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Above: The Muzaffarpur shelter home being demolished after it was found that the building had violated the approved plan/Photo: twitter.com/ANI

With the Supreme Court setting a deadline for the CBI to complete its probe in the Muzaffarpur shelter home case, it is now expected that the CBI will be forced to conduct a fair probe

By Neeraj Mishra

There was something maniacal about the man laughing heartily in police custody after being arrested for having raped and killed girls aged between 7 and 17 at, of all places, a shelter home run by him. The picture of the prime accused, Brajesh Thakur, splashed across most newspapers last year with an ear-to-ear grin was perhaps the tipping point for the Supreme Court. The brazenness after the brutality unleashed on the children prompted the apex court to monitor the case and transfer it from Bihar to the POCSO Court in Delhi.

Recently, the CBI, which had taken over the investigations from the Bihar Police late last year, filed a status report in the SC. Its revelations, to say the least, were shocking. Among the findings include one that says 11 girls had been killed in the shelter home run by Thakur and his associate, Shaista Parveen alias Madhu. But equally shocking is the allegation made by the petitioner, Nivedita Jha, that the CBI is going slow and shielding some powerful politicians and officials. Attorney General KK Venugopal, appearing for the CBI, told the SC that the investigations will take time and the CBI is still to decide whether it wants to file separate charge sheets in each case or a collective one. The Supreme Court bench headed by CJI Ranjan Gogoi gave the CBI time till June 3 to complete investigations and file a charge sheet in the POCSO Court.

The CBI revealed that interrogation of Guddu Patel, an employee of Thakur’s NGO, had led to the recovery of bones of young girls from a burial ground. At various stages of the investigation, it has been found that employees of the shelter home run by Thakur in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, had been accomplices in the murder and disposal of bodies of the girls in various places, including a nearby river and burial ground. The shelter home has also been razed in search of bodies inside its premises though there has been no success for the CBI there.

A total of 11 people, including Thakur, a district social welfare board official, and chairman of the district child welfare committee, Dilip Verma, have been made accused in the case. The absconding Verma surrendered on December 18 while Thakur is lodged in Patiala Jail.

The shelter home case is an example of the decaying political ecosystem, particularly in Bihar. Thakur is the archetypal small town social worker-cum-journalist-cum-neta masquerading as a do-gooder and milking government schemes. He had all the handles needed to exploit a system or ingratiate himself with any influential group. He ran a newspaper called Pratah Kamal which gave him access to politicians, bureaucrats and even the state assembly. More importantly, it gave him access to funds released by the social welfare department for running shelter homes—an area where government agencies are not known to put in too much effort.

Thakur started a short-stay shelter home for homeless girls and women. He designed the homes as hostels for young girls lost in life for the time being. It was meant to provide them with stability of tenure, shelter and food till such time as they were able to stand on their feet and get ahead in their lives.

The scheme, run through NGOs, was funded by the central government’s social welfare ministry and monitored through a network of officials at the state and district levels. The quantum of aid was decided based on the work being done by each shelter home and its success in placing women in various walks of life. The audit was done by officials with the detailed reports going right up to the minister in charge in the state capital.

The sordid affair in Muzzaffarpur came to light when a social audit was done by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in April 2018. It reported that at least 34 of the 42 inmates of the NGO Seva Sankalp Evam Vikas Samiti’s shelter homes run by Thakur had been raped and several of them had to undergo abortion. The Nitish Kumar government instituted a police case on May 31 and also ordered the social audit of 16 other shelter homes across the state. But the Opposition led by Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD and Congress raised the issue to a different pitch, forcing Nitish to hand over the case to the CBI which has been investigating the case for the past eight months.

But the twist in the case came when the wife of an accused in the case revealed that the husband of a minister in the Nitish government was a regular visitor at the shelter home and should be investigated. Shiba Kumari, the wife of district child protection officer Ravi Roshan, who had been arrested on August 18, said that Chandeshwar Verma, the husband of state minister for social welfare Manju Verma, should also be investigated. Manju, on her part, has accepted that her husband accompanied her on an inspection of the shelter home but was not a regular visitor.

After an uproar in the Bihar assembly, the minister went further and said that Tejashwi Yadav might be behind the allegations against her husband and it was all politically motivated.

But what petitioner Jha has been alleging in the Supreme Court without taking any names is something similar. She maintains that the CBI, after first ascertaining the facts in the case at great speed and arresting the 11 accused, has since been deliberately going slow as it is now trying to protect the identity of powerful people in the Nitish government.

Despite what Venugopal told the apex court about paucity of time and enormity of the investigation, the Court looks determined to get to the bottom of the case and the message seems to have gone down the line that no accused should be protected. It now depends on the CBI to conduct a fair probe, file supplementary charge sheets in the POCSO Court and produce an honest status report in the apex court, sparing none.

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