Eight minutes before midnight on the 22nd of September 2015, a curious status update was posted on Facebook, tagging the Hindu Council of Kenya’s page. A Kamal K Gupta posted it. Also tagged was the Chairman of the Hindu Council of Kenya, Nitin Malde. It read as follows:
One attachment was of a press statement issued by the Visa Oshwal Community, which attempted to dissuade members of the community from commenting on a case of child abuse. The other was far more ominous. It was a notice from the Office of the President, signed by the Cabinet Secretary for Internal Security, Joseph Nkaissery. The notice was titled in bold:
“RE: PUBLICATION, AIRING AND/OR ONLINE DISTRIBUTION OF INFLAMMATORY MATERIAL.”
The notice went on to warn Kenyans against posting, sharing or forwarding material published by terrorist group, Al Shabaab. What did a case of child abuse have to do with a terrorist group? Everything, it would seem; and the details that led up to this curious post tell a story of the start of a fight for the soul of the Oshwal community.
On the 9th of July that same year, Alika* had been rescued from her parents home in Parklands. Anjlee Ghadvi Noorani, a well-known local television news anchor, who had waited in the parking lot as her cameraman filmed the dramatic three-hour rescue, remembers seeing a gaunt but seemingly relieved girl being carried off in the arms of Penina Kanyithia. Peninah was the Children’s Officer assigned to by the court to make that rescue.
Apparently, Anjlee wasn’t the only one there to witness the rescue.
“I remember seeing this rogue looking Indian fellow who drove in very quickly, assessed the situation and drove out,” Anjlee said.
News of the rescue would spread exponentially; with forwards of the day’s events, and parts of the back-story to Alika’s rescue also coming out in dribs and drabs. Alika’s* biological family was furious, and are said to have trooped to the Oshwal Community Centre in Westlands to meet committee officials who were privy to the case.
Days before writing this, I met with one of them. Narendra Shah’s slender, slight frame stood bolt up at his desk, after seeing me enter the foyer of his office in Peponi Plaza, Westlands. He had a smile on his face, and a firm handshake that shaved off at least 20 years from his age.
“Welcome, John,” he said, smilingly.
We made our way to a boardroom in the back end of his office; him keen for us not to be disturbed.
“I want to tell you the whole truth, John. Some of the things you wrote aren’t correct,” he said, as he launched into his version of the events around Alika*s tragic story.
“Alika’s parents and some relatives were there. We told them that since the state had intervened there was nothing that we could do.”
During this interview, Narendra sought to clarify an assertion that the VOC committee had done nothing for at least three months since he first saw the gruesome pictures of her abuse.
“In early March, 2015, I was called by Bijal Shah (Alika’s headmistress) and asked to come to the school.”
“Bijal asked for one of the teachers to bring in the child.”
An animated speaker, Narendra stood up, clenched his fists and crossed his arms over his chest, then crouched slowly around the rim of the table, trying to demonstrate what Alika looked like when he first saw her.
“She looked like she had lost all faith in adults and was reluctant to meet another adult,” he said.
Bijal then showed him the photos of the abuse.
“I cried within. How could something like this happen to a child?” He remembers asking himself.
Narendra says his first action after that March meeting was to call his chairman, Vijah Shah.
“Whatever I’ve seen is bad. It will make you cry. We need to do something, and fast,” he said, regurgitating his end of that conversation.
The action they then would take was to try and track down Mr. and Mrs. J, Alika’s parents, investigate the allegations that they may have been responsible for her abuse. They would try use gentle means to rescue Alika, methods, which Narendra said, worked “99% of the time” with other disputes that the VOC had to resolve.
Narendra would go into details of numerous meetings that the VOC committee had over Alika, with them being the one’s who allegedly brokered her being withdrawn from her parents home to stay with a relative.
“We knew deep in our hearts that she was being abused, but had no proof,” Narendra said of their move to get Alika into a relative’s hands.
In one of the meetings Narendra says the VOC had with Mr. and Mrs. J, Alika’s parents, Narendra recalled his feelings about them:
“The mother had no expression on her face. If I did something wrong I would have an expression of remorse, or of strong denial if I didn’t do something wrong. You couldn’t get ANY response from the mother. In all my forty years of service as a mediator I have never come across a person who could hide her feelings so well.”
A day after our meeting, an individual with inside knowledge of this case, who did not wish to be named for fear of repercussion against their family, would send me a copy of alleged email correspondence between two members of the committee. Parts of the email are hidden using whiteout, but its contents suggest that it was written while Alika was staying with a family relative. Sections of the email paint a worrying picture of Mr. and Mrs. J:
“Father must play a bigger role especially in protecting the girl from all abuses.”
The email then comes to a conclusion that suggests that the author knew who was abusing Alika:
“I am most concerned about the injuries Alika was getting. Though they seem to have stopped, we must use our good offices at OERB to pressure (name blanked out) to stop abusing Alika once and for all.”
