A portion of the wall in the cabin, painted black, has 19 names on it. It is a list of Jaydev Singh Vaghela's predecessors, those who occupied his chair since mid-2006. The tenures of sub-inspectors of Shinor police station, a taluka in Vadodars of Gujarat, are rather short. While the rulebook allows them a maximum of three years, some barely last more than a month.
"That is the reputation of this thana,” Vaghela explains. “There is a lot of tough rope-walking to be done—politically. There isn’t a lot of crime in this area, but when there is, it is big...” He recalls a murder that had recently taken place in Chhota Udepur, a taluka located over 50 km east of Shinor, bordering Madhya Pradesh. It was a colourful tale featuring a man walking into the police station with a confession that would send the cops scouring the land for a headless body over the next hour. He cites another murder where the murderer surrender- ed on his own, albeit in a less dramatic fashion. “Try to understand the psychology of the criminals here,” says Vaghela. “Here, they won’t hide the evidence. They will take the head in their hand and march to the station.”
A resident of the same taluka, Vaghela has over seven years under his belt as a Gujarat Police officer. Six months at the Shinor Police Station, and he has already received transfer orders. It’s only for want of a successor that I have found him across the table, he says (on 11 February). As we chat over a cup of tea, the 37-year- old tells me the numerous transfers that have taken him all over Gujarat.
"So what is the biggest case you have worked on?" I ask.
After a pregnant pause, he smiles, and I know. We have spent the past two hours discussing it.
Bithli village is about 9 km from Shinor. Large swathes of land in this belt, home to cotton, sugarcane and other water-rich cultivation, owe their output to the Narmada river. The area's landowners, almost entirely of the Patel community, live in clusters near the centre of the villages. The labourers, both Gujarati as well as migrants from other states, are mostly of Scheduled Tribes (STs)-- the majority of them Vasavas, Bhils and Rathwas--and are scattered all over their land. The outskirts are dotted with rooms built to shelter the electricity connections of tubewells. Most of these rooms, referred to simply as 'kuans' (wells), are used by migrant labourers as houses.
Till a month ago, in one such kuan on the outskirts of Bithli, there lived a family of seven: a father, his two sons and their wives, an infant and an uncle. It had barely been a few days that an 18-year-old bride, the newest addition to the family, had moved in with her 20-year-old husband.
It was the evening of 17 January. The melodies of bhajans that came wafting home were from a bhandara (religious function) being held at the local temple. As darkness descended, the family lay themselves down for rest after a long day in the fields.
It started at 10.30 pm. Four men, their faces covered with scarves and armed with a chopper, showed up at the doorstep and woke up the sleeping father and his brother, asking them to open the door. They didn't have to; the latches of the house weren't in place. The intruders barged in, rousing the two couples and an infant who launched into a terrified wail. Three more men emerged out of the shadows.
"At first, they said, 'Take everything'," says the 18-year-old bride, her voice betraying no emotion. When her husband resisted, he was thrown out of the house. Taking a chance, he sprinted for his landlord's residence. Meanwhile, the family meekly handed over their life savings: Rs 750 in cash.
"Then they said, 'We want the women'," recounts the 18-year-old bride, expressionless.
The men lunged forward for the two women. They couldn't get the better of the bride's brother-in-law, who wrapped his arms tightly around his own wife and child, refusing to let go even as the men started assaulting him. The new bride was left unprotected; with the rest of the family hustled into a corner of the house, the four intruders took hold of her by her flailing limbs and made their way to the fields behind the house.
"Out of desperation, the 20-year-old called out to his wife of 20 days. In res-ponse, faint sobs broke out in the surrounding fields. "
Her husband had meanwhile burst into his landlord's house panting, and alerted him of the robbery bid. Sanjaybhai Patel immediately dialled the police control room and also called up the seemrakha Mushtaq Sindhi, a private guard who watches over the fields. About half an hour later, the 20-year-old husband was to escort officials, guards and village elders to his house--to find his family locked in. The torn remains of his bride's clothes lay on a mud-path running along the periphery of the fields. The police instructed the locals to inform the residents of all villages in the vicinity.
Nearly half a kilometre away, under the camouflage of a banana plantation, a chilling scene was unfolding. "One had closed my eyes, one my ear, one had held my hands, one my legs," says the bride. "I could still hear the seemrakha calling out my name at a distance, but they had the chopper at my throat. I was told, 'Don't scream or we will kill you.'"
As mentioned in her medical report, she was raped for nearly two hours.
Around 2.30 am, the Bithli locals received a call from a neighbouring village informing them of a young woman who had been spotted. The entire brigade rushed to the spot and were told that the residents of the kuan who had spotted her had--not knowing any better--shooed her away, assuming her to be a thief.
Out of desperation, the 20-year-old called out to his wife of 20 days. In response, faint sobs broke out in the surrounding fields. Clad in a shirt, jacket and a scarf wrapped around her waist, she was shivering when they found her. In her shock, she had no coherent answer for any question.
