The room belongs to a young girl who would have turned 16 this year. Awash in pink, her favourite colour, a pink bedspread and a doll in a pink dress lie in wait for its occupant. Like any girl her age who prides on her independence, Navaruna, named after goddess Durga, wanted to sleep alone in her room on the night of September 18, 2012. She had applied henna on her palms and wanted to see them turn a deep shade of crimson in the morning.
It happened one night
In an unkempt sprawling courtyard Atulya Chakravarty, who looks older than his 65 years, waits with his wife to hear a knock on the door that would announce his daughter’s arrival. They have been waiting for the last four years for Navaruna to return home. Taking a deep lungful of air, Atulya poses questions to himself and to anyone who has the time to hear him. What does a father do when his 12-year-old daughter is abducted from the security of her own home? What does a father do when she is abducted with him sleeping in the adjacent room? What does a father do when he doesn’t know whether his daughter is alive or dead even after four years? What does he do when the shamans invade his home and make empty promises about his daughter’s homecoming and direct him to mumbo jumbo and occult practices?
He answers the questions: the father stops visiting temples; he stops going on pilgrimages and praying, he stops celebrating festivals, he stops making telephone calls to officials, he stops writing request letters to those who matter, he stops questioning people, he stops crying, and he shuts himself up in his home hoping his daughter would return one day, knock on the door and life would be normal.
Atulya, a Bengali whose ancestors chose to settle in Muzaffarpur town in north Bihar, lives with his wife in a sprawling house built in 1876 by his great-great-grandfather. Muzaffarpur is often referred to as the ground zero of crime in a State long infamous for its lawlessness. According to Bihar Police official records, the total cognisable offences in Muzaffarpur this year till September 2016 is 6,620; kidnapping cases stand at 302; and there have been 99 murder cases registered so far. A senior officer at the Patna police headquarters says Muzaffarpur has always been one of the top three districts in the crime barometer. Land mafias in cahoots with corrupt policemen, politicians and power brokers prosper here and scale up their business like successful entrepreneurs. People are kidnapped for ransom and properties. Some return after their families cough up huge sums. Not Navaruna.
She was abducted allegedly to put pressure on her parents to sell off their house, located in the town’s prime area. Police say that on the intervening night of September 18-19, 2012, three criminals entered her room, rendered her unconscious, wrapped her in a bed sheet and carried her away. “It was a cold, dark and drizzling night... she must have got frightened as the abductors took her away — she wetted the bed,” recalls Atulya. “She was sleeping alone as she, for the first time in her life, had applied henna on her hands and didn’t want it to be smudged while sleeping between us.” The forlorn father has attempted suicide, applied for an arms licence and takes sedatives every night. He has suffered two heart attacks already and is praying that he doesn’t have one more before his daughter returns. “At least they should let us know whether she is alive or…,” he gasps.
Remembrance of days past
Jawaharlal Road in Muzaffarpur breaks into a narrow lane from the gate of the Shivaram hotel, a landmark here. Cars cannot enter the narrow cemented path that leads into the Chakravarty household. The walls of the double-story house have cracks at too many places to count; the courtyard overflows with shrubs not cut, plants not tended to and trees not pruned. Two huge bottle palm trees and a coconut tree overshadow the 140-year-old house. In the far corner of the courtyard is a hand pump and borewell covered with iron safety nets. In the middle stands a pink bicycle with a faded black Rexin school bag on the rear carrier. “It was her last day of school when she had parked her bicycle with the bag there,” says Moitree Chakravarty, Navaruna’s mother. The 12-year-old had had the bicycle only six months earlier. “ Main badi ho gayi hoon, maa (I’ve grown up now, mother),” she would say while cycling to school every day. “My daily puja would often be interrupted by the sounds of my daughter saying ‘ maa, aami aashi, aami aashbo (mom, I’m going, will be back)’… I’ll wait and keep doing my puja until Navaruna returns,” says the disconsolate mother.
Moitree is initially reluctant to say much but gradually opens up — how Sona (Navaruna’s nickname) was growing up, how she used to get confused every time when asked what she wants to become in life, how she would share everything with her mother. “She was a weak, feeble girl on the cusp of her teens… never demanding, good at her studies and art. She was a bubbly little girl full of life… like those little sparrows and parrots on the guava tree which she loved to share the fruits with and chirp around,” she reminisces. Navaruna also loved feeding a stray dog which used to wait for her to return from school. “Once she returns, we’ll sell off our property and move away from here to… any place, anywhere,” Moitree sobs, wiping her teary eyes with the border of her yellow cotton sari every once in a while.
A room frozen in time
Atulya takes us to a room full of files, papers marking court appearances, correspondence with the police, civic authorities, politicians, photographs and published clippings that lie strewn on the bed. He shows each and every newspaper clipping kept in a file; details of phone calls to officials. He vividly recalls the visits of investigating officials and the promises made to him. “Do promises have an expiry date?” he asks. He never tires of speaking about her daughter and her growing-up years. A pair of brown rubber slippers and a pink frock of Navaruna, as advised by a tantrik (sorcerer), await her safe return. The two-fold wooden doors of the windows in the room are tightly shut and blocked with piles of bricks from the inside. “We keep our windows shut now,” he says.
