Warning: This article contains a graphic image.

A not so ordinary day

It was just another ordinary Thursday morning for Durga Devi Panta. She woke up early, finished household chores, and left for work at around 8 am like she always did.  She told her three daughters to look after a Panipuri stall she owns at her home in Bhimdutta municipality.

Durga had been living separately with her daughters ever since Yagya Raj Panta, her husband, abandoned her for another woman nine years ago. Yagya had married for a second time saying Durga hadn’t given birth to a male child. As the income from Panipuri stall was barely enough to survive, it had been her daily routine to go across the border to Banbasa, a border town in Uttarakhand, India, to work as a carrier of smuggled goods for petty returns from local businessmen.

When Durga returned from work at around one in the afternoon of July 26, 2018, two of her daughters, Manisha and Nirmala, were not at home. Manisha, her eldest child who had gone to a neighbour’s home, returned soon afterwards. Her youngest daughter Saraswati told her that Nirmala had gone to meet Roshani Bam at her home which was around 1.5 kilometres away. Unbeknownst to Durga, Roshani had invited Nirmala to her house a day earlier when she was at the candy store to eat Chatpat and borrow a notebook.

Before leaving the house, Nirmala had told her sisters that she was going to take the notebook and Rs 20 that Roshani owed the shop for Chatpat she had eaten a day earlier. She also promised to bring them some guavas from Roshani’s garden.

Had Durga sensed anything ominous and instantly left in search of Nirmala at that moment, she could perhaps have averted the biggest tragedy of her life. But Durga didn’t bother much. After all, Roshani was a good friend to her daughter and the two friends had visited each other’s homes many times.

Nirmala, according to police officials involved in the investigation, was raped and murdered by an unknown man at around 2 pm the same afternoon, an hour after Durga had returned home from work. Her body was recovered from a sugarcane field, around a kilometer away from home, the next morning.

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The Bam sisters’ house. Photo: BP Anmol

The search

It was around 6 pm in the evening but Nirmala had not come back home. Durga decided to go to Roshani’s house to find her daughter.

To Durga’s surprise, Roshani told her that Nirmala had left their house at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Roshani’s response made Durga lose her calm.

“Roshani, tell me where did she go?  She is your friend. She might have told you where she was going. Tell me, where did you send her? Why did you invite her without informing me?” Durga demanded.  According to an official involved in the investigation, Durga was occasionally swearing as she chided Roshani.

Roshani’s sister, Babita Bam who was listening to their conservation from inside the room, came out to the varanda and started defending her sister who had no answers to Durga’s questions.

“Aunty, what are you saying? Is it our job to look after your daughter? Why do you come here and bother us? Do you know how your daughter was? Who knows your daughter might have eloped with somebody?” Babita replied, according to the interview with Durga and two police officials involved in the investigation.

It’s from this point that Durga started having cold feelings. “Could it be that these sisters sold my daughter to somebody?” Durga wondered, she recalled in an interview with the scribe.

There were rumours that Babita had a “bad reputation” in her locality. She had eloped with the same boy twice, but the marriage couldn’t last due to interference from her parents. She is due to get engaged to her new boyfriend in next few months. But the investigators say they found nothing to substantiate the rumours against the sisters.

Following the heated exchange with Babita, Durga says she had to leave Bam’s house without checking inside as she was denied entry.

It was already about 8 pm, and Durga was growing increasingly anxious. She asked Laxman Bhatta, her neighbour who was a constable, to file a report at Gadda Chauki police station about her missing daughter. Bhatta informed the police about the situation but the inspector declined the request for help saying “it was already too late to search.”

Durga went to Bam’s residence with constable Bhatta once again but was denied entry into the house. Durga and six other people from her neighborhood searched for Nirmala until 12 pm in the night. They also went to the local police in Salghari seeking help and phoned the district police office. But all requests for help fell on deaf ears.

The next morning, news about Nirmala’s disappearance had spread across the village. Family members, concerned locals and police officers were all frantically searching for Nirmala.

At around 8.30 am, a Tharu man in his mid-forties who worked at a police inspector’s house found Nirmala’s bicycle in the river next to the landlord’s farm. But the body was still nowhere in sight.

An hour later, a local man named Dipak Negi found Nirmala’s body in the sugarcane field, a few meters away from the location where the bicycle was found. The news of the death of a 13-year-old girl stunned the entire district. Before the local police had even reached the crime scene, hundreds of locals had thronged to the site and taken photos which were widely shared on social media.