"We thought she might be in trauma," Inspector AM Saiyad of the Vadodara (Rural) crime branch tells me later. "In the morning, I went to meet her again."
From the conversation that morning, the cops had some vital leads. During the confrontation at the victims' house, their scarves had slid down and the entire family had seen the accused. Once the bride was abducted, as they dragged her to the fields, one of the kidnappers had used his cellphone to call an accomplice. The bride told the cops that she had overheard him say, "Mahesh, come here." It was the same dialect that the Tribals spoke in. After the rape, they had lent her a shirt, a jacket and a scarf to cover herself with. Then they had split up. Four of them led her deeper in the fields. At a point, as they huddled around a dying fire for warmth, she spotted an opportune moment and quietly slipped away.
The family of one of the accused, Mahesh Thakurbhai Vasava, at their house in Mota Fofalia
"We put our sources on the job. They got details of around 11 Tribals with the name Mahesh in the surrounding villages," says Inspector Saiyad. A certain Mahesh Thakur Vasava, resident of the Mota Fofalia village close by, hadn't returned to his residence since the wee hours of 18 January. The cops then conducted a background check and located a sex-worker that he once had relations with. According to the police, she identified the jacket as Mahesh's and told them about all of his friends. As Vaghela tells me later with much relish, "Every man makes enemies."
By 21 January, on the basis of the sex- worker's information, they detained Mahesh from his sister's place at the neighbouring village. They had also tracked down six of Mahesh's friends to their residence in Mota Fofalia and Malpur villages, both within a 10-km radius of Bithli.
"Every man makes enemies."
The police say that Mahesh owned up to the crime and revealed the names of the other six. On the night of 21 January, the cops, in a series of coordinated strikes, nabbed Nitesh Vasava (22), Mahesh Ramesh Vasava (20), Ranjit Vasava (19), Rajesh Vasava (23) and Ghanshyam Vasava (23) while they were asleep at home. No explanations were offered to any of the families. The seventh accused, Chiman Tadvi, has been absconding ever since.
(The temple of Mhaishasur, a local diety, where the seven accused allegedly gathered at the temple before they attacked their victim in Bithli)
There are certain techniques used by the police for interrogation. Anyone who is taken into custody, for example, can be made to speak by the promise of being let off on doing so, Vaghela tells me. "But they won't always [start talking] straightaway. For such cases, there is the chaudava rattan (the fourteenth jewel)," he says, using a euphemism for a stick. As expected, the arrested individuals confessed within a few hours of the process, and the police realised what they had busted: a gang of serial rapists. Open is in possession of a list of seven other rapes allegedly committed by this gang--of 13 members in all, as later found--over the past one year, none of which were reported to the police at the time. This list, I am told, was prepared on the basis of the confessions of those arrested. The accused are residents of Mota Fofalia and Malpur. Most of them work as farm labourers and are between 18 and 25 years of age. At the time this issue was going for print, ten of the accused had been arrested. Of the three people still absconding, one is a 15-year-old.
According to the police, some of the accused stayed within shouting distance of one another. They got acquainted with the rest at wedding functions where they used to work as waiters for a local caterer. The gang would identify soft targets, those of limited means who stayed alone. They used to conduct a recce after identifying their target, zero in on the location and communicate to others with a not- so-cryptic 'Aaj raid paadvaani che-- Gujarati for 'Today, we have a raid.' Over time, after their first few victims chose silence over lodging police complaints, they got emboldened.
"I don't know what he was up to. Sometimes, he came home late at night around 10 pm. At such times, he used to sleep outside," says Mangiben, the accused's mother.
The 'confessions' that the police have are as disturbing as they are bizarre. In one of the incidents, the victim was a local school teacher who was returning home on a two-wheeler vehicle. Around 5 pm, one of them, lying in wait on the sidelines, jumped on the road and kicked the vehicle. As it skidded to a halt, she was dragged off the road, into the fields, and raped by eight men. In another incident, two of them allegedly raped the wife of a factory owner at night right outside her house where she was sleeping.
When the 'confessions' came in, the police decided to take it upon themselves to track these victims down and get them to lodge an FIR. However, complainants were hard to come by even when police discretion was promised. "During this time, I went to meet a mother-daughter duo at Bithli who the accused had confessed about. But they told me that no such incident had happened, that they were only threatened. Then they said, 'Please go away from here'," says Sub-Inspector Vaghela.
During the course of my research for this report, the police wouldn't tell me the names or addresses of any of the victims who hadn't lodged a formal complaint. They, however, maintain that all of them had been approached by the police or through unofficial but trustworthy channels.
