Rohtak: Jaswanti’s Hell Hole
Hardnews investigates the horrific underworld of bestiality and sexual abuse inside a government-backed shelter home for children and girls in Haryana. With influential link-ups in this perverse syndicate, is there a massive cover up being engineered from the top?
Sadiq Naqvi Rohtak (Haryana)
Situated in Shri Ganganagar, a middle class neighbourhood in the heart of Rohtak, the palatial ‘Apna Ghar’ (Our Home, ironically!) was meant to be a shelter home for all those who have no place to go. This was a ‘home’ for orphans, the mentally challenged, and those girls who have been thrown out of their homes for insisting they would marry outside their families’ consent— a crime in a land where khaps have a history of organised honour killings. The board on the entrance informs that Apna Ghar has the support of the state and central government. Discreet neighbours, in hushed tones, say that this was a ‘dubious hub of sorts’ with a regular flow of visitors, including district officials, politicians, cops. The neighbours confided that they never met any inmate because they rarely ventured out. Hence, they claim, they had no clue about the horror stories being enacted inside the walls of this closely guarded premises. (Update 1: Recent reports suggest that a massage parlour also functioned inside the premises of the shelter home and that CBI is probing the role of three MLAs who are said to be regular visitors).
The ghastly tale unfolded on May 9 this year when three ‘juvenile’ girls somehow managed to reach Meerut in UP. They were able to contact Childline, a help group in Delhi. Fortunately, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) got into action. It asked its consultants to meet the girls who were lodged in Delhi. Thus emerged the narratives of an organised underworld of bestiality, sex abuse and brutality inside this government-backed shelter of home for children and girls.
What the children narrated was indeed horrific. Among other gory details, they complained that they were kept for days without food, routinely beaten up for no reason by Jaswanti Devi, the much-awarded warden of Apna Ghar, and that her son-in-law and others were sexually abusing the inmates, who were forced to ‘perform’ inside the shelter home.
The details are so gory that Vinod Kumar Tikoo, member, NCPCR, after hearing the initial story, decided to immediately rush to Rohtak to carry out a surprise inspection. Another member of NCPCR, Dinesh Laroia, too, was asked to reach Rohtak, the hometown and constituency of Haryana Chief Minister Bhoopinder Singh Hooda.
The raid exposed a can of dirty dealings and organised exploitation of children, including girls, the mentally challenged and teenaged/adult girls. The administration, the police, the state government, which had earlier awarded Jaswanti Devi, continued to feign ignorance; not a single top official from the city has been punished or transferred – the top brass has been left untouched.
The Apna Ghar scandal is nothing but a massive, diabolical cover up. Why?
So widespread is this shadow of complicity, fear and silence that even the neighbours feigned ignorance and came up with amazing excuses. “I have shifted to this place recently,” said one of them. “We never met Jaswanti Devi. I used to be in office the whole day,” remarked another. “Why are you involving us? Ask the police,” said another.
Clearly, the regular flow of visitors to Apna Ghar, which included cops, officials and reportedly even politicians, has intimidated the neighbours and inmates alike. So much so, that when the Punjab and Haryana High Court sent a team of lawyers accompanied by police to the shelter home to record statements, the children were reluctant to disclose anything. It was apparent that they were terrified by the police. “They pointed to the presence of police with us,” a lawyer member of the team told Hardnews. Asked an activist, “Why are children and girls so terrified of
Jaswanti, now in CBI custody, still appears unfazed. She was seen smiling and relaxed when she was brought to the Rohtak district court on July 13, 2012. She even told the media that if she opens her mouth many powerful people will be in trouble. “Sab yahan laddoo khaane aate the,” (Everyone used to come to Apna Ghar to eat the sweets) she said. Indeed, this story of sleaze, exploitation and perversity was being enacted for a long time right under the nose of the district administration, perhaps, with active complicity of all concerned.
