Ankita Bhandari’s body, recovered from Chilla canal, was burnt in haste and bulldozers were run at the murder site, destroying evidence and prompting many questions that still remain unanswered. The government investigation in the incident is another effort to save the killers. In a bid to get to the truth, the Uttarakhand Mahila Manch, along with some other national organizations fighting for women’s rights, carried out their own investigation into the case. A report on their findings.
New Delhi, 7 February, 2023
Uttarakhand’s Ankita Bhandari case hit the news headlines in September 2022. Ankita Bhandari, a resident of Dob Shrikot in Pauri Garhwal, worked as a receptionist at Vanantara Resort, located near Chilla Barrage in Rishikesh. In September 2022, her family approached the police after she suddenly disappeared from her workplace. However, the police were reluctant to lodge a missing complaint and the family managed to get it registered after 72 hours of struggle. Following this, on September 18, it came to light that Ankita had been murdered. It turned out that Pulkit Arya, the owner of Vanantara Resort, with the help of two of his employees, had killed Ankita by pushing her into Chilla canal after she refused to give into his demand for “special service” to a VIP guest at his resort. Pulkit is the son of Vinod Arya, a former minister in the BJP government, who has a direct connection with power even now. And therefore the role of the state administration and police in the case has been questionable since the beginning. Five days after the incident, Ankita’s body, recovered from Chilla canal, was burnt in haste and bulldozers were run at the murder site, destroying evidence and prompting many questions that still remain unanswered. The hatchet job of the investigation is another effort to save the killers.
In a bid to get to the truth, the Uttarakhand Mahila Manch, along with some other national organizations fighting for women’s rights, carried out their own investigation into the case. This investigation team — comprising 30 activists from Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka — on 27 to 29 October visited Dob Shrikot, the village of the deceased, and met with her parents and other residents; Vanantara Resort and nearby hotels; and interacted with the villagers of Ganga-Bhogpur, people’s organizations agitating in Srinagar and in Rishikesh’s Koyal Valley. They also visited the spots, where Ankita was pushed from and where her body was found, and interacted with the people present there. Based on the facts collected, the team has prepared a report, details of which are given here.
Our probe found that :
- The SIT set up to investigate this brutal murder is working under pressure, and has deliberately neglected its job. Therefore we demand an impartial CBI inquiry into the case. After the Uttarakhand High Court rejected an appeal in this regard, preparations are on to approach the Supreme Court seeking a CBI investigation in the case.
- According to eyewitnesses, there were injury marks on Ankita’s body, which was recovered from Chilla Barrage. The post mortem report said her death was due to drowning. However, the police did not investigate if she was raped and whether or not there was any kind of excess before the murder.
- The police did not consider it necessary to investigate the involvement of a VIP in the case, and the fact that he was illegally running a resort as well as an Ayurvedic factory in the area. On the contrary, at the behest of local MLA Renu Bisht, the way bulldozers were used to hastily flatten the room of the deceased, clearly showed an attempt to destroy evidence. The police and the administration also took no action against this.
- An important fact is that the tourism sector in Uttarakhand has so far failed to implement the mandatory Vishakha Guidelines for the safety of women in workplaces. Worse, most hotel / resort owners and their employees are not even aware of these.
In view of these facts, the investigation team met several state administrative officials — DGP Uttarakhand, SIT Chief P. Ranuka Devi, Additional Secretary Tourist, Deputy Director Tourist, Chief Secretary Uttarakhand, Chairperson of the State Women’s Commission and handed over a memorandum to them. The memorandum demands fair and quick action in the case, and concrete measures from concerned departments to prevent recurrence of such tragic incidents in the future. It urged the Chief Secretary to ensure safety of women in workplaces, while making special efforts to increase participation of women in the tourism industry. It also demanded a safe and dignified work environment in all government / non-government workplaces as well as strict following of Vishakha Guidelines for women’s safety therein.
