National

Whispers In Murmadi

A whole village turns suspect and spy in the murder of three minor girls

Whispers In Murmadi
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Anatomy Of A Murder

  • Bodies of three sisters—all under 10— are recovered from a well in Murmadi, a village in the Bhandara district of Maharashtra
  • They had disappeared two days earlier; rape was suspected but couldn’t be proved in forensic tests
  • Mother has been detained for questioning, grandparents are suspect too
  • The family has lost two sons, father and uncle several years ago
  • Case has assumed political overtones as in Khairlanji case

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Till a few news days ago, Murmadi was just another village in Bhandara district, about 90 km from Nagpur, on the Mumbai-Calcutta national highway. Notoriety belonged to Khair­lanji, in the same district, where the killing of a Dalit family in 2006 had evoked national horror and furore. On February 16, however, Murmadi too lost its innocence and anonymity, when the bodies of three sisters, all under 10, were rec­overed from a well in a nearby village. The girls had possibly been raped or sexually assaulted, and thr­own into the well after being killed. Police claim to have nearly cracked the case and zer­oed in on three suspects.

In Murmadi itself, things are rather bizarre: everyone is suspect and everyone is a spy. Con­versation is brief, in hushed tones, and accompanied by a scrutinising look. A swirl of allegations, conspiracy theories and rumours has enveloped the village, its air rendered dense with politics and suspicion. The cops took the mother for questioning on the aft­ernoon of March 5; she hadn’t been released more than 24 hours later. The grandparents are being probed as well. As is a tenant.

Their grandfather recounts the fateful day on February 14, when the girls disappeared. “People say the elder one bunked school and pulled the younger sisters out of the primary school nearby. We realised they were missing only when someone brought the younger siblings’ schoolbags home in the eve­ning. The bodies were found on February 16 evening. Why did the cops take four hours to take the missing complaint? They did nothing after that.”

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The girls’ mum and grandparents. (Photograph by Sunny Shende)

Inspector Prakash Munde has been suspended for not acting on the plaint. But allegations of delay in conducting the post-mortem and sending faulty bone samples continue. As do the protests, fasts and vociferous demands for a separate CBI probe. The cops in charge say it is far from an open-and-shut case. “We’ve questioned hundreds of people...it’s the most unfortunate, most complicated and one of the rarest cases we’ve seen,” says SP Arti Singh. “We’ve sent teams to Rajasthan, UP and Orissa. We’ve investigated all angles: revenge, lust, pro­perty, superstition (human sacrifice),” elaborates IG Rajendra Singh.

As of now, the cause and time of death have not been ascertained. Although the post-mortem report mentions rape and murder, the forensic reports that follo­wed seemed to refute it. A case has been registered for the offences of rape, murder and destruction of evidence. The police are guarding the crime scene—an old but functioning well and an adjoining pump room.

Back in the village, the people themselves have got into the act. Prompted by the inaction of the cops, groups of women from the village had set out to look for the girls on the night of Feb 14. Now, a committee of 20 men and women has got together to aggregate information and pass it on to the cops. Posters and boxes have been put up to encourage people to provide information anonymously, and a reward of Rs 1 lakh announced for providing clues.

Those clues might well lie along the small bylane of neat concrete houses leading up to the primary school and the main road, where the girls were seen till 3 pm. Villagers hold the family—the grandfather, who had reportedly made the girls heirs to his property; the grandmother, who reportedly did not get along with the mother; and the mother, who reportedly was too ill or too preoccupied to “look after and train” the girls—responsible for failing to notice their absence till evening. “They always played outside by themselves till late. The  elder one used to carry a large amount of money,” says one neighbour. A fact corroborated by shopkeeper Mar­uti Padole, who saw them last at 2 pm on February 14. “For the past three months or so,” Padole says, “she had been carrying 100-rupee notes.” She apparently used to like Kinder Joy chocolates, which have a secret toy inside them.

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The well where the bodies were found. (Photograph by Sunny Shende)

She had gotten into the habit of stealing, say the grandparents. She loved expensive toys, they add, but would tear them apart. “She was getting out of hand,” declares the grandfather. It is hard to tell if he is fed up of the incessant media and political attention or he actually means what he is saying. The grandmother too nods vigorously.

However, Rekha Pawar, the principal of Rani Laxmibai Girl’s High School, where the elder sibling studied, categorically warns against the linking of such theories to their disappearance. “We had never received a single complaint about the girl,” she says. “She was always regular. We don’t know if she was in touch with anyone outside the school, but there was no indication. In any case, they cannot be held responsible for their security at this age. It is the duty of their guardians.”

The family had lost two sons, the sisters’ father and uncle, several years go. The ailing mother initially alleged that her mother-in-law threatened to kill the girls because of their grandfather’s will. However, the police say there is no evidence to link her to the murders. One possible suspect was some “mama”, but the trail again led nowhere. “Dis­putes and fights are common among families,” says Seema Uke, a neighbour. “But no one kills children for that.” Uke was called by the police to speak to the mother. “She was very scared and crying like a child. We told her not to worry and come clean.” Adds another neighbour, Ashwini Chole, “We do not know about her personal life and we never saw any visitors. But it is wrong to associate all this with the crime. She keeps on saying she doesn’t know any suspect.”

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Activists too emphasise rumours sho­uld not be entertained. “It is wrong to let people say that because someone was naughty or irreverent, they deserve to be raped or killed,” says Smita Sarode-Singhalkar, a lawyer and activist as well as a member of the fact-finding committee appointed by the National Com­mission for Women. “It is clear that somebody was using the elder girl to get to all three sisters. We have been asking for an independent probe.”

A case of personal dispute, revenge or lust may assume political overtones a la Khairlanji. An all-party protest and fast started by NCP leader Sevakbhau Vagh­aye is in its second week. Sitting BJP MLA Nana Patole plans to take the fight to the assembly. “Instead of issuing a cheque of Rs 10 lakh, the state machinery needs to focus on catching the criminals. There seems to be no fear of law,” he says.

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Caught between these political promises and warnings, police interrogations and neighbour’s gossip is a family which is being seen as both victim and suspect in a saga that saw three minor girls being killed, for reasons known to none.

By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Bhandara

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