“I was there for a little more than 24 hours. But even in that period, I was sure that something was terribly wrong about the place,” said Meghna, 25, (name changed), an insurance executive based in Rohtak. She would know. She was brought to Apna Ghar as an inmate three years ago. “Once you enter, you can’t open your mouth without the permission of Jaswanti Devi, leave alone go out,” she said. Among other stories, she told the story of how a 15-year-old girl was missing her home and crying when Jaswanti barged in and attacked her brutally with a scissor. “Jaswanti hit her with the scissor below the eye. It made a deep gash. She bled profusely. Even while the girl suffered, Jaswanti pushed her to the ground and put her feet on her chest. The girl kept crying in pain,” says Meghna.
Meghna landed in Apna Ghar after she had a tiff with her family. “The local chief of a leading Hindi daily told me that I could go there and seek temporary shelter. All kinds of things happen there, I was told, so I should remain aloof,” she recalls. Her apprehensions proved correct when she saw the torture and abuse first hand. “Inmates told me that Jaswanti, her daughter Simmi and others, including men, would beat them routinely, strip them, and compel them to become naked. They would even insert sticks and sharp objects in their private parts,” says Meghna.
“One morning, a 15-year-old girl was sent in a jeep to “fetch vegetables”. When she returned, it seemed that something terribly wrong has been done to her. The fear and horror was writ large on her face,” says a local lecturer who was sent to Apna Ghar in September 2010 by then Superintendent of Police in Rohtak, Satheesh Balan. “I stayed there for two days. I tried enquiring about the state of affairs. But when I tried speaking to the kids, I was always stopped by the adult women,” she says. “Jaswanti would get angry, they would tell me.” She was then made to sleep separately. Next morning, she was sent off to another ‘home’ adjacent to the building. “I tried going back but they would not allow me in. Nobody could enter or leave without Jaswanti’s permission,” she says.
Sources in the SP’s office confirmed that there were complaints that something was not right inside the shelter home. “There were rumours and oral complaints from some policemen. Even locals and activists complained about the murky goings-on at the shelter house. But there was nothing concrete,” Balan told Hardnews on phone. Balan is currently posted as SP in Bhiwani, Haryana.
Hardnews dug out crucial information on the threads which finally exposed this hell-hole. “Balan was in Srinagar on leave when a friend of his called him asking for help,” a source close to Balan informed this reporter. A girl was being threatened by her family and in-laws because she wanted to divorce her husband. The senior cop is said to have called the local police inspector and asked him to drop the girl at Apna Ghar. Next evening, Balan’s friend called him up again to tell him that he has made a terrible mistake by sending her off to this particular shelter home. “You have sent her to a bigger hell,” the friend apparently told the SP. “Jaswanti has invited her parents and in-laws to the shelter house. The very people who were threatening her,” he was told.
Balan asked the inspector to get her out from Apna Ghar. He ordered an enquiry against Jaswanti and pressed local intelligence sleuths on the job to investigate what was wrong. He made a plan to depute two women constables into the shelter home posing as girls who have run away from their homes. However, the plan did not materialise. “When Jaswanti heard of the enquiry she came to the SP’s office to meet Balan. She was sent off without a meeting,” the source informed Hardnews.
“For the first two months I had a good impression of Jaswanti Devi. Police officials told me that she has helped the administration in tough situations. My perception changed thereafter. I even told Shakti Vahini, an NGO in Delhi, to stop referring children and women to this shelter home,” says a former top cop.
Others in the administration are of the opinion that the police top brass should have acted urgently and fast to nip this horror story in the bud. “Any officer who makes such claims should come out publicly and disclose them,” says a top police official of the Rohtak range.
Something terrible and savage was happening in Apna Ghar. This was an open secret. “I went to the Inspector General’s (IG) office and complained that girls were living in sub-human conditions and they were not allowed to meet their relatives or parents,” says Meghna. She recalls that a lady sub-inspector of the police named Sushila (who was present in the IG’s office) intimidated her. “Sushila told me that I was a liar and Jaswanti was doing a great job. There will be problems for me if I file this complaint, she threatened,” says Meghna.
“We met the IG a few days before the raid. We told him there were problems and there was a need for serious investigations,” says Savita, an activist of the Janwadi Mahila Samiti.
