How the CBI protected politicians and officials in the Muzaffarpur shelter-home case

20 January, 2020

On 8 January, the Central Bureau of Investigation submitted its latest status report in the Muzaffarpur shelter-home case to the Supreme Court, in a sealed envelope. The agency told the court that there had been no murders in the shelter home and that all the “35 girls were alive.” The Caravan’s ongoing investigation of the case revealed that the witness statements of over a dozen minors refuted the CBI’s claim. A further enquiry into the case’s legal documents has now unearthed glaring lacunae in the CBI’s investigation into the physical abuse and sexual exploitation of over thirty minors between 2013 and 2018. Over the course of its inquiry, the agency has deliberately ignored crucial leads—provided by over a dozen witnesses—which could have implicated the Bihar government’s social-welfare department at an institutional level and several high-profile politicians. 

The documents show that the CBI’s chargesheet—which is in possession of The Caravan—was framed in a way that only the shelter home’s employees, its owner Brajesh Thakur and four government officials were held responsible for the sexual exploitation of the inmates. The CBI selectively charged only certain individuals who were accused in the witness statements. The agency refused to acknowledge the possible involvement of the state’s social-welfare department and powerful politicians in the case, despite them being named in these statements. The witnesses included at least seven victims, whose statements to the CBI had detailed physical descriptions of the “outsiders” visiting Balika Grih, the shelter home, regularly. The other witnesses include a tenant of Brajesh, neighbours and low-ranked officials of the state’s social welfare department. The tenant named at least two senior politicians; one sitting Rajya Sabha member and one former member of Bihar’s legislative council. The state officials detailed the vast network of government functionaries—involved in the running, monitoring and sanctioning of funds—whose connivance would have been essential to the goings-on at the shelter. 

The Caravan is in possession of the statements of 33 victims, Brajesh’s tenant, neighbours and employees at his printing press, half a dozen government officials who were with the social-welfare department in the period under investigation, the first investigating officer who raided Balika Grih on 30 May 2018 and the chargesheet that the CBI had filed before a Bihar trial court in December 2018. All the statements were recorded by the CBI between September 2018 and December 2018, under Section 161 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. 

The inquiry has been monitored by the Supreme Court since August 2018, two months after the case was registered, and a month after the investigation was transferred from the Bihar state police to the CBI. The agency updated the court regularly, but all its progress reports have been submitted in sealed envelopes so far. This has meant that a petitioner in the case, Nivedita Jha, and the citizenry have had to rely on the briefings to the court by the attorney general, KK Venugopal. This has further compromised an already murky investigation—as detailed in the first part of this series. Venugopal’s latest briefing as well as the chargesheet were silent on two major interventions by the Supreme Court wherein the apex court had taken note of the drawbacks in the inquiry and asked the CBI to investigate specific aspects of the case. The court had emphasised on a thorough investigation into Brajesh, including his political connections and the role of government officials in the case. 

On 20 September 2018, even before the filing of the chargesheet, the Supreme Court had directed the CBI to investigate Brajesh thoroughly, including his political connections. The court had also asked the agency to explore the involvement of any and all “outsiders”—everyone not directly associated in running the shelter—and the state’s social-welfare department. The apex court reiterated these directions in a hearing on 3 June 2019. On 20 September 2018, the Supreme Court had said, “On a perusal of the status reports, there are a few areas that need to be further looked into by the CBI, they are as follows: … the CBI will need to look into the antecedents, connections and influence of Brajesh Thakur.” Apart from Balika Grih, which was financed by government funds, Brajesh also ran at least ten NGOs, was a Press Information Bureau-accredited journalist, owned a printing press and was a member of two advisory committees of the state government. 

The most glaring omission in the chargesheet, regarding the investigation into Brajesh, is the CBI’s decision to ignore the statement of Brajesh’s tenant, which was recorded in September 2018. The tenant lived in the premises of the Balika Grih and had also worked as a night guard for the shelter home. According to his statement, “Azad Gandhi, MLC, used to come to the home of Brajesh Thakur. He used to eat (at Thakur’s home) and also go to Balika Grih to saunter. And would also stay at RM Palace Hotel [owned by Brajesh] for two to three hours.” Brajesh’s house and printing press are in the same premises as the shelter home. Gandhi was a member of Bihar’s legislative council from 2002 to 2007. He defected from the Janata Dal (United) to the Congress in April 2019 during the Lok Sabha elections. Five months later, September 2019, he joined the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

