It has been almost a year since 13-year-old Nirmala Panta of far-western Kanchanpur district was raped and murdered. Rights activists and locals of Kanchanpur have organised series of protests seeking justice for Nirmala ever since her body was found on July 27 in a water-logged sugarcane field. In these protests, 14-year-old Sunny Khuna was killed by police and another teenager, Arjun Bhandara, who was shot, is still in comatose state. Yet police are clueless about the perpetrator(s) who committed the crime. Tekendra Deuba and Ujjwal Satyal of The Himalayan Times talked to Nirmala’s mother Durga Devi, to find out how she is coping with the situation and to get her views onpolice investigation. Excerpts:
Police still have not been able to nab the perpetrator(s) who raped and killed Nirmala. What do you have to say about investigations conducted by the police?
Police say it sometimes takes years to nab the culprits. That provides some hope. But again I sometimes feel the perpetrators will never be brought to justice because police have not come across a vital clue even a year after Nirmala’s death. I also think that the case was not handled properly from the beginning and police have relied too much on DNA tests to nab the culprits, which is not sufficient. Although I don’t know much about DNA tests, police need to investigate from every possible angle.
DNA tests are considered very reliable in tracing criminals in rape cases. But are you suspicious about these tests?
I am not an educated person, but if the tests are so reliable why have police failed to come to a conclusion? So far, police have collected DNA samples of numerous people and matched them with the sample collected from Nirmala’s vaginal swab. But none of them has matched. This has made me suspicious. I want to see the culprit behind bars. That’s it.
How are you earning a livelihood as you have spent most of the past one year taking part in protests to deliver justice to Nirmala?
I took part in protests ever since the body of my daughter was found. For 10 months, I didn’t accept the financial support provided by the government. The protests drew support of activists and the general public from across the country, which made me feel that the whole nation was behind me. This support somehow alleviated my pain. But it was unfortunate that Sunni Khuna, a 14-year-old boy and a son of a mother like me, died in police firing during protests and numerous others were injured. My involvement in these protests did take a toll on the lives of my two other daughters as I could not cook for them, provide company and support their studies. That’s when I decided to resume the business of selling chatpate (a quick snack) from my home, a business that had been suspended since Nirmala’s death. But I could not get back into the business, as memories of Nirmala, who used to help me run the business, kept haunting me. That was when I accepted the job offered to me by Bhimdatta Municipality. I’ve been working in the Women Empowerment Section of the municipality for almost a month now. I hope to get the appointment letter as soon as promised.
Where do you think the police erred while investigating your daughter’s rape and murder?
Police had bungled the case from the very beginning. They did not dispatch a search mission on the night she went missing despite my request. Police then did very little to preserve crucial evidence when her body was found in the sugarcane field a day after she went missing. You can see videos of how the police washed the trouser that Nirmala was wearing and her inner parts after her body was found. Police were not serious about the case even after the body was found. They launched investigation into the case only after locals raised voice against their inaction. Then a few days later the police produced Dilip Singh Bista as the person who had committed the crime. I don’t know if Bista is the real culprit but the circumstances under which he was arrested did raise eyebrows at that time.
The arrest of 41-year-old Bista after 26 days of Nirmala’s murder was widely protested. Many said police had framed the mentally unstable person to silence protesters, who were building pressure on the government to arrest the criminal(s). But now some, including you, have said the possibility of Bista being the real culprit cannot be ruled out. What caused the needle of suspicion to turn to Bista?
When the protest was at its peak, locals of Bhimdatta area did not accept Bista as the perpetrator because he was suffering from mental health problems. Moreover, his DNA sample did not match the one collected from Nirmala’s vaginal swab. As the protests subsided, I watched the video showing Bista’s confession. In the video, the crime scene described by Bista, including the location where Nirmala’s bicycle was found and places were Nirmala’s dress were torn are accurate. Around that time I also came to know about Bista’s lewd behaviour from his close family members. So, I was suspicious about Bista. But let me be clear here: no innocent person should be declared a culprit. I am a mother and I do not want to deliver justice to my daughter by sending an innocent person to prison.
It is said protesters supporting Nirmala’s cause are divided now. Is that true?
Our protest was not targeted at any particular party, person or the government. The protests were carried out to deliver justice to Nirmala. I am indebted to all human rights activists, journalists and the general public for supporting the cause. I express heartfelt condolences to the family of Sunny Khuna, who lost his life during the protests, and wish for speedy recovery of Arjun Bhandara. About the protest being divided, I think this a ploy hatched to weaken the protest. It’s just that it was not practical to prolong the protest further, that’s why we had to suspend it.
Lots of people came to visit you after the incident and made various promises. Have the promises been fulfilled?
Lots of police, human rights activists, politicians, social workers and other people came to visit me at my home and the protest site. They visit me even now at my home. The love that people have showered on my daughter has made me realise that I was merely a mother who gave birth to Nirmala, who has now become the daughter of the entire country. Yes, these people who came to visit me made promises and the common promise was about ‘tracing the perpetrator(s) and delivering justice to Nirmala’. Until this promise is fulfilled, fulfilment of other promises is of no value.
Why do you think police are failing to locate culprits who raped and killed Nirmala?
The culprit had an easy escape because of police negligence. Police failed to deploy basic investigation techniques such as preserving evidences to trace the culprit. After Nirmala’s body was found, police and authorities rushed to conduct Nirmala’s final rites. We were not even told what happened to Nirmala’s dress, which was recovered from the crime scene. Police investigation was also too much centred on matching DNA samples, whereas the culprit could have been anyone around us.
Nirmala had disappeared after returning from her friends Aanchal and Anita Bam’s house. This has dragged the Bam sisters into controversy. What is your take on this?
I don’t have personal grievances against anybody. Our family had a good relationship with the Bam sisters. I cannot say whether the sisters had any connection with Nirmala’s rape and murder. It is up to the police to investigate that part.
There was a rumour about your family being divided over receiving compensation from the government. Is that true?
At first, we stood our ground and decided not to accept any money from the government until Nirmala’s murderer was found. But we did not see any sign of the culprit getting arrested even after months of protests. The protests had consumed too much of my time which had prevented me from generating income. This affected the lives of two other daughters of mine. My elder daughter is a Grade X graduate and the younger one is in Grade VIII. I have to provide food, shelter and education to them and take care of them if they fall ill. Considering these responsibilities and my weak financial condition, I decided to accept compensation provided by the government. Also, I do not have faith in my husband as he is unlikely to support me in my old age as he lives with his second wife. So nine months after the incident, I decided to accept the money offered by the government. However, I would like to clarify that I did not take part in the protests in the hope of getting compensation from the government.
How are your neighbours treating you after the incident?
Society has been supportive and neighbours are also treating us well. But some of them are hurt because police have collected their DNA samples on the suspicion of their involvement in Nirmala’s rape and murder. I would like to request the police not to unnecessarily torture innocent people. Innocent people should not be framed on the pretext of pinning down perpetrators of Nirmala’s rape and murder. The investigators should be careful about this as I too have to live in this society. But I would also like to request those who have been hurt not to see police action as something instigated by me.
A version of this article appears in print on July 22, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.