Jaswanti and her accomplices acted like hardened goons with influential connections. Locals and officials revealed that Jaswanti wields considerable clout within sections of the police, civil administration and local political brass. She had reportedly campaigned for one of the MLA candidates. The state government has bestowed several awards on her, even the newly constituted Indira Gandhi Nari Shakti Puraskar. She was a member of the Juvenile Justice Board, the Child Welfare Committee and other important bodies. Even after the expose, there was reluctance on the part of the administration to strip her of the awards and positions. “I sent the recommendation. I forwarded what I received from other officials, in this case a programme officer who visited the shelter home from another district,” says Vikas Gupta, Deputy Commissioner, Rohtak.
“We did not have any information or else we would have definitely acted. We arrested seven people and also recovered missing children. You should understand, for the police it is difficult to enter such institutions,” says Vivek Sharma, SP, Rohtak. “She was seemingly doing good work. If we impose laws strictly then no good work can be done. You and me sitting in this office must also be violating some law,” says Vikas Gupta.
However, the NCPCR report categorically states that the log book showed that there were regular inspections by the district administration. “This was a ‘showcase NGO’. There were regular inspections,” says Gupta.
Interestingly, one Angrez Kaur, a former programme officer of the child welfare department, who recently retired, has since been recruited by Jaswanti in her NGO. Kaur too feigned ignorance and told NCPCR that everything was okay in the shelter home; but she could not produce an inspection report. The NCPCR report is surprisingly silent on the role of police, barring the mention of the presence of local Station House Officer Bhim Singh Ranga during the raid. The report puts the blame squarely on Jaswanti. It was she who would manipulate in such a manner that no official could talk to the inmates in private.
Described as a “psychopath” and “sadist” by lawyers looking into the case, Jaswanti would do crazy things, the inmates revealed to the NCPCR. She would give intoxicants to the girls and make them perform lesbian acts for her own pleasure, says the NCPCR report. She would hang the kids upside down from the fan and beat them with a bamboo stick. The few mothers in the shelter home had to beg endlessly for milk for their children, while others survived on severely restricted food rations. The children were never sent to school on the pretext that the ‘school atmosphere’ was bad.
“She started her career in my NGO in 1992-93 and worked on an honorarium of Rs 600. She was a typist and came from the Red Cross,” says Jas Phool, a social activist based in Mahim, 30km from Rohtak. “She worked with me for six months.” “All I can recall is that she used to come to work on a cycle and she was a homely sort of lady.” Activists informed that her “personal life” has been riddled with trouble. She married a man who already had five children. “She cried when I brought up this issue. She was lecturing girls on morality,” says Savita.
This perverse syndicate was run as a family enterprise with Jaswanti, her daughter Simmi, son-in-law Jai Bhagwan, brother Jaswant, cousin Sheela and driver Satish. They would force the children to perform oral sex and sexual acts. They reportedly rubbed colours on their private parts on the day of Holi, and made the girls go naked while they videographed them. The ‘good looking’ girls were sent as waitresses to ‘private parties’ where they would be molested and exploited; when they returned, ‘their earnings’ were snatched by Jaswanti. She would make the children steal from temples. The girls were sexually exploited by ‘outsiders’ including policemen, as the High Court Enquiry Committee report reveals. Some police officials were reportedly regular visitors of the shelter home.
New born male children were usually sold and mentally challenged destitute inmates were often abandoned on secluded spots for they were treated as liability. Girls who got pregnant were forced to abort. Objects were reportedly pushed into their private parts.
