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Article: What the Ankita Bhandari Case Tells Us About the Status of Young Women in Uttarakhand

 

Shruti Jain
Ankita Bhandari, who worked at the Vanantra resort located about 12 kilometres from Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, was killed in September after she refused to entertain a VIP guest with “special services”. All of 19 years old, she had joined her first, and what proved to be the last, job to help out her family when her father was rendered unemployed. The accused are under arrest, but the locals express serious doubts about whether they will be brought to justice, given their proximity to the ruling party.

Ankita was allowed to work for only 18 days. Her dreams and aspirations of building a life for herself were cut short brutally by the persons under whose “custody” she lived at the resort. In her last chats and voice recordings, her dying declarations shared by her friend Pushp after her disappearance, she says she was trapped and pressurised to enter into prostitution. The reason behind the murder, the way it was carried out and the consequent elimination of evidence and delay in police action all reek of power and privilege’s use in overriding the law and justice system.

Ankita’s case needs to be seen and understood in the context of this abuse of power and lawlessness, the ill-conceived development and tourism getting promoted in Uttarakhand, and the lack of safe and appropriate work opportunities for young women, and youth and women in general. It is a direct consequence of such socio-political conditions that currently exist in the state of Uttarakhand.

State of lawlessness

Ankita worked at the Vanantra resort run by Pulkit Arya, on land owned by his father, registered for an Ayurvedic factory. His father Vinod Arya was a former state minister and a RSS powerful leader. His brother Ankit Arya was Uttarakhand OBC Commission vice president in the ruling BJP government. The use of power and privilege to protect Pulkit is evident in the undue delay in registering an FIR in the case and attempts to the erasure of evidence.

Further, the insistence of the locals on treating as accused a VIP – as mentioned by Ankita in her chats – and who thus became the reason behind her killing, has been sidelined. The DGP, when asked about the VIP person, implied that Ankita got confused about the VIP – in fact it was the presidential suite of the resort that was called the VIP room, and anyone who came there was called a VIP in a general sense. The SIT reiterated the same in its chargesheet. That the government went to the extent of stating this in the assembly is further seen as an attempt to shield the accused.

Ankita’s father, Birendra Singh, had to run from pillar to post to report the disappearance. According to Kavita Srivastava of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, “In today’s time, such inordinate delays of not acting upon cases of missing women are unheard of in the country… The story of the murder of Ankita shows a complete breakdown of the local criminal justice system. Several irregularities were committed with malicious intent from 19 September, when Pulkit tried to mislead the revenue police that Ankita had gone missing after in fact having killed her.”

Singh gives the following account of the ordeal he faced: He came to know about Ankita’s disappearance on September 19 when a concerned Pushp called him when he could not get in touch with Ankita after September 18 evening and the accused’s accounts appeared unsatisfactory. Singh visited three police stations in the next 12 hours – Pauri thana, Muni Ki Reti thana and Kotwali thana at Rishikesh – but his FIR was not lodged citing grounds of jurisdiction, ignoring the system of a zero FIR. He was told to go to the revenue police; however, they appeared to be working in collusion with the accused.

Pulkit had informed revenue police officer Vaibhav Pratap about Ankita being missing on September 19, but Pratap went on leave without initiating any action. The officiating patwari, Vivek Kumar, whom Singh approached on September 20, refused to talk to him and made him sit outside the chowki for hours while entertaining Pulkit and the other two accused who were the hotel managers, Sourabh Bhaskar and Ankit Gupta, in the presence of Vinod Arya. He treated Pulkit’s account as the main report and refused to let Singh lodge a detailed complaint.

Singh insisted that the patwari accompany him to the resort, where he was “shocked to see that all the wires of the entire CCTV camera were cut off. Since I had the recording sent by Pushp, I showed it to the patwari. Pulkit got very irritated and got up to hit us. The patwari listened to each recording and despite that he did not report about this serious case to the higher authorities.”

It was only after Singh reached out to several authorities in Dehradun, including the chairperson of the state’s women’s commission, Vidhan Sabha speaker and the DGP, and local news portals like Jago Uttarakhand had highlighted that Ankita was missing, that on the September 22 evening, the report was transferred to the regular police from the revenue police and an investigation began.

Meanwhile, in the middle of the night on September 23, the room in which Ankita lived at Vanantra was bulldozed by the sitting MLA of the area, Renu Bisht (who also runs a resort in the same area). On September 24, a fire broke out on the premises. This happening despite the resort being sealed by the police as a crime scene is further proof of the neglect and mala fide intentions in the case, and shows the influence of power in protecting the accused and weakening the case.

The room could have provided crucial evidence. Ankita was shifted to this particular downstairs room on September 17, the day before her murder, with the accused telling her that other rooms will be filled with guests, as per her chats. An account of a hotel staffer, Abhinav, indicates that Ankita was sexually assaulted in the room on September 18. He says he saw that Pulkit physically covered Ankita’s mouth to prevent her from speaking over the phone to someone and she was crying for help. After this, Pulkit was allegedly in Ankita’s room for an hour behind closed doors.

