Monday, May 23, 2016

Beti, interrupted

On March 28, at the end of Holi holidays, 17-year-old Delta Meghwal was dropped off by her father at the residential Adarsh Jain Teacher’s Training Institute in Nokha, Bikaner (Rajasthan). Her two-year course was ending and her exam results were expected the next day. The daughter of a Dalit schoolteacher in Barmer, around 400 km away, she was the first in her family to study beyond school. Her proud father, Mahendra Ji Panwar, held her up as an example to his students.
On March 29, she was found drowned in the water tank behind the hostel building. Her fateful walk towards the water tank hadn’t gone unnoticed. At 7 am, the father of the institute’s owner had seen her during his morning walk. Her hostel-mate, too, saw her leaving the dorm. Yet, it was only around midday that the police were called in to trace the missing girl.
The institute’s owner, Ishwar Chand Vaid, failed to inform Delta’s family about her death.
The teenager had gone missing from her dormitory the night before as well. Around midnight, one of the hostel girls had raised an alarm after failing to find Delta in her bed. A search party led by hostel warden Priya Shukla and the guard Akram Singh scanned the campus. She was finally found in the PT teacher Vijendra Singh’s room, according to police testimonies given by the hostel warden and other hostel residents. Post-mortem reports have since confirmed rape; as a minor, Delta is below the age of consent.
In a strange turn of events, the school authorities had, in the middle of the night, forced the minor Delta and the PT teacher to sign a document apologising for having ‘consensual sex’. The hostel warden had informed the PT teacher’s wife about the incident, but Delta’s parents remained in the dark. “Even at this point, the school did not inform the parents,” says Satya Prakash Sharma, a Jaipur High Court advocate and the public prosecutor in Delta’s case.
The Bikaner police had arrested the principal, Vijay Shukla, his wife and hostel warden, Priya, and PT teacher Singh, who is the prime accused, right after the incident.
The principal and his wife have since received bail.
It’s a lonely ride to Nokha from Bikaner’s old-world streets. The harsh desert landscape, sandy soil and the white-hot horizon is broken intermittently by brush trees and bushes. Hardly a soul crosses your way on the one-hour journey, and there is not a single brightly-coloured dupatta of a local woman in sight to break the monotony of men out and about on the streets.
The police station in Nokha is a nondescript building, a single-storey brick construction inside a dusty courtyard. One police jeep and a few white cars are parked inside, heating up in the summer sun; there’s a heat wave on.
I wait in the station house officer’s (SHO) building, which, unlike the sparse police station, has a split air-conditioner. The desk is piled with files and the empty chair behind it waits for its occupant. It is 11 am. The constable on duty offers me a glass of water and suggests I call the SHO, Pooja Yadav — she, in turn, sounds irritated, “Arrey, yaar, I went back home at 4 am, and calls begin to come in from 6 am. It is impossible to have a moment of peace in this line of work, madam.”
Finally, the IPS officer — a woman in her 20s — marches in, shod in polished oxfords, cap on head, a lathi under her left arm, and smelling of freshly applied lacto calamine.
A queue of people has formed outside. A man walks in and informs the officer: “Dahi aapke liye fridge me rakh diya hai, khatta ho jaayega (I have kept the yoghurt in the fridge, lest it goes sour).”
“There’s another case going on right now, a gangster is on the run,” Yadav cancels an offending party’s gun licence even as she talks to me. “See, the day the incident happened, I wasn’t around. I had gone to Nagaur, and the second-in-command was looking after the case. Unfortunately, he is on leave right now.” She gives me an unofficial lowdown on the case, as it stands, ‘woman-to-woman’; for the official version I will have to go to Bikaner’s Additional SP Satnam Singh.
Why was the water tank found covered with a lid if Delta had indeed committed suicide and was not murdered?
Why is there no official police record of the body being brought from the site? Why was the death reported much after the body had been discovered at 10 am?
No one from the police has answers to any of these questions. To add insult to injury, the body was transferred in a municipal garbage van. Ramkesh Singh Meena, the investigating officer, says, “We don’t have a dedicated vehicle in Nokha for such uses, so we decided to use the municipal garbage dumpster.”
Jain Adarsh Senior Secondary School is located a little away from Nokha. The owner, Vaid, also runs a hospital nearby. The large grounds of the school are unusually quiet, as the students have back-to-back holidays — Ambedkar Jayanti, Ram Navami and Mahavir Jayanti.
