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Elbows scratched, fingers & back injured, Ankita was ‘thrown into river alive’, finds probe

The SIT formed in Uttarakhand says Pulkit Arya’s 'motive' to allegedly ‘murder’ Ankita was to hide his attempts to push her to ‘provide sexual favours to guests’ despite her refusal.

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Rishikesh: Ankita Bhandari’s elbows had scratches, the kind one gets if they scrape it on a rough surface. Her little finger and ring finger had minor injuries and her back bore a blunt injury mark. Sometime between 9 and 9.40 pm on the night of 18 September, 19-year-old Ankita had died.

A low parapet lining the river near the Chilla canal — where she was last seen with three men from the resort where she worked as a receptionist — is a common hang-out spot for young people in the area. But at night, the deserted stretch turned into a death pit for her.

Ankita, the Uttarakhand police said, was pushed into the deep, muddy river — still alive. Her scratches and injuries, they added, were perhaps from the fall.

What followed the alleged murder were a series of hasty steps taken purportedly by the three men who were with her — resort owner, Pulkit Arya, son of now-expelled BJP leader Vinod Arya, and his two staff members Saurabh Bhaskar and Ankit Gupta — to mask the death as a “disappearance”.

Two days later, on 20 September, Arya, the prime accused in the case, reached the office of the revenue sub-inspector, under whose jurisdiction the resort area falls, to file a missing persons complaint. The revenue sub-inspectors also double up as police in hilly areas of the state.

As the news invited public wrath, a bulldozer reached the spot at 1.30 am on 24 September and demolished a part of the resort building. It razed the room where Ankita used to stay to the ground, blocking the investigation of valuable clues. It is still unclear who gave orders for the bulldozing and Pauri Garhwal District Magistrate Vijay Jogdande has ordered an inquiry into the matter.

Arya allegedly destroyed his own phone on 19 September — a day before he filed the missing complaint — “to destroy evidence”, said the police. And the non-functional CCTV cameras at the resort, the accused assumed, left no tracks.

But almost three weeks after the murder, the Uttarakhand police has gathered a plethora of manual and electronic evidences, along with witness testimonies, which, they say, builds a strong case against the accused. Gupta is 19, and Bhaskar and Arya are in their mid-30s.

Also read: Surprise inspections, guests scared off — how Ankita murder is hurting resorts in Pauri Garhwal

The motive

While the evidence of the crime collected by the police suggests that the alleged murder by the three men appears to have been done in the moment, the cover-up was well-planned, said the interrogating officers of the special investigation Team (SIT) that has been formed to investigate the case.

The Vanantra resort in Ganga Bhogpur village in Pauri Garhwal, where all of them worked, had CCTV cameras around the property but had not been functional for over a year, said P. Renuka Devi, Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG), heading the SIT, to ThePrint. But the cameras around the river have vividly caught the activity on the night Ankita was last seen, she added.

P. Renuka Devi, Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG), heading the SIT probing Ankita Bhandari's murder | Credit: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
P. Renuka Devi, Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG), heading the SIT probing Ankita Bhandari’s murder | Credit: Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Around 9 pm, Ankita, along with Arya, Bhaskar, and Gupta, had arrived on two bikes at Kodia pull, a small bridge on the river, near the Chilla River. According to the police, there are no signs of the men coercing her to ride with them. At 9.40 pm, only the three men leave.

“This information is so direct and irrefutable. After seeing the barrage footage, there is absolutely no doubt about the time and place of occurrence of the crime,” says a senior police officer who did not want to be named.

And the footage matches Ankita’s phone records, which show the last recording near the river, according to the police.

But the exact spot where Ankita was thrown in the river is not visible by cameras. And this is the information the police are trying to get out of Arya, Bhaskar and Gupta — who threw Ankita into the water?

“The matter is under investigation. The accused had three days to prepare the story to be told to the police. And though there are minor contradictions in their stories, the larger narrative of all three is matching,” says Devi.

But the motive of the murder, she adds, is established.

Arya was allegedly attempting to persuade Ankita to provide sexual favours to Vanantra guests and she had refused. His motive to silence her was to allegedly ensure she doesn’t expose him.

“Flesh trade is sometimes run under the garb of spas. He [Pulkit] was forcing her to get into it. Her chats on the 17 September show this. She denied it [the request] on the 17th. On the 18th, she was upset and told her friend that she will leave the place. By 18th evening, when the situation did not get better, he [Arya] tried to silence her. He could be arrested on the charge of pushing her into prostitution also. This establishes motive,” said a senior police officer to ThePrint.

However, due to the absence of CCTV footage from the resort, there is no video evidence of any altercations at the property. Ankita’s private chats, reported previously by a section of the media, and witness statements by the resort staff, that of Arya’s amla factory run from the same plot of land, and revenue officers, strengthen the police’s case. The details of the statements are still under wraps.

