'Op Silent Viper': How an Indian rape suspect was caught after 22 years

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Delhi

Published
image copyrightBiswa Ranjan Mishra
image captionBibekananda Biswal was produced in court and remanded in custody

Police in the eastern Indian state of Orissa (also called Odisha) have arrested a man wanted in a notorious 1999 gang rape. The accused hid in plain sight for more than two decades - until a few days ago when his luck ran out.

When police approached Bibekananda Biswal's home last week in Pune district in the western state of Maharashtra, they say he tried to run away.

"He saw the team coming and tried to escape. When he was caught, he told them, 'Take me away from here, I'll tell you everything'," senior Orissa police official Sudhanshu Sarangi told the BBC.

Bibekananda Biswal was among three men accused in the brutal gang rape of a 29-year-old woman on the night of 9 January 1999. He denies the allegations against him.

The other two men - Pradeep Kumar Sahu and Dhirendra Mohanty - were arrested, tried, convicted of rape and sentenced to life in jail. Sahu died in prison last year.

The attack and the uproar

The woman was travelling from the state capital, Bhubaneswar, to its twin city Cuttack, with a journalist friend and her driver when their car was intercepted by three men travelling on a scooter.

The attackers forced them to drive at gunpoint to a secluded area where, according to court documents, she was assaulted multiple times over four hours. She and her friend were threatened and beaten up and their money and valuables were snatched.

The crime made headlines and shook the state not only for the brutality of the attack but also because of the serious allegations the survivor made against some important people, including the then Orissa chief minister JB Patnaik.

She accused him of trying to shield an official against whom she had lodged a complaint of attempted rape 18 months earlier. She alleged that the two had "a role" in her gang rape to "scare me into withdrawing my charges against the official".

Mr Patnaik said her accusations were part of "a political conspiracy". A month later when the chief minister resigned, newspapers said the mishandling of the case was a major reason for his exit. A year later, the official was convicted of attempted rape and jailed for three years.

India's federal police - the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) - were called in to inquire into the gang rape case.

But Bibekananda Biswal - described in the court order as "the main accused, the mastermind" who had "raped and ravished the victim mercilessly" - had disappeared without a trace.

The case went cold, and the files lay gathering dust in a police station in Cuttack.

'Operation Silent Viper'

In November, Mr Sarangi was visiting Choudwar jail in connection with another case where he had a "chance meeting" with Mohanty, one of the rapists.

"While talking to him, I discovered that one of his co-accused had never been caught. The next day, when I got back to my office, I recalled the case files," Mr Sarangi told me.

"When I read the details of the case, I felt he must be caught. It was a most heinous crime."

image copyrightOrissa police
image captionPolice commissioner Sudhanshu Sarangi announced the arrest of Bibekananda Biswal

Mr Sarangi, who's the police commissioner for the state capital, Bhubaneswar, and its twin city Cuttack, reopened the case and gave it a code name - "Operation Silent Viper".

"A viper can blend in with its surroundings, not make any noises to avoid detection. So, I thought it was the perfect name for this operation since he hadn't been caught for 22 years," he says.

A four-member police team was formed - they were the only people who knew about the case "to avoid any information leak".

How did they find the suspect?

"On 19 February, at 5:30pm, I was sure we had the right man. Just after 7pm, three of my officers were on a flight to Pune," Mr Sarangi says.

"A joint team of Orissa and Maharashtra police carried out the raid the next day and he was arrested."

It had taken police three months of information gathering and meticulous planning to find the man they were after.

"Once we started investigating, we heard that he'd been in touch with his family, his wife and two sons. He was caught when the family tried to sell a piece of land that was in his name," Mr Sarangi told the BBC.

Read more from the BBC's Geeta Pandey

The small plot is near their home in the village of Naranpur in Cuttack district - an area becoming rapidly urbanised - and Mr Sarangi says the family was expecting to make some decent money from the sale.

A breakthrough came when police took a closer look at the family's finances.

They discovered that even though their suspect's wife or sons didn't have a job or a steady source of income, there was a regular flow of money into their account - from someone called Jalandhar Swain in Pune.

Since Bibekananda Biswal's arrest, his wife Gitanjali had denied that the family had any contact with him in the past 22 years.

"He had absconded after the gang rape and he did not contact us over the phone or secretly visit our home," she told The Times of India.

She also denied receiving any money from him, but refused to answer questions about who Jalandhar Swain was or why he had been sending money to her family, police say.

Where was he hiding?

"India is a big country," says Mr Sarangi, and "Biswal had managed to find a job, he had a bank account, a PAN Card [a must for all tax-paying citizens] and an Aadhaar card [India's national identity card]."

Since 2007, he had been living in the workers' barracks at the Aamby Valley - a posh township in Pune district that's home to some of India's super rich - more than 1,740km (about 1,080 miles) from his home village.

"He was working there as a plumber and had taken on a whole new identity," says Mr Sarangi. "He was among the 14,000 employees of Aamby Valley, merging with the setting, hiding in plain sight, raising no suspicions - just like a viper."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionRape and sexual violence are a huge problem in India

In his Aadhaar card, the suspect was named Jalandhar Swain and his father Purnananda Biswal had become P Swain - but his village was named correctly. A police investigation found no village resident by the name of Jalandhar Swain.

Mr Sarangi says Bibekananda Biswal has denied the allegations of rape, but not his true identity.

"He has also been identified by several sources, including his family members. We have now handed him over to the CBI for further investigation."

On Monday, crews from local TV channels scrambled to get a glimpse as the suspect was brought to court in Bhubaneswar.

Dressed in a blue t-shirt and grey trousers, he came barefoot, his face covered with a checked scarf as he was whisked away by policemen.

The only description of Bibekananda Biswal's appearance comes from Mr Sarangi: "He's nearly 50, medium-built, bald, not very strong physically, he's pretty ordinary actually."

What happens next?

Mr Sarangi says there are a lot of questions that need answers - How did he escape? Where was he before 2007? How did he remain undetected for so long? How did he find a job? Did someone help him?

The questions are significant, he says, especially because of the serious allegations the survivor of the attack had made against some influential people.

Then, there are also a lot of challenges. To begin with, the survivor has to identify him, but it's been a long time since the crime was committed. Then a trial will begin, which may or may not lead to conviction.

"We want to make sure that the case ends in conviction," Mr Sarangi says. "I want him to spend the rest of his life in jail, his body should leave the prison only after his death."

The survivor thanked "Mr Sarangi and his team for delivering justice to me", saying she wants the death penalty for her attacker.

She told a local TV channel she had not expected him to be arrested and was "relieved and happy" now that he was finally caught.

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