Living around a kilometre apart, the families have known each other for two decades — almost since Surpreet was born. Surpreet’s father is a school teacher.

THE youth arrested for the rape and murder of a 5-year-old Dalit child in a village in Hoshiarpur district was treated by her and her five elder sisters as a brother. The six, who had no brothers, had been tying rakhi on the 20-year-old for years, said her father, 40, a migrant labourer from Bihar’s Bhagalpur district.

The youth, Surpreet, and his 80-year-old grandfather Surjit Singh, who are landlords, were arrested after the half-burnt body of the girl, who was to turn 6 on November 28, was found in a building used by his family to keep farm implements and cattle. The two have been booked under POCSO, as well as charges of murder, mitigating evidence and under the SC/ST Act.

The 40-year-old and his daughters often worked in Surpreet’s family’s fields or home. Living around a kilometre apart, the families have known each other for two decades — almost since Surpreet was born. Surpreet’s father is a school teacher. While Surpreet is enrolled in college, he hardly ever attended even when classes were on before the lockdown, villagers said.

The body of the girl turned up just hours after she went missing from her home on October 21 afternoon. Only an elder sister, who is 9, was with her at the time. Their mother had gone to a nearby shop and her elder sisters, who work in neighbour’s homes, were out.

The family says the 9-year-old told them Surpreet had taken the child saying he would buy her biscuits. When she did not return and they went to check, Surpreet’s family said they had no clue about her whereabouts.

The family says they kept looking for her, including going to nearby villages. Then, around 5 pm, Surpreet’s grandfather came to the house and told them the girl’s body was in their “haveli” and that she had set herself on fire.

Questioning how a child could do something like this, the girl’s father says, “We could never ever imagine Surpreet would break our trust like this.”

A woman has testified to seeing Surpreet with the girl, saying he had said he was taking her for tuitions to his home. Footage from CCTV cameras installed outside a shop and a house also show him with her.

The girl was the migrant labourer’s youngest, after five other daughters, who are 20, 19, 13, 11 and 9, all of them born in Punjab and fluent in Punjabi. While the two eldest never went to school, the others are enrolled in a government school. The 5-year-old went to an anganwadi. The family pays Rs 500 per month for a two-room accommodation, owned by an NRI.

Says the 19-year-old, who is married in Bihar, “We couldn’t go to Surpreet’s place this time for Rakhi due to the coronavirus. So he came home to get it tied.”

The elder sister, whose wedding is scheduled next month, adds, “He never ever misbehaved with us. He would call us didi and treat us respectfully. His family was also very nice to us. Why he did this is beyond our comprehension.”

However, the family also adds that since Rakhi, Surpreet’s behaviour had changed. “He would visit often, sometimes daily, which was a little unusual. But we never thought anything about it,” the sister says, adding that earlier, he would leave after greeting them and staying a minute or two.

There have been some suggestions that Surpreet suffered from some mental problems. However, the 20-year-old says they never noticed anything of the kind.

In June, the entire family of the girl was engaged for paddy transplantation by Surpreet’s family on their 12 acres of land. Says the father, “I worked permanently with them for several years, driving their tractor. My elder daughters would work in their house till a couple of years back. They would call me whenever there was work.”

The 20-year-old says Punjab is home to them. “We have gone to Bihar only a couple of times in our lives and never stayed there beyond a week or 10 days.”

Courtesy The Indian Express