Meanwhile, a former employee of Vanantra resort, Abhinav, told ThePrint that Ankita was manhandled late afternoon on 18 September by Arya.

We saw from the top floor that Ma’am [Ankita] was screaming. Pulkit had asked us to go up. She cried, ‘help me, help me, take me away from here. I want to go’, but Pulkit gagged her with his hand and dragged her inside the room,” he said.

Abhinav also mentions four guests who had come to the resort briefly. But the police have not yet established who these guests were.

Initial media reports after the incident had reported that Arya had allegedly been running a big prostitution and drugs racket for VIPs from Vanantra.

These standalone instances of one day, however, are also not sufficient to claim that the resort was a hub for prostitution and drugs for special guests whose identities are discreet, say the police.

“Drugs and prostitution network is ruled out because that area (Pauri Garhwal) is not known for it. As of now, there is no convincing evidence that that was happening there. While in the chats she has spoken about being pressured, there is no mention of drugs there,” said a senior police official.

The VIP room in the hotels then, said Devi, is not linked to Ankita being coerced into prostitution. “In every hotel, there is a categorisation of rooms. For the resort, the guest staying in the expensive room was a VIP guest. These were called VIP rooms,” said Devi, adding that the theory floating around that a special guest was to arrive on 19 September and Ankita was being forced to provide sexual favours to him does not hold water.

“The accused have been asked about the VIP guests several times individually. But there is no such VIP guest. But we are still on the job. If something comes out, we will interrogate that angle as well,” said the senior officer.

The resort’s guest record also shows that they barely had four to five guests in the month of September. The entry register, however, does not make for strong evidence as the entries could be omitted as per the resort owner’s or managers’ will.

A cover up?

A day after Ankita was last seen, the revenue sub-inspector in-charge of Ganga Bhogpur village, Vaibhav Pratap Singh, went on leave. The locals allege that the patwari, as the revenue sub-inspectors are called, was close to Arya.

“We also feel suspicious about Vaibhav taking leave the next day. His calls should be traced,” said Videsh Tomar, revenue sub-inspector, Udaipur Valla 1st thana, who is privy to the case’s developments.

The missing report finally reached the revenue sub-inspector, Vivek Kumar, who was on duty on 20 September and within 24 hours of registering the FIR, he raised doubts about Arya. “It is false that the girl’s father was asked to wait, or the FIR wasn’t filed. In Pulkit’s FIR report, father’s report has been attached. Vivek went to the spot with his father the same day. Within 24 hours, the report was given to the court and by the next morning the case file was with Lakshman Jhula thana, Rishikesh,” said Tomar.

Singh and Kumar were suspended and ThePrint tried to reach them, but were unsuccessful. Kumar has changed his phone number, ThePrint has learnt.

But in the time between the crime and the arrest of the accused, there was a concerted effort to destroy the evidence, said the police. But Arya’s plan, instead, worked against him.

“Phone records establish that Pulkit threw his own phone at the spot of the crime the next day but to misguide the investigation. He told the police that Ankita had thrown his phone in a fit of rage on 18 September,” said a senior police officer.

His phone had been off from the time of the incident, but his WhatsApp was working till the next day, added the official. Pulkit, he said, wanted to push the blame on Ankita’s friend, Pushp, and allege that she had eloped with him.

It is also unclear who ordered the demolition of Vanantra resort. The first call to bring a JCB machine to the spot had gone to Mohit Sharma, owner of Rajaji Retreat in the village, who also runs a business of renting JCB machines.

“The call came from a junior engineer around midnight, but my driver said no. First, because it was late in the night and second, because we don’t want to demolish in our own village,” said Sharma.

A machine, he says, was then called from Haridwar.

Meanwhile, Ankita’s death has become an emotionally-charged issue in the area, said locals.

After remand lawyer Jitendra Singh Rawat moved the bail application for the accused in Kotdwar court, he started receiving threats. “I took back my application because I started getting threats, warnings on Facebook. People created ruckus outside the court,” said Rawat.

While the police claim they have strong chain of scientific and manual evidence from pre-event, event and post-event, the case is focusing only on the murder.

“Only the murder is being investigated currently. If evidence emerges that there was a bigger network of drugs and prostitution, then a case will be filed separately,” said Ankita’s lawyer, also named Jitendra Singh Rawat.

Devi tells ThePrint that the police custody of the three accused has given them lots of details in the case which will help them move forward swiftly.

At Ankit Gupta’s house in Haridwar, his parents are hopeful that God will help their son. “We do not want to talk. When I lost my job and we were on the verge of starvation, Ankit was the one who saved us by working,” said his father, Rajendra Kumar Gupta.

With inputs from Prithviraj Singh

(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)

Also read: Ankita murder & corruption fallout — Changes in Dhami cabinet, Uttarakhand BJP unit likely soon


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