Singh asks, “How did they allow the destruction of evidence with the bulldozing? What was Renu Bisht’s plan? … How will the accused get punishment if the evidence gets destroyed?” He suspects that the investigation is prejudicial, “I feel that SIT is also coming under pressure.”

The family’s ordeal at the hands of the state government continued. The family and hundreds of local protestors were opposing the cremation of Ankita’s body after it was found in the Chilla barrage on September 24, as they saw it as further elimination of evidence. However, on the 25th, Singh was put under undue pressure from the administration, the chief minister called him, Ankita’s mother was forcibly hospitalised and the family separated from each other to prevent consultation. The body was cremated, without letting Ankita’s mother see her for the last time. Asks Srivastava, “Could there be a more callous face of the state?”

A complete compromise in the case has perhaps been prevented due to the pressure created by protesting locals. A writ petition filed in the Uttarakhand high court by journalist Ashutosh Negi from Ankita’s village, along with Ankita’s parents in October, had pleaded for a CBI investigation. They had raised doubts about the SIT investigation being biased, pointing to the failure to recover the CCTV footage and phone of the accused Pulkit, and asked for protection to Negi and the key witnesses in the case, because of threats received. However, the court in its order of December 21 dismissed this plea. Although the police had been maintaining so far that it had collected all crucial evidence, in a hearing on November 11, 2022, the SIT had informed the high court that the forensic team did not find any forensic evidence, fingerprints or biological samples from the resort.

Ankita got murdered as Pulkit was allowed to run his resort with impunity, despite Ankita’s being not the first case that has highlighted his wrongful practices. A couple from Meerut who worked there earlier have shared how they had complained to the patwari and police about him. Rishita, who worked there as a receptionist, along with her husband who worked as a housekeeper, revealed that Pulkit used to entertain his guests with girls and drugs, and she also felt pressurised to “get into it”, while Pulkit abused both of them and threatened them along with a patwari police officer as a pressure tactic. Ankita also shared with Pushp that Pulkit threatened her, saying he will report her to the police as an ashleel or obscene girl.

Problematic tourism practices

In addition to Pulkit’s ties with the ruling party, another factor responsible for his impunity is that there is no mechanism in place for monitoring resorts like Vanantra. A large number of the hotels and resorts in Uttarakhand remain unregistered/unlicensed, with no scope for monitoring or oversight.

Additionally, there are no safeguards in place in the Uttarakhand tourism industry for the women working in it. There are no internal complaints committees or monitoring of non-compliance as there remains a failure to follow the Vishakha Guidelines and Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Protection, and Redressal) Act, 2013 in the hotels and resorts, and the private sector as a whole.

Though the tourism industry is promoted aggressively by the successive governments, also as a sector with employability, Ankita’s case shows that there is a tendency to not see women in this sector as professional workers, but as those who will provide sexual services on demand as part of their job. The Facebook post of RSS member Vipin Karnwal also reflects this, as he blames Ankita’s father for letting her work in a resort located in the forests, and sickly equates it to “putting raw milk in front of male cats”.

The bulk of tourism in Uttarakhand from the NCR region remains in the form of weekend consumptive getaways centred around drinking in scenic locations. The unruly guests entertained in hotels and rural homestays located in interior areas not only harass the lower staff comprising of locals but also disrupt the sense of safety of the forests and farms frequented by local women.

Tourism remains one of the main developmental focuses of successive governments, in addition to mining, hydropower and liquor units. However, the kind of tourism that is promoted in Uttarakhand, far from benefiting the locals, has contributed vastly to the destruction of its ecology as it has led to road widening by unscientific methods, illegal constructions in forested areas or by river-sides (as that of Vanantra adjacent to Rajaji National Park), promotion of heavy and unregulated traffic, and trafficking of girls.

The villagers lose their agricultural land and forests to the tourism industry, land mafia and hydropower projects, and are not provided any appropriate alternative livelihood. The locals with less capital and entrepreneurial skills remain at a loss in the prevalent tourism model in Uttarakhand, in comparison to outsiders with big capital out to take over their lands. Most locals end up working in lower positions in these units built on their land or migrating out.

Likewise, the jobs that the hydropower companies give to the locals in the vicinity are temporary, given mostly to prevent protests during the period of construction. It is relevant to note this here as Ankita’s father worked in the Alaknanda hydroelectric project operational in Srinagar and was removed in 2021, pushing the family into a situation of desperation. Ankita had to leave her educational course midway and start looking for work.

Such a sense of desperation in the rural areas to find any kind of employment is perhaps also compounded by the fact that the traditional and rural systems of work and subsistence support have declined, including farming and associated livelihoods. Farming has become difficult not only due to wild animals’ attacks and climate impacts but also due to the kind of development and tourism that the governments are pushing.

