The peaceful hills of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh are witnessing unprecedented public outrage over the ghastly gang-rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl in Kotkhai earlier this month. People’s anger is rising over the alleged gaps in the police probe, forcing the state to hand over the investigation to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
“Gudia” (name changed), the victim, had gone missing after her school hours on 4 July. Her body was found in the forests of Shimla district’s Kotkhai area on 6 July. The autopsy report revealed that she was gang-raped and strangulated to death.
Shaken by the gruesome crime, the hill people identified “Gudia” with “Nirbhaya”. The incident sent shock waves through the otherwise peaceful state and for the first time in many years, shops remained closed on the busy mall of Shimla, which was once the summer capital of the country during British rule.
The issue being sensitive in nature, the state government formed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) headed by the Inspector General of Police, Zahur H. Zaidi on 10 July. While the SIT was investigating the case, confusion and controversy started when photographs of four alleged suspects were uploaded on Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh’s Facebook page on 12 July, only to be deleted within hours.
On 13 July, the police made public the details of the six arrests in the “Gudia” case, including that of two Nepalese men, two local men (one of them from Mandi) and two from Uttarakhand.
This flared up the situation, as the accused were different from those who were shown on CM’s Facebook page. A buzz started making the rounds that the police was trying to “cover up” and shelter some “influential persons” involved in the crime. Following this, people, in huge numbers, went on a rampage in the Theog and Kotkhai belts in Shimla district, demanding a CBI inquiry.
The government conceded to the demand and even filed a plea in the Himachal Pradesh High Court to hand over the inquiry to the CBI at the earliest. But even before the CBI inquiry was ordered by the court in the evening, fuel got added to the fire with the murder of one of the six accused, Suraj (a Nepalese), by a co-accused in the police lock-up in Kotkhai on 19 July.
All this while, the police was blaming the public perception of a cover-up on rumours. But the “custodial death” strengthened people’s belief that something was rotten in the investigation process. As per sources, farm labour Suraj, who got killed in the police lock-up, was turning out to be a key witness based on his earlier statements.
On 20 July, the political parties too jumped into the fray, with the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main Opposition to the ruling Congress, giving a call for a Shimla bandh. The shutdown proved to be completely successful. BJP leaders alleged that there were many loose ends in the police probe and that attempts were being made to remove crucial evidence.
With the public mood turning angrier by the day, Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh has had to issue media advertisements urging the people to maintain peace.
This followed a visit by the deputy commissioner of Shimla, Rohan Chand Thakur and district police chief, Soumya Sambasivan to the areas where the agitation took place. They also met the victim’s parents.
Even though the government transferred some police officials, and ordered a probe under the state’s Special Investigation Team, and even though the CBI is now investigating the case, people’s anger over the alleged cover-up by the state police has spread to others parts of Himachal.
The political overtones are also becoming visible, especially as the Assembly elections are around the corner. The Congress government, which is already facing flak from its own party organisation for being carelessness in handling the crime, stands to lose politically on this particular issue.