In Uttarakhand, 'murder most foul': the Ankita Bhandari cover-up

The Dhami government's show of desperation has even diehard BJP supporters up in arms

Ankita Bhandari was a receptionist at the Vanantra Resort in Pauri, Uttarakhand
Ankita Bhandari was a receptionist at the Vanantra Resort in Pauri, Uttarakhand

Rashme Sehgal

The Uttarakhand hills are on fire.

Protest is mounting across the state for the arrest of state RSS mahamandaleshwar (general secretary) Ajay Kumar.

His is the name that has repeatedly surfaced as the likely match to a mysterious VIP that several witnesses referred to while police recorded evidence in the sensational Ankita Bhandari case.

Ankita Bhandari was the 19-year-old receptionist who went missing from Vanantra resort in Uttarkhand’s Pauri district on 18 September 2022. Five days later, on 23 September, her dead body — with several injury marks — was recovered from the Chilla barrage, on the Ganga river canal near Rishikesh.

In chats recovered by the police, Ankita told her boyfriend Pushpdeep two days before her death that BJP leader Vinod Arya’s son Pulkit, the owner of the resort where Ankita worked, was putting pressure on her to provide ‘extra service to a VIP’. When Pushpdeep asked whether ‘extra service’ referred to sex, Ankita replied in the affirmative, saying she was being offered Rs 10,000 for this ‘extra service’.

She told her friend, “Being a poor woman does not mean I am willing to sell myself”.

Ankita’s mother Soni Devi and her father Virendra Singh Bhandari have been sitting on dharna — not for the first time — in Srinagar (a town in the Pauri Garwhal district) for over a fortnight this month.

Soni Devi’s outrage was evident when she said, “Who was this senior RSS functionary who put pressure on Pulkit Arya to get Ankita to provide this extra service? And because she declined, Pulkit Arya and his two associates, Saurabh Bhaskar and Ankit Gupta, went on to murder her.

"Why are the Uttarakhand police doing a cover-up job as are the senior politicians of this state? How come the police have been unable to get hold of Ajay Kumar’s chat records two days before and two days after the murder of my child?”

Ankita had barely worked in Vanantra resort for three weeks. She had confided in Pushpdeep that once she collected her salary for the month, she would quit. She died before that could happen.

Soni Devi put it poignantly: “Instead of receiving her salary, I received her dead body.”

Pulkit Arya’s father Vinod Arya, also an RSS functionary, had held the post of a minister without portfolio in the Dhami government. Both father and son have been expelled from the BJP. Pulkit Arya and his associates were arrested and lodged in Pauri. Pulkit subsequently moved a petition claiming he feared for his life and has since been shifted to Chamoli jail.

The accused informed the police that the CCTV cameras in the resort were not working. The police accepted his statement without cross-checking whether this was indeed the case.

The prosecution, on behalf of the accused, played a brief video of Ankita sitting pillion behind Pulkit Arya on his scooter. The video omits the footage of what she said a little later to Pushpdeep: “I’m with these guys. I’m very scared.”

Shortly after this conversation, she was murdered.

The resort staff have attested on affidavit that she was screaming and crying when she was being taken away by Pulkit and his associates.

Soni Devi does not mince her words. She demands the arrest of Ajay Kumar as also the arrest of BJP MLA Renu Bisht and Pramod Kumar, the then SDM (sub-divisional magistrate), who had issued orders for the destruction of all evidence.

The JCB driver has given a signed affidavit that he was summoned twice on the same day, 23 September—once to raze the gate and boundary wall, and then to demolish two rooms, on the orders of Bisht and Kumar.

The Vanantra resort is located in the Ganga Bhogpur area of the Yamkeshwar assembly constituency represented by Renu Bisht. The extent of the cover-up can be gauged from the fact that the SIT (Special Investigation Team) report stated that ‘Ankita slipped and fell accidentally into the canal’.

Following the demolition of the room in which Ankita lived, a fire conveniently broke out on the premises on two successive days, obliterating whatever shreds of evidence might have remained.

It’s plain as day that the Dhami government is involved in a colossal cover-up.

During the winter session of the state assembly, parliamentary affairs minister Premchand Aggarwal gave a statement in the house that “the VIP (in this matter) refers not to a person but to a room”.

The outpouring of public support for the dharna has upset the calculations of the Dhami sarkar. Their worry is this: if it snowballs into a popular movement, it could well affect their prospects in the coming Lok Sabha elections.

Not only the state’s leading intellectuals, college professors and students, but also BJP women supporters are standing with Ankita’s parents.

One such BJP woman worker said, “We are all worshippers of the Devi cult, every village has a murti of the kuldevi. Women are on a pedestal in our state because while the menfolk go to the plains in search of work, it is the women who stay behind and take care of the aged parents, the household and the land holdings. How can we support such a foul murder?”

A ‘Justice for Ankita’ Committee has been formed. Its members comprise
a cross-section of people in the state, including journalists, led by Ashutosh Negi, editor of a local newspaper Jago Uttarakhand.

The police arrested Negi on 5 March on a trumped-up charge and put him in jail for 15 days. Negi’s bail application was not even heard as the Pauri district judge was on leave. He is presently in judicial custody.

Senior advocate Colin Gonsalves has filed a writ petition on Negi’s behalf before the Supreme Court, demanding the court oversee this investigation in order to arrive at the truth since the Uttarakhand police and bureaucracy continue to stonewall the facts.

Gonsalves’ petition highlights how key forensic evidence was destroyed when Renu Bisht and then SDM Pramod Kumar gave orders to a JCB driver to demolish Ankita’s room.

The Opposition, led by the Congress party, have been calling out the Dhami government for obfuscating facts and obstructing justice. Congress chief Karan Mahara has charged the state police of behaving more like party spokespersons than guardians of the law.

Both the Congress and the ‘Justice for Ankita’ Committee are going from village to village to highlight the manner in which justice has been deliberately denied to this young woman.

Meanwhile, Soni Devi and her husband Virendra Bhandari take a state bus every day from their village, Dobh Srikot, to Srinagar town, located 18 km away. They sit on dharna from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and in the evening, they take the bus back home.

Soni Devi is a postgraduate and worked in an anganwadi, while Virendra had a clerical job.

“I want punishment to be meted out to the murderers. This should serve as an example to others not to mistreat our daughters in this manner,” she said, while her husband added, “Why were the guilty allowed to destroy all evidence just a day after the crime? We do not have faith in the SIT investigation and want the CBI to take over the case.”

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