Shillong: Meghalaya was rocked on July 22 following a raid on a farmhouse owned by Meghalaya BJP Vice President Bernard Marak. Over the past few days, several people have tried to narrate the events leading to the dramatic raid, and the subsequent ‘expose’ has turned this issue into an all-out political war between allies. But amid allegations and counter-allegations, the issue at the heart of it all – a farmhouse named Rimpu Bagan – seems to have taken a backseat. At the time of filing this report, Marak had been arrested in Hapur, Uttar Pradesh and on his way to being brought back to Tura.

What actually happened at the farmhouse? What are the locals saying, and is this simply a case of political vendetta as claimed by the BJP or is there something far sinister taking place? 

Meghalaya BJP Vice President Bernard Marak was arrested from Hapur in Uttar Pradesh on Tuesday and is now being brought back to Tura

The first thing that becomes obvious when you visit Rimpu Bagan is that it is in the middle of a jungle in Edenbari, located about 8 km from Tura town. Interestingly, ‘Rimpu’ is Bernard’s nickname, but the place’s history is far more interesting. The location—deep inside a forest with only a narrow dirt road leading to the farmhouse—was in part because it was once a designated camp of the faction of the now-disbanded Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC-B), which was active between 1998 and 2012, primarily in the Garo Hills. 

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As you approach the farmhouse, on first impression it looks like a simple, single-storey building. However, go a little closer, and you realise that the farmhouse, located on a hillslope, has two floors ‘below’. Curiously, considering this was a ‘farmhouse’ belonging to a powerful local leader, there was no entrance and no reception. Maybe this was the fallout of the raid, but we could not confirm the same. 

Considering this was a ‘farmhouse’ belonging to a powerful local leader, the Rimpu Bagan ‘resort’ neither had an entrance nor a reception

The farmhouse’s architecture gains significance because it was mentioned by BJP president Ernest Mawrie in his statement issued right after the raid on Saturday. He described it as a three-storey building with the ground floor being used as a banquet hall which is rented out for the stated purpose. The first floor comprises 30 rooms which are used for homestay. The second floor is used as a hostel for underprivileged children from different areas of Garo Hills.

However, when EastMojo visited the farmhouse, we found that the top floor consists of five small rooms, all lined in a row, with an attached toilet. The stairs leading down to the second floor open to an empty hall. Across the hall, a narrow passage leads to other, smaller rooms. The ground floor also has a hall with rooms. This is where five minors—four boys and one girl—were rescued, according to the police. 

Between unknown and ambivalent: Marak, the farmhouse, and education

Andy (names changed to protect their identity) said that they have always known Rimpu Bagan as a hostel and a guesthouse. “We have never been there, but from what we heard, it is a farmhouse and people go there during weekends to celebrate birthdays and other occasions,” he added. He had good things to say about Merak, stating that Marak is a good man. 

Andy also narrated that his sister’s son was picked from Rimpu Bagan during the raid and later released on bail. 

While the police painted a gory picture of the raid and the farmhouse, the same was not shared by residents of Edenbari and Agalgre, a neighbouring village where one of the five students was enrolled

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The farmhouse itself looked exactly like a place raided by police: pieces of broken wood scattered all over, doors broken, and a passage leading to two dingy rooms which looked more like detention centres than rooms for students. None of these two rooms had a window or any source of natural light and ventilation. 

We must point out that extensive conversations with locals, school officials, families and even children confirmed Marak’s claims that he was funding the education of these underprivileged children. However, that said, the living arrangements left a lot to be desired. There was no kitchen or utensils. How then, were the children fed and who fed them? Also, why were the children kept in such inhumane conditions when space was clearly not an issue? 

The girl that went missing

The police have been at the centre of this story, and for good reason: after all, it is the police who claimed that the aforementioned farmhouse was a ‘brothel’. In a conversation with EastMojo on July 26, West Garo Hills Superintendent of Police (SP) Vivekanand Singh Rathore said since most of the rooms from where the minors were rescued were locked, the police broke the door of one of the rooms ‘out of curiosity’. “In that room, we found female clothing, so we decided to break open every room and check. It was in the second room that we found several bottles of liquor. In the third room, knives were recovered along with crossbows and arrows, which were common weapons during the militancy days,” said the SP. 

