New Delhi: After more than 275 hearings and the examination of 132 witnesses, the district and sessions court in Pathankot is all set to deliver its verdict in the rape and murder case of an eight-year-old Bakarwal girl in Kathua on Monday, 10 June.
The hearing, which was ordered to be a “day-to-day in camera trial” by the Supreme Court, started last June. The apex court’s intervention came after crime branch officials were prevented from filing a chargesheet in the case.
Days before the verdict, ThePrint revisits the trial, the arguments made in the court by the prosecution and defence, and all the turns the case took over the last one year.
ThePrint has also accessed the basic arguments put forth by the defence in this case, which are mostly based on the cross-examination of witnesses provided by the prosecution. Defence lawyer A.K. Sawhney, who appeared for the juvenile accused in the case, told ThePrint that he was present throughout the in-camera proceedings and detailed how the defence had attempted to establish a “four-pillar motive” of the Bakarwal community and the prosecution.
What happened in January 2018
The rape and murder of the eight-year-old girl in Kathua in January 2018 had assumed communal overtones and fed a raging controversy in an area said to be deeply polarised. The child’s abduction and murder, according to police, was part of a plot to drive out members of the Bakarwal community from a village named Rasana in the Jammu region.
According to the police, a former revenue official and well-known local figure, Sanjhi Ram, devised a plot to kidnap, rape and murder the girl. The other accused were Sanjhi Ram’s nephew (a juvenile), Ram’s son Vishal Jangotra, an undergraduate student, Special Police Officers Deepak Khajuria and Surender Verma, head constable Tilak Raj, sub-inspector Anand Dutta, and another juvenile, who is the first juvenile’s friend.
The case hit the headlines on 9 April 2018 when the police filed the chargesheet before the Kathua court. In a bid to prevent the police from filing the chargesheet, local lawyers created a ruckus and ended up making a mockery of law and order in lower courts. This made the Supreme Court intervene; it ordered the trial to be shifted to Pathankot and be completed ‘in camera’ (in private) on a day-to-day basis.
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False confessions of the juvenile
The case, argued by senior counsel S.S. Bhasra and district attorney J.C. Chopra, among others, is based on the chargesheet which states that first person to be questioned in the case was Sanjhi Ram’s nephew, a juvenile who had dropped out of school. He had first met the eight-year-old in the nearby forest.
According to the juvenile, on the day the girl was kidnapped, she sought his help to find her missing horses. It was at this moment that she was forcibly taken to Sanjhi Ram’s cattle shed and kept with her hands and legs tied. He further stated that after keeping her captive until 16 January, he attempted to rape the girl. But when the eight-year-old threatened to spill the beans, he strangulated the girl and thrashed her head with a stone.
Plot to drive away the Bakarwals
The juvenile, who raped the eight-year-old multiple times, was roughed up by the Bakarwals on an earlier occasion for allegedly teasing a girl from their community. Even Khajuria had had arguments with the community in the past. All of this was used by Sanjhi Ram to instil the feeling of revenge in his partners against the nomadic community.
Although the juvenile admitted to the entire crime, the chargesheet stated that the “entire truth” was revealed during later interrogation of the juvenile and the other accused. The re-examination of the juvenile was carried out in the presence of a social worker and his father. On the basis of the inputs given by the juvenile and the other accused, the police stated that it was somewhere in the first week of January that Sanjhi Ram had decided to put in place “a plan to dislodge the Bakarwal community”.
Investigations revealed that Sanjhi Ram was against Bakarwal settlements in the Rasana, Kootah and Dhamyal areas. The main complaint of Sanjhi Ram and others against the nomadic tribe was crop destruction and increasing presence in their “native area”.
Days of captivity, repeated rape and pills
The prosecution alleged that Sanjhi Ram instigated the juvenile to take revenge on the community for having beaten him up on a previous occasion. So, on 10 January, after they forcibly took the eight-year-old to the ‘Devi-sthan’ (temple of the goddess) owned by Sanjhi Ram, the juvenile and another friend made the girl drink two bottles of Mannar (a local alcoholic drink) till she lost consciousness.
After the girl was raped by the juvenile, Khajuria used strips of sedatives to keep the girl helpless and unconscious. She was forcefully administered high doses of sedatives by the SPO, where he would open the mouth of the girl using his fingers and drop the pills. Thereafter, he would massage the neck of the girl to ensure that it was effective enough.
On 12 January, the juvenile allegedly called his friend Vishal Jangotra (Sanjhi Ram’s son) from Meerut to “satisfy his lust”. After his arrival, the juvenile and Jangotra continued using sedatives on her and also raped her. At one point, the juvenile also informed Sanjhi Ram that Jangotra and he had gang-raped the child.
On the direction of Sanjhi Ram at the Devi-sthan, the juvenile, his juvenile friend and Vishal allegedly took the girl to a nearby culvert. When all were ready to kill her, Khajuria asked them to stop as he “wanted to rape her before she was killed”, according to the chargesheet.
Following this, the girl was yet again gang-raped by Khajuria and then the juvenile. After this, the SPO kept the neck of the girl on his thigh and started applying force to kill her. When he could not kill her, the juvenile applied force on her back with his knees till she breathed her last. To ensure she was dead, her head was thrashed with a stone.
