that a video she had claimed of her bathing was yet to be found.

Denying her allegations of assault, Chinmayanand’s lawyer Om Singh says it was the woman who approached the former MP offering massage. “Swamiji has a skin condition. The woman said she had learnt physiotherapy at an ashram in Haridwar and could give him a massage. Swamiji told her he would be unclothed at the time, but she insisted… He never looked at her in that manner at all. Unko bada khed hai ki unhone ek ladki se maalish karwaayi (he is very sorry that he allowed a woman to massage him)… this is the only statement of confession made by him. The rest was misunderstood by the media.”

Om Singh also denies the 2011 allegation of rape as “fake”, saying the woman wanted funding for her political ambitions. “When she didn’t get that, she levelled the charges.”

The lawyer also shows a letter purportedly written by the LLM student’s mother to the Shahjahanpur DM, complaining about her husband, and explaining that this was why her daughter had moved to a hostel. “We found the letter in her college records, which she gave for a hostel room,” says Singh.

The DM said he had joined two months ago and did not know about the letter.

******

On August 15, the woman came home for Rakhi. It was a raucous affair, with siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts — with one sour note, says the mother. “I asked her why her phone was switched off or unavailable often. She said, ‘Mummy, if my phone is ever switched off for longer than 24 hours, it means I am in trouble’.”

The parents say her remark worried them, and they asked if there was any problem at college. She denied it. “She went back to the hostel two days later and again her phone was off. I went to her hostel a few days later to check and was told she was busy and unavailable… By August 24, we were scared as her hostel room was locked and no one knew where she was,” says the mother.

The 45-year-old says that same day, the woman called up from an unknown number and broke down, but didn’t say anything. The mother says when she called back on that number, a man picked up, said he was a receptionist at a hotel in Delhi.

Later that day, the woman uploaded a video on Facebook, accusing “an influential sant-politician of destroying the lives of many girls in my college”. As local papers picked up the news, someone tipped off the woman’s sister. The family says they went to Facebook and were shocked to see their daughter speaking to a camera, tears rolling down, requesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath for justice.

The mother says, “I called up Chinmayanand and he said he was in Haridwar and that he would look for her. He said she had fallen into buri sangat (bad company)… I had never spoken to him before, someone gave us his number.”

The next day, the woman’s father publicly named Chinmayanand as behind her disappearance. As the accusations went viral, an FIR was registered against the former MP. Chinmayanand responded by filing a complaint against “unknown persons” for trying to extort Rs 5 crore from his client.

On August 30, police claimed to have traced the woman to Rajasthan’s Dausa along with a male friend. She was brought to Delhi where a Supreme Court bench met her. On September 2, the court directed the Uttar Pradesh government to form an SIT to investigate the two cross-FIRs, and to escort the woman’s family to Delhi. The Delhi Police sent her 12-page complaint detailing her alleged harassment by Chinmayanand to the SIT.

On an FIR not being filed since the woman’s complaint, Superintendent of Police, Shahjahanpur, Shivasimpi Channappa said, “The investigation is being conducted by the SIT. We have no jurisdiction in the matter now.”

However, an SIT source said that filing of the FIR “is under the jurisdiction of the Shahjahanpur police.”

On September 21, Chinmayanand was arrested by the SIT, and sent to 14-day judicial custody, which he spent largely in a government hospital in Lucknow.

Thinking back to that Rakhi day, the woman’s family says they wish they had noticed earlier that something was wrong. They admit that after she started staying in the hostel, her visits home and phone calls fell sharply. “She would keep saying there was a network problem. Even when she came home, she would rush back saying there was too much work,” says the mother.

Adds the father, “Chinmayanand ne usko bandi bana diya tha, woh ghar bhi aati thi toh iske aadmi nigraani rakhte thay. Humein toh baad mein pata chala ki yeh kitni dehshat mein thi (He had made her a slave. They kept a watch even when she was home. We realised the terror in which she lived much later).”

******

However, little had prepared them for September 26, when the SIT arrested the woman, along with three others, on extortion charges. While one of the men held with her is known to the family as her college mate and friend, the other two are his cousins. The SIT has said that while no money changed hands, they have proof of a conspiracy.

Express Opinion

According to Chinmayanand’s lawyer, early August, a man approached the former MP claiming to be a reporter and saying he had incriminating videos against him. “Swamiji ignored him. Then, on August 22, he received a long WhatsApp message from an unknown number repeating the threat and demanding Rs 5 crore. I forwarded the message to the Superintendent of Police, Shahjahanpur,” says Om Singh.

SP Channappa said that as soon as the police received the complaint about an extortion message sent on Chinmayanand’s phone on August 22, “we began investigating the matter.” “The number from which the message came was put under surveillance.”

The woman’s lawyer, Trivedi, says her arrest on September 26 morning was unnecessary. “There are policemen posted at their house, where would she have gone?”

The family of the woman’s 28-year-old friend, who is among those arrested, says they had never heard of her. His wife said he lived away from her and their daughter as their house is over 15 km from the law college. “Commuting was difficult,” says the wife.

The cousin, also in jail, lives next door. Police say it was he who met Chinmayanand claiming to be a reporter. His mother says the 28-year-old had dragged her son into the “mess”. “My son is a Chinmayanand bhakt, you can say. They tried helping the woman flee when she was being abused, but I refuse to believe they tried to extort money,” she says.

A source at the SIT said, “The extortion case against the woman is very strong. We have also included her complaint and sent Swami’s phone to the CFSL (Central Forensic Science Laboratory) in Gandhinagar.”

******

At the law college, while they are reluctant to talk about the woman, some students recall her 28-year-old friend as part of “Chinmayanand’s inner circle”. Says a former student, “He was a bit of a bully and could afford to behave like that because of his links.” Another student, who finished college this year, says everyone knew the woman had “Swamiji’s blessings”, and that this is why she got a hostel despite her home being so near.

The parents of other students at the college say they are worried. “It’s mid-semester so I can’t withdraw my daughter. Also, all good institutions in Shahjahanpur are run by Chinmayanand,” says a 44-year-old.

Another parent points out, “For some, sending boys out for studies may be an option, but for girls, it is unthinkable… The trust’s colleges are our only choice.”

The family has visited the woman twice in Shahjahanpur jail, where she is lodged. Senior CPM leader Brinda Karat accompanied the mother one time. Addressing the media, Karat said, “The system has worked to demoralise (her), and the system has worked to protect the accused. Why is the rape victim being treated like an accused?”

Advertising

This time though, the mother says, the system may be the one defeated. “They think how far will middle-class families go to fight for justice. Well, we will show them,” the mother says. “It’s not my daughter’s fight alone. She is doing this for every woman who has been treated like this by a powerful man. Hum toh apni beti ka saath nahin chhorenge (We won’t desert our daughter).”