Given the involvement of “powerful and influential” local BJP leaders, a citizens’ fact-finding team says measures are being taken to impair the legal validity of the victim’s statement.
Ahmedabad: A sex racket in Gujarat – in which leading members of the ruling BJP are said to be involved – has kicked up a storm in the state.
But as the case takes curious twists and turns, a citizens committee wonders if the woman who complained about being drawn into the racket will ever get justice.
On January 23, the 24-year-old woman from Mumbai filed a complaint at the Naliya police station in Abdasa taluka, Kutch. Her allegations about being gangraped by ten men, and the subsequent details about the scandal, have led to the arrest of nine men mentioned in the FIR, filed two days after the initial complaint. Four of those arrested are local BJP leaders in Kutch.
She also filed an affidavit in the high court in Gujarat, accusing the police of inaction after the FIR was registered. In the affidavit, she said that 35-40 women in and around Kutch were pulled into the sex ring, in which some 65 people were involved, under the ruse of employment.
In her affidavit she stated that in August 2016, she went to her mother’s house in Kothara, Naliya taluka, after a dispute with her husband, who is a Mumbai resident. In search of employment, she met a man identified as Bhababhai, alias Babushir, a mobile shop owner in Naliya.
Bhababhai introduced her to Shantilal Solanki, a senior BJP leader. The woman said that Solanki, who ran a liquid petroleum gas (LPG) agency, offered her a job paying Rs 5,500 a month.
Last Diwali, when the victim wanted an advance payment, Solanki called her to his residence to collect the money. Upon arriving there, she said she was offered a drink. She fell unconscious after that and was raped by three men, according to the affidavit. The men filmed the act and forced her into having sex multiple times.
She said she was handed over to different people in farmhouses and hotels, and even assaulted in moving cars. Solanki warned her not to file a complaint, she said.
But she eventually went to the police, with an FIR being filed two days after the complaint.
“As per her statement she had attempted to commit suicide thrice, before her husband supported her and encouraged her to file a complaint,” Markand Chauhan, superintendent of police (SP), Kutch, said, adding that a Special Investigation Team (SIT) was formed after her complaint was lodged.
The nine men mentioned in the FIR included Solanki, convenor of the Other Backward Classes cell and president of the Baxi Panch-Abdasa Taluka, Govind Parumlani, secretary of the BJP’s Gandhidham unit and Ajit Ramvani and Vasant Bhanushali, both BJP councillors in Gandhidham. The others were identified as Vipul Thakkar, Chetan Thakkar, Bharat Chauhan, Ashwin Thakkar and Bhababhai alias Babushir.
The victim said an identity card was issued to her by the BJP Kutch unit, on behalf of the Pt. Deendayal Upadhyaya Prashikshan Mahabhiyan, a BJP body that issues the cards for training sessions and workshops. The card described her as a “social lady”.
The card and the designation allowed women into hotels, farmhouses and high profile parties, she said. “Nobody would stop them or question them,” the victim stated.
Though the issue kicked up a furore after the victim’s complaint, the first arrests were made after a fortnight, on February 7. The SIT arrested Solanki, 48, and Vinod Thakkar, 67, along with his two sons, Ashwin, 44, and Chetan, 35. A local court in Naliya sent Solanki to 14 days of judicial custody on February 9. On February 11, the police arrested Bhanushali, Parumalani and Ramvani from Samakhiyali.
“Laptops and mobile phones of the accused have been seized and are being investigated,” Chauhan said.
The alleged kingpin, Vipul, however, is yet to be arrested. Vipul, who ran a public canteen in Naliya, which was the front for the racket, is said to be on the run.
The police also arrested a woman referred to in the complaint as ‘Bhabhi’ and later identified as Geeta Shripal.
Shripal allegedly helped Vipul in running the canteen and the ring.
“Though the victim mentioned the role of a Bhabhi in the complaint, in her statement later she gave her a clean chit,” Chauhan added.
After the arrests, the BJP suspended the four party members who had been named in the FIR. However, the minister of state for home Pradeepsinh Jadeja and BJP state spokesperson Bharat Pandya have claimed that the identity card produced by the victim was fake.
The case took on a new turn when BJP Kutch president Keshubhai Patel, who had also maintained that the card was forged, displayed a photocopy of the card at a press conference, revealing the identity of the victim. A complaint was filed against Patel by a local social worker, Henry Chako, under the Bhuj B division police.
Given the explosive nature of the victim’s allegations, the case has taken centre stage in Gujarat politics. The AAP staged protests in Ahmedabad and in Kutch, demanding action against the accused and a court-appointed SIT headed by a judge. The Congress later joined the fray. The chairperson of the state women’s commission, Leelaben Ankoliya, visited the family of the victim and has submitted a report on the matter.
On February 18, after days of political turmoil in Ahmedabad, Ashish Bhatia, the additional director of police, CID (Crime), directed IG (Crime–II) Shashikant Trivedi, SP Sujata Majumdar, deputy SP Rishikesh Upadhaya and inspector R.K. Dimri to monitor the investigation.
Bhatia said the supervising team was formed after letters from the IG (Border Range), Kutch, and the SP of Kutch in this regard.
The issue was also raised by the Congress in the assembly, leading to an adjournment of the first day of the Budget session on February 21. However, while chief minister Vijay Rupani agreed to launch a judicial probe into the matter, the Naliya court denied permission to the SIT to carry out brain mapping, lie detector tests and brain electrical oscillation signature profiling of the accused who had been arrested.
Amidst the political unrest, there was a twist in the case when a Naliya resident called Kiritbhai Vaghela claimed that he owned the LPG agency and Solanki was his employee.
“I have not hired any woman after 2003. This is not a woman’s job,” Vaghela told the media.
Additionally, a man called Kalpesh Momaiya, who said he was the victim’s former husband, moved an application in the Naliya court on February 20, accusing her of cheating and extortion. The court ordered the Kothara police to book the woman and three others for cheating, criminal breach of trust and extortion.
The next day, Momaiya went to court again, this time accusing the woman of threatening to kill him. The court ordered a second FIR against her for criminal intimidation.
Given the sudden filing of charges against her and the evident clout of the accused, a fact-finding committee under the banner of the Forum of Concerned Citizens of Naliya in its report wondered if the victim would get justice.
“The victim is now knocking the doors of justice but there is doubt that justice shall be met, as powerful and influential and even elected representatives are the accused,” it said in its report released on February 28. “The enquiry is moving sluggishly and direct and indirect measures are being taken to impair the legal validity of the victim’s statement in every way.”