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Karnataka: A year later,a district rallies for a rape-murder victim

Amid charges against powerful temple authorities,Karnataka govt hands over Oct 2012 case to CBI.

Written by Harsha Raj Gatty |
December 1, 2013 12:24:07 am

In the way her murder investigation has been mishandled and in the mystery surrounding her killing even one year after her death,the 17-year-old’s case,to those who knew her,has many parallels to Aarushi Talwar’s. While the college student’s killing may have generated little interest outside Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district,her parents’ resolve for justice and a campaign on social media ensured that,last month,the state government handed over the case to the CBI.

Police have blamed the killing on a mentally unstable youth seen in the area where the girl’s body was found. However,there are several holes in that theory,and her poor farmer parents have refused to accept it.

A student at a college run by the powerful administration of a local temple,the teenager went missing on the evening of October 9,2012,while returning home to Pangala near Dharmasthala from her institute. Her father Chandappa Gowda and mother Kusumvathi searched for her till midnight that day in vain. Next morning they were told that her body had been found in a forest grove in Ujire,which they had searched the previous night without luck.

The first theory was that the 17-year-old had been raped and murdered. Some people claimed to have seen a young man roaming near the crime scene around the time of the incident. On October 11,Santosh Rao,already in custody in connection with a petty incident,was named as a suspect since he lived in a tent near where the body was found. Medical tests later determined that the 34-year-old Rao was mentally unstable.

Rao himself gave differing statements — sometimes accepting he had killed the girl,denying it completely at other times. The Belthangady police,however,concluded that Rao was the perpetrator,saying they had determined this on the basis of DNA evidence from the girl’s undergarments.

K Bhaskar Holla,who is the legal advisor of the Gowdas,rubbishes this. “How can police claim to have evidence linking the suspect to the victim when they did not even collect vaginal samples? Rao was found wandering aimlessly by the real culprits and handed over to police. He seems neither mentally stable nor physically competent to commit such a crime,” Holla says.

The girl’s mother points out that while police claim to have found DNA proof on her daughter’s undergarments,it was she who had handed over the clothes to them two days after the body was found. “Before handing over the undergarments,I put a mark on them,” says the mother.

The family also asks how her body had landed up in the grove in the Shantivana forest when an overnight search had found nothing. Her cotton bag and books were also found dry,lying next to her body,though there had been heavy rains October 9 night.

The people of the area believe that the girl was actually killed by some powerful people of the area involved in a land dispute with D Balakrishna,a local landlord,who mistook the girl to be Balakrishna’s daughter.

The girl’s uncle,one of the last persons to see her alive,says she disappeared while going to meet Balakishna’s wife,a tailor,to check if a dress was ready. “When she got down from the bus next to my canteen at Nethravathi Snanaghatta,she was very excited. She said she was on her way to collect her new dress,” he says.

Balakrishna refuses to comment on the dispute allegedly between him and a few influential people of the region,who happen to be distant relatives of the Dharmadhikari of the Dharmasthala temple.

Apart from running the college where the girl studied,the temple authorities wield enormous power in this peaceful region with its Shree Ksehtra-Dharmasthala temple. Villagers talk of Dharmadhikari Veerendra Heggade and his family “ruling” the region with an iron hand,relegating the police and local administration to the background. Despite a footfall of close to 60 lakh devotees a year,the temple region has only three policemen.

Rumours of the Heggade family’s hand in the murder,and police’s alleged attempts to brush this under the carpet,fuelled the first stirrings of public outrage. The protests gained further traction when an online campaign was launched by some youth of the Dakshina Kannada district. It now has 50,000 followers.

In January this year,the case was handed over to the CID. On October 21,following mounting public pressure,the CID summoned a nephew of the Dharmadhikari and three others alleged to be involved in the killing.

In a 16-page report submitted to the state government on October 31,the CID upheld the police conclusion that Rao killed the girl. It ruled out the role of Dharmadhikari’s nephew Nishchal Jain as well as Dheeraj Jain,Uday Jain and Malik Jain,in the sexual assault and murder,saying they had sufficient evidence to prove that the four were nowhere near the crime scene on October 9 night.

Director General of Police,CID,Bipin Gopalakrishna says they had “corroborative” forensive evidence as well as proof to conclude that Rao was the killer.

Still the mass protests to mark the first anniversary of the girl’s death showed no let-up,and on October 25,around 20,000 people from nearby localities — including Ujire,Guruvayanakere,Aladangadi,Madanthyaru and Poonjalkatte — gathered to seek a CBI probe.

At a recent press conference,Dharmadhikari Heggade denied the claims of his family’s link to the rape-muder,accusing vested interests of slander. “If the family of the victim remains unconvinced that the probe was conducted fairly,then even I have requested the CM to hand it over to the CBI. If they don’t accept the finding even after this,I believe they are not looking for the truth,” he says.

Soon after the statement,the Karnataka government decided to hand over the case to the CBI.

K Somanatha Nayak,president of the Nagarika Seva Trust (Citizens’ Welfare Trust),and one of the prime movers of the online campaign,says,“It’s a matter of shame that the district police and authorities openly bow before the rich and powerful.”

The girl’s mother insists they will keep on fighting. “We maintained our silence initially,because of which we are suffering this fate. But this is it,” she says. “We have sworn on our beloved daughter that we will secure her justice so that such kind of things never happen again.”

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