Himachal Pradesh, popularly known as the land of gods, has hundreds of temples and holy shrines peopling its serene land. Every god on its soil has a story to offer, a story in which s/he killed a demon and saved the world.
But no god came to the respite of a little girl, as demons raised their heads in this beautiful state, and sullied nature’s bounty as much as the sanctity of the Himachal. They said the “devils brought shame” to the Hilaila village on July 4: it was when a minor girl was gang raped in broad daylight. But the brutes did not stop there; they tortured the innocent girl to death.
The 16-year-old school girl belonged to a poor family in Hilaila village, which falls under the Kotkhai tehsil of Shimla district. She would travel more than five kilometres to reach her school where she studied in Class 10. Her brother would accompany her usually, as the path meandered through thick forest regions.
Raped and killed
On July 4, her brother couldn’t leave the school where a sports meet had been organised. The victim left the school alone, and on her way home she met Rajinder Singh alias Raju, a neighbour who offered the teenager a lift in his Mahindra pick-up vehicle. However, according to the police, there were four others involved: Suraj Singh, Subash Singh Bisht, Lokjan alias Chottu and Deepak alias Deepu.
Protesters at Gumma in Shimla district on Tuesday. [Photo: Indian Express]
All were drunk. The accused, according to the police, soon stopped the vehicle in the middle of the forest and dragged the victim out. They then raped her, and subsequently beat her to death.
When the girl didn’t come back that evening, the family members informed the police. But the concerns were slightly different. Her father feared that she was killed by a bear. In fact, the victim's body was spotted after two days lying in the forest.
It was then that sheer police inaction angered the locals who stormed the police station and put vehicles on fire. As it came light, the gang rape cum murder, still a rare occurrence in the hills of Himachal, sparked protests in other parts of the district. Eventually, the whole state was engulfed in anger, rage and sheer helplessness about what had happened. Moreover, one of the accused, Suraj Singh, died in police custody on July 18, barely days after his arrest in the case.
In fact, public outrage forced the state government to order a CBI probe. The issue also reached the Himachal High Court, which too ordered the CBI to take matters into its own hands. Accordingly, CBI registered two cases: one pertaining to the gang rape and murder of the 16-year-old girl; another related to the custodial death of Suraj Singh on July 18.
The peaceful hill town of Shimla hardly sees the agitations and protests that are common to bustling metropolises such as New Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata. But this time, it was Shimla’s turn to wake up to the horrors that lurk in the corner of its tree-laden arcades, apple orchards and lush green vales.
The minor's gang rape, brutal murder, botched-up police investigation and custodial death of one of the accused, a poor labourer, rocked the Himachal capital as public anger spilled on the roads and streets of this scenic hill town.
Soon, as happens in many parts of the country these days, the protests initiated by ordinary and angered Himachalis were hijacked by the political forces.
Crime and no punishment
While on one hand, crimes like this are still rare in Himachal Pradesh, so is the unprecedented public outrage that has been witnessed in the wake of this gruesome episode of crime and no punishment. Ordinarily, the people here are peace-loving and do not lose their cool easily.
Yet, in this case, the protests did not limit themselves to the Kotkhai town where Hilaila village is located, the epicentre of the outrage, but also sparked fire in many parts of Shimla, besides spreading to the neighbouring districts.
The police could have brought the situation under control had it acted swiftly and honestly against the perpetrators. In fact, it is the lackadaisical attitude, perceived corruption and inaction on the part of the cops, which not only earned a bad name for the state's Congress government but also fuelled the outrage.
Another reason responsible for the mass protests is that the victim belongs to the Himachal’s apple heartland, where the state's richest, educated and most influential people live. Though belonging to a poor family, the fact that the victim belonged to the upper-caste Rajput community, attracted even more voices.
However, the spontaneous protests were eventually, directly or indirectly, fuelled by the political parties. The BJP called for a Shimla shutdown and then organised a number of mass demonstrations at district level. The CPM also joined the bandwagon.
This is the second time in the last 27 years when state's politicians and the government realised the power of the common people, and hopefully would face dire consequences. Though sparked off by a heinous crime, the public outrage aspect of this incident is a reminder of the 1990 protests, when the people from this belt had faced bullets and lathis on the issue of apple prices. The then Shanta Kumar-led BJP government was ousted by the people as a consequence.
People protesting outside Himachal Pradesh Secretariat. [Photo: Press Trust of India]
The Kotkhai gang rape and murder incident has not only put the current Congress government in a delicate situation, but is assuredly going to have several political ramifications too. The Opposition BJP and CPM are leaving no stone unturned to make political capital out of the situation.
Both the BJP and the CPM are using youth and citizen wings to block the roads and create an anti-Congress environment. Even the Himachal Pradesh governor Acharya Devvrat was left fuming as members of left-wing organisations kept knocking at his doors every now and then, demanding justice for the victim and her aggrieved family.
Though the BJP faced criticism on social media as some of its leaders in Chamba and Solan areas were found laughing during the protests which it organised to highlight the failure of the state machinery, the political fallout for the Congress is evident.
Himachal Congress in a soup
The failure of police to crack the case and neglecting it initially has given the Opposition enough ammunition which it will use during the Assembly elections. The apple belt comprises over a dozen Assembly segments and the Opposition, BJP in particular, wants to milk the issue as much in the Assembly polls.
Ripples of political and social disruption as a fall out of the brutal episode of gang rape and murder of a young girl, have shaken up the entire state. The capital Shimla hasn’t seen the mass protests that it is witnessing at the moment. Thanks to social media, the news spread quickly and attracted more eyeballs, compelling angry and frustrated citizens to come out of their homes and join in the demonstrations demanding justice.
Interestingly, most of the protests are led and peopled by young persons between the age 18 and 35 years. It is their concerted and determined action both on social media and on the ground that has kept the issue burning online, but has also joined hands with political protesters. This has compelled the state government to transfer three senior cops, suspend three police station officials and handover the case investigation to the CBI.
Even though the state government swung into action belatedly and tried some damage-control, it was too late and it backfired. Exactly as the Congress-led state government was about to heave a sigh of relief handing over the investigation to the CBI, out of the blue about half a dozen dissident Congress MLAs dropped a letter bomb, demanding the removal of the chief minister of their own government.
What could have been the reason? Have Virbhadra Singh's adversaries joined hands with the cunning Opposition in the BJP, who want to politicise the issue as much as they can before the Assembly elections take place? It would seem so. Why else rather than waiting for the CBI sleuths to solve the case and bring the guilty to book, would the political opposition keep stirring the protest pot, unless they have much to gain from keeping the hill state restless and angry?
It is sad that the grief of the family members has been lost in the political translation of their loss. Who would console the father of the little girl who lost her life to such sickening crueltly?