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Run Bitti Run

From ugly to bad to “good” — remaking of rape convict Bitihotra Mahanti as the likable computer teacher and probationary banker Raghava Rajan.

From ugly to bad to “good” — Sweta Dutta,Sreenivas Janyala,Shaju Philip and Debabrata Mohanty trace the remaking of rape convict Bitihotra Mahanti as the likable computer teacher and probationary banker Raghava Rajan

ALWAR (Rajasthan),CUTTACK (Orissa)

March 20 to December 2006

It was a fax from Berlin and calls to the German Embassy in Delhi early on the morning of March 21,2006,that started it all. The fax,from Esther Motullo,said her friend had sent her an SMS from Alwar just then saying she had been raped and needed help. “She is in great danger,” said the fax. The message was passed on to the Jaipur Police Control Room.

Hours later,then Station House Officer of Kotwali Police Station in Alwar,Surendra Kumar Sharma,received a call at home asking him to head to a city hotel where a German woman had been raped. Sharma gulped down his cup of tea,gave breakfast a miss and rushed.

By then,the woman and her companion had boarded the Intercity Express for New Delhi. Sharma called up the SHO in Khairthal,the next halt,to stop the train and apprehend the duo.

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In the FIR the 26-year-old woman filed at the Alwar police station,even as a nervous Bitihotra Mahanti,then 22 (though records with the police state his age as 25),looked on,the German said she had come to Alwar the previous night for research and that Bitti had come along,offering to help her. They had met one and a half weeks earlier through some common German friends.

“He was angry that I wanted a separate room,but I insisted. After dinner he told me that he was in love with me and requested me (to let him stay with me) in the room… He tried to convince me,said he is so lonely,” said the German.

She said that Bitti forced himself on her and as she started crying,became aggressive. “I remembered he had told me several times that he would kill me one day. It had not been a joke,he seemed to be really mad.”

Her FIR says Bitti raped her,letting her go to the toilet only about one and a half hours later,from where she called up friends for help.

According to Surendra Sharma,a search of the hotel room corroborated the woman’s version. Bitti claimed he had been drunk. “I usually drink beer but she preferred hard liquor. I thought I should be a man and drink a little more than her,” Bitti reportedly told the police.

As he realised the seriousness of the charge,Sharma says,Bitti,who was at the time doing a two-year management course in Delhi,got worried about being jailed. “She behaved normally while we were heading back to Delhi. I thought I would convince her,” Bitti reportedly said.

What followed was a landmark case in Indian judiciary. Within 21 days,a fast-track court convicted Bitti and sentenced him to seven years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs 10,000. Sharma recalls that the victim complained of being threatened. “We had to not only convince her to stay back,we also called the German friend from Berlin to record her statement,” he says.

The chargesheet was filed on March 24,and on April 12,2006,the verdict was announced.

“Bitti admitted to having gone a bit too far. Had he stayed on in jail and behaved well,his sentence could have been commuted,” Sharma says.

That was not to be. On November 20,Bitti was allowed a 15-day parole after his father B B Mahanti,then the DG (Home Guards and Fire Services),deposited a surety of Rs 50,000. Bitti was allowed parole on the condition that he would not leave Jaipur. But the father and son slipped out to Orissa.

While on parole,Bitti was taken to a psychiatrist in Cuttack who subjected him to an electroencephalogram test. On November 28,he was diagnosed as being in “depression with clear signs of suicidal intent”. Mahanti wrote to the Rajasthan prison authorities to extend Bitti’s parole period.

Bitti was supposed to see the psychiatrist again on December 2,2006. He did not turn up. Two days later,he was a fugitive.

PUTTAPARTHI (Andhra Pradesh)

May 2007 to December 2008

FOUR months later,Bitti surfaced in Puttaparthi. It was in the lanes of this town where Prashanti Nilayam,the main ashram of Satya Sai Baba is located,that the transformation to “Raghava Rajan” was allegedly forged.

According to those who know him,Bitti a.k.a Rajan was first seen alone in April or May 2007 at Prashanti Nilayam,and later with two men—one very tall,the other short. He first called on retired IAS officer K R Paramahansa and his wife Gita,staunch devotees of Satya Sai Baba,who held various positions of influence in institutions associated with the Satya Sai Central Trust.

Through the couple,Bitti met other important people. One of them,Rama Rao,would become his mentor and guide.

