Sayara village, Modasa: The beaming face of a 19- year old woman shines out of a tall, white flex- board hoisted right at the entrance of the Dalit basti in Sayara village of Modasa Taluka. Villagers stop by for a moment or two with their folded hands and read the description printed on the board. The board offers homage to a teenager who was allegedly abducted, gang-raped and brutally murdered on January 5. They hurriedly walk away when inquired about the incident. No one wants to talk about the horrid incident.
On January 5, the body of the young woman was found hanging on a long-standing banyan tree, bang at the entrance of the village. The teenager, a second-year commerce student, the sixth of the seven siblings, had left home on January 1 to register herself for an advanced computer course. She never returned.
Three weeks since her death and two different investigations later, it has now emerged that the victim was brutally sodomized, dragged and then forcibly hanged from the tree, according to an Ahemdabad Mirror report. Four men, all in their early 20s, have been accused in the case.
After the victim went missing on January 1, the family says they waited for two days for her to return. “When she didn’t, we went to the Modasa town police station on the early morning of January 3,” her distraught mother says. At the police station, the family claims, police inspector N.K. Rabari asked them to not worry and told the family that the victim had married someone within their caste. “He spoke to us as if he had definitive information about her whereabouts. He even told us that he would soon produce my daughter with her marriage certificate,” the father, a farm labourer shared.
Rabari has since been suspended from work and the recently formed Special Investigations Team (SIT), led by deputy inspector general (DIG) Gautam Parmar is also probing Rabari’s probable link with the accused persons.
The victim’s elder sister, a 21-year-old beautician, is key to the investigation. She had allegedly seen the victim being abducted from a village bus stop on January 1 around 1 pm. In her statement, she has named four men – Bimal Bharvad, Darshan Bharvad, Jigar and Satish Bharvad – of forcibly taking her away in a four-wheeler, now identified as a Hyundai i20, keeping her confined for four days, raping her and then hanging her from the tree. While the first three surrendered before the police, Satish Bharvad is absconding. All accused belong to the Rabari caste, a pastoral community classified as an Other Backward Classes (OBC) in Gujarat. Although the community is largely economically and socially backward, the victim’s relatives say Bimal Bharvad’s family, particularly, is landed and has political clout.
From the start, the investigation did not inspire the family’s trust. The victim’s mother says, they had waited for four days for their daughter to return. The police failed to act and then on January 5, the body was finally found hanging. “Underneath the tree, a small temple of Kodialmata has been built. On January 5, when the priest went to pray, he looked up and found the body hanging. He raised an alarm and we were soon informed,” the mother says. “Only if the police had acted upon our complaint swiftly, our daughter could have been saved, perhaps,” she adds. The family used to live in a hut built on their small patch of land, but has since moved to a relative’s house in Sayara village.
The Wire tried to find the priest who found the body for his version of the story. Most villagers claimed they did not know him and dissuaded this reporter from probing further. One person, however, said the priest belonged to the Panchal community and the land adjoining the Banyan tree belonged to the priest.
Once the body was found hanging, the family and Dalit rights activists from several parts of Gujarat had gathered in the village and demanded the police arrest the accused immediately. The family refused to let the body be taken for autopsy until the FIR was registered. The FIR has several sections of the Indian Penal Code for abduction, gangrape, and murder. Sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act have also been slapped on the accused.
The Wire visited the spot where the body was found hanging. Although it was made to look like the young student took her own life, the body was knotted to a blue cloth at a height of around 20 feet, which is unlikely for a person of frail built to scale. The victim, according to the post mortem report, was only 152 centimetres tall and petite.
Discrepancies in the investigation
Questions have been raised not just about the police’s refusal to act upon the complaint immediately but also in the way the investigations were carried out. For instance, the first interpretation of the post mortem report drawn soon after the body was recovered suggests there weren’t any injury marks on her genitalia. The report, however, suggested injuries were sustained to her neck.
The report mentioned that “part of rectum is prolapsed out from anal canal”, but this crucial information was not taken into consideration. The second post mortem, provided by a panel of five forensic scientists, has indicated that the victim was sodomized repeatedly.
The second report also points to four different injuries on the body of the victim. Besides the injury on her neck, the woman sustained “abraded contusions” to her forearm, abrasion on her upper chest towards the left side, and on her left arm. These abrasions, the report has suggested could have been sustained during a struggle or when being dragged on a hard surface.
Until now, only the family had claimed that she was sexually assaulted. This report has substantiated the family’s claims.
A senior police officer, however, has claimed that the forensic report received after the analysis of the victim’s body doesn’t show the presence of any “foreign particles”. “No saliva, hair or semen was found on her body. This, however, doesn’t mean that the victim was not sexually assaulted. They could have used precaution at the time of the assault.” He added that the forensic report on her clothes is awaited.
Family members went to the home of one of the accused
The statements given by the victim’s sister have also shifted substantially. Strangely, the family had not named the accused until the woman’s body was found on January 5. This, even when the victim’s sister says she saw the men drag the woman into a car, argue with her before zipping past her.
According to the sister’s statement recorded in the FIR on January 5, soon after the victim was abducted, the family along with several men from the community, visited the spot where she was abduted. They retrieved CCTV footage from a nearby establishment, identified the car and its car number and then visited prime accused Bimal Bharvad’s house. Here, the sister claims, the family urged Bimal’s father Bharatbhai Bharvad to return their child back to them.
A couple of days after, at the time of a protest meet arranged in the village, the victim’s sister in a video recording again repeated her statement as given to the police. Here, however, she mentioned that she was with the victim from 9 am to 1 pm. She is also seen identifying the men by their names and their respective villages.
When The Wire and Shantaben Senma, a social worker from Gujarat-based Dalit rights organisation Navsarjan Trust, met the family on January 19, the family repeated their statement. However, they claimed that the men were unknown to them. They refused to name any of them and denied having met the family of one of the accused while looking for the victim. The victim’s sister has been unwell since the past week and the SIT, after several attempts, questioned her only on January 22.
“My child was my pride”
Among seven siblings – six daughters and a son – the victim was the only one who had continued to pursue her education. The parents say despite the family’s difficulties, she had insisted on completing her studies. “We could not afford to educate them, so my other children had to drop out of school. She was studious, so we sent her to her aunt’s place in Isari at a very young age,” the mother shares. “My child was my pride,” the father adds.
The family is only one of four that belong to the Chamar community, a Scheduled Caste, in the village. The village predominantly comprises of Patel, Thakor, Darbar, Rabari and Panchal houses. There are also a few dozen houses of the Vankar community, another Scheduled Caste. Social segregation is palpable in the village, with the Dalit basti built separately at a corner, away from the houses of the dominant castes.
The victim’s family, like other Dalits in the village, survives on frugal means, depending on a very small patch of land. The victim was their hope for a better future. “They snatched our only hope from us,” the father says.