House of Horrors

Muzaffarpur shelter-home case: How the CBI ignored crucial leads from the Bihar police

On 1 December 2018, Manju Verma, a former minister for social welfare in Bihar, was produced before a court in Begusarai in a case related to an illegal cache of arms discovered in her house. Manju had resigned from the state cabinet in August 2018, following reports that her husband, Chandrashekhar Verma, had close links with Brajesh Thakur, the prime accused in the Muzaffarpur shelter-home scandal. Manju had absconded after she was accused in the case. The arms had been discovered during a search of her house in the course of the investigation. PTI
27 January, 2020

On 28 January 2020, a special court in Saket, in Delhi, will sentence the 19 people convicted in a case related to a shelter home in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. Just over a week earlier, the court—which deals with offences under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012—had convicted all but two of the 21 accused chargesheeted by the Central Bureau of  Investigation, on charges of rape, gang rape, physical and sexual assault, criminal conspiracy, and other offences punishable under the act. The Caravan’s ongoing investigation of the case has revealed that the CBI chose not to examine several leads provided in a supervision report by the Bihar police, whose inquiry preceded the agency’s. This report, which The Caravan accessed, included the names of at least nine people—senior members of the state administration, officers of the Indian Administrative Services, a then cabinet minister of Bihar and a consultant with the UNICEF, among others—who were reportedly aware of the sexual and physical abuse of over thirty minors at the shelter home between 2013 and 2018. The case came to light around April 2018, after the Tata Institute of Social Sciences conducted an independent audit that identified at least 17 shelter homes across Bihar as abusive. The Muzaffarpur shelter home—named Balika Grih and run by Brajesh Thakur, who then became the main accused and was recently convicted—was among these. 

The CBI’s failure to follow up on crucial evidence submitted by the state police follows a pattern: The Caravan had earlier unearthed how witness statements of minors refuted the CBI’s claim that no murders took place at the shelter home, and how the agency deliberately ignored leads provided by witnesses which could have implicated the Bihar government’s social-welfare department and several high-profile politicians. 

The supervision report, a summary of the progress in the investigation, was authored by Mukul Ranjan, the then deputy superintendent of police of Muzaffarpur town. Ranjan signed the report on 3 July 2018, over a month after the case related to Muzaffarpur was first registered. Towards the end of July 2018, however, the CBI took over the investigation from the Bihar police, based on recommendations by the chief minister Nitish Kumar’s government. Incidentally, the CBI was formally handed over the case on 28 July, the same day that the state police filed a chargesheet in the case before a local court in Bihar. Less than a week later, in August 2018, the Supreme Court decided to monitor the investigation and asked the agency for regular updates. The trial in the case first commenced at a local court in Bihar in July 2018, but was later shifted to the Saket court in February 2019, on the apex court’s order. 

In March 2019, while the CBI’s investigation was ongoing, Nivedita Jha, a Patna-based journalist, filed a petition in the Supreme Court alleging that the agency’s probe was “hogwash” as it overlooked various aspects of evidence. Jha’s petition noted that leads on minors who were murdered at the shelter home and the alleged involvement of politicians, officials and outsiders in the abuse and trafficking of minors, had been overlooked by the CBI. The court ordered the agency to look into Jha’s claims in June 2019. In January this year, the CBI informed the Supreme Court that it had completed investigations into all shelter homes that were named in the TISS audit. The CBI told the court that “all 35 girls are alive,” and said there was no evidence on the allegations raised by Jha. 

It is in this context that the findings of the supervision report are significant. The report consists of statements by the victims; a neighbour of Thakur; Ravi Kumar Raushan, the then child protection officer and one of the convicted persons; an independent witness; comments and a conclusion by Jyoti Kumari, the first investigating officer in the case; and recommendations by Ranjan. It contains various leads that point towards the possible complicity of senior IAS officers such as Atul Prasad; officers of the state’s social-welfare department such as Raj Kumar, an IAS officer and the director of the social-welfare directorate; politicians, such as the then state minister for social welfare, Manju Verma; and even a UNICEF consultant named Rakesh Kumar, among others. 

Yet, the CBI does not appear to have followed up on any of the police’s leads regarding these possible suspects. The CBI did not chargesheet any of the senior officials or the minister named in the police’s supervision report. On the contrary, almost all the officials have continued to work in the government—in some instances, they are still at the same position. Verma remains active in politics. She was last seen sharing the stage with Giriraj Singh, now a union cabinet minister, during the campaign for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The supervision report also went into great detail on how Thakur built a financial empire and the methods he employed to secure clout in government offices. The CBI’s chargesheet, however, was silent on all of these aspects. 

