"I was praying, 'let it not be them'. But when five bodies were recovered from the pit, I knew," says Bharati Kaste, whose only remaining family now is brother Santosh. The two were not at home the day of the murders.
Sitting in her small, one-room house, Bharati Kaste chokes recalling the moment when semi-decomposed bodies of her mother, siblings and cousins were exhumed from a nearby field on Tuesday.
“I was praying, ‘let it not be them’. But when five bodies were recovered from the pit, I knew,” says Bharati, whose only remaining family now is brother Santosh. The two were not at home the day of the murders.
The pit, 8-ft deep, was located in the field of Surendra Chauhan, who was in a relationship with Bharati’s sister Rupali for the past two years while being engaged to another. The provocation was reportedly a post on Instagram, where Rupali, a 21-year-old from this non-descript block in Dewas district, had 6,000 followers.
The bodies were found 45 days after Rupali, mother Mamtabai (45), sister Divya (14), and cousins Pooja and Pavan Oswal (15, 14) were reported missing.
Apart from Surendra, police have arrested his brother Virendra Chouhan, Rajkumar Keer, Vivek Tiwari, Karan Korku, Manoj Korku and Rakesh Nemore for the murders.
Pressure has been growing on the administration, with a large protest organised by the Gondwana Gantantra Party headed by Bulbeer Singh Tomar. The Kastes belong to the Gond tribe.
The family has accused police of not acting on time, and Tomar says this could be due to Surendra’s “BJP links”. “He was one of the karyakartas of sitting BJP MLA Ashish Sharma from Khategaon and also affiliated with the Akhil Bhartiya Hindu Kesari Sanghatan. He was active during collection of funds for the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. Police summoned him more than once but within an hour he was allowed to leave.”
Several pictures of Surendra with politicians have surfaced since the incident, including with Sharma. The Congress sent a two-member team to visit the family.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has announced compensation of Rs 41.25 lakh to the family and said the matter would be heard in a fast-track court.
Police believe the provocation for the murders was a tiff between Rupali and Surendra on the intervening night of May 10 and 11. Surendra’s 23th birthday was on May 11, and Rupali could not contact him as his cellphone was constantly busy. On confronting him, she reportedly found his chats with his fiancée.
An officer close to the investigation said, “Rupali created a fictitious ID on Instagram with Surendra’s fiancee’s photos and cellphone number, inviting people to get in touch if they were interested in any kind of relationship.”
A furious Surendra allegedly spent the next two days planning the murders, including arranging for urea and salt to decompose the bodies and getting a pit dug — taking ideas reportedly from crime serials. Then, on the night of May 13, he called Rupali to his field to resolve the issue. Police say when Rupali arrived with Pavan, Surendra hit her on the head and then strangulated her, even as Surendra’s brothers kept Pavan distracted.
Surendra reportedly then convinced Pavan that Rupali had tried to kill herself, and told him to get her mother so that she could be rushed to hospital.
Additional Superintendent of Police Suryakant Sharma said Mamtabai was killed next, even as Pavan was sent back again to fetch the sisters and some spare clothes needed for the hospital. “After the sisters arrived, they were also killed, and in the end, Pavan was strangulated. The bodies were piled up in the pit with layers of mud, urea and salt over them.”
Bharati and Santosh felt something was amiss when they couldn’t get in touch with anyone at home, with all mobile phones switched off. The two work in Pritampur and Goa respectively. On May 17, Bharati arrived in Nemawar. She found the house locked, and on breaking open the door, found it empty of everyone. However, it didn’t seem like a robbery, with all things intact.
While a missing case was registered, Bharati says police were lackadaisical, and did not question Surendra despite the last call on Rupali’s cellphone being his.
In the meantime, Bharati began receiving messages from Rupali’s cellphone urging her to not look for her and the family, and saying she had got married to a person called Rahul and was very happy. Then came a message that Pooja’s wedding was planned for the next day.
“I knew the messages were not by Rupali as the language and words were not hers,” says Bharati.
At Bharati’s urging, a police team went to check out a room in Harda rented by Rupali, to where her location was traced. Says Bharati, “Surendra was with us. When the landlord saw him, he told police he identified himself as Rupali’s husband and the two of them often stayed together… Even after this, police did not question Surendra.”
Police claim the investigation took time as they were tracking Rupali’s cellphone, as she claimed the family was with her, and its location kept changing. They say teams were sent as far as Bhopal, Sehore and a red-light district in Khandwa, where the phone was found to be active for four days.
“We also investigated a human trafficking angle, and traced as many as 80 cellphones to which calls were made from Rupali’s phone. We thought we were looking for a missing person,” says Sharma.
When Bharati got the message about “Pooja’s wedding”, the mother of Pooja and Pavan, Nitu, registered a case of kidnapping against Rupali on May 26.
Police say they first got suspicious that someone was misusing Rupali’s phone when her number popped up in Choral Dam, well-known picnic spot near Indore. “It did not make sense that a person who did not want to be found had visited a public spot. We began rounding up all people known to Rupali. Surendra claimed he had not met Rupali for six months, though another friend said the two had celebrated his birthday together,” Sharma says.
Police say one of their informers who knew Surendra’s brother Virendra told them that Virendra, after a drinking bout, had boasted that “police would never be able to find Rupali”. A help of Surendra was picked up next, who reportedly within minutes told police about bodies being buried in his field.
About allegeations of lapses in the investigation, IG, Ujjain, Yogesh Deshmukh says, “It was a tough case with attempts till the very end to deviate police… Before arresting anyone, police need to have concrete evidence.”
Surendra’s family claims police demolished four of their houses in retaliation. Standing outside one house with belongings scattered across the road, his mother Rekha Chouhan says, “What kind of justice is this? Where will my family live? We never tried to hide Vikrant or Surendra nor were we aware of their act. Then why are we being punished?”
Just around a kilometre away, Bharati and Santosh are trying to pick up the pieces too. As Santosh demands justice within 30 days, Bharati says, “My mother always wanted me to study and become a big person, I will fulfil her dream.”
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