Gandhi, however, told me that, “I had never seen where the shelter home is in Muzaffarpur. My relation with Brajesh Thakur was limited to our journalistic interaction. I also run an Urdu newspaper from Patna so I would know Thakur.” When I asked Azad if he ever visited Muzaffarpur, he told me, “never in my life have I gone there.” Upon further questioning Gandhi admitted that he had once gone to Brajesh’s house in Muzaffarpur. “I had gone to his house for his son’s wedding, four or five years ago. There were some twenty thousand people there.” The CBI did not include Gandhi’s name in the list of accused or even explore his involvement in the chargesheet filed in December 2018.

The tenant’s further said in his statement, “Brajesh Thakur’s father, Radhamohan Thakur, had a close relation with Ramnath Thakur, former state information minister, which has been carried on with Brajesh Thakur. Brajesh Thakur owns a building on the Samastipur-Tajpur road, called Manorama Bhavan, which houses an old-age home. Around that colony itself is the house of former minister Ramnath Thakur. From there itself the relationship between Ramnath Thakur and Brajesh Thakur is very close. Ramnath Thakur used to visit Brajesh Thakur’s Sahu Road residence regularly,”—in Muzaffarpur. Ramnath Thakur “used to eat food and also visit the girls’ home above. Whenever Ramnath Thakur used to visit Muzaffarpur, one of Brajesh Thakur’s vehicles with number plate 5000, and the driver Vijay Kumar Tiwari used to drive Ramnath Thakur,” the tenant said.

Ramnath is Karpoori Thakur’s son. Karpoori was one of the biggest socialist leaders to have emerged from the state in the decades following independence—his legacy is claimed by all socialist leaders like Nitish Kumar of the JD(U)who is also the current chief minister of Bihar and the RJD’s Lalu Prasad Yadav. Karpoori served as the chief minister of Bihar twice during the 1970s, once as a deputy chief minister and as the education minister of the state. Ramnath told me that he had a long standing and friendly association with Brajesh that had begun with Radhamohan. He also corroborated the tenant’s assertion that the relationship was partly due to the close proximity of their houses in Samastipur. But he flatly denied that he ever visited the shelter home. When I asked him if he ever visited Brajesh’s home in Muzaffarpur, Ramnath said that in 2004 he was leading a nyay yatra—justice march—while on the campaign trail for JD(U) for the next year’s assembly elections. It was then that he visited Brajesh’s house. He added that members of JD(U) had eaten at Brajesh’s home then. Ramnath, too, is missing from the CBI’s chargesheet.

I also spoke to Sudhir Kumar, an advocate representing one of the accused, Ashwani alias Aasmani, chargesheeted by CBI. Ashwani is a doctor, who, the inmates’ statements alleged, used to sedate the victims before they were sexually and physically exploited. According to the statements of at least three victims, Ashwani had sexually abused them. Sudhir said that his client was innocent and being framed and the “CBI is trying to protect the powerful men connected to the case.” In February 2019, Sudhir, filed a petition on behalf of Ashwani at a special court in Delhi that deals with offences under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012—that month, the Supreme Court had transferred the case from a trial court in Bihar to a court in Saket. The petition said that, “the CBI hid the evidence and statement given by me and did not present them before the court.” Ashwani had named Nitish Kumar in his petition, a copy of which is in possession with The Caravan. The Saket court had forwarded Ashwani’s petition to the CBI. Kumar told me that he never got to know what happened to his application, as the CBI did not charge the chief minister in its chargesheet. Kumar said that the CBI did not update the court about his application too.

In March 2019, Nivedita Jha, a Patna-based journalist, filed a special-leave petition before the Supreme Court which raised objections to the CBI’s investigation. The SLP asked the court to pass an order directing the CBI to investigate charges of murder, gang rape, trafficking, prostitution and involvement of outsiders, as revealed by the victims and other witnesses in their statements to the agency. Fauzia Shakil, the petitioner’s lawyer, had argued, “the CBI had merely chargesheeted the staff and less influential perpetrators and only those persons who were involved in the day-to-day management of the shelter home along with a few members of the Child Welfare Committee without making any effort to ascertain the identity of outsiders.”  Shakil said the agency had not complied with the court’s order of 20 September 2018.

