Was some legally astute brain involved in hatching the conspiracy to kill Phoolan Devi? Or was it just an unintelligent plot, bound to boomerang on the conspirators—and one which would ultimately ensure their conviction? All of last week, those investigating the murder of the bandit queen-turned-politician grappled hard to make head or tail of the events that followed the murder of the Samajwadi Party MP on July 25 outside her official bungalow in New Delhi. Although the main suspects—Sher Singh Rana, Ravinder, Rajbir and Shekhar—fell rather too easily into the police net, the investigators have made little progress in solving the mystery behind Phoolan's murder.
Late into the week, three more suspects were arrested, including Keshav Chauhan, an SP worker from Mirzapur, her constituency. The other two were Praveen Mittal, an advocate, and Amit Rathi, who allegedly provided the arms to Rana. But ten days after the killing, a key question still remains unanswered—what was the motive?
It seems like Sher Singh Rana, the prime accused, purposely left behind several clues to "lure" the police towards a certain line of investigation. Rana's green Maruti car was abandoned half-a-kilometre away from Phoolan's Ashoka Road residence; the assailants left two country-made revolvers at the spot while two other pistols were recovered from the car; Rana virtually gave himself up to the Dehradun police on July 27 and claimed to have committed the murder to avenge the Behmai killings.
According to the police, after his surrender, Rana appeared rather too eager to cooperate with the investigators. But most of what he uttered were blatant lies. For example, he had told the police that one of his cousins, Ravinder, was the second assailant who shot at Phoolan's security guard. But later it was found that the second person involved was a Roorkee-based criminal, Dhiraj alias Vicky. Rana even suggested that Phoolan's contempt for the Thakurs, particularly for Samajwadi Party's Amar Singh, provoked him to kill her.
The investigations took a curious turn when the Uttaranchal police discovered that according to its records Rana and Ravinder were lodged in Haridwar jail between July 16 and July 26. Interestingly, this fact came to light even while Delhi police commissioner Ajay Raj Sharma was making claims of having "almost cracked" the case. It was revealed later that it was one of Rana's employees, Shravan, who had impersonated his employer, was produced in the Dehradun court and spent the 10 days in jail.
Clearly, the conspirators had been trying to create a "credible" alibi. The idea apparently was to claim at the trial that they were in jail at the time of Phoolan's murder. And since jail records would prove this, they would be given the benefit of doubt. Says criminal lawyer V.K. Ohri, "They had planned a strong alibi which would have helped them at the trial. But the move has backfired, turning into a major problem for them. They have actually created a lot of circumstantial evidence against themselves. Direct evidence can be tampered with or eyewitnesses can turn hostile, but you can't change the corroborative or circumstantial evidence". The fact that Rana's father withdrew a surety bond in one of the excise cases pending against his son on July 16 itself also makes him a co-conspirator. The conspiracy ambit now stretches beyond those directly involved.
Meanwhile, the police have more on Rana's criminal past. He has been linked to several cases in Dehradun.In 1997, he was involved in a car robbery, in 2000 Rana and his accomplices looted Rs 10 lakh from the Punjab and Sind bank in Dehradun and killed the security guard; the same year he looted Rs 15 lakh from the Roorkee branch of the Punjab National Bank.
Legal experts say that a lot of thinking and planning must have been done before the murder was executed. It shows the assailants (or conspirators) were well versed with the loopholes in the legal system. Unfortunately for them, an alert court official in Dehradun saw Rana's photographs in the papers and remembered that the person presented before the court was someone else. That's how the whole gameplan was exposed. Says a senior police officer, "The planning was almost perfect. Imagine the damage to our case if at the trial Rana had claimed that he was in jail at the time of the killing". Adds P.K. Joshi, Dehradun ssp, "Rana was trying to confuse the police but we know now that the person who spent time in jail was not Rana."
Despite this breakthrough, the police is yet to decipher the motive behind the crime. Whatever Rana and his associates have told the police doesn't actually provide credible answers as to why they decided to eliminate Phoolan. However, the police are not ruling out any possibility. According to an officer, the "three Ps"—politics, property and personal motive—are still being investigated.
This means Phoolan's husband Umed Singh is still not out of the purview of the investigation. Stories of his strained relationship with Phoolan were already doing the rounds and now, adding to the confusion, there's the dispute over property with her mother Moola Devi. It is learnt that Phoolan's earnings by way of royalty from her biography and Shekhar Kapur's film Bandit Queen are substantial. Apart from a house in Chittaranjan Park in Delhi, Phoolan owned property in Shekhpur village and Mirzapur in UP.
As claimants to her property came forward—including former husbands Putti Lal and Man Singh—Umed in a clever move announced that he would establish a trust in Phoolan's name. Irked by the move, Phoolan's sister Munni Devi accused Umed, at a press conference called by the latter, of being part of the murder conspiracy. She later held her own press meet where she even alleged he might have done this at the behest of a political party.
Umed counters all this. He told Outlook: "Phoolan ki maa trust nahin chahti. Yehi woh aurat hai jisne Phoolan ko bachpan mein bech diya tha, aur ab property ke liye saamne aa rahi hai. (Phoolan's mother doesn't want the trust. She is the one who had sold Phoolan when she was a child and now she is clamouring for property)". He claims that he had no differences with Phoolan to the extent that before her murder she even discussed her plans of floating a trust to "give concrete shape to her dreams". "I am only carrying forward her dream and I have declared that I will not take any of the profits; the trust will be headed either by a bureaucrat or an ex-judge," says Umed.
But the police are not taking anything on face value. Apart from SP worker Uma Kashyap and husband Vijay Kumar, Keshav Chauhan, who was arrested last Friday, is another person whose role is under probe. Along with the other two, Chauhan was present at Phoolan's residence on the day of the murder but left for Mirzapur soon after. The police say the killers had left the murder weapons at the spot but Chauhan removed them and hid them in Phoolan's garage.However, the weapons were not found when the area was being sanitised before Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and home minister L.K. Advani's visit to Phoolan's residence to pay their condolences. The police want to know why Chauhan removed the weapons, and feel this may provide important leads.
The police are cagey about the political conspiracy theory, but aren't ruling it out. With elections in UP drawing near, the pressure will mount on them. Sources say the investigators now believe it is not an open and shut case, as it seemed a week ago. The question is: Is Sher Singh Rana just a pawn? There are no easy answers.
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