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Photo: BP Anmol

The Lapses

To say that the police response under SP Diliraj Bista of Kanchanpur was slow would be an understatement. Despite Durga’s repeated requests, police did not show up for help. The team of officers took more than half an hour to reach the crime site despite the fact that the locals had informed them about the body minutes after it was found. The calls to seal the crime site to protect pieces of evidence were not heeded. Police officials in the crime scene were careless in protecting evidences. In a widely circulated video from the crime scene, a lady constable is seen washing clothes drenched in Nirmala’s blood, something locals claim was done to conceal evidence. More police officials were deployed to give security to Bam sisters than to arrest the culprit. Nirmala’s father was coerced to burn the body in haste despite protest from locals who were demanding that the administration find the culprit first. When his multiple efforts to persuade Niramala’s father went in vain, Bista took help of Nirmala’s maternal uncle to press Yagaraj to burn the body. SP Bista ordered his men to use force against peaceful protesters.

The events that unfolded in the aftermath of Nirmala’s disappearance and the way police responded to the events led locals to believe that SP Bista was working in cahoots with the criminals. Rumours started making rounds that Bista’s son, who alongside his two friends were ‘seen dating’ three girls at the local Opera hotel, a claim that hasn’t yet been verified, were the killers. Few others thought that Bam sisters helped connect Nirmala with her rapist.

Is there any truth to these claims? Why did SP Bista’s team ignore Durga’s request for help? Why did the police handle Nirmala’s case the way they did? Why did the police coerce Nirmala’s father to burn the body? Was it a strategy to quell public anger or something driven by a hidden motive? What forced local police to believe that Bam sisters had security threats? We do not know answers to these questions. But the investigators have not found anything substantial so far that could establish for a fact that SP Bista, his son or Bam sisters were involved in the crime.

One thing, however, is abundantly clear–SP Bista failed to discharge his duties in the spirit of the law. There were enough grounds for the Nepal police headquarter to recall Bista and suspend from duties. Fifteen more policemen joined him in the row.

Nepal Nirmala Pant Rape Investigation

A suspect gets arrested. Photo: BP Anmol

The suspects

A team from the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) led by Deputy Superintendent of Police Angur GC reached Kanchanpur on July 29.  There was good reason why the police headquarter entrusted GC with the task. He was reputed for being one of the best among the officer level cadets. Groomed by the likes of Devendra Subedi and Puskar Malla, GC had solved many difficult cases. The seniors at the police headquarters were confident that Angur would not disappoint.

After taking stock of the situation, the CIB investigators soon concluded that the murderer had taken extreme precaution while executing the crime. Nirmala’s body was recovered inside a sugarcane field but it was apparent that she had been killed before she was brought there. There were hardly any footprints or traces of resistance.  The spot where Nirmala’s body was found is at a considerable distance from human settlement, a private sugarcane field separated by a river from the road. This led the investigators to assume that the criminal was a family member or a neighbour or someone Nirmala knew. Or perhaps an experienced criminal or someone from a security background? The area was home to a military barrack.

The CIB began its investigation with Bam sisters. The locals had taken it for granted that Babita and Roshani were in some way responsible for the crime. It was rumored that Nirmala’s body was inside the Bam residence until midnight. Another rumour started making rounds in the village that a Bam sister had painted some rooms in the house. Investigators said there was no truth to those rumors.

Though some media had reported alleged relations between Babita and SP Bista’s son, the investigators found nothing despite tracking telephone calls, messages and activities on social networks.

Nirmala, according to Bam sisters’ account, had left their home around 2 pm in the afternoon. Babita had gone to a tuition centre after Nirmala left her home, a claim that was verified from cross-examination with teachers, classmates, and notes that Babita had taken that day.  When Durga was at Bam’s residence for the first time in the evening, a woman from the same neighbourhood was inside Babita’s room, according to the police. There has been much speculation over why Bam sisters chopped the Guava tree. Locals say it was chopped to erase evidence, while police claim it was just spontaneous act. At the end of the preliminary investigation, the police concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate Bam sisters’ role in the rape and murder.

After failing to get a lead from Bam sisters, the CIB team tried to find out if Nirmala had a boyfriend. She did not. From interrogation with family members, teachers, friends, and neighbours, it became apparent that Nirmala was an introvert with few friends, let alone boyfriends.

The CIB team then did a background check on Nirmala’s mother and her elder sister to see whether there were some men in their lives. Since Durga was single, it naturally occurred to police that she might have someone in her life. Police didn’t find anything in that direction as well. The calls and messages that Durga and her daughters had exchanged from their mobile phone were thoroughly scanned. Then the police conducted a background check on the people who had frequently called Durga’s mobile over the past few months.