A few of the major conclusions of the report are based on the verifiable statements of Raushan, when he was first taken into remand by the Bihar police, in June 2018. Over the course of the investigation, at least ten minors of the shelter home accused Raushan of sexual abuse. The CBI  chargesheeted him on a range of offenses dealing with sexual abuse, under the Indian Penal Code and the POCSO Act. During his interrogation by the Bihar police, Raushan told the investigator, Jyoti Kumari, that before the first information report was registered on 31 May 2018, “on 26.05.2018 a state-level meeting was convened by the principal secretary”—Atul Prasad—“wherein director of the Koshish team of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences had given a presentation on the report”—the audit report of March 2018. Raushan had added that, “Having come from there (the meeting), on 26.05.2018, Devesh Sharma, assistant director, went to the Balika Grih, alone.” 

Sharma was posted in Muzaffarpur on 4 August 2017. He filed the first complaint in the case on 30 May 2018. In his statement to the CBI, recorded by an agency inspector in September 2018, under Section 161 of Criminal Procedure Code, Sharma said he “had visited the Balika Grih on 25.10.17, 06.12.17, 03.01.18, 05.02.2018” as part of an inspection team. Under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, each such shelter is to be inspected by a team of government officials, district magistrates and a civil surgeon, among others. Sharma had failed to report anything amiss at the shelter during any of these visits. More importantly, Sharma did not tell the CBI that he had visited the shelter on 26 May as well. 

The sequence of events, between 26 May and 30 May, gets murkier, as per Raushan’s statement. He told investigators that, “On 27.05.2018, assistant director, Devesh Sharma, Maruti Nandan, CPO … NIC worked as patrolling magistrate on their duties. On 28.05.18 and 29.05.2018, the three men had gone” to a training programme related to financial matters. 

According to the supervision report, Ranjan found Sharma’s conduct suspicious. In the conclusion he recommended that, “Before the FIR was registered; the complainant in the incident had gone to the Balika Grih alone, which must be investigated. If Devesh Sharma went alone to the Balika Grih on 26.05.2018, why did he not take any action at that time or give any enquiry report to his seniors? This, too, should be investigated.” The CBI never followed up on why Sharma went to Balika Grih alone or if he was acting on Prasad’s orders. The agency also did not investigate why Sharma was sent on two-day training a day after the state-level meeting—which was chaired by Prasad—only to be called back on 30 May and made a complainant in the case. 

Ranjan’s report had also directed the investigator to “seize all records related to Balika Grih from the office of Devesh Sharma … and investigate it.” The CBI ignored this aspect till the Supreme Court directed the agency to seize all the records of the social-welfare department and look into its institutional involvement in the case, on 20 September 2018. But, when the CBI filed its chargesheet—it is in The Caravan’s possession—in December 2018, it was silent on any such records of the department or investigations into Sharma. The CBI’s chargesheet has no mention of Sharma’s role at all. It was only in April 2019 that the agency told the apex court that it had collected the documents from the social-welfare department and chargesheeted officers against whom they found evidence. The CBI’s affidavit was in response to Jha’s application filed in March 2019, which asked the Supreme Court to direct the agency to follow the court’s order of 20 September. None of the officers in the CBI’s chargesheet included any of the seven officials Raushan had named in the course of his interrogation. 

Prasad, too, was left untouched. In an interview he gave to the media in January 2019, Prasad talked about the meeting conducted on 26 May and said, “The report was sent to us as a soft copy written in English. We did not know the full extent of the abuse or neglect but were able to identify the problematic shelter homes. So I called my officers from social welfare department across the state to our headquarters in Patna, made them listen to a presentation, distributed the copies, and asked them to act immediately.” But Prasad’s department wrote to the police a full four days after the meeting, when Sharma filed the complaint. In addition, on 29 May 2018, Prasad ordered that the inmates of Balika Grih be shifted to other homes—before the police had accessed the home, examined the victims on their own and secured the evidence. Consequently, an unknown number of minors were transferred to other locations, even before an FIR was lodged. During the interview, Prasad argued the shift was carried out on his “personal order” and many officials in the department were not aware because he believed “some of our own people were involved.” Prasad’s conduct was never investigated by the CBI. 

Ranjan’s report had concluded: “It’s surprising that no action was taken immediately on the unsavory activities happening in Balika Grih, Muzaffarpur, even after a state-level meeting was held.” But, the CBI again did not explore why Prasad did not order immediate action after the formal revelation of the TISS report during the “state-level meeting.” Prasad continues to head the social-welfare department as principal secretary and is the additional chief-secretary, too. When I contacted him, he said he was “not free” to talk to me. 