Jaswanti would call the inmates ‘randis’ and ‘vaishyas’. Desperate, married girls who came for shelter after being ostracised by their families were treated even more shabbily. “She came to meet me when I refused to go back to the shelter home. She said all kind of things about my character, that this is Haryana and not America, and that I was a vagabond,” says a college lecturer who was once an inmate. “When I told the parents of other inmates about the condition in Apna Ghar, Simmi threatened me,” says Meghna. Nothing moved till the NCPCR raid on May 9. When the four member team, which also comprised two consultants of NCPCR, reached Apna Ghar at 8.30 pm, to their utter disbelief, they found that Bhim Singh Ranga, Station House Officer of the local police station was already there with Jaswanti. He feigned ignorance and said that he was there to collect photographs of the missing girls. This was a blatant lie— the same day a police team from Rohtak was dispatched to bring back the girls from Delhi. “Ranga enjoyed a special friendship with Jaswanti. They are very close,” informed a local.
Ironically, even the information of the raid was already known to Jaswanti. “Only top officials of the district administration were informed about the raid and that too 20 twenty minutes before we reached the spot,” Tikoo told Hardnews. “Ramesh Chandra Bidhan, Additional District Commissioner, Rohtak, is said to be under the scanner because he was allegedly in touch with Jaswanti all through, even during her stint in police custody,” says a source. His call records revealed that he called up Jaswanti thrice when the raid was on.
Surprisingly, Ranga was initially deputed as the investigating officer of the case even when the NCPCR had clearly directed the SP to investigate his presence in the shelter home during the raid. Arrested recently by the high court constituted SIT, he reportedly played a big role in destroying crucial evidence and tampered with computers and other records.
After the raid, there was a concerted attempt to thwart the investigations. “I moved the PIL after I found that there were serious lapses on the part of the administration. Even the medical examinations which should have been done properly under the normal process were being delayed and there were infirmities,” says Utsav Bains, a lawyer in Chandigarh. A proper medical examination was only done after the high court pressed upon the authorities to move on it, or face action. In one of the cases, a girl who was pronounced as medically fit in Rohtak, was found to be pregnant when she was checked again in Bhiwani.
Such has been the transparent apathy of the Congress-led government in Haryana that the Child Development and Health Minister, Geeta Bhukkal, declared that Jaswanti has not been pronounced guilty as yet; besides, she cast aspersions on the character of the girls in Apna Ghar. “I don’t want to use that word but you know what kind of girls come to Rohtak from NCR and other adjoining places,” she said in a TV debate.
Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda has maintained that strict action will be taken; yet, his stance seems consistently indifferent. When local activists led by CPM leader Brinda Karat marched to his residence in Rohtak as a mark of protest, they were lathicharged. “He told us, you should go and apologise to my ageing mother. Anything could have happened to her because of your protest,” Savita told Hardnews.
There were obstacles created in the interrogation process as well. A senior investigating officer had to reportedly face multiple hurdles during the interrogations. “I still found the way out,” this SIT official told Hardnews. “Jaswanti was very choosy about what she told us when we grilled her,” the official said. “Now that the CBI has taken over the case, I think they will come out with new facts.” The SIT was reprimanded by the high court for failing to produce the photo album of Simmi’s marriage which may have some clues about her political connections.
The brazen callousness and the apparent cover up continued. After the raid, most of the 103 inmates were scattered in ‘shelter homes’ across Haryana by the district administration even as NCPCR issued categorical instructions that the children are already in a state of trauma and should not be subjected to more ‘punishment’. “This was done to evade proper medical examinations and sabotage investigations,” says a lawyer. “It wasn’t done with any malafide intentions. We did not have enough personnel to take care of so many children. We informed NCPCR about this and they are yet to reply though it has been nearly two months. Nowhere did the NCPCR say that the children should be kept in Rohtak only,” says Vikas Gupta, Deputy Commissioner Rohtak.
“There seems to be a clear pattern in Haryana. There were also brutalities in other shelter homes like the Drona Foundation and Suparna ka Aangan in Gurgaon. We have issued clear instructions to the authorities. We will initiate proceedings,” Tikoo of NCPCR says. “Rehabilitation of children is an urgent issue. No laxity should be allowed in that,” says Bains.
Others point out that the cover up is being engineered from the top. Reportedly, this perverse savagery against children and girls in a shelter home is just one narrative among many. There are too many dirty links involving influential people. And they don’t want their cover to blow up. Inside or outside Apna Ghar.