Himachal Pradesh is known as Dev Bhoomi because of the umpteen number of deities or maybe due to the peace-loving people in the state. Serious crimes like murder and rape are something unheard of in the snow-clad hill stations of the Himalayas.
That pristine image of the state took a hit on July 6, 2017 when the naked body of a 16-year-old girl was found in Halaila forest in Kotkhai area of Shimla district. Rakhi (name changed) was missing since July 4 evening and the entire village had been searching for her in the forest for the past 48 hours. According to sources, Rakhi had left home in the morning for school on July 4 and reached school, attended classes and left the campus around 4 pm. The only difference in her routine on that day was that she was not accompanied by her younger brother, who skipped school on that Tuesday. Girls walking alone on village pathways in Himachal is a common sight and the state is considered very safe for women.
However, Rakhi did not return home and a panicked family launched a search along with neighbours and relatives. Two days later, on July 6 (Thursday), her naked body was found in the forest 100 metres away from the road and the clothes were lying nearby. Rakhi's neck had bruise marks and no other injuries were visible. The autopsy report stated that she was brutally raped and strangulated. The crime, which came to light four months before the Assembly elections, shocked Himachal Pradesh and villagers started a protest in the state capital of Shimla demanding justice for Rakhi.
With elections round the corner, Opposition political parties, mainly BJP, used the murder to target Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh of Congress for his failure to maintain law and order. As number of people taking part in the protests swelled, the government put pressure on the police to nab the culprits immediately. The CM summoned DGP Somesh Goyal several times and asked him to set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the rape-murder. The protesters also set a deadline of five days for the cops to arrest the murderer.
The DGP and Shimla additional superintendent of police Bhajan Dev Negi were under tremendous pressure to solve the case as the CM was worried how BJP would make use of this case during the election campaign rallies.
Shimla Akhil Bharatiya Janwadi Mahila Samiti held a candle march in Shimla on July 8, threatening to launch a state-wide agitation if the killer was not nabbed immediately. The Beopar Mandal also called for protest and the local market remained closed the whole day on July 8. Another protest was held outside the Shimla deputy commissioner’s office by SFI and NSUI. A candle march was also held by ABVP, DYFI and some social organisations.
Rakhi rape-murder case is a clear example for governments and sleuths on how pressure can lead to goof-ups in investigations.
Nine days after the rape-murder, Shimla police claimed to have cracked the case and arrested six persons. According to police, Ashish Chauhan (26) of Sharaal village in Shimla district, pick-up van driver Rajender Singh (32) of Halaila village in Shimla district, Subhash Singh Bisht (42) and Deepak (38), both from Poudi Garhwal in Uttarakhand, Suraj Singh (26) and Lokjan (19), both from Nepal, had gangraped Rakhi and strangulated her.
The police theory was that the girl, while returning home from school on July 4 evening, had asked for a lift in the pick-up van of Rajender Singh. The other five co-accused were also there in the vehicle. Deep into the forest road, the gang forcefully took the girl into the forest, raped her and strangulated her. They dumped the body in Halaila forest. The cops claimed that the girl had taken lift in the vehicle on earlier occasions also. The police also stated that the two Nepalese persons accused in the case were arrested from Halaila village. All the accused were in an inebriated condition when they committed the crime.
The cops also claimed that they have an eyewitness who saw the girl taking a lift in the van.
Flaws in police story
However, people refused to believe the police theory. The first argument against the cops' version was that the Nepalese men involved in the crime stayed back in the village. On earlier occasions, whenever a Nepal national was involved in a crime he fled the country to the safety of his native village in the interiors of Nepal. This time around, both the men from Nepal – Suraj Singh (26) and Lokjan (19) – stayed back at Halaila village after the rape-murder. This surprised the villagers, who argued that this was impossible. Men from Nepal work in Himachal Pradesh's apple orchards during the harvest season. They are mostly employed in the orchards and apple godowns.
Soon, the protesters were back on streets saying that the government and cops were trying to protect the real culprits and those arrested were not involved in the crime. They also demanded a CBI investigation into the case. Massive protest demonstrations were organised by the BJP and other political parties in Theog and Kotkhai areas of Shimla district, demanding CBI probe.
Succumbing to the public pressure, the state government announced a CBI probe into the case on July 14.
Lockup murder adds twist
A fortnight after the murder and four days after the government ordered a CBI inquiry, the case took a sinister turn on July 18 night when the main accused in the case, Rajender Singh allegedly smashed another accused Suraj Singh's head on the lock-up wall and killed him.
According to police sources, Suraj was planning to turn a government witness in the case. He had told the cops that Rajender was behind the rape-murder and he had nothing to do with it. Infuriated over this, Rajender repeatedly banged Suraj’s head on the wall. Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh had also told mediapersons that Rajender had also crushed Suraj’s private parts.
The cops claimed that they had taken Suraj to a hospital where he was declared brought dead.
The lockup murder added fuel to the fire, triggering a fresh round of violent protests in Kotkhai and the villagers alleged that the witnesses in the case were being bumped off to protect influential people involved in the rape-murder.
A day after the lockup murder, a mob attacked the Kotkhai police station and set it on fire on July 19. Cops even opened fire in the air to disperse the crowd.