It’s been three weeks since Delta’s death; the gatekeeper tells me that no girls are at the hostel now
I ask to see the school, and the caretaker Pankaj and gatekeeper Akram Singh initially appear hesitant but agree eventually. A posse of men follow me around as I take pictures of the school and its grounds.
Where is the hostel she lived in, I enquire. There’s more hesitation, and finally the guard points towards an extreme corner of the school. This long, one storey building is bookended by one-room quarters, painted in the bright pink-and-magenta colours of the main school building.
The ground separating the school from the hostel area is barren and unkempt. I ask where her body was found. “She was found behind the mess of the hostel, in the water tank,” comes a curt reply. The gatekeeper and caretaker trail me around as I take more photographs. Everyone seems glad when I finally decide to leave.
The case has shuttled between police stations, and there have been disagreements over its jurisdiction. It has finally been transferred to the CBI, which however, hasn’t made any investigations yet. While the Sessions Court had thrice rejected the bail appeals of the principal, warden and the teacher, the Jodhpur High Court granted bail to the first two. Sharma, the public prosecutor in the case, is clearly displeased.
“It is disturbing that they have been granted bail, while investigations are still on. My hope for the case is that the CBI takes it up soon,” he says.
The police investigations have been marked by several irregularities. Initial reports in the local editions of Hindi newspapers, such as Januday, hinted that Delta Meghwal was targeted because she was a Dalit girl. Under the headline “Brahmin aurat ne karwaya Dalit chhatra Delta ka balatkar aur hatya (Brahmin woman gets Dalit girl Delta raped and murdered)”, one report suggests that Delta was sent to clean the PT teacher’s room by the hostel warden around 8 pm, before she was found dead the following morning. This contradicts the warden’s testimony.
Delta’s father sounds dejected over the phone, as he recounts the events surrounding his daughter’s tragic end. “I do not have much hope from the way things are going. They have been charged under Section 306, which is abetment of suicide. Even the public prosecutor said in court that it looks like suicide. The witnesses, the three girls who used to stay with her, have turned hostile in favour of the school. It looks to me like another case where the administration tries to collectively silence justice, in this case, for my beti. My only hope now is that the CBI will begin investigations as soon as it can.”
Vaid, the school owner, is taken by surprise when I call him for this story. “They [the accused] have already got bail, haven’t they?” he counters, before adding, “It is not easy to control people’s sexual behaviour. I didn’t want to start a hostel, but where would these girls have gone if I hadn’t?” Asked about the culpability of his school staff in Delta’s death, either through callousness or abetment, he says, “You’ll find everything in the bail report. We have all given testimonies to the police and they [accused] have already got bail. That is all I have to say on the matter.”
Mystery shrouds the events of the night that snuffed out a young life. All that’s left is a father trying to get justice for his daughter, and blocked by bureaucracy every step of the way. Briefly the story of Delta’s death made national headlines when, at a protest march in Delhi, JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar projected the case as another institutional murder of a Dalit student, a la Rohith Vemula. There were protests in Bengaluru as well, but these did not result in much headway in the case.
“My daughter was exceptional. I named her Delta after the enriched soil at the mouth of the river. Why did the school not think it important to tell me she was no more? When I called the school’s owner he told me not to call him again and again, since he was busy outside. What is more urgent than a death?” Delta’s father doesn’t mince words about the school’s shoddy handling of the case.
The apathetic treatment that a trust-run school has meted out to its student is especially worrying in a State that is loudly promoting girls’ education with its Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign. There are no regulations from the Human Resource Development ministry regarding how hostels are to be run in private institutions — no mandatory health checks or security guidelines either. When contacted, Rajasthan Minister for higher education Kali Charan Saraf remained unavailable for comment. Delta’s father leaves us with several disturbing questions: “Will parents be fine with sending their daughters away to study after Delta? I am a teacher myself, and was so proud of my daughter. Yet, I would hesitate before sending another daughter away to study… it is better to have her alive than educated."

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