According to 75-year-old Rao,a retired government school headmaster who takes care of educational institutions at the ashram,Bitti looked ill and disturbed. “It was June or July 2007… he had a beard. He introduced himself as Raghava Rajan. He said he had done his B.Tech and had quit his job in Delhi and was looking for mental peace and improvement of health,” Rao says.

“I suggested that he should take up a job. There was an advertisement that Sri Vidya Degree College wanted part-time computer instructors. I got him that job,which paid only Rs 50 per day. I found him to be very brilliant. Wherever he went,he got a good name,” Rao says.

The college,which is 20 km from Puttaparthi at Kottacheruvu,backs this. Says Director K Surya Prakash: “He came across as a very disciplined and nice person. The first-year students liked him,and he taught them well. After he left,students used to ask for him.”

Bitti worked at the college from August 2007 to January 2008,till the computer classes were halted as first-year students prepared for their final exams to be held in March.

When he was not working,Bitti would be closeted in his ashram room. Owners of nearby internet cafés do not remember ever seeing him. His neighbours say he never received any post or friends. He sometimes used to eat at the ashram canteen but mostly took food parcels from nearby eateries. Instead of friends his age,Bitti appears to have courted a few influential elderly,who offered patronage and parental affection.

Rama Rao talks about how Bitti would massage his feet after he underwent a by-pass surgery. “I am shocked and hurt. He appeared to be so genuine. He was like a son to me,” he says. Paramahansa,his other mentor,refuses to talk about Bitti.

Bitti next found a job as a mathematics and computer science instructor for a salary of Rs 4,000 at Paramahansa’s Deena Janoddharana for orphans,again settling down quickly. “He was well liked by everyone,” says a volunteer.

Rao remembers seeing Bitti often with two men and a woman. “He introduced the tall man as his uncle and the shorter one as his father Rajiv Rajan. He introduced the woman as Saraswati,his aunt. It now appears that the tall gentleman was his father and the lady his mother.”

“He said his parents lived in Delhi,and that his father was a businessman. I don’t think anyone asked him beyond that,” says Praveen,a volunteer at the Satya Sai Seva Organisation.

In July 2008,Bitti contracted jaundice. The Rama Rao family took care of him for six months. Rao also sent him to his friend N Kistappah,a homeopathy doctor. “He hardly spoke,” Kistappah recalls.

Bitti apparently slipped into depression again,at which point Rao suggested he join some course. “He wanted to do an MBA and appeared for the Management Aptitude Test (MAT)… He scored 97 per cent. He was not given admission in one of the colleges run by the Satya Sai Trust as our students are given first preference. He said he was going to Kerala,” Rao says.

By late 2008,he had acquired a voter ID card from the Puttaparthi Mandal Revenue Office,showing his address as 6-80,Sai Sri Enclave,where he was Rama Rao’s neighbour. The records at the revenue office throw up Bitti’s photo with the name ‘Raghava Rajans’; age 30; father’s name ‘Rajiv Rajans’,Voter ID card No. AGW0298331; 22-Ananthapur; Assembly constituency Puttaparthi.

Even after moving to Kerala,he visited Puttaparthi every couple of months for a few days and so retained the Sai Sri Enclave flat.

He also got a driving licence from Hindupur RTO,and with these IDs,opened a savings account with Canara Bank,Puttaparthi branch,in December 2008.

Now that those who knew him look back,these are the only photographs of Bitti available in Puttaparthi. The cropped-hair,mustachioed,lean man avoided functions where he could be clicked. “He was shy and introvert… no one probably ever asked him to take a photo with him. In our college photos,there is not a single photo of his. He did not attend functions where photos were taken,” an official of Sri Vidya college says.

KANNUR (KERALA)

June 2009 to March 2013

BITTI’S first recorded appearance in Kannur is in June 2009,as an MBA student on the rolls of the Chinmaya Institute of Technology,run by the Chinmaya Mission founded by Swami Chinmayananda. His MAT score—here they say it was 95.32 per cent—got him easy entry.

His “father” Rajiv Rajan came at the time of the admission,and during the two-year course,there were no lapses in the fees of Rs 55,000 per semester.

His classmates and friends remember him for his discipline and “simplicity”. “At the hostel,he used to wake up at 5 am. He would go to the nearby Sree Sundareshwaram temple and then go for a morning walk,almost 3 to 4 km a day. He prompted me to go for morning walk,” says one of Bitti’s juniors,Gouri Kant Tyagi. “He wore long,loose shirts and trousers,never jeans.”

While he is remembered as an introvert who didn’t have close friends,Tyagi recalls that Bitti grew close to another non-Malayali in the college,who could speak Hindi well.