The cops who were on night duty were suspended for the lock-up death. A magisterial probe into the killing was also ordered. These actions by the government did not help salvage the image of the Congress regime as the rape-murder became a topic of discussion across the state.
Lockup death turns custody murder
On August 29, the CBI sent shock waves across Himachal Pradesh by arresting Inspector General of Police Zahoor H Zaidi and seven other cops for the custody murder of Suraj, who was one of the six accused in the rape-murder case. Other cops arrested were Manoj Joshi (DSP), Rajender Singh (SHO), Deep Chand Sharma (ASI), Surat Singh (head constable), Mohan Lal (head constable), Rafiq Ali (head constables) and Ranjit Singh (constable).
The cops have been maintaining that Suraj was smashed to death by the pick-up van driver Rajender Singh but the story changed when the CBI investigated into the incident.
According to CBI, Suraj died after the cops assaulted him during questioning. Zaidi was the head of the special investigation team formed by the state government to probe the rape and murder of the girl. Joshi was initially probing the case before the SIT took over investigation. After the custodial death and widespread protests, Zaidi was shifted to IG, welfare and administration.
According to sources, during the probe, one cop who was on sentry duty on the night of July 18 when the custody death occurred had stated that Suraj was not killed inside the lock-up as he heard no noise. He also denied seeing Rajender and Suraj clash inside the lock-up.
During the protests, people had demanded that Suraj’s statement be recorded before a magistrate. They also wanted station sentry Dinesh Sharma, who deposed before the CBI, be given police protection.
Quick to latch on to the opportunity, Opposition leader and former BJP CM Prem Kumar Dhumal alleged that attempts were being made to destroy evidence in the rape-murder case.
Science punctures police theory
The local cops who arrested six persons, including Suraj who died in custody, had claimed that the girl had asked for a lift in Rajender's van and she was raped by the six.
However, science proved their story wrong. The cops had collected the DNA samples of the six accused and those samples did not match with the sample collected from the crime spot. The semen and hair samples collected from the spot were not at all matching with the six persons nabbed in the case. The cops had claimed that the mobile phone locations of the six accused were in the same area of the crime on that fateful evening. However, with the DNA samples not matching, the police story crumbled. Later, the CBI team also revealed that the digital footprints mapped by looking at the six persons' mobile phone records revealed that they were nowhere near the crime scene. Moreover, their argument that they were at some other place when the crime occurred also turned out to be true. The CBI then came to the conclusion that the local cops had framed the six innocent persons in the case to show some progress in the investigation.
This new development damaged the image of the government and police, giving fodder to protesters who were saying that the cops had arrested innocent people to protect influential men.
CBI cracks case, nabs rapist-killer
Nine months after the rape-murder, the CBI on April 13, 2018 arrested a woodcutter, Anil alias Neelu, of Kangra district. The CBI team later revealed that Anil was a habitual offender and was cutting wood in the forest area when he noticed the girl walking alone in the forest area and cornered her. Anil dragged the girl to forest and raped her before strangulating her.
According to CBI officers, the team talked to over 1,000 people and took hundreds of DNA samples to crack the case. They collected samples of hardened criminals, teachers of the school where Rakhi was studying, labourers and villagers spotted in the jungle area.
The CBI's biggest breakthrough in the case was when the DNA sample of a person, who was among hundreds whose blood samples were collected, matched with a DNA sample picked from the crime scene.
First the team talked to his family in Kangra and came to know that one of the family members, Anil Kumar, had a criminal history and was missing.
According to relatives, Anil had been dodging arrest from 2016 after obtaining bail in an attempt to murder case. Blood samples of his entire family were collected and forensic tests proved that the DNA samples from the crime spot matched with this. The sleuths kept a watch on the family and they got another breakthrough when Anil called one of his relatives in the first week of April. The call was tracked down to a farm in Roharu area near Shimla. The CBI team immediately picked up Anil from the farm and took him to Delhi. A test proved that his DNA totally matched with the samples collected from the crime scene and he was arrested and chargesheeted. During investigation, it was found that Anil was using the mobile phones of others to call his relatives.
The CBI also recommended discharge of the six persons arrested by the local cops (One of them was killed in the custody).
Girl's father unhappy
Father of Rakhi was still unhappy over the CBI probe and demanded a reinvestigation into the case. He said some rich people involved in the crime were still untraceable and the CBI is shielding them.
He claimed the crime was not committed at the place where the body was found and it was not done by a single person. He also questioned the custodial killing of Suraj Singh, asking whether he was killed because he knew the truth.
Even though the allegation of BJP and protesters that the government was shielding the real culprits was not proved, the case had a huge impact on the Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections. The CBI finally nailed the habitual offender Anil on April 13, 2018 with scientific evidence but by then the state elections were over on November 9, 2017.
Opposition BJP cashed in on this case to show that law and order was in a bad shape in Himachal Pradesh during the Congress rule. Former BJP CM Dhumal and his team succeeded in sending out this message to voters across the state. The election result was a shocker for Congress as it lost badly to the BJP, which won 44 seats in the 68-member House.
Congress, which had 36 seats in the previous term, managed to win only 21 constituencies. Congress's only solace was that BJP's CM candidate Prem Kumar Dhumal had lost the elections, making way for Jai Ram Thakur to become the CM.