By 2 February, one of the victims had agreed to step up and lodge a complaint. Accordingly, four more, Yogesh Rawad (20), Jaswant Vasava (22), Gopal Vasava (33) and Alpesh Vasava (19), were arrested the next day. The drill followed was the same as the last time: the accused were detained in the middle of the night, no questions asked.
(The four accused caught by Vadodara police on February 3, 2015)
The woman who lodged the abovementioned FIR doesn't remember her age. Her elder cousin, however, is 60 years old and tells her that she is the younger one by nearly four years. The woman accepts this estimate without protest, just as she accepts her elder sister's narrative of what happened to both of them that night. Neither of the two remembers the date of the incident. It was on a full moon night around the time of Diwali, they tell me.
That night, when the men flashed a torch on her face, the elder woman could barely make out the outline of the two intruders. "Who are you? What happened?" she asked them, she says. Without answering, the two men exited the hut and returned with five more.
"They were saying, 'Come to the fields.' I didn't go, so then they dragged me off my bed and stripped me of my clothes. First there was one man, then another; around seven of them. If I tried to stand up, they would push me down and it would start again," says the elder woman, who reports a chopper held at her throat. After they had their turns with her, she says, they started on her cousin.
After they left, the two women, mentally and physically traumatised, did not dare venture out of their house till the morning. They informed their landlord, and within a few hours, they were back to work on the fields.
"Why? Didn't you tell him to do something?" I ask.
"He said 'No, don't lodge any case'," says the younger cousin.
"The Patel from Bithli took up the [18-year-old bride's] case. [Our landlord] didn't," says the elder cousin. "Nobody knows us. Why would anyone take up our case [at the police station]?"
By the FIR registered at Shinor Police Station, both cousins were raped twice each in a span of 10 days. I point out discrepancies vis-a-vis the narrative of the two victims. Both sides stick by the version of events. While the police maintain that the women had seen the rapists, the victims say that they had their faces covered. In the following days, some men came back to their huts, once to steal, another time to scatter their belongings, and on yet another occasion, to hang a dead snake on their door. It was at such times that they saw the men, the two tell me. In the identification parade conducted in February, assuming they were the ones who had barged into their house that full moon night, they identified the seven as their rapists.
The people who made up the gang have no record of addiction. They are not addicted to pornography. While they drank the local brew and smoked the occasional beedi, none of them exhibit any discernably unusual behaviour. In fact, as Inspector Saiyad says, as far as such aspects are concerned, "they are totally normal."
Why would they do it? Apparently, because they thought they could get away with it. At least, that's what the cops conclude.
To get a clearer picture of who these men are, I visit the homes of all the accused to speak to their families. They do not know much about the men's circle of friends, or day-to-day conduct, or in a few cases, even the crime they have been arrested for.
Mahesh Thakurbhai Vasava seems to be the gang's ring-leader. His name crops up in all the eight rapes believed to have been committed by them. The family of four--Mahesh, his brother and parents-- lives in a hut near Mota Fofalia. "I don't know what he was up to. Sometimes, he came home late at night around 10 pm. At such times, he used to sleep outside," says Mangiben, the accused's mother. She believes that her son is innocent. Her husband, on the other hand, is more pragmatic: "I don't know," he says when asked about his son's alleged involvement.
Gopal, son of Jayantibhai Vasava, a businessman who rents out wedding mandaps, used to stay a few houses away from Mahesh. The family is of the belief that after being tortured, Mahesh gave the police names of eleven friends without a shred of incriminatory evidence. "They used to serve at the weddings that Gopal was working at. But Gopal was always busy with his work," said Jayantibhai.
Jaswant Vasava's family members with a picture of Jaswant's father Sukhdev
(Photos: Omkar Khandekar)
On 3 February, the night his son Jaswant, one of the accused, was arrested, Sukhdev Vasava spent the hours just before dawn weeping on his front porch. At sunrise, he accompanied his wife to tell his landlord about the events of the night. He then sent his wife back home. Around 10 am, the villagers found his body on one of the arterial roads of Mota Fofalia. He had committed suicide by consuming fertiliser.
Sukhdev is survived by his 59-year- old mother, two sons and wife, a cancer patient. When I meet them, it's the last week of February, and the women of the family tell me that they hadn't made any attempt to understand the details of the case against their son. Twice, they had visited the police station, and returned each time both reassured and broken by Jaswant's pleas of innocence.
As with each of my visits, during the course of our conversation, we are joined by their relatives, neighbours and various curious onlookers. Their second son, however, is missing from the crowd.
"What happened to him?" I ask.
"He has gone to buy medicines for his mother. She suffers from cancer," says Sukhdev's mother.
"He still lives here?" I ask, taken aback.
"Yes," she says. "He should be back tomorrow morning with the medicines."
I turn to the widow and notice a lump on the side of her throat, covered until now by her sari. Her mother-in-law wipes tears away. I wonder if I should tell them that their 15-year-old was among the two people who the Shinor police have marked as 'accused and absconding'.
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