Again, it seemed clear that members of the Oshwal Education Relief Board (OERB) were sure who it was that was abusing Alika. From the correspondence, they seemed to have been involved in trying to resolve the issue, but were unwilling to go to the Police to stop a clear-cut case of child abuse.
“I understand you using these methods in the case of a business dispute or a divorce, but this was a criminal matter. Shouldn’t your first port of call been to the police?” I asked him.
“We felt that since Bijal Shah had come to us and not the police, that we should handle it. Bijal had, after all, told me, that she is our (the community’s) daughter and that we should take care of her rather than let her go into a state run Children’s home,” Narendra replied.
The state would eventually get involved anyway, and that led to a barrage of criticism against the Visa Oshwal Committee.
“We were getting a real beating – no one knew what we had done to try help the situation. Some of the younger members of the community were blaming us openly online” Narendra recounted to me. It was for this reason that the committee put out a series of press statements dissuading members of the community from talking about Alika’s case, with veiled threats that they would be held liable for defamation.
One among the many who were talking about Alika’s case would see that threat realized. Sanjay Pindoria, popularly known among Kenya’s Asian community as “DJ Don” would be arrested over his comments about the case. His cash bail receipts states that he was charged with “ Improper use of a computer system”, a charge under the infamous section 29 of the Kenya Information and Communications Act.
To this day, he doesn’t know who the complainant against him was, but he believes that he was arrested after alleging that Hindu Council of Kenya Chairman, Nitin Malde, used threatening language against Alika’s headmistress, Bijal Shah. Malde is alleged to have invoked President Uhuru Kenyatta’s name, saying that he and Uhuru are friends, while threatening to shut down her school if she didn’t back down.
In a past telephone interview, Malde denied ever having made that statement or that he threatened Bijal.
“The debate was really big. It caused prominent members of the community to call my dad, telling him that “your boy is doing this and that”, and telling my dad to ask me to back off,” Pindoria told me.
After Pindoria’s arrest, the message seems to have hit home. The debate died down.
“There was this feeling that we should all keep quiet, shut it out, don’t let it see the light of day,” News Anchor, Anjlee remembers.
However, a rift had already began to form between members of the Visa Oshwal Committee who served in 2015, and the current Oshwal Committee, with claims that the current committee wanted to distance itself from Alika’s case. Those claims are correct. The current committee has gone on record disavowing any knowledge of Alika’s case. Its current chairman, Dhiraj Dhodia, told me in a phone interview that the VOC was not involved.
“Narendra Shah was acting in his own capacity but he never acted on behalf of the community” Dhodia said.
“But there are records of the community’s involvement,” I asked.
“There are no records in the community office of a meeting taking place.”
This was a strange reaction, given the statements from the VOC’s secretary Arun Shah stating categorically that the community did indeed attempt to intervene in the case. What is even more puzzling, is why? Why wouldn’t a committee currently representing the Oshwal community whose foundations are in non-violence, want nothing to do with a case where one of their own was a victim of savage abuse?
A possible answer would unveil itself in claims of threats to Alika’s current guardian, Mr. Mehta.* The story of the Mehta’s intervention to save Alika is a two year emotional rollercoaster which this writer cannot fully reveal because aspects of this story are part of evidence yet to be produced in court, but one thing did come out recently. On his facebook page, Mr. Mehta alleged that certain senior members of the Oshwal community had, through his father in-law, issued threats against him and Alika.
“If they so wish, they can make me or Alika disappear,” reads part of the post. The veracity of this threat can’t be independently proven, but echoes of this tone were allegedly repeated to two former VOC members when her abuse was first reported to them.
Vijay Shah, the former chairman of the VOC, came out this week to defend his actions and the actions of his Vice Chairman Narendra Shah. I met with them this week, and throughout our meeting, both men gave new insights to the struggle to free Alika from her parents.
“We did everything we could,” Vijay said.
Narendra chimed in: “When you are dealing with a group of people who have the parents interests at heart, there is nothing you can do.”
I push both men to reveal who, in the committee that was formed to deal with the issue, was standing in the way of getting Alika help.
“No names” came their answer.
However, their statements after this seemed to imply that members of Alika’s family, who were part of the committee, seemed indifferent to evidence presented that Alika was being abused.
“A relative of the parents, a young doctor, said that he went to get the claims of abuse independently verified, and the conclusion was that Alika was being abused,” Narendra said.
“When this was presented to the committee, some family representatives said: We are going to handle it, you keep off” he claims.
One of the committee members involved was a Mr. Mukesh Savla, a member of both the former and current committees. He is said to be known to Alika’s parents, and is also alleged to have been part of the committee that dealt with the issue. I called him to get another perspective about what transpired in the VOC’s handling of Alika’s case.
“I have nothing to say to you”, he told me, before hanging up.
Update: After Africa Uncensored’s reporting of Alika’s case, Nominated Member of Parliament Sonia Birdi on Wednesday the 13th of June, made a statement in the National Assembly seeking action over the alleged threats made by Hindu Council of Kenya Chairman, Nitin Malde.
The criminal case against Alika’s parents continues.