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In Muzaffarpur’s shelter home, a web of silence shielded sexual abuse

An alarming number of people knew about the goings-on in Brajesh Thakur’s short-stay home for destitute girls. Here’s why they kept quiet.

india Updated: Aug 09, 2018 09:32 IST
Snigdha Poonam
Snigdha Poonam
Hindustan Times, Muzaffarpur
Muzaffarpur,Muzaffarpur rape,Bihar shelter home rape
The sealed campus of Muzaffarpur short stay home where girls were alleged sexually abused, on the left is the office and printing press of Hindi vernacular, Pratha Kamal, in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, India on Friday, August 03, 2018.(Santosh Kumar / Hindustan Times)

Divesh Sharma has a simple answer for why he didn’t speak up about the sexual abuse of minor girls in a place meant to “shelter” them. “I have a family. I am not Superman. You know the might of this system.” He may not be a superhero, but as the assistant director of Muzaffarpur’s social welfare department, he was supposed to protect the 46 girls who lived in Balika Grih, a shelter home for girls found lost, abandoned by their families or rescued from sex work. Thirty four of them had been sexually abused by a network of men including the owner of the NGO that ran the short-stay home and government officers in charge of their welfare. Following an audit of Bihar’s shelter homes by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) that singled out Balika Grih for “grave instances” of sexual violence, the girls have revealed chilling details in the court of being beaten up, confined, drugged and raped.

Not a hint of this torture was sensed by Sharma who visited the shelter home once in three months as a member of the district inspection committee, a team comprising the district magistrate, the civil surgeon and the child protection officer besides him. “Why would one enter the place with negative perception,” he explained, signing papers in his musty office in the social welfare section of the town’s administrative headquarters. Sharma had a strong reason to enter Balika Grih with negative perception. In August 2017, when he arrived in Muzaffarpur to assume charge, he had heard stories. “In my predecessor’s time, people told me, the [social welfare] minister’s husband had visited Balika Grih,” he said. His predecessor didn’t report this unauthorised visit to his superiors. Sharma, too, thought it best to keep quiet.

“What happened before I took over is not my concern,” he said. He looked to his left and then right before speaking again. “You tell me: is the minister under me or above me?” He said it was impossible for him to raise an alarm while being “in the system. To do that, I would have had to leave this job.” Sharma said he felt a lot of angst, but he deals with it by writing poems rather than blowing the whistle. “I was crying when I went to rescue them after the TISS report,” he said. (The girls have since been transferred to other shelter homes in Bihar.) Sharma said people should cut him some slack because it wasn’t his job alone to figure out the goings-on inside the shelter home. “Everyone went for inspection: women’s commission, UNICEF, juvenile justice monitoring committee, state child protection committee, district child protection committee.”

Police personnel with Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) team investigate the government run shelter-home after the issue of alleged sexual abuse, in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, India on Wednesday, August 01, 2018. (Santosh Kumar / Hindustan Times)

Can of worms

In late July, the Balika Grih investigation was handed over to the CBI. By then, the local police had arrested 10 of the eleven people named in their FIR, including the owner of the NGO, Brajesh Thakur, and seven women employees of the shelter home. The one still absconding happened to be the chairman of the district child welfare committee, Dilip Kumar Verma, a man known to the girls as “head sir” who often allegedly “stripped” and “spanked” them. Those arrested for sexually abusing the inmates include a member of the child welfare committee, Vikas Kumar, and the district child protection officer, Ravi Roshan.

Roshan’s wife, Shibhi Kumari, has alleged that he is being framed to “save some big people.” She has claimed that the first name of Rajesh Roshan, a close associate of Brajesh Thakur, was replaced in the investigating officer’s case diary, by her husband’s. The officer, Jyoti Kumari, has explained that when the said girl was shown photographs of men who frequented the shelter home, she identified Ravi Roshan as her abuser.