Among the people who were in touch with Durga’s family, the police cleared all but Hemanti Bhatta, a girl from the same neighbourhood. Upon skimming through her phone calls and text messages, the CIB team concluded that her activities were suspicious. Hemanti, a twelfth grader at the Jyoti Bhahumukhi Campus, had over a dozen sim cards. She was exchanging ‘romantic messages’ with multiple guys at the same time. There was one important thing that added to their suspicion. To one of her many callers, she had promised to set a meeting with Nirmala.

Police rounded up Hemanti from her home on August 3. Before questioning Hemanti about Nirmala’s disappearance, the CIB team decided to cross-examine her about her sim cards and facts related to her personal life to check how sincerely she would respond. Hemanti lied about everything. She lied about the number of sim cards she had changed in past few months. She lied about her affairs. This only amplified suspicion. She was interrogated for the next four days. At the end of the interrogation, police found out that the Nirmala she had mentioned in a text message with her friend was a girl named Nirmala Dhami, not Panta.

In an interview with an online media outlet, Hemanti claimed that she was tortured into confessing a crime she didn’t commit. She said that she was harshly treated despite the fact that the police knew that she was menstruating.

“A lady constable did thrash her after she kept lying about her personal life time and again. But much of what Hemanti has told media is an exaggeration,” said an official involved in the investigation.

In the hours following the recovery of Nirmala’s body, police had started preparing a list of people who walked the same road Nirmala had taken. Dozens of men walking through the roads were asked whether they had heard or seen any unusual activities while passing by the road.

An old lady had walked through the road twice that day and seen something she thought was a little unusual. The old lady told investigators she saw a young man carrying a white mobile set standing by the road for both times she took the way.

The man was Chakra Badu, whose house was the nearest house from the site where Nirmala’s body was recovered. Badu was at his home the day Nirmala died. He used to work in India and had returned only a few months back. Upon returning home, he had married a girl from Dhading with whom he had fallen in love through Facebook. His wife was two months pregnant. Like Hemanti’s, the investigators found Badu’s statement misleading.

From the beginning, Badu maintained that he did not go to the crime site. But the investigators found two pictures of the crime scene in his mobile which were taken before the police team reached the site. Police seized his mobile and sent it to the forensic lab.

Before interrogating him, the CIB team separately cross-questioned Badu’s wife and his nephew about their activities the day Nirmala died. Their accounts of the day did not match. For example, Badu claimed that he was watching an English movie with his wife, while his wife said that they were watching Hindi film before she fell asleep. Upon further inquiry with other family members, police found out that Badu’s sister-in-law had gone to Banbasa with Nirmala’s mother and her ten-year-old son was sent to his maternal home.

The forensic test of his mobile further revealed that Badu had visited the crime scene and taken over a dozen pictures although he had maintained that he did not go to the crime scene. He had also claimed that he received the picture from photo sharing site though he wouldn’t say who transferred him the photos. The police could not find strong evidence against him but nevertheless have sent his blood specimen for DNA test. He has been released on bail upon request of his brother who is a police constable.

Right from the beginning, the investigators’ eyes were also upon locals with a criminal history; locals in the surrounding village who had just come out of prison, addicts and people who are known to have abused women and children.

Investigators were also rummaging through news reports coming out from the ground for clues. In an interview with the national television, a local woman told the interviewer that some women had experienced abuses in the stretch of the road where Nirmala’s body was found. Police rounded up more than a dozen people with criminal background. Dilip Bista was one of them. Bista had recently come out of prison after finishing nine years term for killing his brother-in-law. Police say he was not at home on the day Nirmala died and he had a history of abusing women, which the villagers excused believing he was a madman.

The story behind Bista’s arrest remains unclear. In an interview, Bista claimed that he was forcefully nabbed, tortured and pressed to accept the crime he never committed, an allegation police denies.

According to a police official involved in his interrogation, Bista readily confessed to raping Nirmala and killing her to cover up the crime when the police arrested him. He accepted to killing Nirmala by breaking her vocal cord, something the post-mortem report had stated. He further confessed to raping her by grassland near the river and throwing her body inside the sugarcane field. His account of the crime, recorded in a video conversation, matches with the initial findings from the crime scene and postmortem report.

Dilip Bista was soon taken under custody and his blood specimen was sent for DNA test. But his DNA did not match with sperm found in Nirmala’s body and he was released from custody. Results for Badu’s DNA test together with that of SP Bista and his son are due.

