The alleged murder of Ankit Bhandari, a 19-year-old receptionist, by a Bharatiya Janata Party leader’s son named Pulkit Arya has caused widespread anger in Uttarakhand. The teenager went missing on September 18. Pulkit Arya owned the resort in which she worked.
On Friday night, the state administration bulldozed parts of Arya’s resort, while sections of the building were set on fire by unidentified people.
Demolishing the property of a person accused of a crime has no basis in Indian law even though it is a strategy that is increasingly being used in states ruled by the BJP. In this case, experts have raised another point of concern: that this action could amount to destroying evidence, given that the resort might contain valuable clues about Bhandari’s murder.
The Bhandari case
On September 19, after Bhandari went missing, Arya, resort manager Saurabh Bhaskar and assistant manager Ankit Gupta filed a missing person report.
During the police’s investigation, the three men confessed to killing Bhandari by pushing her into a canal after an altercation. They were arrested on Friday.
Evidence recovered later, such as WhatsApp messages from Bhandari to a friend, seemed to show that the men were allegedly trying to force Bhandari into prostitution. Her body was recovered on Saturday. The provisional postmortem report released by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Rishikesh, says that Bhandari had blunt force trauma injuries before death and she finally died of drowning.
Subsequently, the BJP expelled Vinod Arya and his elder son, Ankit, from the party. Ankit Arya was also removed from the post of deputy chairperson of the state’s Other Backward Classes Commission.
Meanwhile, on Friday night, parts of the resort, including Bhandari’s room, were demolished on orders of Pushkar Singh Dhami, the state’s chief minister. The administration claimed that these parts were constructed illegally. The next morning, unidentified people, possibly local residents, set fire to parts of the resort.
Bhandari’s family members, however, allege that the property was actually demolished to destroy evidence. The Uttarakhand Police, on the other hand, claim that all the physical and forensic evidence had been secured before the demolition.
Destruction of evidence?
The overnight demolition of the buildings has invited severe criticism from the Opposition and legal commentators.
The resort, Bhandari was last seen, would have been a critical location for the legal case, point out experts. “In the course of investigation, this room would have been part of evidence,” criminal lawyer Vrinda Grover told Scroll.in.
Besides, the resort may also be the focus of other cases. In the wake of Bhandari’s death, the police have have reportedly started investigating the case of Priyanka, another girl who disappeared from the resort eight months ago.
“The investigation [into Bhandari’s death] is at a very nascent stage,” Grover said. “Therefore, at this stage, any destruction of this kind of property, where she was residing, can hurt the case.”
According to Grover, any tampering with the physical environment where Bhandari lived would be detrimental to the trial. “This case will have to be built on circumstantial evidence,” she explained. “Therefore, to destroy the room that had been allocated to her, may have an impact on the case.”
The evidence collected should be recorded by the police. “The police is supposed to maintain a case diary detailing all the steps taken in an investigation on a daily basis,” said criminal lawyer Abhinav Sekhri.
The officials involved in this demolition must be held accountable, Grover said. “It seems to have been done in haste,” she said.
The police need to be questioned as to why they allowed this act. “Since, in law, it [the demolition] amounts to destruction of evidence,” Grover said.
Former Director General of Uttarakhand police Aloke Lal told NDTV that “evidence could have been thrown off from the scene of crime, due to the demolition”.
Lawyers also said that, at this stage, Bhandari’s family could approach courts to verify the police’s claim that they have recorded all evidence before the demolition. The court has the power to monitor a police investigation if it finds that the police are not conducting a proper investigation.
However, Delhi-based advocate Nikhil Mehra pointed out that in this case, “the demolition is not as devastating a consequence for the case as it may be in other scenarios”.
Mehra explained that the confession of the accused led to the police finding Bhandari’s dead body. Therefore, the confession could form the basis to prosecute the accused, he said.
“Ordinarily a confession given to police officer is inadmissible and has no value,” he explained. “But because of the recovery of the body by way of the confession, the confession becomes effective.” Therefore, this evidence will be admissible in court.
However, Mehra clarified that this did not mean that the authorities “should go rushing” to demolish buildings, no matter what the case.