She further argued that, “It’s unclear from a perusal of the chargesheet whether identity sketch have been prepared by the CBI on the basis of the physical description of the perpetrators given by the victims.” The Caravan’s examination of the chargesheet also revealed that the CBI has bypassed the victims’ detailed descriptions of “outsiders,” and “friends” of Brajesh who would visit the shelter home.

On 3 June 2019, the Supreme Court passed an order on Jha’s petition and asked the CBI to investigate four other aspects of the case before completing its inquiry. One of the aspects was, “(iii) the other persons, including the outsiders and officers who were involved and facilitated in the sexual abuse of the inmates.” The court also gave the CBI an extension of three months to complete its investigation. But the 8 January 2020 status report is silent on this aspect of the CBI’s investigation. Venugopal only said that “no murder” was committed at the shelter home.

The CBI’s chargesheet seems to have accorded no weight to the witness statements of at least seven victims, apart from the tenant, which had enough details to help identify the people who came from outside. One of the victims’ statements said, “Once, secretly, I saw three cars arrive there.  Some people stepped out from the cars and entered Balika Grih. One woman was wearing party clothes and was dressed up—she got out of the car, then she sat back down in the car. Meenu aunty took [six other witnesses] downstairs with her.” The statement said that when the inmates came back, “after three-four hours … came up crying,” with torn clothes and dishevelled hair. The CBI’s report is silent on who these people were and who the woman in “party clothes” was.

Another victim’s statement said, “In that Balika Grih, many uncles used to accompany Brajesh uncle. Once Brajesh sir came to the third floor and took me downstairs to the office. One uncle was there, he left me there with him and stepped out. Uncle made me sit on a chair and tied my hands behind the chair with my dupatta. He started to press my breasts and closed his mouth on mine for a kiss. He undid my salwar and touched my urinary area and started assaulting me. After doing everything, he told Brijesh sir that “I am done.” That uncle had a moustache, was wearing a white shirt, blue jeans.” The CBI makes no mention of who was this “uncle” or what it did to identify him.

Similarly, other victims’ statements mention how often “Brajesh’s friends” would come to the shelter home and sexually exploit them, and how they would be taken to “hotels” where they would be forced to “dance” for “Brajesh’s friends” and subjected to further sexual abuse.

In the 20 September 2018 order, the Supreme Court bench, comprising justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta, had also referred to the involvement of the state’s social-welfare department at an institutional level and ordered the CBI to investigate this further. The bench had observed, “the status report also mentions that some girls were transferred on 20 March 2018 by the social welfare department from the shelter home which is the subject matter of the present investigation by the CBI. It’s not clear why girls were transferred out.” The bench continued, “The transfer seems to suggest that the social welfare department of the government of Bihar was aware of certain unsavoury activities in the Shelter home and that may have been the reason for transfer of the victim girls. The CBI should seize the record of the Social Welfare department in this regard and carry out the investigation.”

When the CBI submitted its chargesheet in December 2018, there was no mention of whether the agency had examined the social-welfare department’s record or not. The chargesheet also did not explain the circumstances that might have necessitated the transfer of the inmates. In the first part of this series, The Caravan revealed how even before the state police registered cases in the incident, the victims were shifted several times from one shelter home to another out of Muzaffarpur, on the orders of the social-welfare department. Two of the inmates were even handed over to their parents without having their statements recorded.

The CBI chargesheeted only four government officials in the case out of the total 21 accused.  The four officials were: Dilip Verma, a chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee, a district-level body with judicial powers to take custody of runaway or abandoned children; Vikas Kumar, a member of CWC; Ravi Kumar Raushan, a child-protection officer; and Rosy Rani, the then assistant director of the child-protection unit of the Muzaffarpur district. However, the documents in possession of The Caravan show that the CBI ignored leads provided by some low-ranked government officials about the involvement of the social-welfare department. In addition, in early August 2018, Mukul Ranjan, Muzaffarpur’s deputy superintendent, had submitted his supervision report to the trial court in Bihar. According to a news report in the Indian Express, Ranjan submitted that that Brajesh “ran a sex racket and supplied girls to officials to get tenders.” The chargesheet does not mention the aspect of trafficking at all.

