From the day Ankita Bhandari vanished, there was suspicion of foul play. On September 18, the 19-year-old receptionist at a resort in Rishikesh in the Himalayan State of Uttarakhand went missing. The local law enforcers, the patwaris, did not pay much attention to the case. Five days later, on September 23, her body was recovered from Chilla canal after three men confessed to killing Ankita and dumping her body there.
The case gained attention because one of the main accused, 35-year-old Pulkit Arya, is the owner of the resort, Vanantara, and the son of the now-suspended Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Vinod Arya.
The once-luxurious resort, now bulldozed and vandalised, is central to the Ankita Bhandari murder case. She was reportedly coerced by Pulkit Arya into providing sexual favours to customers, which first led to an altercation between the two and later to her killing.
Following Ankita’s murder, the authorities are also looking into the disappearance of Priyanka, another young woman who vanished from the resort eight months ago.
Local people erupted in rage, demanding the death penalty for the accused. Protesters vandalised local BJP MLA Renu Bisht’s car. They also stopped the police jeep that was carrying the three suspects to the local court, ripped their clothes and broke the jeep’s windows. As “Justice for Ankita” began to trend on social media, the Uttarakhand administration stepped in and, on the instructions of Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, constituted a Special Investigation Team (SIT).
Vipin Karnwal, a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) leader, waded into the controversy by making derogatory remarks in a Facebook post, blaming Ankita’s father for her death. The “greatest fault is of her father who put milk before hungry male cats,” he wrote. He was booked for sedition and spreading caste animosity.
Rumours of a ‘VIP’
The local press is agog with rumours about the identity of the “VIP” to whom Ankita was allegedly forced to render “special services”. According to Deputy Inspector General P. Renuka Devi, who is heading the SIT, there was a ‘presidential suite’ meant for VIP guests at the resort. According to police sources, the term “VIP” is used loosely in rural regions and may even refer simply to someone who drives an SUV.
Ankita, who had joined Vanantara Resort less than a month before her death, reportedly died of drowning, but there was apparently evidence of blunt force trauma on her body. WhatsApp conversations retrieved from her phone appear to corroborate the view that Pulkit Arya was pressuring her into prostitution. The police have seized the phone.
More horrific details of the case seem to emerge as new light is shed on it every day. The body was recovered near Chilla powerhouse by the Uttarakhand State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) late on September 23, five days after Ankita went missing. The search for her appears to have been inexplicably delayed despite her family’s repeated complaints.
Soon after her body was found the BJP expelled Vinod Arya and his elder son Ankit Arya from the party. Vinod Arya was chairman of the Uttarakhand Mati Kala Board in the previous Trivendra Singh Rawat-led government with the rank of a Minister, and Ankit Arya was the vice president of the State OBC (Other Backward Class) Commission. The Uttarakhand Police are also probing at least two instances of threats to local journalists who covered the case.
One of the more disturbing aspects of the episode has been the speed with which the administration razed parts of the resort, which was subsequently vandalised by angry locals. The destruction led to questions about the loss of valuable evidence.
Anand Lal Banerjee, former Director General of Police of Uttar Pradesh, told Frontline that the resort was an important part of the crime scene and could have revealed important evidence.
Vrinda Grover, a criminal lawyer based in New Delhi, believes that the resort was bulldozed in order to quell public anger over the case. She said, “The victim used to reside in the resort. When the property was bulldozed, the investigation was at a nascent stage. It was too early to destroy because it could have offered important clues in the course of the investigation.”
The administration claims that the structure was demolished because it was an illegal construction. It is strange that it discovered the illegality immediately after a murder. The timing of the razing also calls into question the BJP-ruled States’ increasing use of the “bulldozer strategy” as a punitive measure. Legal experts have repeatedly asked that its basis in Indian law be examined.
At Ankita’s two-storey house in a village in Pauri Garhwal district, her 53-year-old father, Virendra Bhandari, too, believes that the bulldozing of the resort may have destroyed crucial evidence.
He mourns the fact that Ankita’s dream to buy a house in a city might now never be realised. She was her parents’ only daughter and had big dreams. “She could not even draw her first salary,” he said.
Bhandari is determined to get justice for his daughter for whom he invested all his meagre resources. He worked multiple odd jobs to get Ankita admitted to a CBSE-affiliated English-medium school. Both Ankita and her brother Ajay were students at Bhagat Ram Modern School, where Ankita scored close to 90 per cent marks in Class 12 in 2020. “She wanted to learn English and was a very good student. She always had big ambitions, and I thought she would do well,” he said.
