As Suhail Chisty surrenders, we remember the sordid tale of India’s own Rotherham

In 1992, the small town of Ajmer in Rajasthan woke up to a shameful, sordid scandal. The scandal involved hundreds of young girls, some college students some still in schools. The news of the scandal broke after a local paper, ‘Navjyoti’ published some nude images and a story which spoke about school students being blackmailed by local gangs.

As per reports, the blackmail operation was soon discovered to be a chain of serial offends. A specific group of local influential men were targetting young girls. They would trap one girl and manage to take obscene images. Then they would blackmail the girl into familiarising them to her classmates and friends. Eventually, other girls would be raped, sexually exploited and have their pictures taken. The cycle continued so forth. The gang continued to expand its operations and victimise an increasing number of girls.

The editor of Navjyoti, Deenbandhu Chaudhary, had admitted that the local law enforcement authorities were aware of the scandal almost since a year before the story broke, but they allowed the local politicians to stall the investigations. Even Choudhary himself was hesitant before running the story, the reason was the perpetrators of the crime belonged to the family of ‘Khadims’. Khadims are the families of traditional caretakers of the Ajmer Dargah, they claim to be the direct descendants of the first followers of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisty and hold significant influence in the local communities. The police had stalled the case because the local politicians warned action against the accuse would lead to massive communal tension.

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Chaudhary stated that finally, they decided to go ahead with the story because that seemed to be the only way to wake the local administration into action. Finally, the police lodged an FIR against eight of the accused. Further investigations led to 18 men in total being charged and tensions ran high in the town for several days. Most of the accused were Muslims, many from the families of Khadims and most victims were young Hindu girls.

The town was in shock. People took to the streets to protest and communal tension grew. A three-day bandh was observed and much subsequent news of the widespread exploitation and blackmail started coming in. Retired Rajasthan DGP Omendra Bhardwaj, who was the deputy inspector general of police in Ajmer at that time stated that the social and financial aristocracy of the accused stopped many more victims from coming forward. Another grim realisation was that many of the victims, being young and vulnerable, had already committed suicide.

What followed next was another saga of political influence and administrative incompetence. The case is still far from being closed. Many victims who were supposed to be witnesses, turned hostile. The stink of social stigma and ostracisation was so bad that girls of the town were generalised as being victims of the gang. The number of victims was believed to be several hundred.

Only a few of the victims came forward. The situation was so bad that prospective grooms, who were supposed to marry girls from Ajmer, would come to offices of newspapers, trying to find out if the girl they were going to marry was one of ‘them’. Anant Bhatnagar, state general secretary, People’s Union for Civil Liberties and a resident of Ajmer said that people used to say if the girl was from Ajmer, they would need to find out what kind of girl she was.

Of the 18 accused who were charged with abduction and gang rape under the Indian Penal Code and Indecent Representation of Women (prohibition), one has since committed suicide. Interestingly, Farooq Chishty, one of the main accused who also happened to be a youth Congress leader, was declared mentally unstable. Farooq Chishty was the president of the Ajmer Youth Congress while two other accused, Nafis Chishty and Anwar Chishty were the vice-president and joint secretary respectively of the city Congress unit.

In 1998, a sessions court in Ajmer sentenced eight men to life imprisonment but the Rajasthan High Court, in 2001, acquitted four of them. The sentence of the other four was reduced to just 10 years by the Supreme Court in 2003. They were named Moijullah alias Puttan, Ishrat Ali, Anwar Chishty and Shamshuddin alias Meradona. Another absconder Salim Chishty was arrested by the Rajasthan Police in 2012. Another main accused, Alamas Maharaj, is still at large and is believed to be in the US. CBI has issued a red corner alert for him.

Farooq Chishty, who was earlier declared mentally unstable, was convicted by a fast track court in Ajmer in 2007. In 2013, the Rajasthan High Court upheld the decision though it reduced the period of the sentence from life imprisonment to the period already served by him. The memories of the case were brought back recently when Suhail Chishty, after absconding for 26 years, surrendered at a court on February 15. Musabbir Hussain, joint secretary of the Anjuman Committee, which oversees the Ajmer Dargah stated that the case is a blot in the city’s history and nobody wants to talk about it.

The most disturbing part of the horrific case has been the quiet suffering of the victims. Small time tabloids were quite a sensation in Ajmer at that time. As if the mass exploitation of hundreds of girls was not enough of a blow to the town’s conscience, many victims were even allegedly blackmailed further by these tabloids and local papers. They had access to the explicit images of the girls, and the owners and publishers sought money from the families of the girls to keep them hidden. As per a report in India Today, Madan Singh, the chief editor of one of such papers, named ‘Lehron Ki Barkha’ was one of such people. He had been blackmailing many girls demanding money, threatening to release their pictures otherwise. Most of the girls had given in, while one victim, Pushpa Dhanwani had come forward and lodged an FIR against him.

We have seen many cases of rape, gang rape and exploitation in our country. But the sheer scale and brazen impunity in the Ajmer scandal is something very unusual and had shaken to the conscience of the entire country.

We have seen something similar in Rotherham scandal in the UK. There too, gangs of Muslim men, 80% of whom were of Pakistani origin had carried on serial targetting of young, often minor girls. The girls were chosen, targeted, lured and then raped and blackmailed. As per recent reports, the number of child victims has been officially increased to 1510. A number of factors have kept the scandal going from 1997 to 2013. Negligence of the police, failure of the police, mistrust of the victims due to lack of action, social apathy, stigma and even fear of being labelled ‘Islamophobic’ or ‘racist’ on part of some social workers and law-enforcement officials have let the abuse go on almost unchecked for decades.

Ajmer scandal has the very same tones. The town is hailed as India’s epitome of communal harmony, often citing that Hindus visit the Dargah too. But the shameful scandal is a big question mark on every one of those claims. Nobody would ever know the real number of victims. Nobody would ever feel the fear and mental agony the schoolgirls had to go through. Society is often heartless and brutal to victims of sexual crimes. Justice might never be served to the victims now. There might have been just 18 people arrested, but the society as a whole has been the perpetrator in this case. Our system has failed an entire generation of girls in Ajmer.

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