Ravi Roshan’s wife insists that he never went there alone and he was a well-wisher of the inmates. “He even made a recommendation that CCTV cameras be installed in the building,” she said, her eyes flooding with tears. She has claimed that the social welfare minister Manju Verma’s husband, Chandeshwar Verma, “frequently visited” the Balika Grih and “spent long hours” with the girls. “My husband never discussed work with me. But one day, when he came back home, he told me that the minister’s husband had come with a few people, but he had ordered everyone including him to wait downstairs while he went up. He also told me that the minister’s husband wasn’t a nice man.” She can’t explain, however, why Ravi Roshan did not report Chandeshwar Verma’s private meetings with the girls. “He was a small officer and perhaps he didn’t want to take on such powerful people.” Manju Verma has refuted the allegations against her husband. The minister said that he went to the Balika Grih only once and was accompanied by her. “Let CBI probe the matter. If found guilty, my husband will be punished. I will get him hanged. I myself will resign and withdraw from politics,” she said.

In police remand, Ravi Roshan revealed other incriminating details of the shelter home’s operation that he had previously buried. “Ravi Roshan said everything happened according to his [Brajesh Thakur’s] directions. Finances were monitored by Thakur, including annual audit where the money shown as being spent had never in reality been spent,” according to the supervision report of Muzaffarpur’s police.

The sealed door of Muzaffarpur short stay home after CBI took over the case where girls were alleged sexually abused, in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, India on Friday, August 03, 2018. (Santosh Kumar / Hindustan Times)

No one complained

Every year, Bihar’s social welfare department awarded Thakur’s NGO, Seva Sankalp Evam Vikas Samiti, Rs 40 lakh to run Balika Grih. “The system was in place in Muzaffarpur but some aberration had happened,” said a senior bureaucrat in the department at his office in Patna. Over the five years of Balika Grih’s existence, he said, social welfare officers must have gone there on at least 60 inspections. “No one said anything. Not a whisper. What action do you expect from us when no one is complaining.” He argues that his department deserves the credit for having commissioned TISS to conduct an audit even though it was only an optional move. “And for the fact that of the 110 shelter homes audited, grave concerns were raised regarding only a few,” he said.

“The residents’ inalienable right to life was in question at certain institutions,” noted the TISS report. The details it provided amounted to as much. In Munger’s Boys Children Home, a “3-inch-long scar on a boy’s cheek” from the beatings given by the superintendent when he refused to cook for him; “badly bruised knuckles” in a government-run observation home in Araria (“This place should be called destruction home instead of correction home,” said one of the boys to the TISS team), a “mentally ill girl locked up” at a short-stay home in Munger, and at another short-stay home in Patna, a girl’s “suicide after failing to cope with the violent atmosphere of the place”.

“No state can claim that it is a crime-free state,” said the senior bureaucrat in the department’s defense. He also explained why one of Thakur’s NGOs was recommended by his department for a contract to run a shelter home for beggars weeks after TISS had submitted the first draft of its report. “The recommendation is made by a different wing under the department, the NGO selection committee. We only received the print-ready report from TISS on 31 May. On 8 June, the selection was cancelled.” More importantly, he added, “Before the FIR, Brajesh Thakur was supposed to be a good man.”

The Assistant Director of Muzaffarpur’s Social Welfare Department, Divesh Sharma had heard about the sexual abuse at Balika Grih before his tenure, but kept quiet. (Santosh Kumar / Hindustan Times)

A good man?

It is a doubtful claim considering that it took the local police only a few days to put together pages and pages of disturbing details about the life and career of the 50-year-old man at the centre of the scandal. Thakur’s influence, their supervision report says, “spanned the worlds of politics, bureaucracy, crime, police and media.” Thakur ran several NGOs dedicated to several categories of social service, from fighting AIDS to promoting handicrafts, in several districts of Bihar. Many of them existed only on paper. He didn’t hold a post in any.

On March 20, the social welfare officers had inspected another shelter home Thakur ran in Muzaffarpur, one supposed to skill adult women, and noted the presence of eleven residents. On 30 June, Divesh Sharma filed an FIR with the local police about the disappearance of all of them. On 1 August, the police raided the Swadhar Grih and found a bunch of suspicious objects including condoms and sexual stimulants.

“It ran only on paper,” said Jyoti Kumari of the women’s police station. “We have been told the 11 women were placed inside the home only for the purposes of the inspection.” Together, his 11 NGOs earned an estimated Rs 2.5 crore in endowments from the Bihar government. “The trio of [social welfare] department’s senior officers, workers and bankers helped him in this,” notes the police report. Thakur also made money through government advertisements awarded to his three newspapers that have only ever been seen in government offices. He was a member of the press advisory committee of the state assembly and the press accreditation committee.

