Despite protest at DCP office, Delhi Police refuse FIR into suspicious death of 17-year-old

On 26 October, over seventy people staged a protest outside the office of Vijayanta Arya, the deputy commissioner of police for North West Delhi, in response to the police’s failure to register an FIR into the alleged rape and murder of a 17-year-old domestic worker at her employer’s house in Model Town. Nabeela Paniyath For The Caravan
28 October, 2020

“It is very scary, something like this could happen to anyone,” Urmila Chauhan, a member of the civil-society collective Women Against State Repression and Sexual Violence, or WSS, said. She was among over seventy people from various students’ and women’s organisations, who staged a protest outside the office of Vijayanta Arya, the deputy commissioner of police for North West Delhi, on 26 October. The protest was in response to police’s failure to register a first-information report against a complaint alleging the rape and murder of a 17-year-old domestic worker at her employer’s house in the posh Model Town locality. “The women who do domestic work are among the most vulnerable in the country, if they don’t register a case now, it will set a very dangerous precedent,” Urmila added.

The 17-year-old resided in the nearby Gurmandi locality, situated at the edge of a drainage canal in the area. Most inhabitants of their locality are from Dalit and lower-caste communities and the teenager was from the Nishad community, which is considered an Extremely Backward Class in Uttar Pradesh and a backward class in Delhi. The 17-year-old had joined work on 25 September at the house of a senior citizen named Drupadi Bansal. On 4 October, within days of joining Bansal’s employment, the teenager called her foster mother Kusum to say that Drupadi had asked her asked to sleep in the driver’s room. “I don’t want to go there,” Kusum recalled her foster daughter had said. “Please take me with you, I don’t like it here.”

It was the last time they spoke. Just hours later, Kusum was summoned to the Bansal home, told over the phone that her foster daughter had locked herself up in a room. But when she reached, Kusum found the 17-year-old hanging from a ceiling fan in the driver’s room. Kusum accused the Bansal family and the driver of rape and murder. But the officials from the Model Town police station ruled the death a suicide without waiting for the results of the forensic examination, and then forced the family into a hurried cremation without letting them observe their funeral rituals. Three days after her death, the family members and Kusum’s neighbours protested outside the Bansals’ home to demand an FIR. They said the police responded by brutally beating and threatening them inside Model Town police station. The police denied all allegations of impropriety.

On 16 October, the family had protested outside the Model Town police station with student activists. Once again, the police detained the family and activists inside the station. They also detained me with the protesters as I was reporting from the site at the time. The police then brutally assaulted me and other student activists, led by the assistant commissioner of police, Ajay Kumar. Ten days later, on 26 October, family members, neighbours and student activists assembled outside yet another police building—the DCP’s office this time—to demand an FIR. None of them appeared undeterred by the previous police excesses.

The protest started at 2.30 pm, with the seventy-strong group from a small space between the DCP’s office and Deep Market in Ashok Vihar. The police had placed barricades on either side of the office’s entry gates and had blocked off traffic from one side of the adjacent KC Goel Marg. The protesters and the family continuously raised slogans against the Delhi Police. As “Delhi Police Murdabad” and “Shame” rang through the air, the police recorded videos from behind the crowd. Unlike the brutal crackdown faced by the family on the last two occasions, the police did not respond with violence on their third protest, perhaps deterred by the larger crowd and the more visible media presence.

The protest brought an array of gender-rights activists. Philomena, an activist from the National Federation of Indian Women, remarked on the parallels between this case and the incident in Hathras. “Over time, we have always seen such cases like this never receive any attention at all,” Philomena said. She told she had been an activist since 1963, and saw such extreme instances of violence as a symptom of larger institutional problems. “Very few governments have done anything for the protection of women, and in some cases, the police is the worst offender, very rarely do they go by what’s in the law,” Philomena said.