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Scene from a protest in Mahendranagar. Photo: BP Anmol

The rage against rape

The rape and ruthless murder of a thirteen-year-old girl brought the district to a standstill. The locals were disappointed with the way the police handled the case. Some locals had started taking for granted that rich people were involved in crime and looking at the role of the police with suspicion. They were closely watching actions police would take to book the culprit and give justice to Nirmala’s parents. But the administration was completely out of touch with public sentiment.

Desperate to quell public anger, SP Bista wrongly framed a man named Jeevan Gharti Magar and Dipak Negi, the man who had discovered Nirmala’s body, as the main suspects. On the fourth day, Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa had announced the name of Magar and Negi in the parliament based on the reporting of the police on the ground.

Negi was on his way to his maternal uncle’s home while he joined locals in the search for Nirmala, according to Maya Negi, a local not related to him. Police had no evidence against Negi and Magar except the fact that they had accompanied the locals in searching for the body.

The arrests of these two men further eroded public trust on the police. The villagers saw it as a design to scapegoat poor to save rich people who they believed were behind the rape and murder.

A rumour had spread in the village that SP Bista’s son Kiran Bista and his two friends were seen at Opera hotel on the day Nirmala killed. Another rumour was also making rounds in the district that a woman had heard Babita talking about Nirmala’s corpse when the cycle was found but the body was still missing. It’s still unclear whether these rumors are true.

But the locals came out protesting against the police administration after SP Bista coerced Yagya Raj Panta, Nirmala’s father, to cremate her mortal remains. Hundreds of youths in the district picketed to protest against what they saw as the police’s efforts to wipe out the evidence. Hemanti’s arrest only added fuel to the fire.

“We were having a peaceful protest. But the police opened fire and further escalated the tension,” Laxmi Malla, who had led the protest, told this scribe during an interview. Malla, a mother herself, claims that she was taken into custody, tortured and released after signing an affidavit that she would not participate in the protest. On the other hand, Roshani, who was also at the police station for interrogation, was given a “royal treatment.”

“Every minute, a police constable would come to her (Roshani) and ask if she was having any inconvenience. I was even denied water on SP Bista’s order,” said Malla.

A senior official at Nepal Police headquarter said that the police was forced to open fire at protesters after they came under multiple attack which he believes was orchestrated by Maoist outfit led by Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplab’.

SP Bista’s own questionable past was another reason for people’s anger. Bista, who in his 16 years’ of service in Nepal police spent 11 years in the far western region, had a bad reputation among the general public. Locals claim that he had framed some poor people to save rich people in the past. His image was also not good inside Nepal police. According to a news report, he had sexually abused some of his female colleagues in the past. But he was never charged due to his connection with political leaders in multiple parties.

Meanwhile, local leaders of opposition parties left no stone unturned to cash in on the case. They also dragged into the investigation the Mayor and his nephew. Following demands of the families and locals, the investigators have sent blood Bhimdutta Municipality Mayor’s nephew Aayush Bista for the lab test.

But the government’s gross ineptitude in the handling of the case and their effort to blame NC for the protest only backfired. Arguably, the biggest setback came from remarks PM Oli made in Janata Sanga Pradhanmantri. In the interview, Oli dismissed the protest as a deliberate effort to weaken his government, and indirectly defended the Bam sisters. Many saw it as an effort to cover up the crime.

The people who were following the events that unfolded after Nirmala’s case were not expecting such irresponsible remarks from the head of the government. Many identified Nirmala and her parents’ struggle justice as their own, thanks to a steady media coverage. At the same time, several other cases of rape were hitting the media headlines. According to police, around 946 cases of rapes were reported in past one year alone.

Oli’s remarks did not only draw public wrath but also forced Nirmala’s parents and women activists in Kanchanpur to come to Kathmandu demanding justice for Nirmala.

“What he told in Janata Sanga Pradhanmantri was completely unexpected. He sounded more sympathetic to Bam sisters than my daughter. This was the reason we decided to come to Kathmandu to demand justice,” Yagya Raj said. “Come what may, we are only going back once justice is done.”

The couple left Kathmandu yesterday, Sepetmber 17, after handing an appeal for justice to the Prime Minister. President Bidhya Devi Bhandari refused to meet the Panta family despite repeated requests.

It has been 54 days since Nirmala Panta’s dead body was found. The investigation has already been carried out at six different layers. More than 300 people have been interrogated, thousands of phone calls and messages traced. Five suspects have been sent for DNA test to see whether their DNA match with sperm recovered from Panta’s uterus. But the primary question remains: who raped and killed Nirmala?

Corrections 23 September 2018: This article was revised to remove HIV status of one of the suspects. An earlier version of the article named Dilip Negi as a suspect. The correct name is Dipak Negi.