Police inquiries reveal his earnings came through “newspaper advertisement, NGO fraud, sex racket.” With his “unlimited wealth,” he is said to have bought property in “Delhi, Samastipur, Darbangha, Betia, Patna” and “grabbed” a few flats in Patna “through muscle power.” His “actual business”, according to their report, was supplying “ underage, abandoned, helpless, poor girls to officers to wield influence, win tenders.”

Thakur has told the police that he has no “connection with the shelter home or anyone working there.” As their report wrly notes, “his claims are miles away from truth.” He is alleged to have physically and sexually abused the girls himself. “Brajesh Sir kicked me in my abdomen. He also did the same with a pregnant girl,” says one of the girls in her testimony. “Brajesh Sir used to scratch me down there until blood came out,” says another. Some mention Thakur doing “bad things” with them.

His lawyer and family remained unavailable for comment. His daughter, Nikita Thakur, has previously complained in interviews that Brajesh Thakur has been branded guilty even before the trial begins.

“There is a general feeling in society here that if you are running a home for girls, you must be involved in dirty business,” said one of his close relatives who didn’t want to be named. “ As a part of this society, I have had the same suspicions.” Why didn’t he intervene? “ Who knows what anyone is up to. These days you can’t even vouch for your children. The whole world knows that I had separated myself from him.”

Why didn’t anyone in Muzaffarpur speak out?

Why so quiet

The fear factor keeps coming up. Speaking to the police after his arrest, Thakur’s neighbours said they knew enough to be concerned. “We used to hear the girls’ cries at night; it seemed as if they were being subjected to torture,” said one. “Brajesh Thakur is of dabang (overpowering) character that’s why no one had dared ask him what was going on protested against it,” said another.

“This man was very powerful. The impression was that everything at Balika Grih happened under government’s protection,” said Anand Patel, a school-education activist who has been trying to mobilize locals to protest since the news broke out. “It hasn’t been easy. The most outspoken members of Muzaffarpur society have remained quiet. For the first few days, the local newspapers didn’t even mention his name in their reports about the case.” Patel said that he tried reaching out to the town’s cultural and literary organisations which actively support every other noble cause. “They, too, are beholden to him for the donations they have been receiving from him for years.” This is a city, said Sangita Sahi, a local lawyer, known for taking a stand. “In Muzaffarpur, there is an active civil society. There is a press conference about every newsworthy event in the world,” she said. “People took out candle marches for Nirbhaya. But on this matter, even the feminist groups kept mum. I have trying to rouse the women into action: rotary club, mahila manch, inner wheel, student leaders.”

At the core of Brajesh Thakur’s clout is the unshakable support of people who belong to his dominant Bhumihar caste. “The caste angle” is the strongest reason, said Sangita Sahi, why the city known for making noise has remained silent. “Meetings are being held and discussions happening across homes in Muzaffarpur. The consensus among Bhumihaar samaaj seems to be that he has been framed,” said his relative. “But they are not saying anything yet, We are all waiting for the judiciary to do its work,” he added.

Not everyone is the community is being patient, though. “These girls didn’t come to Balika Grih from Ayodhya or Panchavati. The fact is they were picked up from the streets and from the red-light areas,” said Balwant Mishra, coordinator for the district’s Bhumihaar-Brahmin Ekta Manch. “I have faith in law,” he added. That doesn’t stop him from pronouncing the Bhumihaar-Brahmin verdict on the matter: “Brajesh Thakur is innocent. He is a good man.”

No matter how outnumbered, a small group of concerned citizens continue to mobilize the locals against what Anand Patel called a case of “government-sponsored sexual abuse”. On 2 August, about 50 protesters, including activists, student leaders and ordinary people, took out a candle march through the streets of Muzaffarpur. “I should add that I am from the same caste,” said Sangita Sahi, who participated in the march, “but what happened at Balika Grih was so beastly that I have to speak out.”

First Published: Aug 09, 2018 08:58 IST