A classmate says when asked why he had taken admission so far from home,Bitti said his parents were devotees of Swami Chinmayananda. Tyagi also claims a talk about marriage once,when Bitti said he would marry a woman of his parents’ choice.

Friends and acquaintances say his life revolved around the campus and hostel,apart from trips to the nearby temple. He avoided night parties or drunken revelries. “He was never late returning to the hostel,” says Warden T P Haridasan.

A pure vegetarian who even avoided cakes and pastries,he also shunned most beverages except fruit juice,say friends.

Given that the Rajan they knew may have been an imposter,another thing strikes them. That his hostel room—No. 103,“it did not have any pin-ups of girls or film actresses”—was always open to juniors and classmates to clear doubts. “Everybody used to take inputs from him. He always talked about doing research and pursuing a teaching career,” Tyagi says.

A woman batch-mate says the authorities were clearly impressed. “He was the pet of the faculty. We were repeatedly told to emulate Rajan. At seminars and public functions,Rajan shined with his gift of the gab,” she says,preferring anonymity.

According to the institute’s director,K K Fulgunan,Bitti proved a “brilliant student”. “He passed the management degree with more than 75 per cent marks.” Interestingly,after specialising in Human Resources and Marketing,he didn’t appear for campus recruitments.

“Rajan was absorbed as temporary faculty based on his performance,” says Fulgunan. After working as a faculty for six months,he left the institute.

Having cleared the highly competitive banking test,Bitti joined as a probationary officer at the State Bank of Travancore branch office in Madai,30 km from Kannur,in June 2012. He stayed in various lodges in the area before moving last month to an accommodation provided by his bank,where he shared quarters with a colleague.

Lakshmi,who works in the bank’s canteen,says he always wanted rice and curd. “I considered him a son. We still don’t believe he committed rape and resurfaced with a forged identity,” Lakshmi says.

“On March 18,he was slated to be transferred to another branch in Kannur district as part of training. The office or the customers never had a complaint against him,” says an officer at the bank.

Bitti appeared to have continued his practice of morning walks. “Even on March 7,I saw him walking back to his house early morning with a sachet of milk,” says Sasi.

That same evening,he left the house with a bag and checked into a hotel in Kannur city. The next evening,police picked him up from the hotel as he reportedly planned to leave the city.

CUTTACK (Orissa)

MARCH 2013

Express Opinion

AT THE modest one-storey house in Sector 9 of Cuttack’s Abhinava Bidanasi area that Bitti’s father Bidya Bhushan Mahanti moved into after his retirement last year,there has been eerie silence since news broke of his arrest from Kerala on March 8. The wrought iron gate with his nameplate lies locked,and the 1972-batch IPS officer has not been seen cycling to the local vegetable market,as he used to do.

On March 13 afternoon,with temperatures rising to 40 degrees C,an inspector of the local Markatnagar police station sits bored near a tyre repair shop on Mahanti watch. Police believe it was earlier that day that the senior officer and his wife gave them the slip and left the house for an unknown place.

The neighbours say the Mahantis didn’t interact much with them. None of them claims to have ever seen Bitti,but everyone admits to having heard about him.

Mahanti’s erstwhile colleagues in the Orissa Police remember Bitti as a good student throughout—while at Stewart School of Cuttack and then later when he did his B.Tech in computer science from the Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology in Bhubaneswar in 2004-05. A KIIT professor says many among his classmates believe he was framed in the rape case.

The sympathy for Bitti is partly due to the reputation Mahanti enjoyed of being an incorruptible officer. “He was a perfect gentleman and amiable. His Cantonment Road official residence was so simple you could never believe it to be a DGP’s home,” says a former colleague.

They also agree that the blind love for his son resulted in Mahanti’s ruin,and that the IPS officer erred in allegedly helping his son escape the law. “As inspector general of prisons in 2002-04,he was lax on prisoners at the Biju Patnaik open air jail near Bhubaneswar and allowed about 60 prisoners to go on parole without completing necessary formalities. Some of them jumped parole and we had a tough time getting them back to jail. It is possible that Bidya Bhushan… believed jumping parole was not such a big crime,” says an official. “When his son jumped parole,several senior IPS officers reasoned with him to get Bitti back,but he never listened to anyone.”

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In 2007,Mahanti himself turned fugitive. “Bitti might have come out of prison by now and started life afresh,” says a retired IPS official. “But thanks to a father who made mincemeat of the law,the son now has a dark future.”