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Mamata waits for news of husband: Accused in Shimla gangrape killed in custody

On Wednesday, a 2,000-people-strong mob set Kotkhai police station on fire and pelted stones at security personnel as the locals feel that the government is trying to shield the culprits in the rape case.

cities Updated: Jul 21, 2017 00:28 IST
Gaurav Bisht
Gaurav Bisht
Hindustan Times, Hilaila (Kotkhai)
People protest during the 'Shimla Bandh' and demand justice for teenage school girl who was raped and murder at Kotkhai, in Shimla on Thursday. (PTI Photo)

Ringed by snow-capped mountains and scenic apple orchards, the small village of Hilaila in Himachal Pradesh’s Kotkhai is breathtaking in its beauty.

But on Thursday, the village of 15 families is shrouded in grief as locals trekked up a hill to the forest hut of 22-year-old Mamata Singh.

Mamata’s husband, Suraj Singh, was an accused in the gangrape and murder of a 16-year-old local schoolgirl but died in police custody in a scuffle early on Wednesday, sparking violent protests across the hill state where such gory crimes are unheard of.

Mamata still doesn’t know of Suraj’s death but is distraught that her 29-year-old husband hasn’t returned home.

“Can you tell me something about my husband? Where is he? No one says anything,” a teary Mamata asks. “I don’t know whether he is dead or alive, our children ask me about his whereabouts every day.” Her two children, five-year-old Samir and seven-year-old Asha, hover outside their hut under a thick canopy of deodar trees.

But the agony is giving way to a unlikely bonhomie. Sitting next to Mamata and consoling her is Kesari Devi, the 62-year-old mother of Rajender Singh, another accused in the gang-rape who police says killed Suraj inside Kotkhai police station.

Kesari Devi, lives in a neighbouring hut and doesn’t believe her son killed either the schoolgirl or Suraj. “I have said it a million times earlier and will say it again, my son is innocent, the police are indicting him,” she cries.

The two women are united in fear and they worry every day that the police will come for them. Mamata says Suraj was a hard-working daily wage earner in a nearby orchard and was in mourning over the death of their five-year-old daughter Kaali last Diwali.

Mamata, who married Suraj seven years ago, says she visited him in custody soon after his arrest. “He did not say anything but I know he was being tortured… we are yet to come out of mourning. If my husband doesn’t return, how will I fend for my family?”

The gangrape of the schoolgirl has rocked Himachal Pradesh that has been swept by angry protests by people who say the police did a shoddy job and that the government was trying to shield the real culprits. On Wednesday, a 2,000-people-strong mob set Kotkhai police station on fire and pelted stones at security personnel.

The girl went missing on her way home on June 4 and her naked body was found in a ditch near Hilaila two days later. Police say Suraj and others abducted the girl and then raped her, before killing her. But Kesari Devi says the police version of events doesn’t add up.

“Had my son killed the girl, why would he throw her body in a ditch so close to our house?” she asks.

Suraj was picked up by the police along with five others on June 13 after pressure mounted on police and the state government. The others who were arrested included Ashish Chauhan, son of an apple orchardist, Rajender Singh, a van driver, Deepak, Surat Singh Bisht, a resident of Pauri Garhwal, and two Nepali nationals, Lok Jan and Suraj Singh.

Kesari says her son took her to Shimla for a medical checkup a day after the girl’s body was found in the forest. Waving a bunch of medical reports and prescriptions, she said, “I have cancer, I am a heart patient. I had visited Indira Gandhi Medical hospital for a checkup with Raju (Rajender) a day before he was summoned by the police.”

Mamata says her parents, as well as those of Suraj, live in Nepal and that she hasn’t visited them in five years. “The owners of the orchard are very kind. If Suraj was a bad man, why didn’t he commit any crime all these years?”

First Published: Jul 20, 2017 17:40 IST