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Uttarakhand: Will Ankita Bhandari Murder Case, Journalist Negi’s Arrest Affect Polls?

Sabrang India |
BJP leader and Union minister Smriti Irani was chased by the media in Pauri Garhwal where she arrived for the filing of nomination papers of party candidate Anil Baluni for the April 19 polling.

Image credit: Sabrang India

As Uttarakhand goes to the polls in the first phase of the Lok Sabha elections on April 19, the five seats of Tehri Garhwal, Garhwal, Almora, Nainital, Nainital-Uddhamsingh Nagar, Haridwar gear up for a poll that promises to throw up controversial issues.

While for the chief minister of Uttarakhand, Puskar Singh Dhami, who has been responsible for the most provocative comments on several issues, be it “conversion”, Muslims’ right to faith and prayer and the Uniform Civil Code[1], the issue of intense communalisation in a polity that was never so deeply polarised as it has been for the past 18 months is the key to win the poll, the people of “Devbhoomi” –a nomenclature for Holy Land given by the CM– may vote differently.

Some indications came last week when a high profile minister from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet visited the state. On that day (March 26) when Anil Baluni, filed his nomination papers from the Pauri Garhwal seat in the presence of Union minister Smriti Irani, the aggressively vocal Union minister for Women and Child Development faced embarrassing moments when cameras caught her strutting away avoiding independent media questions on the failure of her party’s government in the Ankita Bhandari case. “Smriti Irani Runs Away from Questions on Ankita Bhandari: BJP Faces Voters Ire in North India” were the leads in many videos and social media comments that surfaced thereafter.


“In Uttarakhand when the secular media asked Smriti Irani about the utter absence of justice in the Ankita Bhandari murder case she didn’t know what to say but has been running away from the media and questions that involved the … members.” This rather embarrassing moment that displays unaccountability from a minister –when the brute murder and sexual assault of a young woman is involved has not so far, affected the bluster of the BJP candidates or Irani who proceeded to make a “blistering attack on the Congress”.

However protests from the family of Ankita Bhandari and supporters bogged her visit. Significanty, Ankita’s mother has demanded the arrest of the BJP general secretary and also action against the BJP MLA Renu Bisht for destruction of evidence. She has also been publicly on record stating that the Dhami government has failed to do anything in the case and has not taken any action against BJP MLA Renu Bisht and the then SDM Pramod Kumar even as the JCB driver made a statement that he erased the room on their order.

Arrest of journalist

On March 5 the Uttarakhand police arrested independent journalist Ashutosh Negi, who is also editor of Hindi weekly Jago Uttarakhand, from his home in Pauri town under SC/ST Act. The journalist was released on bail on March 13. Following his arrest, which prompted protest from the angry public and press body, Uttarakhand Director General of Police issued the statement in which he said that Negi’s intentions are “suspected” and his agenda seems less to do with justice, and “rather aims to sow anarchy and discord in society”, Indian Express reported. Furthermore, the statement suggested that the journalist appears to be part of a broader conspiracy.

Interestingly, Negi has continuously reported on Ankita Bhandari case, in which 19-year-old receptionist Ankita was murdered in September 2022 by the owner of Vanantra Resort, Pulkit Arya, and two other employees working there along with her, Saurabh Bhaskar, and Ankit Gupta. Pulkit Arya is a son of former BJP minister Vinod Arya. Police said that she was murdered after she refused to provide “special services” to some guests at the resort. As the protests mounted after the news broke out, the investigation was handled to Special Investigation Team. Following the recovery of her body after a week from Chilla canal, the police had registered FIR against all three accused. The FIR was initially registered under section 365 (kidnapping) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), later the charges under IPC sections 302 (murder) and 201 (causing disappearance of evidence or giving false information) were also added, as per the Financial Express.

There were also allegations that she was molested and abused before being murdered, but forensic evidence ruled out the possibility of rape. The chargesheet was filed in December 2022 in Kotdwar court under IPC Sections 354, 302, 201, 120(B) and Section 3(1) of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act. Since then, the case has dragged on without final conclusion. In December last year, Uttarakhand High Court had rejected the bail plea of the main accused Pulkit Arya, noting the serious nature of the case and the presence of the accused on the location of the crime scene. Pertinently, Special public prosecutor, Jitendra Rawat, had been removed from the case after the father of the victim accused him of weakening the case. The controversy had also erupted when the resort of the accused was demolished by the administration, as the family of the victim alleged that it had been deliberately done to destroy the evidence. With the latest arrest and subsequent bail of the journalist, the case has once again caught the attention of the public just before the polls.

