House of Horrors

No consensus on how many minors were actually at the Muzaffarpur shelter home

Sukruti Anah Staneley
06 February, 2020

On 8 January, the Central Bureau of Investigation told the Supreme Court that it had found no evidence of murders being committed at the Muzaffarpur shelter-home and that all the “35 girls were alive.” The Caravan’s ongoing investigation of the case has revealed that at several stages of the inquiry there is significant variation in the total number of minors involved in the case. All the government and court documents—barring the CBI’s submissions to the court, which were in sealed envelopes—have no clear record of why inmates were transferred to another shelter home a few days after the audit report. The report highlighted the abuse at the shelter home; how many minors were present at the shelter house when the investigation began; how many inmates were transferred between multiple other shelter homes in the state when the investigation commenced; how many minors were handed back to their families; how many minors went missing during the course of the investigation; and how many of them are still to be rehabilitated since their rescue from the shelter home. 

The sequence of events, from 15 March 2018, when the Tata Institute of Social Sciences first submitted its independent audit report of 17 shelter homes in Bihar, to 20 January 2020, when the court convicted 19 of the 21 accused in the CBI’s chargesheet, indicate that there was a concerted attempt to obfuscate the numbers of minors involved in the Muzaffarpur case. The documents in The Caravan’s possession trace the trajectory of the minors’ rehabilitation and reveal how, at different stages of the investigation, the number of affected minors kept decreasing in the government’s records. The Caravan has previously established how witness statements of the minors refuted the CBI’s claim of “no murders”; how the agency tried to protect several bureaucrats and high-profile politicians; and how the CBI ignored the Bihar police’s investigation. 

The minors’ movements have been mapped based on multiple documents—statements of the first investigating officer of the Bihar Police, Jyoti Kumari; statements of the superintendents of the shelter homes where the minors were transferred to, which were recorded by the CBI; the attorney general KK Venugopal’s oral submission to the Supreme Court in January 2020; minutes of the meetings of a rehabilitation committee set up by the state government in August 2018 to monitor the resettlement of the affected minors; and the Bihar government’s affidavits to the apex court. I also interviewed Santosh Kumar, one of the petitioners in the case; Fauzia Shakil, a lawyer of another petitioner; Santosh Singh, a local journalist who works with a news channel that broke the Muzaffarpur shelter-home story; Sudhir Kumar, a lawyer of one of the accused; and Aparna Bhat, an amicus curiae in the case. None of them knew how many victims had been rehabilitated so far, how many minors were still under government observation and where the remaining minors were housed. Bhat told me she had no information “because they are not sharing with us. Only two people have this information, either the Bihar government or TISS.” I also spoke with Mohammad Tarique, the head of the TISS audit team and a member of the state’s rehabilitation committee. 

The discrepancy in narratives begins with the submission of the TISS audit report. The report was originally submitted to the state government in March 2018. It contained a “letter of submission” that specifies the date as 15 March 2018. However, a printed copy of the report, which was issued by an assistant director of the social-welfare department, included a corrigendum stating that the “date 15.03.2018 should be read as 27.04.2018.” There is no explanation for the delay. In July 2018, Ranjeet Ranjan, a Congress member of parliament from Supaul in Bihar, raised this issue in the Lok Sabha and said that the state government deliberately “suppressed” the report. 

Five days after the submission of the TISS report, on 20 March, eight inmates were shifted from the Balika Grih—the Muzaffarpur shelter home under investigation—to another shelter home in a northern district of Bihar bordering Nepal. The Caravan will not disclose the exact locations and names of the various shelter homes that the inmates were shifted to, to protect their privacy and safety. The transfer of these eight inmates was revealed in the statement of the superintendent of this shelter-home which was recorded by the CBI in September 2018. According to the superintendent, of these eight inmates, one went home to Nepal. There is no explanation on how the inmate “went to Nepal” on her own or who authorised her transfer. 

Santosh Kumar, a petitioner who alerted the Patna High Court’s attention to the case—before the Supreme Court took it over in August 2018—told me that he believed a “huge international sex-racket” was being run with the collusion of bureaucrats and politicians. He said that Bihar was the gateway for such trafficking. “Otherwise, how come a government-funded NGO can let one of its inmates go to Nepal? Assuming it was done legally, how come district-level officials took decision of the deportation of a child to another country without involving Nepal’s diplomatic channel?” Of the seven left, another inmate was handed over to her parents. There is no information in any documents of when this handover took place. Notably, the remaining six inmates did not become a part of the investigation at any stage. 

