Patna: When the Muzaffarpur sexual abuse controversy broke last April, the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar claimed credit, saying the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) inquiry that exposed the crime was commissioned by it.
As confirmed by a medical report, 30 of 34 inmates at a Muzaffarpur shelter for destitute girls and women, many of them minors, were sexually abused, with similar allegations subsequently emerging from 16 other rescue homes in Bihar.
However, the state government is accused of a series of omissions and commissions that allegedly allowed the sexual abuse to continue, and slowed the pace of the investigation once it was discovered.
It was in this light that the Supreme Court slammed the Nitish Kumar government earlier this week, and shifted the case to Delhi for a “free and fair” trial.
The CBI, which was handed over the Muzaffarpur case in July last year but is now probing all 17 shelters, was rapped too, for transferring A.K. Sharma, the investigating officer, last month despite the Supreme Court’s express orders that the team tasked with the probe not be transferred.
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“The truth is that both the Nitish government and CBI have soft-pedalled on the case,” said Supreme Court lawyer Faujia Shakeel, saying she would pursue the “shoddy CBI probe” in the top court when it takes up the case again on 12 February.
Former interim CBI director M. Nageshwar Rao, on whose watch the officer was transferred, has been summoned to court on that day.
The Bihar government runs 110 shelters — for the homeless as well as juveniles in conflict with law — mostly through NGOs that receive funds from the state. The Muzaffarpur shelter was also run by an NGO, owned by a man named Brajesh Thakur, a powerful local.
Thakur is known to enjoy tremendous political clout as he owns a local daily, Pratah Kamal, which is said to get government advertisement disproportionate to its circulation.
While the paper reportedly only has a daily circulation of 300, state public relations department figures pegged the numbers at around 61,000, with the government said to have given Pratah Kamal Rs 30 lakh worth of advertisements a year.
Thakur had political ambitions and unsuccessfully contested the polls from an assembly seat in Muzaffarpur in 1995 and 2000. He has also been photographed with prominent political leaders of the state, including Nitish Kumar and former chief minister Lalu Prasad.
‘Dragging their feet
The TISS social audit report, submitted to the Bihar social welfare department in April 2018, found only seven of the 110 shelters “good”, while expressing “grave concern” about 17.
“The remaining were found to be below average,” said an official of the social welfare department.
Among other things, both the Nitish Kumar government and the CBI are accused of dragging their feet on the findings for other shelters until the apex court stepped in. It was only last month, on 16 January, that the CBI filed cases against two other shelters in Bhagalpur and Gaya.
Altogether, now, three cases have been filed, with 20 arrests made in the Muzaffarpur case, CBI sources said.
If the apex court has expressed concern about the probe, it is not without reason.
The Juvenile Justice Act states that shelters have to be inspected after every three months and a report on the findings has to be submitted to the state social welfare department.
“Either these shelter homes were not inspected (before the TISS audit), or these inspections ignored the sexual and physical abuse of inmates,” said women’s rights activist Nivedita Jha.
The Nitish government, she added, could not claim credit for exposing the crimes because the facts should have been revealed earlier in routine reports.
There are also a series of allegations about how the government showed no urgency after the TISS audit, and, in fact, dished out preferential treatment to Thakur.
The opposition had raised questions when IPS officer Harprit Kaur, the Muzaffarpur senior superintendent of police who had arrested Thakur, was transferred out two months after the CBI took over the case.
While at Muzaffarpur jail, the CBI discovered Thakur to be in possession of a mobile phone, after which he was transferred by the Supreme Court to a jail in Patiala.
After Thakur’s arrest, the husband of the then social welfare minister Manju Verma, Chandreshwar Verma, was found to have made phone calls to him. Chandreshwar, who is said to have been a frequent visitor to the Muzaffarpur shelter, was allegedly identified as ‘Neta Uncle’ by the victims.
His calls to Thakur eventually cost Verma her cabinet berth.
After being on the run for over a month, Chandreshwar surrendered in a Begusarai court on 29 October last year.
By then, a search of the couple’s house had revealed a large tranche of “illegal ammunition” and an anticipatory bail plea filed by Verma had been rejected by the Patna High Court.
Police’s failure to arrest Verma after she reportedly went into hiding led the Supreme Court to observe on 31 October that “all is not well in Bihar”. Verma subsequently surrendered in the Arms Act case in November.
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After the abuse was exposed, the state government transferred all victims to another shelter in Madhubani. “From there, one of the victims has gone missing. We visited the Madhubani shelter home. There is still no security for the victims or counselling, when they need special care,” said activist Jha.
“The Centre allowed the transfer of joint director A.K. Sharma, who was supervising the case. The state government has dragged its feet… The state government and the CBI left no option for the Supreme Court but to transfer the case to Delhi,” she added.
Speaking to ThePrint, incumbent Bihar social welfare minister Krishna Nandan Prasad Verma defended the government’s role.
“We respect the decision of the apex court (to shift the case to Delhi). But it was our government that exposed the inhuman treatment of inmates at shelter homes,” he added.
“It was the state police that swung into action when the matter came to our notice. Later, there was a demand to hand over the case to the CBI and we did it. The CBI has been investigating the matter and we have provided all help.”
“So far as the state government is concerned, we have now made a decision that shelter homes will be run by the government directly and not through NGOs,” he added.
Thank you for this story. It’s much needed. However, there are few factual errors that could have been easily avoided. You are a credible agency; it is must that what you present is correct. Nevertheless, thank you for bringing this out.
Court is doing its bit and it is time that all of us as a society, irrespective of our other positions, come together on issues of safety and protection of our children.
This is what Mr Nitish Kumar, who wishes to be Prime Minister, brings to the table as his governance record.
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