The discovery of the decapitated and mutilated body of a 16-year-old girl in Gaya, Bihar, on January 6 and the police’s inept handling of the case since has led to claims by the girl’s family that the police was harassing them in order to protect local strongmen who are believed to be the culprits.

The teenager’s body was discovered on January 6 morning in Gaya’s Buniyadganj area. Her severed head was found 5 km away in a field, according to reports. Her family – which belongs to the Patwa community of weavers in Patwa Toli area of Manpur, a suburb of Gaya – has alleged that the girl was gangraped before being murdered.

On January 10, after interrogating members of the family over two days, the police said that they suspected the teenager’s father killed her with the help of his friend because she had eloped with a man the family did not approve of. They subsequently arrested the girl’s father and his friend. The family later alleged that the police tortured and threatened the teenager’s mother and two younger sisters in order to extract false confessions from them.

The murder and police action has enraged members of the Patwa community, which has held several protest rallies. Both they and Opposition parties have demanded that the case be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation.

On January 21, the police announced that a third person – a woman – had been arrested in the case. This time, however, police officials refused to speculate about the motive.

Contesting narratives

According to the police’s initial version of events, the teenager eloped with a boy on December 28 but returned on December 31. They claim that the girl was then killed by her angry father and his friend in what they described as a case of “honour killing”.

Much of the police’s case regarding the honour killing theory rests on the alleged confessions of the 16-year-old’s mother and sisters. But the sisters told the media on January 12 that the police had forced them to make those statements.

The girls, aged 14 and 7, say the last time they met their sister was on December 28 when she came home from work and then went to the community toilet. She never returned.

“But the policemen would not listen,” said one sister, weeping profusely. “They hit us with sticks, saying they knew she had come home after that, and then went off with someone. They threatened to give us electric shocks and turn us insane if we hid the truth. They said they would hang our mother and father by ropes and beat them to death, and put us sisters in jail.”

Their lawyer Parvez Ahmed said the family was in shock when he met them. “They could barely talk,” he said. “The children were mortified that the police would torture them again and put them in jail.”

Contrarian picture

Local residents say the contention that the teenager’s murder was a case of “honour killing” did not make sense as the Patwa community is known to be progressive. Classified under the Other Backward Classes, Patwas are especially keen on educating their children. The powerloom hub of Manpur, in which Patwas are the numerically dominant community, is known as Gaya’s “technocrat city” for the high number of engineers and civil servants it produces.

Gopal Patwa, a neighbour of the family, said inter-caste relationships were not unusual in the area and Patwa Toli alone had seen at least a dozen such marriages. “Around 4%-5% of marriages now are between inter-caste couples,” he said. “Their acceptance in the community shows that we are not orthodox. So, where is the question of protecting our caste honour. That there is no practice of dowry in our neighbourhood at all should tell you if we are progressive or otherwise.”

A protest in Gaya, Bihar, against the murder of a 16-year-old girl earlier in January.

‘Dabangs being protected’

A day after the 16-year-old’s body was found, her grandfather wrote to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and senior police officials demanding a high-level investigation. “[The victim’s] parents feel that local dabangs [strongmen] have gangraped and murdered their daughter,” he wrote. “But now, they are being persecuted to save the guilty.”

Gopal Patwa echoed this too. “The strongmen of the area have an arrangement with the police,” he said. “That is why they dressed this up as a case honour killing so they can protect the real culprits.”

Patwa is an office bearer of the Bihar Pradesh Bunkar Kalyan Sangh, an organisation for the welfare of weavers, which leans towards the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance. It organised a strike in around 10,000 power looms in Manpur on January 9-10 to protest against the police’s handling of the case.

The strike was called off following personal assurances of a fair probe from Gaya’s District Magistrate Abhishek Singh and Deputy Inspector General of Police Vinay Kumar

Subsequently, the state government constituted a Special Investigation Team to investigate the matter. But Gopal Patwa is sceptical if it will be impartial. “We want nothing short of a CBI probe,” he said.

Rita Barnwal, joint secretary, Bihar, of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, was part of a delegation that visited the teenager’s family on January 11. She also spoke of a connection between “dominant caste [Rajput] strongmen” in the area and the police and has called for a CBI investigation.

The third arrest

On January 21, Senior Superintendent of Police Rajeev Mishra said at a press conference that Kauleshwari Devi, a resident of Patwa Toli, had confessed to helping the teenager’s father and his friend kill the girl.

Devi, who was fielded before the media, her face concealed behind a dupatta, said the crime was committed on January 4 in the home of the father’s friend Lila Patwa. “Lila gave her something to drink, and she fell unconscious,” said Devi. “He then prised her head apart with a weapon. I helped him while her father kept watch outside.”

Asked what the motive was, Mishra said, “Investigations are on, and a few other people may be involved.” Significantly, this time, Mishra did not bring up the “honour killing” point at all.

Misra told reporters that the police had recovered blood-stained clothes from a river near Manpur after Devi’s confession. The samples have been sent to Patna’s Forensic Sciences Laboratory for testing.

Mishra told “I have nothing to add beyond what I told reporters on Monday [January 21].”

Tuesday, the bail petitions of Lila Patwa and the girl’s father were filed in court while Kauleshwari Devi was sent to 14-day judicial custody.

Community leaders are angry with the police. “The police has not even been able to tell us where the girl was between December 28 and January 4,” Prem Narayan, president of the Bunkar Seva Samiti, an organisation in service of weavers, told a gathering of community representatives on Tuesday evening. Those present at the meeting discussed the possibility of filing a Public Interest Litigation in the Bihar High Court in the coming days if the police investigation failed to answer basic questions, reported the local media.