On 30 May 2018, Devesh Sharma, an assistant director of the child-protection unit of the Muzaffarpur district, lodged a complaint with the women’s police station in Muzaffarpur regarding Balika Grih. The station in-charge was Jyoti Kumari, who became the first investigating officer in the case. As the IO, Kumari conducted a preliminary inquiry into the shelter home on 30 May, and registered an FIR in the case on 31 May. Kumari’s statement to the CBI also overlooked these eight inmates who were transferred to the first shelter-home in March. In addition, despite being aware of these eight inmates’ transfer, the CBI’s chargesheet did not explore the allegations of trafficking. On 28 August, based on the Supreme Court’s orders, a rehabilitation committee was set up comprising representatives from TISS; UNICEF; NIMHANS, a national mental-health institute; and Bihar’s State Child Protection Society. The SCPS is a state-level government body which implements child-protection schemes. Even the rehabilitation committee remained undecided over these eight inmates. According to the minutes of a meeting of the committee on 11 October, the issue of the girls from the first shelter-home “needed further deliberation, if the girls belonged to the group which was transferred to” the first shelter-home from the Muzaffarpur Balika Grih in March 2018. There is no explanation in any of the documents about why these eight inmates were transferred in the first place, and why they were excluded from the investigation.  

In his complaint, Sharma wrote that on 28 May, the director of the social welfare department, Raj Kumar, issued an order for the transfer of all the inmates from Balika Grih. According to Sharma’s complaint, on 29 May, the department executed the order and shifted all the inmates of Balika Grih to four different shelter homes, including the first one in the northern district. A second and third shelter homes are located in a district south of Muzaffarpur; and the fourth is located in a town to the south-east of Muzaffarpur. Notably, the complaint did not specify how many inmates were living at Balika Grih and were moved. 

Additionally, the superintendents of three shelter-homes where the inmates were shifted to later told the CBI that the inmates reached on 30 May, while the fourth stated that the minors were handed over to them on 31 May. All the shelter-homes are less than 150 kilometres from Balika Grih. There is no explanation for why, contrary to Sharma’s claim, the transfer of the minors was spread over three days, even when some were being sent to the same city. According to the respective superintendents, the first shelter-home housed 14 of the Balika Grih inmates, the second and third homes accommodated eight inmates each, and the fourth shelter-home accounted for 14 inmates—bringing the total to 44. 

However, in her statement to the CBI, the IO said that “till 30.05.2018, in that Balika Grih, there were 46 girls who were aged between 8 and 17.” She added that on 30 May itself, two of the 46 minors were handed over to their parents on the orders of the child welfare committee. According to the IO, this left a total of 44 minors at the Balika Grih. Santosh, the journalist, believed that there were no minors at the Balika Grih when Kumari raided the home on 30 May, and the IO only counted the numbers she found in the shelter home’s register. The IO’s statement is unclear on whether she quoted the number from a register or physically verified the minors’ presence. Even if Santosh’s explanation is discounted, the question remains as to how the IO found 46 minors in Balika Grih on 30 May, when according to the state machinery, all the inmates had already been transferred and accounted for at their respective shelter homes. 

Eventually, the local police pegged the total number of minors at 44 and this is the number that the CBI investigated when it took over the case on 28 July 2018. However, in July 2018—before the rehabilitation plan was put in place and the CBI took over the case—one of the minors living in the first shelter-home “ran away” from the home at around 3 am, according to the superintendent of the home. A case was registered but the minor was never traced, taking the number of minors down to 43. 

Bizarrely, the local police recorded the statement of only 30 of the 43 minors before the magistrate, as required by law under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The IO’s statement noted, “13 girls couldn’t give their statement because they were mentally unstable.” As a result, it is unclear if the possibility that these 13 minors may have been also subjected to physical and sexual abuse was ever investigated. In addition, Kumari’s statement also said that the medical examination was done for 42 minors. The medical test had confirmed the allegations of sexual abuse of every minor tested. There is no explanation for why the IO did not get all 43 examined and left out one minor. 

In July 2018, five of the girls were shifted internally between the second and the third shelter-homes. The superintendent of the second shelter-home, from where the minors were shifted, told the CBI that the transfer was “because the girls wanted to be with their friends who were staying at another shelter home.” Any transfer of inmates of a shelter home needs the approval of the child welfare committee. It is not clear if such grounds can be accepted for the transfer of minors. 

Following the internal transfers of the minors, Ranjan, the Lok Sabha member, alleged that the “girls were being exchanged.” Tarique, the head of the TISS team, had seen the minors at the Balika Grih during the audit period before March 2018 and then during their rehabilitation. He did not believe the minors were exchanged and said that he trusted the integrity of the superintendents where the girls were shifted to. 

Again, in July 2018, four of the 43 minors were handed over to their parents, according to the superintendent of the fourth shelter-home. This was done even before their statements were recorded by the CBI and the rehabilitation plan put in place. The committee became functional only in end August and the agency had started the process of taking down statements of the minors in September 2018. There is no explanation for why these four were handed over before the CBI examined them and before the rehabilitation plan was made. 

