In a packed courtroom in north Rajasthan’s Bikaner town on Friday (October 8), when district and sessions judge Dhirendra Singh Nagar pronounced three people guilty of snuffing out the life of a minor Dalit girl, a group of women and Dalit group activists present there felt it was a quiet victory for country’s Dalit movement.
Body of the 17-year-old was found in the water tank of the teachers’ training college in Nokha town of Bikaner on March 29, 2016. Her father told police in the FIR that she had told them on March 28 that she had been raped by a teacher.
Presiding over the POCSO court, judge Nagar held physical training instructor Vijendra Singh guilty of kidnapping, raping and abetting the suicide of the minor. The court also pronounced college principal Pragya Prateek Shukla and hostel warden Priya Shukla guilty of abetment to suicide. Arguments on sentencing will be held on Monday (October 11). All the counts that the three have been convicted under are punishable with death.
The teenager wanted to be a teacher like her father. She came to Nokha, 450 km from Trimohi, a nondescript hamlet close to the India-Pakistan border at Gadra Road in Barmer district, to Nokha’s Adarsh Jain Teachers’ Training Institute for Women for doing Basic School Teaching Course (BSTC).
Her death resulted in widespread outrage and criticism for the then Vasundhara Raje-led Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi visited Trimohi to extend his condolences to the family. Rights activists and politicians pressured the police to book the accused under different sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
Kavita Srivastava of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), who was present in the Bikaner court on Friday, said: “The father came from Barmer and lodged an FIR no. 146/2016. The police did not even put POCSO sections. Dalit, women and human rights groups put pressure and sections of POCSO not only of rape but also of institutional responsibility were put. Finally a charge sheet was filed.”
“The Bikaner police had then claimed that [the minor] had committed suicide by drowning, but no water was found in her lungs. It was suggested that she killed herself after being caught in a compromising position with the physical training instructor,” local journalist Anurag Harsh told. “But it emerged that the hostel warden Priya Shukla used to send her to the Physical Training Instructor’s room for cleaning, and she had complained about it to her father several times.”
After the outrage over the case, the state government recommended the investigation be given to the Central Bureau of Investigation but the federal agency did not take it up even two months after the order from the state home department. Subsequently, Bikaner police completed investigation in the case.
“The Bikaner police filed the charge sheet claiming that [the minor] was not murdered but forced to commit suicide. They charged PTI Vijendra Singh, principal Pragya Prateek Shukla and hostel warden Priya Shukla under different sections of Indian Penal Code, POCSO and the SC/ST Act,” added Harsh.
According to Kavita Srivastava, the trial started in 2017 and took four years till conviction. “It got delayed because Rajasthan high court HC temporarily stayed the trial. Finally, when the witness deposition took off, courts closed during 2020 and 2021 due to COVID pandemic. The final arguments began on September 2 and closed on 27,” she said.