When a 15-year-old girl and her teenage male friend went missing from Jhansa village near Kurukshetra on January 9, the police’s first reaction was to treat it like any regulation elopement. They picked up the boy’s relatives for questioning and called on the girl’s parents to search for their daughter.
But when the teenagers’ semi-naked bodies were recovered separately over the next week, the police realised they were handling a more complicated case with multiple possibilities. The girl had suffered brutal injuries, reigniting memories of the December 16 gang rape and murder in Delhi.
The older of two daughters in a Dalit family from the Chamar community, the girl lived with her family in a single-storey house that had just two rooms. Her father works as a tailor at a shop around 20 kilometres away. “She aspired to be a doctor and would say she would rid us of our poverty. We decided to provide private school education and tuitions to our daughters,” her mother said.
Her teachers described the Class 10 student as bright but shy. She would often be chosen for writing on the classroom’s blackboard because of her beautiful handwriting. Her 11-year-old sister struggled to get her to play. “Her head was always buried in her books,” said the sister.
The 18-year-old boy belonged to a Dalit family as well. From the Valmiki community, he lived in a small, dingy brick house around 500 metres from the girl’s home. He was the second of three sons. His father works as a house painter and the boy helped his family financially by doing odd jobs on holidays.
Academically, the Class 12 student was different from the girl. His teacher, Naresh Khurana, said he was more focused on his jobs and was irregular at school and tuitions. “My son paid for his own education, but teachers would mock him in front of all for working at a young age. He was repeating Class 12 because of a kidney ailment,” said his mother.
The teenagers studied at the same school and took tuitions from the same teachers. Members of both families claimed ignorance about their friendship, but their schoolmates and teachers said their “relationship” was common knowledge in the school for the past year.
Like most evenings, the two of them had left from their homes for tuition at around 4pm on January 9, but neither of them reached class. The girl’s mother learnt of her disappearance at around 7.30pm, when she visited the tuition centre to walk back with her as usual. It soon emerged that the boy was not to be seen as well.
When the girl’s family visited the Jhansa police station – around five kilometres from the village – the police decided that the boy was the main suspect in the girl’s disappearance. “We raided his house around midnight and picked up his family for questioning. Since the girl was a minor, the next day we registered a FIR under IPC section 346 (wrongful confinement in secret),” said a police officer.
Though the girl’s parents, too, suspected the boy, her father would make multiple visits to the police station to request for a search operation. “The station house officer (SHO) would instead counter question me about whether the girl had returned home, and if I had searched for her properly. Police made just no efforts to search for her. Do the police in Delhi respond in a similar way in such cases?” the girl’s father asked.
The police said they had reasons to suspect the boy and his family. “CCTV footage offered evidence that they were together. A schoolmate also saw the boy and the girl together near the Bhakra canal the evening they disappeared,” said Abhishek Garg, the superintendent of police (Kurukshetra).
The footage showed the boy riding a motorcycle with his uncle in the village around 4.20pm on January 9. “He asked me for a lift to the village market. I dropped him there and left. I never suspected anything was wrong,” the uncle said.
Meanwhile, three days later on January 12, the Budha Khera village in nearby Jind district was rocked by the recovery of a young girl’s mutilated and naked body.
The spot in Budha Khera village where the body of the 15-year-old Dalit girl was found in Jind district. (Burhaan Kinu/HT)
According to Devender, a farmer who was the first to spot the body, it was lying along the slope of a muddy road, around eight feet away from a tributary of the canal. The isolated muddy stretch is around 100 kilometres from Jhansa village, next to which the Bhakra canal passes.
Barring a blue full-sleeved shirt and a torn t-shirt there was no clothing on the body, which was marked by multiple injuries. Subhash Chander, a villager who was among the first to the spot, said the girl’s hair and clothes were wet.
Afraid that they could be linked to the crime, villagers chose to keep their distance, leaving the naked body uncovered and on display. Some people took pictures and made videos. “We have seen how the police tried to frame an innocent man in a boy’s murder in a Gurgaon school,” said a villager, referring to a case in the National Capital Region that was in the headlines last year.
Sunil Kumar, a deputy superintendent of police (DSP) who soon reached the spot, said the body was not stiff – she had not been killed too long ago. “The body was not bloated either as it should have been had it remained in water for three days. It appears she was killed elsewhere and her body dumped at the spot. Since the body was found away from the canal, it is unlikely that it was swept by the water in the canal,” he said.
“There was a locket of Sant Ravidas hanging from the girl’s neck. Cropped pictures of the dead girl were circulated on WhatsApp groups and even telecast by a cable channel,” said Sunil Gehlot who made videos to help identify the victim. The girl’s aunt in Ambala alerted her father the next day on spotting a picture of the locket while watching news of the death on TV.
The post-mortem examination was conducted at Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences (PGIMS) in Rohtak on the afternoon of January 13. The autopsy report said there were 19 external injuries on the body and pointed to extensive damage to the torso. It said hair on parts of the girl’s scalp was chopped and estimated the death to be around 36 hours before the autopsy, meaning the victim died on the intervening night of January 11 and 12.