With regard to crimes like rapes and child sexual abuse cases, Uttarakhand is at top of the nine Himalayan states in the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB’s) 2020 data. Locals point to the 2018 changes in land legislation, making it laxer to invite outside investments, as one of the reasons. Given that most investments are in the form of developing hospitality units, where regulations are next to non-existent, there ought to be a thorough investigation of the link between their development and the increase in such crimes.

Joblessness in the hills

Other than jobs in the tourism sector and additionally for men, in the Indian Army, job avenues in Uttarakhand remain non-existent. Thus, instances like that of youth who have died by suicide after being unsuccessful in getting through the Agniveer test are coming to light. Ankita’s case also highlights the plight of the youth, particularly young women, in Uttarakhand in the face of limited job avenues.

Ankita belonged to an interior hill village of Dhobh Srikot in the Pauri district. Barely out of school, and achieving a high 88% in class 12, she had enrolled in a hotel management institute, as hundreds of other youths aspire to do in Uttarakhand. In the initial eight months, the institute asked for Rs 40-45,000. Unable to give a similar additional amount demanded in a lump sum by the institute, as her father lost his job, she had to drop out. In the absence of any guidance or support mechanism, she decided to take a job in Vanantra resort advertised on OLX.

According to Chandrakala of the Uttarakhand Mahila Manch, “The educational status of girls is relatively better in Uttarakhand, and discrimination in educating and letting girls work is relatively less. However, providing work opportunities in the hill areas has not received attention from successive governments.”

Government jobs in Uttarakhand remain scarce, and the state has been rocked by a slew of recruitment scams in the past few months. These include the recruitment scam in the Uttarakhand Open University, the UKSSC, and the Vidhan Sabha. It has come to light that those with connections with the ruling party were recruited. Further, it is difficult to ignore that in recent crimes like Ankita’s murder and the recruitment scams, there remains an involvement of the people associated with the ruling party, be it Hakam Singh or Pulkit Arya.

There were wide-scale agitations by the youth against these scams, as 40% of the graduate labour force remains unemployed, with 3.23 lakh unemployed in the state. The unemployment rate in rural mountainous Uttarakhand is worse, giving rise to heavy out-migration. It is 5.5% as against the national rural unemployment rate of 3.3%, as per the NSO data of 2020-21.

The NSO 2020 data shows that overall 27% of those between 15-29 years of age are unemployed, as compared to the national average of 25%. It also shows that women’s unemployment at 35% remained much higher than that of men at 25%. Given the prevalent scenario of joblessness, many institutions have mushroomed in every other lane or mohalla promising jobs in the hotel industry or nursing.

These institutions are charging high fees in the name of providing various courses for employability. However, in their six months to one-year diploma courses, they do not provide any real skills/education which could enable the youth to get suitable work opportunities. They end up sucking the meagre life savings of the parents, burdening the youth further. Consequently, the youth is forced to work in hotels, restaurants, factories and other such enterprises at very poor salaries and deplorable working conditions.

For hill women with a similar background to Ankita’s, it is difficult to find jobs and accommodation in bigger cities. Devoid of quality education, they cannot compete for “online jobs” or better jobs outside the state. As the government sector fails to provide them with suitable work opportunities, they generally move to nearby urban centres and small towns in small informal sector jobs that are highly unregulated and precarious. There remains a lack of adequate information regarding the available jobs, job profile and conditions of work. They, like Ankita, resort to informal channels of information. The instances of hill girls being trafficked by luring them for jobs are also coming to light.

N. Neetha points out how unawareness of their rights and laws around sexual harassment leaves women in the informal sector in the custody and control of their employers. Further, enabling institutional and support arrangements, such as working women’s hostels, remain absent. This also happened with Ankita, whose father had left her in the custody of Pulkit Arya, the owner of Vanantra resort, entrusting him as her father figure. This makes it all the more difficult for migrant women like Ankita to report physical or sexual violence.

Ankita’s case shows that there is an urgent need to put in place mechanisms to enable young women to work in a safe environment. One of the main enabling factors that also ensures safety is to create more jobs for them, so that there are more working women. Ankita was the only women working in the resort – thus limiting the support system she could have built otherwise.

In Ankita’s case, the linkage of the accused with the political party in power and the proceedings so far that stand proof to it, has fuelled doubts about whether rule of law will be followed and whether the accused will be brought to justice. The government should ensure that these doubts are dispelled, and the state is run in a way that its Ankitas are not afraid to get out of their homes, that they have opportunities to materialise their dreams and aspirations, and that this state, hard-won by women’s struggles, remains a place where they thrive.

Shruti Jain is an independent researcher based in Uttarakhand. She was part of a fact-finding initiative, constituting representatives of women and civil rights organisations of the country, organised by Uttarakhand Mahila Manch, to probe the Ankita Bhandari case.

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