Raushan also named Rakesh Kumar, a UNICEF consultant, who works in coordination with the social-welfare directorate, in his supervision report. It said that Raushan “told Child Protection Unit’s director is Devesh Sharma and Rakesh Kumar, UNICEF’s consultant, who works out of the directorate, Sinchai Bhawan in Old Secretariat. And, the other promoter Rajesh Ranjan, about whom more information can be fetched from Seva Sankalp”—the NGO that ran the shelter home—“too were in the know.” Raushan also, “told us about another man called Sunil Jha who too knew what was happening at the Balika Grih and yet remained quiet about it.” 

According to Poonam Sinha, an assistant director of the Integrated Child Protection Scheme at the social-welfare department, Rakesh was also part of an inspection of the Balika Grih that took place on 8 October 2015. Sinha included this information in her statement to the CBI, in October 2018. Sinha’s statement said that Rakesh conducted the inspection in the presence of Raushan and Sangeeta Bhagat, an assistant director of the social-welfare department. Sinha also said that Rakesh found several flaws with the shelter home then. He had criticised the infrastructure, hygiene, food quantity, education and vocational training at the shelter home. According to her statement, she had forwarded Rakesh’s report on Balika Grih to the then principal secretary.  

It was UNICEF that conceived and designed the model of creating exclusive district-level child-protection bodies in Indian states. According to a press release by UNICEF in July 2009, Bihar was the first state in India “to have notified setting up of District Child Protection unit.” Such units in Bihar function under the social-welfare department. The units are also the implementing authority for the Integrated Child Protection Scheme—a central-government scheme that funds shelter homes like Balika Grih in the states. UNICEF India’s communication desk accepted my queries on Kumar but had not responded at the time of publishing.  

With regards to Rakesh, the supervision report said, “A list of all counsellors/consultants associated with the NGO should be made and presented before the supervisor so that special investigative team can question them.” The CBI did not name Rakesh in its chargesheet, either as an accused or as a witness. 

Apart from Rakesh and Sharma, Raushan named two more senior officials during his interrogation—Sunil Kumar, a retired director of the child-protection unit, and Raj Kumar, the then director of the child-protection unit, who was also the director in-charge for the social-welfare directorate and had additional charge of the social-security wing. A report published in the Hindustan Times in August 2018 quoted an unidentified CBI official, who said that the agency would question Raj Kumar. Another report published in the same month in the newspaper The Telegraph said that Sunil Kumar had vacated his official residence soon after the case gained momentum. 

The supervision report by Ranjan came down heavily on Sunil Kumar and Raj Kumar. “They knew a first information report can be lodged, still never ordered an internal probe,” it said. Ranjan had directed the investigator “to question former director Sunil Kumar and the current director Raj Kumar and note down the facts in daily case diary.” However, there is nothing in the legal papers of the case to suggest that the CBI ever questioned Kumar at all. Neither of the two men were chargesheeted by the CBI. The agency’s applications to the Supreme Court do not contain any information on whether the CBI investigated the two men’s failure to order an internal probe. Raj Kumar is now the director of the social-welfare directorate and the directorate of empowerment of persons with disabilities. He is third in the chain of command at the state’s social-welfare department. Raj Kumar did not respond despite multiple calls. Sunil Kumar’s whereabouts are currently unknown. 

Interestingly, Raushan had also indicated to the interrogating officer that Poonam Sinha, of the ICPS, was also possibly complicit—he linked Sinha to Manju Verma, the former state cabinet minister. The supervision report said, “further Raushan said that Manju Verma, Amaresh Kumar Amar (PA to minister) and Poonam Sinha, who was earlier child district protection officer and is now an assistant director in the Ministry; It was Poonam who used to talk to all the directors.” Raushan alleged that the witness statements against him were “a conspiracy” by Verma and Sinha, since the counsellor who filed the complaint against him was Sinha’s sister. He claimed that Verma and Sinha were trying to frame him to save themselves.

The CBI’s chargesheet and affidavits before the court show that the agency never investigated the connection between Verma and Sinha. In fact, in its chargesheet, the CBI turned Sinha into a witness instead of an accused. When I reached out to Sinha, she said, “I would not like to speak on the matter.” In her statement to the CBI, Sinha had said that Verma herself had conducted an inspection on 14 March 2016 and the then assistant director, Rosy Rani, had informed the social-welfare department about the inspection.  