While the doctors chose to await results of more examinations before determining the cause of death, Dr SK Dhattarwal, head of forensic medicine at PGIMS, said he was certain the girl was sexually assaulted “brutally” by not less than two people. “Her liver was ruptured. A hard blunt object was used to kill her,” said Dr Dhattarwal, adding she could have been forcibly drowned.
The doctor, who says he has overseen more than 35,000 post-mortem examinations and given expert opinion in about 3,000 cases, said the girl appeared to have fought back and struggled in her last moments.
“From my experience, I can say that it was the work of someone bearing great hatred against her, or someone jealous or anyone who was angered by her resistance,” Dhattarwal added.
“When she was born, I had taken off from work for three months and cradled her in my arms. My little girl went through the same pain as Delhi’s Nirbhaya,” said her father.
The administration reacted by suspending Rampal Singh, the SHO of Jhansa police station, on January 13. “The local police should have looked into other possibilities (other than elopement angle). The police could have shown more promptness,” said the SP, Garg.
IPC sections pertaining to murder, gang rape and causing disappearance of evidence were added to the initial FIR and the police declared the missing boy as the prime suspect. Investigators detained his father, younger brother, cousins, other relatives and friends. Over the next few days, they allege that they were “physically tortured” by the police who wanted them to divulge the boy’s location.
The “tortured” included at last three minors, who alleged that the police stripped them, thrashed them, gave them electric shocks and forced their heads in buckets of cold water. “They rolled an iron pipe over my legs as policemen stood atop it on either side. It was unbearable pain, but I did not know of my brother’s whereabouts,” said the boy’s 17-year-old brother, who needed to be carried because he couldn’t walk. The boy’s 16-year-old cousin was willing to strip later to prove the torture.
The police denied any use of physical force against the suspects, but the National Commission for Scheduled Castes will probe the allegations. Many relatives of the missing boy from other towns said they ran away as the police started cracking down on them. Investigators conceded that until the boy’s body was found, they focused only on his family and friends.
Senior officials from National Commission of Scheduled Caste, along with police officers, visited the families of both the victims in Jhansa. (Burhaan Kinu/HT)
To turn up the heat on the family, the police locked the houses of the boy’s parents and other relatives and allegedly warned other villagers against offering them shelter. “I spent two nights in the cold in an open cowshed. The villagers had boycotted us. No one would even offer us a glass of water,” said the boy’s mother.
But there was a twist on January 16 when, late at night, the boy’s body was recovered from the upstream Bhakra canal near Kirmach village, 25 kilometres from Jhansa. The bloated body was naked under the waist. The boy’s cousin identified him from a tattoo on the arm.
The post-mortem examination was conducted at a hospital in Sonepat. The autopsy report said there were no serious external injuries on the body, but awaited more test results before judging how he died, but noted that the police called it drowning. The SP claimed that there was water in his lungs and the “most probable cause of death in such cases is drowning”.
The police had continued to detain the boy’s family almost 24 hours after his body was discovered. It was only when his relatives refused to cremate his body that the police let them off on January 17.
Wrapped under a blanket on the street outside her house, the boy’s mother said she did not know whether to grieve or feel relieved when her son was discovered dead. “I thought at least my son was rid of the tag of a rapist-cum-killer. I thought that would end the physical suffering of everyone in our family,” she said.
It was after the boy’s death that the police seriously began probing multiple possibilities, including so-called “honour killing”, the role of strangers who might have kidnapped one or both the teenagers, as well as a suicide pact between them. But Dr Dhattarwal said the girl’s death was anything but a suicide. The boy’s family claimed that he was a very good swimmer like most other youths in the village that lies along the borders of two parallel canals.
While the police struggled to identify any unknown suspects who might have been seen around the teenagers, it emerged that on the day of their disappearance, the boy and girl were seen in a room in an under-construction house near their homes.
“My sister-in-law had seen my son and the girl in a room and had called out to them. They had scaled a wall and escaped. I got to know of it only when I returned home from work around 7pm,” said the boy’s father. He said had he known of the relationship, he would have pulled his boy out of school and approached the girl’s parents to “keep her in check”.
“The girl’s family belongs to a superior caste. If anyone could kill the children, it could be them,” he said.
The police have not cleared the girl’s family. “Since both families are in grief over the tragedy, we will take our time with the probe. But no one has been given a clean chit,” said Dalip Singh, the new SHO of Jhansa.
The girl’s parents, however, say there is no reason to suspect them. “Would I kill my own daughter and then sexually assault her? Would it increase my reputation? The boy’s family had seen them together, so they may have a reason to be angry,” said the girl’s father.
A police probe team in the Jhansa village. (Burhaan Kinu/HT)
The two families have found support from people of their respective castes. The two families have not ventured into each other’s lanes.
“The two castes do not get along in this village,” said a local resident.
Under fire for their alleged “mishandling” of the case, the police say they will “tread carefully” even as they have certain leads obtained from mobile phone signals detected near the spot where one of the bodies was detected. “We will string together every piece of evidence before concluding anything. We do not want to be in the dock for arresting the wrong people,” the SHO said.
It now appears to be a blind case with no breakthrough in sight.