In 2021, Ankita enrolled in a certificate course at Dehradun’s Shri Ram Institute of Hotel Management. Her father, however, soon lost his job as a security guard, forcing Ankita to drop out of the one-year course. “Namak roti kha ke Ankita ko padhaya tha…” (We lived on roti and salt to educate Anita), recalls her father.
It was at this time that Ankita’s friend learned about a job at Vanantara Resort and told Ankita about it. She landed the job and was promised Rs.10,000 as monthly salary. Her father agreed to send her to Rishikesh and last saw her on August 28. “I should have stayed longer, inquired from local people about the nature of the resort,” Bhandari said, blaming himself.
Bhandari also blames the administration for delaying the investigation. The local patwari handled the matter until it was turned over to the regular police. Vaibhav Pratap Singh, the patwari, was later suspended for failing to file an FIR (first information report) in response to Bhandari’s complaint that his daughter was missing.
Uttarakhand is one of the few States that continues to have a patwari, or revenue police system which dates back to pre-British India. Patwaris were the village accountants or administrative officers primarily responsible for maintaining land records. The British expanded their role to include mediation, law and order, and registration of births and deaths.
Patwari system pitfalls
According to Indresh Maikhuri, Garhwal secretary of the CPI(ML)’s Uttarakhand division, the patwari system provides revenue sub-inspectors dual authority over property and law enforcement. “A lot of time was lost” in this case, he said, because the patwaris are not trained in police duties. This incident ought to serve as a wake-up call to do away with the system, he added. Among the local people, too, there is resentment against the patwaris and their supposedly callous attitude.
Significantly, in a letter dated July 12, 2022, the Additional Director General, Law and Order, of Uttarakhand had directed all Superintendents of Police to promptly register zero FIRs (an FIR where the jurisdiction of crime is immaterial) for any cognisable offence that has been registered by the patwari system. The letter states, “Following all regulations, the investigation should be forwarded to the regular police.” The delay in the Ankita Bhandari case is thus all the more curious.
The case also brings to the fore the daily struggle for freedom that women in rural India face. Kamala Pant, a well-known women’s rights activist in Uttarakhand, said that at a baithak (sit-in) held with numerous women leaders in the State, the point was made that parents were now afraid to send their daughters to schools and universities.
“The case has created problems for small-town girls in Uttarakhand who have dreams to study and work outside. Beti bachao and beti padhao is fine, but what happens once they are educated? Should they not be encouraged to go out and work?” she asked.
Crime on the rise
Crime appears to be on the rise in Uttarakhand. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for 2018 show that Uttarakhand had the lowest crime rate of all the north Indian States.
In 2018, there were 133.3 cognisable offences under the Indian Penal Code filed per 1 lakh residents, compared with 153.5 in Uttar Pradesh, 180.4 in Jammu & Kashmir, and 381 in Haryana.
However, according to the 2020 NCRB data, Uttarakhand had the highest number of rape and child sexual abuse cases among the nine Himalayan States (Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura and Uttarakhand).
Under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, Uttarakhand led the list of Himalayan States with 573 cases in 2020, while Himachal Pradesh had the lowest number. The most recent NCRB figures show that cybercrime had increased 195 per cent in Uttarakhand in 2021 compared with the previous year.
In 2018, the Trivendra Singh Rawat government relaxed restrictions on people from outside Uttarakhand from buying agricultural land in the State for industrial purposes. The policy was lauded for luring investments into the State, but many link the move to an increase in crime, sparking resentment on the ground. Simply put, crime is increasing as a result of urbanisation.
To Ankita’s family, she is more than a statistic on a crime graph. She was a young woman eager to spread her wings and better her and her family’s life through education and employment. With her murder, a thousand young Ankitas in the State have had their ambitions crushed.
- On September 18, the 19-year-old receptionist at a resort in Rishikesh in the Himalayan State of Uttarakhand went missing.
- On September 23, her body was recovered from Chilla canal after three men confessed to killing Ankita and dumping her body there.
- The resort was owned 35-year-old Pulkit Arya, the son of BJP leader Vinod Arya.
- Following Ankita’s murder, the authorities are also looking into the disappearance of Priyanka, another young woman who vanished from the resort eight months ago.
- The local patwari handled the matter until it was turned over to the regular police. Uttarakhand is one of the few States that continues to have a patwari, or revenue police system which dates back to pre-British India. Their role includes mediation, law and order, and registration of births and deaths.
- The case also brings to the fore the daily struggle for freedom that women in rural India face.