Rani was chargesheeted and convicted for her failure to report the sexual abuse to the department during her term between 2015 and 2017. Several witnesses’ statements said that they had shared information about the sexual abuse with Rani multiple times, but she never acted on the minors’ complaints.  Interestingly, the Bihar police had not made Rani an accused in the case. On the other hand, the police had questioned her suspension by the social-welfare department soon after the FIR was filed in May 2018. In the supervision report, Ranjan had directed Jyoti Kumari, the first investigating officer, “to investigate why Rani was suspended after FIR was lodged.” The supervisor also asked Kumari to send a notice to Rani for questioning and to record her statement. It is important to note that Devesh Sharma, who took over Rani’s position after her transfer in August 2017, was not chargesheeted by the CBI for the same failure to report the abuse. According to news reports, Sharma was suspended on 6 August 2018 “for delaying action against all the accused.” Verma, too, went scot-free. 

The supervision report also mentions findings from the deposition of an independent witness, through an application. Sudhir Kumar, a lawyer of one of the convicts, told me that the witness was a long-time employee of Brajesh Thakur and worked at a printing press that Thakur ran in the same compound as the shelter home. The application detailed how Thakur ran over a dozen NGOs whose officer bearers were either his relatives or people who did not exist. The independent witness had told Kumari that Thakur ran several NGOs with the primary aim of extracting regular government grants via his political connections. The witness also said that the staff at Thakur’s NGOs was involved in “prostitution” and would “supply girls to get tenders.” 

The witness told Kumari that Thakur landed a contract for an old-age home and an AIDS project run by the social-welfare department in the neighbouring Samastipur district by “supplying minor girls” to government officials. The witness claimed that Thakur won both the contracts without any competition because the department did not issue any public advertisement for it. 

In his recommendations in the supervision report, Ranjan had asked for “a thorough investigation into the facts given by” the independent witness. Yet again, the CBI appears not to have followed up on any of these leads. The chargesheet does not mention that Thakur received multiple contracts from the government. In fact, the independent witness was not even included in the CBI chargesheet’s list of witnesses. 

In December 2018, when the CBI filed its chargesheet, of the 21 accused, 17 were staff members of Thakur’s set-up, while only four government officials were named: 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 the district CWC; Raushan; and Rosy Rani. In April 2019, the CBI filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court which said, “No person was left out who was named or identified by the victims.” The affidavit was filed in response to Nivedita Jha, the petitioner, who had alleged that the agency was shielding higher officials. The CBI denied Jha’s charge and also said, “The officer of social welfare has also been made accused and chargesheeted on the basis of statements of victims and documents collected from the social welfare department. Further investigation is conducted to ascertain the role of other officers of the social welfare department.” The agency never filed any additional chargesheet naming any of the officials mentioned in the supervision report, suggesting that “further investigations” were not conducted.  

In January 2020, the CBI told the Supreme Court that it had sent a recommendation to Bihar’s chief secretary to take disciplinary action against 24 district magistrates and 46 senior government officials for their involvement in the cases of the remaining 16 shelter homes. None of these officials included those associated with the Balika Grih case in Muzaffarpur.  

The CBI’s follow-up on the Bihar police’s investigation raises several questions about why the case was transferred to the agency in the first place. In August 2018, soon after handing over the case to the CBI, Nitish Kumar held a press conference. During the briefing, Nitish told the media that the Bihar police had conducted a “speedy and dedicated” investigation in the case and lauded the force. When he was asked why he transferred the case to the CBI if the local police was doing such a great job, the chief minister responded, “Slowly, we felt that a perception of mistrust was getting created … after I saw this atmosphere of mistrust, I decided, so that there is no doubt in anyone’s mind … to give this case to the CBI.” In response to another question on why he was reluctant to order an inquiry against Verma, he said, “I called her and asked her to explain. She flatly denied everything. And she came on her own also and said.” The chief minister also said that all the decisions related to the shelter home were taken at the level of the principal secretary and not at the “cabinet’s level.” 

The chief minister’s claim that the state cabinet was not involved in the shelter homes is contradicted by the statements of two witnesses, who were officials of the social-welfare department. According to Devesh Sharma, “Till December 2017, funds were transferred to Balika Grih, directly by state government.” Balika Grih had been operational since 2013. Sharma said it was only after December 2017 that funds started getting “transferred to the Balika Grih through District Child Protection Unit.” In addition, another official, Anju Singh, who was then the programme officer with the social-welfare department, had said “the 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 to institute children homes for girls as well as boys.” The CBI recorded Singh’s statement in September 2018, wherein it was clear that the cabinet was involved with the shelter homes. 

Santosh Kumar, an activist associated with the case since July 2018, told me, “The people who were chargesheeted by the CBI and later convicted by the trial court were only foot soldiers in the syndicate that ran the child prostitution. The nexus of politicians and the bureaucrats who protected this syndicate and the ones for whom the child prostitution was being conducted are still out.”

Seven pages of the supervision report are reproduced below, along with translations.

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