According to the alleged plan, the body was to be transported and disposed of in the canal at Hiranagar, but since the driver refused to bring his car, they dumped the body in the nearby forest.
Destruction of evidence
The prosecution also alleged that the police officers were paid lakhs of rupees. While Anand Dutta was paid around Rs 5 lakh, head constable Tilak Raj was paid around Rs 1.5 lakh through Sanjhi Ram’s sister.
The prosecution alleged that Dutta and Sanjhi Ram got together to wash the clothes of the eight-year-old girl at the time of her death to remove the clay, blood stains and any sperm remnants. However, it was witness Veena Devi’s statement which proved crucial for the prosecution, as it established that the accused were spotted with the eight-year-old when she was last seen before going missing.
Apart from this, incriminating evidence like the dupatta, hairband and necklace of the girl could not be examined as they had been destroyed.
Senior counsels A.K. Sawhney and Subhash Chander Sharma, advocate Vinod Mahajan and advocate Ankur Sharma are some of the lawyers defending the accused. Sawhney discussed details of the defence’s case with ThePrint.
Faulty investigation — who is the father?
The defence’s first contention was that the man who claimed to be the girl’s father was, in fact, not her father.
“The case developed by the prosecution states that the deceased girl went missing on 10 January. But there was no complaint made on 10 January, nor on 11 January. It was only on 12 January that [name redacted], who claims to be the father of the deceased, lodged a complaint,” Sawhney said.
“There was no question of him being the adopted father also, due to a complete lack of documents to substantiate it. He has merely used the words ‘meri beti’ in the FIR, which means daughter.”
The defence maintained that during cross-examination, the man admitted that he was not the father of the girl, nor did he have any documents to prove that he had adopted the girl.
“This raised questions on the police investigation, where this had never been mentioned. This showed that the investigation was faulty,” said Sawhney.
Delay in registering the FIR and ‘police fraud’
The defence’s case stated that when the girl’s ‘father’ was brought to the court as a witness, the police had stated in the challan that the first FIR was registered on 11 January, but no FIR copy had been furnished.
“Why wasn’t the FIR submitted to the magistrate? Where is the complaint made by [name redacted] on 11 January? This shows fraud on part of the police. This also shows the contradictory stand of the police, and this was the foundation of our case in the court,” said Sawhney.
“The police had to do this to justify the unreasonable delay in reporting the case. We are sure the judge cannot overlook this. The benefit of doubt has to go to the accused.”
The four ‘motive pillars’
The defence’s case primarily rested on arguments which bolstered the “four motives” due to which the accused were allegedly being framed.
The first was to amass wealth for Talib Hussain & others. According to the counsel, Hussain, who blocked the national highway to protest against the rape, already has two rape cases against him.
“He joined the PDP later. We have even released videos that this was entirely planned by Hussain. He was the star witness in the case and he has constructed the plot. But he was not called as a witness. His role has been there from the first day of the case,” Sawhney said.
The defence argued that Hussain had acted in connivance with the girl’s ‘father’ and one Mohammed Rasheed. “Rasheed is related to Talib and we discovered this in the cross-examination. I had asked him about his business with Talib. The motives were to collect wealth and they collected money to the tune of Rs 100 crore,” he alleged.
The defence submitted to the court that a website called ‘rehbera’ was set up to collect donations.
The second motive was allegedly to grab land. According to the defence, Hussain used to work with leaders of the Gujjar community, who were angry that forest land was not being allowed to be encroached upon.
“A similar government order was also issued where it was stated wherever Gujjars have occupied land, they cannot be evicted. This unreasonable order led to agitations all over Jammu, but it continues to be in force until today. We argued that this substantiates the argument that their main intention was to grab land,” Sawhney said.
The third motive was that some of accused did not let Bakarwals carry on illegal cattle trafficking. “The accused, Tilak Raj, used to stop their vehicles at night when they would be trafficking cattle. This is why he has been roped into this case. Similarly, even Anand Dutta was roped into like this. Dutta was the SHO for only one day,” the counsel has argued.
The fourth motive was to keep the issue of a huge amount of drug dealings happening in Kathua away from the legal eye. “These police officials were alert about such dealings and ensured that this was in check. They often seized such drug-laden vehicles at night and registered FIRs all over Jammu,” said Sawhney.
The defence has also argued that the prosecution’s argument of Sanjhi Ram & others having a motive to dislodge the Bakarwal community was “not substantiated by any evidence”.
Further, the defence argued that “this case is based on circumstantial evidence and not direct evidence. Hence, all the facts need to be proven”.
“Sanjhi Ram’s sister was accused of having given money to Tilak Raj. But when the judge questioned why she wasn’t produced in court, the prosecution’s only answer was that “she was won over”. How did we win her over? Don’t they have to substantiate the allegations?” asked Sawhney.
The counsel did, however, confirm that if the verdict on 10 June went against the accused, the defence was ready to file an appeal in the Punjab & Haryana High Court.
This report has been updated with new information about the number of hearings and witnesses examined in the case.
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