Eventually, the protestors sat down in front of the barricade and started explaining details of the case to curious people who passed by while also raising occasional slogans. “Domestic workers have to go through a lot,” Urmila told me. She said that their poor economic status, and most often lower-caste backgrounds as well, allowed many to exploit them sexually. “There are easily millions of domestic workers in this country, they are extremely important, and still there is no law to protect them? Every day someone or the other always passes a lewd remark, or says something disgusting, it has been normalized.”

Urmila told me she joined the WSS and the All India Kamwali Union—a national organisation for domestic workers—after her own experiences as a domestic worker. “Whose responsibility is this girl?” Urmila asked. “One would assume that it should be the family where she was employed, right? Why aren’t they here fighting for justice? But everyone has washed their hands off her. Whatever cases I have seen from the police, they have never sided with us.” However, Urmila did say that the police changes their tone as soon as elections close in. Another group of domestic workers, all of whom wished to remain anonymous out of fear that they might lose their jobs, said that they came to show support to the family. “This could happen to any of us and we would be as powerless,” a woman among them said. “The police are taking advantage of them, just because they are poor.”

Ashutosh Kumar Mishra, one of the lawyers representing Kusum, told me that “it was tedious having to protest every step of the legal criminal process.” Mishra added, “If it is an allegation of rape and murder, they have to at least register the FIR, it is disgusting that they are not willing to even acknowledge what the family is going through.” It is a well-established principle of Indian criminal procedure the police have to mandatorily register an FIR in case a complaint discloses a cognisable offence—such as rape and murder.

“When a 17-year-old girl is dead at her employers house under suspicious circumstances, that should be enough to register a case,” Rajveer Kaur, the president of the students’ group Bhagat Singh Ekta Manch, who was also detained on the 16 October, told me. “When a single piece of glass breaks from the employer’s house, they will file dozens of FIRs and beat them up, but they cannot file an FIR for this?” Kaur was referring to the police violence against Kusum’s family after the protested outside the Bansals’ house on 7 October, during which the protesters had broken some pots outside their house and were subsequently thrashed by the police.

Along with Rajveer, Firoz Alam, Prabhakar and Ravinder Singh, who were also detained by the police on 16 October, were also present at the protest. “A sub inspector from Dwarka, who was suspended for sexually harassing, so besides this, we have a very clear picture of the Delhi Police,” Rajveer said. He was referring to Puneet Grewal, a sub-inspector posted with the Delhi Police special cell who had been arrested days before the protest for allegedly molesting four women.  “They have played a big role in cracking down on dissent in this city over the last five years. They have put the UAPA against every protestor or anyone who fights for what is right.”

While the men in uniform were initially silent spectators, at around 4.15 pm, an inspector approached the protesters and told them that they would be sending someone to negotiate with them. The crowd remained skeptical. After the announcement Kusum and her family made their way to the front of the crowd. “They can keep hitting us and beating us, but we always fight for our daughter,” Kusum told me. “We are asking the police for an investigation, but how much more will they put us through before finally filing an FIR?” Kusum then broke down, and eventually rejoined the activists in raising slogans against the police.

Over three hours into the protest, at around 6 pm, KSN Subudhi, the ACP of Ashok Vihar police station, arrived in a jeep to negotiate. The jeep stopped behind the police barricades, and a delegation of protesters, which included Kusum and her family, Ashutosh and a few student activists, went to speak with Subudhi. The ACP initially asked for 15 days to conduct an investigation. He refused to register an FIR. The students brought up the assault and harassment faced by the family and demanded action against the ACP Ajay Kumar. “The ACP then backed down on his demand and made it 7 days,” Ashutosh told me.

At around 6.30 pm, the ACP Subudhi stepped up to the barricade with a speakerphone and told the crowd, “We will conduct an impartial enquiry and also wait for the Forensic Lab results, and we will tell you the results within seven days.” After his announcement, the crowd accepted his demands with open cynicism, and yet relieved to have arrived at some promise.  As everyone began to leave, I heard Kusum tell one of the student activists, “I will keep coming here again and again. I cannot rest until I know what happened to my daughter.”