(Trigger Warning: Mentions of rape, murder, and suicide. If you feel suicidal or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs.)
"She loved Mumbai; she wanted to work here after her studies. She would tell me, 'Papa, let's get a house here'. But now, the city has taken her from me," the father of an 18-year-old girl, who was allegedly raped and murdered by a security guard at a government-run hostel in south Mumbai's Marine Drive area, told The Quint.
The teen, who was pursuing a computer engineering diploma course in the city, was found dead inside her fourth-floor hostel room on Tuesday, 6 June. She hailed from Akola in Vidarbha.
The accused, Om Prakash Kanojia, a 35-year-old watchman at the same hostel, was also found dead at a railway track nearby. The police said he died by suicide minutes after leaving the hostel at 4.44 am on Tuesday.
For the past 15 days, Kanojia has been "bothering" the girl, according to her father. "He would go to her room and ask her if the light is working, the fan is running, or if she has any problem. He would ask her all sorts of questions – 'Where are you going? Who are you meeting with?'" he said.
The girl's death has raised several questions about the safety and security of the residents of the hostel – from the lack of CCTV cameras and the involvement of male staffers in the hostel's day-to-day activities to a blatant culture of moral policing.
'Complained to Warden, but…'
The girl's father, who works at a local newspaper in Akola, told The Quint that he sent his daughter to Mumbai because she was very good at studies.
"We are poor. But when I went to her hostel with the police, I saw at least 10-15 English books. She had drawings of butterflies and Doremon on her wall. She would have gone places if she was alive," he said.
"When she told me about the harassment, I told her not to worry as it happens in hostels. I told her to just inform the warden and that I would speak to her when I visit the hostel next week. She went and complained to the warden verbally, but there was no action," he alleged.
As per the police, she was the only person living on the entire floor at the time, as most inmates had gone home after their exams.
"Sometimes, she would call me at 1 am, asking me if I had slept. 'Papa, I couldn't sleep. So, I didn't know who else to call,' she would tell me. At the time I didn't know she was afraid and was alone on the entire floor," he said.
'Wasn't Even Informed…'
The father claimed that the warden of the hostel, Varsha Bhandare, did not know of his daughter's death until he prompted her to go up to her room.
Speaking to The Quint about what happened on that fateful day, he said:
"I spoke to my daughter last at 9 pm on 5 June. I didn't get a call from her all morning the next day, which was strange because she used to call me at 8 am every day. By afternoon on 6 June, her mother and I had called her about 50 times."
The father contacted a friend of the girl, who went up to her room to find out that it was locked from outside. She then informed the warden. "As per the police, my girl died after 3 am. So, she has been lying in that room for more than 12 hours! Was the warden sleeping?"
Demanding action against Varsha Bhandare, he said: "We will not leave Mumbai until my daughter gets justice."
'Kanojia Had Full Access to Hostel': Inmates
Kanojia had been working as a laundry man and a watchman at the hostel for the past 15 years, according to the police. It is unclear whether he was directly employed by the hostel or hired through an agency.
The internal gate of the hostel is locked at night, and as per the police, Kanojia climbed up a drainage pipe at the back of the building to the first floor, got in through a gap, and took the stairs to the fourth floor where the girl was alone, TOI reported.
As per TOI, he forced the latch of the girl's room through an opening above the door. "His chappals were found lying near the pipe. The drainage pipeline area is near the place where Kanojia used to work as a laundryman. There was no CCTV camera," the police said, according to the publication.
But women who have stayed at the hostel said that Kanojia had complete access to the hostel building, often at the risk of their privacy.
"Prakash bhaiya used to roam around the hostel on any floor at any time. When I first joined the hostel in October last year, I didn't know he was allowed. I had kept my door open one day, and suddenly, he was standing outside my door, saying: 'Darwaza bandh rakha karo'," a former resident of the hostel, who used to live on the same floor as the victim, said.
She confirmed to The Quint that the girl did not have a roommate and that she "was very sweet and soft-spoken."
The 23-year-old added that Kanojia used to be friendly with everyone, "but he used to interfere a lot in our lives."
"He would ask my roommate why she was on the phone all the time. Soon, we stopped making eye contact with him to avoid any sort of conversation with him," she told The Quint.
A lawyer and a former resident of the hostel, who did not wish to be named, told The Quint she had known Kanojia for five years – and that this incident did not happen in isolation. "He used to keep an eye on all the girls for the warden. When I complained about it during my first year, I was told that it is the watchman's job to do that."
She added that the warden, in fact, enabled a culture of moral policing.
The other resident recalled: "I was going to my college and I was told by the watchman that the warden was calling me. I was wearing a sleeveless top, and I was told that if I wanted to go out, I had to wrap a scarf around me. She later told my friends to tell me that I can wear such clothes after I'm married."
Nearly 20 girls who had been staying at the hostel have been moved to a separate hostel after the incident. The remaining had gone home after exams.
The Quint is trying to reach out to the warden, Varsha Bhandare. This story will be updated as and when we receive a response.