Anju Singh, the then programme officer of the child-protection committee that functioned under the directorate of social welfare, explained in her statement how NGOs were selected by the state government to run the shelter homes and who were responsible for their monitoring. Singh said, “Department of Social Welfare, after being sanctioned budget by the Cabinet, invites expression of interest (containing eligibility criteria for NGOs to institute Children home) from different NGOs.” Singh further said that after the bids would be received in sealed covers, “Committee is formed by the director, directorate of social welfare, to shortlist the NGOs which are fit as per requirement criteria. After selection of NGO, a correspondence will be sent to the particular NGO … to appear for presentation before a committee constituted by principal secretary, department of social welfare.”

 Singh also explained in her statement that a physical verification of the selected NGOs would also be done by the district child-protection unit. Singh had concluded: “As per Juvenile Justice Act, Quarterly Inspection of the children homes is mandatory which done by district inspection committee whose members comprised district magistrate, civil surgeon, one personnel from special juvenile police unit, assistant director, district child protection unit, member from child welfare committee and justice juvenile board.”

 Of all the officials, the CBI had chargesheeted only two CWC members and an assistant director of the child-protection unit, Rosy Rani, who had conducted 11 inspections between February 2015 and June 2017. Rani reported no mismanagement at Balika Grih, even though multiple victims’ statements said that they had shared information about the sexual abuse with Rani multiple times. Similarly, after Rani, Debesh Kumar Sharma was appointed to the same post and between October 2017 and February 2018, he, too, conducted five inspections and reported no misdemeanours. But Sharma has not been named as an accused in the CBI chargesheet.

 In addition, there are several high-level government officials involved in the functioning of these shelter homes. All such shelter homes are run by the state government and funded under a central scheme called the Integrated Child Protection Scheme. The state provides 30 percent of the funds, the central government provides 60 percent and the rest the NGO has to provide on its own. Brajesh’s NGO—Seva Sankalp and Vikas Samiti—that runs the Balika Grih, had received Rs 4.5 crore from the government as grant over a decade. Singh’s statement mentions how the “assistant director, district child protection unit, is responsible for coordination, supervision and implementation of ICPS.” According to Singh, the assistant director was supposed to coordinate and network with the “district magistrate, district judge, superintendent of police, child development officer, labour officer, education officer, chief medical officer, municipal authorities, members of zila parishad, voluntary organisation, hospital, child welfare board, justice juvenile board, childline services.”

None of these leads were followed up by the CBI investigators to find the culpability of officers at different levels. The CBI in its chargesheet, made no mention of how the department failed as an institution, at every level, in detecting sexual and physical violence against the inmates, until an independent audit was commissioned by the government. It also makes no mention of Chandrashekhar Verma, the husband of the then social-welfare minister Madhu Verma, who was found to be a close friend of Brajesh. This political connection was also overlooked, despite the Supreme Court’s explicit instructions on the same in September 2018.

On 8 January 2020, apart from the status report—which only the judges are privy to—the CBI filed another application before the Supreme Court. The application outlined broad terms of the progress of the investigation, in bulleted form. Such applications have been the only source of information for the petitioners to understand what the CBI had been doing. The CBI’s January 2020 application said, “Investigation/enquiry of all 17 shelter home cases has been completed. The final report in 13 regular cases has been filed, forwarded, in the competent court. Enquiry of all 4 preliminary enquiries has been completed and no evidence proving commission of criminal offences could be gathered and hence no FIR was registered in this regard.”

The application further said that with respect to the involvement of senior government officials at different levels, the CBI has sent a recommendation to “the chief secretary, government of Bihar, for taking action against erring government servants in all cases.” The CBI did not levy any criminal charges against these “officials” and instead recommended only departmental enquiries. Shakil questioned the CBI’s decision and said, “On what basis CBI could make such recommendations to the chief secretary?” According to her, the CBI’s “investigation (of which we were unaware) definitely would have shown omission or commission by officers, that is why CBI recommend disciplinary action against them.” She said the same evidence—used to recommend action—could also have been used to prosecute the officials. “We don’t know what evidence the CBI gathered during investigation to establish their complicity. So, if it was enough to recommend disciplinary action why not a chargesheet?”

The statements of five inmates and one of the tenants residing on the premises of the shelter-home are reproduced below, along with translations.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Azad Gandhi was a Rajya Sabha member from 1996 to 2001. Azad Gandhi was a member of Bihar's legislative council from 2002 to 2007. The Caravan regrets the error.

This is the second report of an ongoing investigation into the Muzaffarpur shelter-home case. Read the entire series, “House of Horrors,” here.