It’s as if time has stood still in Navaruna’s room since that fateful day. There’s the doll she loved playing with. A pink plastic clutch with Rs.235 inside, body talc, fairness cream, and a study tabletop are still placed on the bed. A red Little Boy Postman piggy bank with coins inside has not been touched yet in the corner of a dusty window sill and a peacock feather is still taped to the other side of the window door. Her school dress, socks, belt, badges, handkerchief have all been put in a string basket. Her books and copies — all neatly covered in brown sheets — are in an open wooden box under the bed. “Navaruna Chakravarty, Roll No: 28, Std: VII, Sec. ‘B’, St. Xavier’s Junior / Senior School” in neat cursive writing, reads the label on her school diary. She had got 88.5 per cent marks in the first unit test. “Wouldn’t be she happy seeing all this when she returns!” the Chakravartys say in the same breath.
From pillar to post, in vain
In the last four years Atulya, who was in pharmaceuticals business, has knocked at every door of an unresponsive administration. On September 19, 2012, he lodged a complaint (No: 507 / 2012) with the town police of Muzaffarpur under sections 364 and 366A of the Indian Penal Code. Then came the ‘Save Navaruna’ campaign on social media and a series of protests in Muzaffarpur and Delhi coordinated by Navaruna’s elder sister Navarupa, who is preparing for bank entrance exams and pursuing her company secretaryship in Delhi. Petitions to the President, Prime Minister, Home Minister and the Resident Commissioner of Bihar in Delhi followed in 2012. Thereafter, a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission on December 5, 2012, followed by a Criminal Investigation Department inquiry order on January 12, 2013. But nothing emerged. After 45 days, the forensic team reached the spot; after 33 days the then district police chief Rajesh Kumar; and after 40 days the Additional Director General of Police Gupteshwar Pandey visited the family. The police, charges Atulya, first tried to paint Navaruna’s abduction as a case of elopement and, later, an honour killing by planting a human skeleton with the skull missing in a choked drain outside his house on November 26, 2012.
Then came the two meetings with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in 2013 with a request to hand over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Earlier, a writ petition (No: 178 / 2012) was also filed in the Supreme Court, which heard the matter on November 23, 2013 and directed that the case be transferred to the CBI for “fast disposal”. After taking charge of the case, the CBI registered an FIR on February 14, 2015 and started investigations, rekindling hope for the hapless Chakravarty family. On March 25 2014 a DNA test was done on Atulya to match it with the skeleton found in the drain outside his house. The report, however, is yet to be handed over to the family. The CBI went ahead with the inquiry as the Supreme Court had ordered for the investigation to be completed by October 31, 2016. Before the deadline, however, it sought an extension which was granted by the apex court. March 2017 is the date by which investigations into the matter should be completed.
“Now, all our hopes hinge on Supreme Court... I wonder why the CBI is taking so long to file a charge sheet in a kidnapping case when it usually takes less than a year to file a charge sheet in any special criminal case,” says Abhishek Ranjan Kumar, a young lawyer from Muzaffarpur who volunteered to file the writ petition on Atulya’s behalf in Supreme Court.
“The last four years, I have seen several CID officers associated with the case transferred. Only three persons were arrested and they are now out of jail, but my family and I have been quizzed by the investigating officers for several days,” says Atulya. In the petition to the Supreme Court, he has named a senior IPS officer of the State among 11 persons he accuses of having a role in the abduction. Efforts by The Hindu to contact police officers and other investigating officials involved in the case were mostly rebuffed with a “the matter is sub-judice” refrain.
“The influential land mafia of the town were eyeing my seven- cottah land and the double-story house with a market value of Rs.4 crore. As I am Bengali, a linguistic minority here, they abducted my daughter to put pressure on me to sell off my property,” he alleges.
Since Navaruna’s abduction, three Bengali families have sold off their prime properties and shifted base from Muzaffarpur town. “We don’t want to be murdered or have our children kidnapped one day… there is no one to listen to us. When the police, the politicians, the bureaucrats, the criminals all are hand in glove with the land mafia, what are our options,” asks a member of the Bengali family that recently sold off their land near L.S. College. “Its easy to frighten and threaten people from the Bengali community as they do not have any particular caste to support them in a caste-conscious State, neither in bureaucracy, nor in politics or in the crime world,” says Swadhin Das, a political activist and the lone friend of Atulya who still visits him at his home. Other friends keep their distance.
Waiting for her return
The Chakravarty family clings on to hope. Navarupa, along with her friends, continues to hold up the Delhi leg of the quest for Navaruna, organising candlelight vigils and social media campaigns, staging dharnas, meeting officials and following the case in the Supreme Court. “I chatted her (Navaruna) up on September 18 evening. Life as I knew it has changed completely,” she says over the phone from Delhi.
“She was a talented girl… always ready to learn and improve… art, dance, paintings were her hobby. I still miss her and pray to God that she would come back to my class one day,” says Navaruna’s class teacher Rinki Kumari, fighting back tears. Navaruna’s close friends Sanskriti and Shreya, who were interrogated by the police several times, have shifted from the town along with their families.
Atulya, lost in his thoughts and bleary eyed, suddenly jolts to attention and says, “She will come back one day... we have so many plans for her.” Moitree murmurs, “She should be 16 now, looking young and different.”
The local administration has posted a security guard for the Chakravartys ever since Atulya lodged an FIR. “But for his presence, this would have turned into a ghost house by now,” says Moitree. As we step out to the narrow lane that Navaruna used every day to cycle to school and her tuition classes, the wooden door to the Chakravarty household shuts firmly behind us.