Tarique told me that the restoration of the four minors to their families was conducted before his team got involved with the rehabilitation plan. He had no knowledge of the inmates who might have gone missing or who were handed over to their parents between May 2018 and July 2018. He said the process of reuniting the minors with their families—based on the rehabilitation plan’s mandate and the protocols that were developed—started almost a year later, in July 2019. He told me that the restoration process is long and includes the physical verification of the house of each minor; vetting the socio-economic conditions in the subject’s home; and convincing the community to accept them and help them reintegrate. He said it needed expertise and perseverance to rehabilitate even one minor and each case has to be treated as unique. 

Tarique was categorical that the restoration of the four minors did not have the sanction of the rehabilitation committee. There is no explanation in any of the documents about how these internal transfers and restorations were conducted at a district level when the rehabilitation committee had not even laid down the protocols for the resettlement of the inmates. The handing over of the four inmates brought down the total number of minors in the case to 39. 

In end August 2018, during a committee meeting, it was decided that all the minors spread over the four shelters would be moved to one secure location—the fourth shelter-home. However, Tarique said that some of the minors in the second and third shelter-homes were responding well to the rehabilitation process, so the transfer was stalled. But, he added, all the minors were transferred again within the second, third and fourth shelter homes. Presently, there are no minors from Balika Grih at the first shelter home. There is no paper trail to trace when these transfers were done, how many minors were sent where and why the minors were moved away from the first shelter home. 

By September 2018, the CBI had started recording the statement of the inmates and there should have been 39 minors in all. But the CBI recorded the statements of only 33. Unlike the Bihar police IO, there is no explanation in the CBI’s chargesheet about what happened to the six other inmates and why their statements were not taken down. Other questions arise if the IO’s statement about the 13 minors who were “mentally unstable” is taken into consideration. Did the CBI’s number of 33 minors include any of these 13 minors? How did the CBI record the statements of minors who had mental-health issues? In fact, there is no way to corroborate whether the 33 minors whose statements the CBI recorded were among the 43 minors who were originally reported by the IO in May 2018. Tarique told me that during the period when the inmates’ statements were being recorded by the CBI—September 2018 to December 2018—he was not in the loop. He said that NIMHANS directed him to pause the process of rehabilitation and avoid contact with the victims during that time. 

In February 2019, just as the trial in the case was set to begin in the Saket district court in Delhi, at least seven minors went missing from the fourth shelter-home for over 24 hours. The Bihar police claimed that they found all the minors in Darbhanga, over a hundred kilometres away from the fourth shelter-home. Tarique could not explain the minors’ disappearance. 

An even more baffling number turns up in the Supreme Court’s order of November 2019, which looked into the restoration of the minors. As per this order, there were a total of 29 inmates. The order said that seven minors were reunited with their families; TISS had sought permission for the restoration of two others; eight other minors were ready to be resettled; and 12 inmates were left, whose houses were yet to be determined. When I spoke to Tarique in February this year, he told me that he was “still struggling with locating the houses of the parents of the rest of the girls”—some did not recall where they were from because when they left home when they were very young and some were suffering from mental-health conditions. According to him, as of February 2020, 15 minors have been reunited with their families and the rest were still in the process of being rehabilitated. However, he could not give me the exact number of girls who still awaited rehabilitation; neither could he corroborate the count of 29 minors.

In yet another twist, on 8 January this year, the attorney general told the court that “all 35 girls were alive.” Venugopal was updating the court about the CBI’s investigation into the alleged murder of minors in Balika Grih. Venugopal provided no context about this number that he quoted on behalf of the CBI. More so, because in April 2019 the CBI had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that the agency suspected that 11 inmates of Balika Grih had been killed. So, when the attorney general said that 35 were alive, it did not add up.

Everyone associated with the case has vague estimates of the total number of minors rescued from the Balika Grih; the number involved in the investigation; number of minors reunited with their families; and the number of girls missing. Santosh Kumar and Santosh Singh, the petitioner and the journalist, told me they were unaware of the exact numbers as the fourth shelter-home is off limits to people. I spoke to the superintendent of the fourth shelter-home to confirm how many minors from Balika Grih were brought to them and how many were resettled. The superintendent said she was not authorised to speak to the media and added that she would get back to me after speaking to her superior. She did not. Bhat, the amicus, told me that she would like to believe there were 44 girls rescued and being rehabilitated because that is the number she had been told since the beginning.

Fauzia Shakil, the lawyer, told me that she never got to know how many girls were rescued and how many were rehabilitated. “I do not even know if CBI recorded statements of all the girls.”

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