Ankita’s quest for justice

Since the beginning of the case, the justice has long eluded the family of Ankita. The case has seen removal of two public prosecutors due to their biased and contradictory conduct, where in one of the public prosecutors (Amit Sajwan) had in fact appeared for the accused, thus resulting in a position where state was fighting against itself. On March 18, 2023, the Kotdwar Session Court in Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand finally framed the charges against the accused in the case for murder, destruction of evidence, and immoral trafficking. While the 500 pages chargesheet filed by the police recorded statements of 100 witnesses and produced 30 documentary evidence, The Hindu had reported in December 2023 that the police were yet to ascertain the identity of the customers who used to come at the resort of the victim.

Significantly, in January this year, Ankita’s mother demanded the arrest of state BJP general secretary Ajay Kumar as he was allegedly the VIP whose name appeared in the probe, as per The StatesmanIt also reported that the mother “wanted local BJP MLA Renu Bisht arrested as he had ordered the erasing of the victim’s room at Vanantra Resort where she worked as a receptionist.” She further remarked that Dhami government has failed to do anything in the case and has not taken any action against BJP MLA Renu Bisht and the then SDM Pramod Kumar even as the JCB driver made a statement that he erased the room on their order.

Earlier in March 2023, in the petition that was filed in the Supreme Court for requesting CBI investigation in the case the SC had asked the state government to file the status report in the case, as the petitioners alleged that investigation done by local police had several holes. As the final disposal of the case remains pending, the justice has so far eluded the family of the victim, as the political class remains insensitive to the grievance of the family or to the facts of the case, which are politically inconvenient.

In addition, both the District Court and High Court have regularly denied bail to the accused and the case had become a political hot potato for the ruling BJP government, both for the then CM Tirath Singh Rawat, and the now for Pushkar Singh Dhami.

The tumultuous state of Uttarakhand before the polls

The state of Uttarakhand has been constantly in the news since past some time now. It became the first state to draft the much-discussed Uniform Civil Code (UCC), which is supposedly to become the model law for other states to draft their own UCC laws. Notably, the law has been criticised for exceeding its scope to cover live-in relationships, and further criminalising such relationships for want of valid legal registration.

The state government led by Pushkar Singh Dhami has also carried out various drives to remove what is calls “land encroachment”, all in the name of the law, but effectively bypassing the rule of law. The state has seen bulldozers running amok over the homes of poor residents, especially Muslims, leaving them vulnerable and homeless. The communal nature of such exercise has not been hidden to critical eye, as the Dhami government competes for its Hindutva credentials. In January this year, the Supreme Court had stayed the Uttarakhand High Court order which asked the state government to carry out eviction from the railway land in Haldwani, noting that some practical solution needs to be found as the people had long resided on the disputed piece of the land. Importantly, Haldwani eviction would have significantly affected the lives of around 50,000 people, most of them being Muslims. Nonetheless, the zealous state government did not stop here, and in February this year it demolished Mosque and Madrasa in Haldwani, leading to counter violence and arson, resulting in loss of precious lives and properties.

Notoriously, in 2021, the state witnessed the most virulent form of hate speech(s) delivered by extremist elements, including the infamous Yati Narsinghanand, openly declaring for the massacre of Muslims and praising Nathuram Godse for his assassination of MK Gandhi.

In 2022, it joined the growing list of states in drafting anti-conversion law, which on the face of it aims to prevent fraudulent conversions, but effectively targets freedom of religion and interfaith marriages, disproportionately affecting the religious minorities.

As the aforementioned incidents suggests, Dev Bhoomi has become more of a communal bhoomi, where the question of governance has been relegated into the background, and only polemic and communal issues attract the attention.

“We will demolish illegal mazars in Uttarakhand. This is a new Uttarakhand. No one should even think about encroaching on land here, let alone doing it. We are not against anyone. But encroachments in the name of mazars or anything else will not be allowed. We will not let ‘land jihad’ prosper. We believe in the law. We will not allow anyone’s appeasement.” (April 2023)

“This is the land for which people come to greet the Bhumi, people come here to pilgrimage – and thus in order to maintain the moolswarup, we have initiated actions to tackle land and mazaar jihad. There were more than 5 mazaars (shrines). We have freed 3300 government land.” (October 2023);

“Today we are fighting all the challenges with full strength. We brought the law of conversion. We have done the work of removing illegal encroachments. Some people created a disturbance in Haldwani and committed arson. We want to say that strict action will be taken against whoever has taken the law into his hands. No matter how big a name someone is, no one will be spared. Whoever works to spoil the system in Uttarakhand, the law will not spare him.” (Speech on UCC, Feb 2024)

Story written by Jay Patel. 

Courtesy: Sabrang India

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