Today the investigation team released the Ankita Bhandari murder case report (in Hindi and English) at the Press Club in New Delhi. Addressing the journalists, intellectuals, organization representatives and invitees present on this occasion, the speakers unanimously insisted that today working women not just in Uttarakhand, but across India, face both sexual as well as other kinds of violence. Lakhs of women across the country have to go through such incidents everyday — a serious question for all women organizations as well as champions of women’s rights. That’s why we feel that the struggle for justice for Ankita Bhandari is an important step towards women’s rights and we have to take it to the floor.
The investigation report release was attended by senior Supreme Court Advocate Vrinda Grover, Adva Netri Jagmati Sangwan, activist Kavita Krishnan, PUCL’s Kavita Srivastava, Adva Netri Mamuna Mulla and others. On behalf of the Uttarakhand Mahila Manch, Uma Bhatt expressed hope that this joint effort by women’s organizations would get the culprits punished and further the women’s rights movement at the national level.
Jagmati Sangwan spoke about how crimes against women were increasing under political patronage. “The Sports Minister of Haryana, who is accused of rape and sexual violence, continues to be in the state Cabinet even today. Ankita’s case and the case of the victims of Haryana are national level issues because the people in power are not implementing the law. The women’s movement does not want new laws, the law that is there should be implemented, that would be the biggest step. As long as there is political protection of criminals, women will not get justice,” she said.
Speaking on behalf of the Uttarakhand Mahila Manch, Mallika Virdi said an 18-year-old’s life and dreams had been cut short and hence it was necessary to get justice in the case. “All eyes are on this case. That is why we have come to Delhi to raise our voice.”
Giving details of the report, Uma Bhatt, who came from Nainital, said despite political interference the case could not be suppressed due to the strong people’s agitation demanding justice. “The police delayed at every level. It took 72 hours to register the FIR. The SIT was formed but it too was negligent in investigation and many important evidences were destroyed. The name of the VIP who killed Ankita has not been disclosed yet,” she added.
Adva’s Mamuna Mola said: “When we reached Uttarakhand for fact finding, the case was being hushed up. But once the women’s organizations started raising questions, they had to answer. Sadly, the Women’s Commission of Uttarakhand is almost dead. It also did not press for a proper investigation.”
PUCL’s Kavita Srivastava questioned why zero number FIRs were not being filed in Uttarakhand. “It is shocking that Ankita’s father was running around for 72 hours to get the FIR lodged. Till now, no FIR has been registered against any police station staff, nor any officer, nor anyone else, although the law is clear that criminal cases should be registered. Why is the government of Uttarakhand saving its employees and officers when the section in the law is clear? Also, why the Vishakha Guideline made in 1997 and the Anti-Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act made in 2006, are not applicable in the tourism industry of Uttarakhand?”
Kavita Krishnan wondered if there was any security for women working in all types of tourism. “The condition of women in every state is worsening. We have failed to create a safe environment for them. Religious tourism whether it is of Hindus, Muslims, Christians or any other religion, does not save women and children from trafficking, which is rampant. Until participation of women at work does not increase, it will not be seen in the culture of corporatization. Tragedies like Ankita Bhandari murder will continue to happen and the lives of young women will be in danger,” she said.
Advocate Vrinda Grover insisted that Section 370 of the IPC should be enforced in the Ankita Bhandari case. “Because Pulkit had taken Ankita hostage. 166 (A) should also be enforced on all the employees and officers, who have been negligent in this matter. At the same time, there is a need to monitor the whole issue. And the women’s movement must take stock of the last ten years, whether the laws made were even implemented,” she added.
Deepti Bharti of NFIW said that there should be employment for women. “This is the responsibility of the government,” she said.
Issued by Uttarakhand Mahila Manch.
*Malika Virdi* – 9411194041
*Uma Bhat* – 8958802074
The pdf version of the full report is given belowA Fact-Finding Report on the Murder of Ankita Bhandari