The farmhouse looked exactly like a place raided by police: pieces of broken wood scattered all over, doors broken, and a passage leading to two dingy rooms, which looked more like detention centres than rooms for students

He further narrated that on the ground floor, where the five children were found, a girl was found sitting in one of the rooms. “We also found a child less than a year old who seemed intoxicated. Despite the commotion, the child was hardly reacting and was senseless. It was inhumane and we were taken aback by what we discovered,” said Rathore.

Rathore explained that the roots of the investigation go back to February 2022, when the police were looking into a case of a missing girl. The girl, who had been missing for a week, was later rescued by the police. The accused was also arrested. During the course of recording the girl’s statement under CrPC 164, she revealed to the Court that she was taken to one of the rooms in Rimpu Bagan and was sexually assaulted there.

West Garo Hills Superintendent of Police (SP) Vivekanand Singh Rathore said since most of the rooms from where the minors were rescued were locked, the police broke the door of one of the rooms ‘out of curiosity’

The SP further mentioned that in the preceding months, the police had received similar statements while investigating the POCSO cases. Rathore stated that they had been conducting their investigations since then, and the operation was delayed since the investigating officer had fallen ill.

He added that the police had credible evidence through their sources that a lot of young boys and girls are frequenting the place and are staying all night or leaving early morning. “A lot of liquor is supplied to that place so based on all this information the police decided to go ahead with the raid,” Rathore told EastMojo

Also Read | Meghalaya BJP leader accused of running a brothel arrested in UP

Asked if the police ever inspected the farmhouse after the girl made the statement, the SP responded in the negative, citing that the place had a ‘negative history and that the police had been attacked in that region in the past. This time, however, we took a lot of security personnel with us,” Rathore added. 

Brothel? What Brothel?

While the police painted a gory picture of the raid and the farmhouse, the same is not shared by residents of Edenbari and Agalgre, a neighbouring village where one of the five students was enrolled. Talking about Marak, who is a member of the district council of the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council, a resident of Agalgre said, “I am not aware of any illegal activities. Even as a local MDC, he doesn’t come here. Everyone here knows that Bernard is supporting minors’ education.” 

EastMojo visited the Agalgre school where one of the five kids was enrolled. We were informed that the student was regular to school and never showed any signs of abnormality. The school’s secretary recalled that the student joined the school in 2018 and was admitted to the school by his parents. “Just a few months ago when the child’s fee was due, we had asked him to inform us if it would be paid or not. We then found out that his education was funded by Marak,” mentioned the secretary.

Extensive conversations with locals, school officials, families and even children confirmed Bernard Marak’s claims that he was funding the education of these underprivileged children even as the living arrangements left a lot to be desired.

She also mentioned that the child fared well in the half-yearly exams. 

Oscar, another resident of Edenbari, concurred with his fellow residents. “The news of the raid came as a shock to us. We have never heard about Rimpu Bagan operating as a brothel… None of the residents here ever made complaints like sexual assault or harassment at Rimpu Bagan,” she said. She added that the people visiting the farmhouse were from Tura.

Of the 73 arrested, one later admitted that she was a juvenile. Consequently, the police treated her as Children In Conflict with the Law (CICL) and sent her to the Juvenile Justice Board. The remaining 72 were arrested and forwarded to the Court, of which 32 have been released on bail and the rest are either in Judicial or Police Custody. Out of the 73, 26 were female. As per the SP’s knowledge, 6 of the females admitted they are into prostitution.

None of the rooms allegedly housing children had a window or any source of natural light and ventilation. 

Since all five children were immediately handed over to the District Child Protection Officer (DCPO), the police have not had the chance to talk to the minors if they were exposed to any sexual activities. The case of these minors is now taken over by the DCPO. 

Marak had also accused the police of trying to gun him down. The SP termed it absurd and mentioned that there is no political pressure and he is not under anyone’s command which is being alleged. 

“Everything that has been done is being reported to the Court. Had the evidence not been strong we wouldn’t have got the non-bailable warrant of arrest. Concerning gunning him down that is not the way we work, unless we are attacked, we will not fire back. This is just a ploy to gain public sympathy and there is no political vendetta. This is a criminal investigation and I don’t need to take permission from anyone,” said the SP.

According to the SP, the raid was conducted in front of independent witnesses. “CRPF along with government officials were also present so the question of staging a raid does not arise,” said Rathore. 

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