On the night of May 13, Bharati Kaaste talked to her mother Mamtabai on the telephone for over an hour. Bharati worked at a factory in Indore’s Pithampur while her mother was 155 km away in their family home in Nemawar in Madhya Pradesh’s Dewas.
“We were discussing how the lockdown has affected poor people like us,” Bharati recalled. “I told her I’d transferred Rs 2,000 to her account and asked her to buy a quintal of wheat for the house. Before disconnecting, I told her I’d call her again tomorrow after work.”
That was the last conversation Bharati would have with her mother. One day later, her mother vanished from their home, along with Bharati’s two younger sisters, a nephew and a niece. They were found 48 days later, buried in graves 12 feet deep in the farm of their alleged killers.
The victims were Mamtabai; Bharati’s sisters Rupali, 21, and Divya, 14; and Bharati’s cousin Neetu’s children Pooja, 15, and Pawan, 14. The farm belonged to one Surendra Chauhan, who is associated with a local right-wing outfit and has ties to BJP leaders.
According to the police, Surendra was in a relationship with Rupali and killed the family after she learned that he was engaged to be married and posted a picture of his fiancée online. He was arrested along with six others: Veerendra Chauhan, Vivek Tiwari, Rajkumar Keer, Rakesh Nimore, Manoj Korku, and Karan Korku.
The news made national headlines: for the deaths, police incompetence, and the two-month long struggle of a family of Gond Adivasis to find their loved ones. The farmhouse where the bodies were found is now a rallying point for bureaucrats and leaders across party lines.
But for Bharati, it’s too little too late.
“If all these people came to help when my family disappeared, it may have saved their lives or caught their killers then itself,” she told Newslaundry. “But neither the police nor the politicians came to our rescue. Nobody was ready to listen to us. Only the Gondwana Gantantra Party helped us at that time.”
A family goes missing
Bharati is the second of four children. The family house in Nemawar was home to Mamtabai, Rupali, Divya, Pooja and Pawan. Pooja and Pawan’s mother Neetu lived elsewhere. Bharati’s father Mohanlal works in Indore, her brother Santosh, 26, in Goa, and her sister Rupali in Harda. Rupali also kept a rented room in Harda.
Bharati’s ordeal began on May 14, the day after her final conversation with Mamtabai.
Santosh and Bharati.
“I tried calling my mother around 4-5 pm but couldn’t get through,” she said. “Then I called my father, who works as a cleaning staff at a hotel in Indore. He told me he had spoken to Divya, my younger sister, on the evening of May 13 but could not reach the family after that.”
Phone calls on May 15 received no response. On May 16, Bharati tried calling her mother, her sisters, and her nephew, but all their phones were switched off.
“I got really worried and informed my brother in Goa,” she said. “I told him we’d been unable to contact my mother and others in Nemawar for the last three days. I asked him to send one of his friends to the house to check on them. My brother’s friend went but there was a lock on the door. A neighbour told him they hadn’t seen my family for the last three or four days.”
Frantic, Bharati, Mohanlal and Santosh began telephoning multiple relatives but no one knew what had happened to their family. On the afternoon of May 17, she went to Nemawar with her cousin Neetu, whose children Pooja and Pawan were also missing.
“We broke open the lock on the door of the house,” she said. “Then we went to the Nemawar police station at around 5 pm to file a missing persons complaint. The police filed the complaint at around 11 that night.” A policeman came to the house the following day and made inquiries around the neighbourhood.
At 1 pm on May 19, six days after her last conversation with her mother, Bharati received a text message from Rupali’s phone number.
“The message said I shouldn’t worry about her or the other family members, that they have gone far away, that she and 15-year-old Pooja are getting married, they’re all very happy,” Bharati said. “And that they will now stay together and not come back. The message also used some slang words against my brother. I got suspicious as my sister would never use such words about my brothers. But I was also worried about the mention of Pooja’s marriage, since she is a minor.”
Bharati telephoned Vishnu Mandloi, the investigating officer assigned to the case. “I told him the phone is in use and about the messages. I told him it can be tracked,” she said. “I asked if they had put Rupali’s phones on surveillance to find her location. But he told me things don’t work like that and he hasn’t received orders from above.”
She continued, “I got angry after hearing his reply. Then he told me that if I am so concerned, I should track down my family on my own and not come to the police for help.”
That evening, Bharati received a phone call that summoned her to the Nemawar police station. She went with her cousin Neetu and told the police about the text message. Neetu was worried, Bharati said, about the mention of her minor daughter being married off and filed a kidnapping complaint against Rupali.
Surendra Singh Chauhan was also at the police station at that time. Bharati knew who Surendra was; he was friends with Rupali and Bharati suspected they were in a relationship. She had wondered whether Rupali had left to meet him, but that didn’t explain the disappearance of her other family members.
But Surendra’s presence at the police station was unwelcome to her. He took out his phone and told the police that Rupali had texted him in the past criticising her brother – the implication being that Santosh was responsible for her disappearance. Bharati was unconvinced.
“The police told us we shouldn’t worry as they will help us,” Bharati said. “They told us Surendra is like a brother and will help us track down our family.”
Two days later on May 21, Bharati went with the police to visit Rupali’s rented accommodation in Harda.
“Surendra came along with us,” she said. “When we were at her room, her landlord said Surendra used to visit as Rupali’s husband.” At that point, the police had even told Bharati that the last phone call received on Rupali’s phone was from Surendra’s number.
Yet while Bharati and the others suspected Surendra of being involved in the disappearances, the police did not consider him a suspect, she said.
“The police were not even ready to interrogate him,” she said. “In fact, after the Harda visit, the station house office was acting as if they were doing us a favour by investigating the case. He said, ‘I hope you are happy now as we are travelling and inquiring about the matter.’”
Bharati and Santosh also pointed out to the police that Rupali’s Instagram was still being updated – which meant that they could track her phone – but the police ignored them.
Days passed and there was no progress by the police. Surendra remained at large. When the media reported on the disappearances, Bharati was contacted by a representative from the Gondwana Gantantra Party, a regional party that works for Adivasi interests.
“They accompanied us to the police station and told the cops they would conduct a large-scale protest if the police did not proceed,” Bharati said.
But still, nothing happened. Balbir Singh Tomar, the president of the party, told Newslaundry the police were very “casual” about the case. Meanwhile, he said, around 200 members of the party were “independently working to find the family”.
“But the additional SP Suryakant Sharma told us the family is alive,” Tomar said, “and that they were tracking their location.”
Finally, on June 29, Bharati received a phone call from an acquaintance.
“He told me bodies were being exhumed from Surendra’s farm,” she said. “The police did not even have the courtesy to inform us that they had recovered the bodies of our family members.”
The police version of events
The police’s interest in Surendra Chauhan reportedly happened after an “informer” tipped them off that he was involved. Newslaundry could not ascertain the identity of this “informer”. The police then rounded up Manoj Kurku, a domestic worker at Surendra’s house, who allegedly informed them about the murders.
Surendra was then interrogated, the police told Newslaundry, who confessed. The bodies were then found buried in a corner of his farm. The six others arrested along with him – Veerendra Chauhan, Vivek Tiwari, Rajkumar Keer, Rakesh Nimore, Manoj Korku and Karan Korku – were all allegedly his accomplices.
Surendra’s farm is about 3.5 km from the family home in Nemawar. The five bodies were covered with urea and salt to speed up the decomposition process. The bodies of Rupali, Divya and Pooja were found unclothed.
The police said Rupali, Mamtabai, Divya and Pooja had been hit on the head with a rod and then strangled. Pawan had been strangled. The police refused to reveal the contents of the postmortem reports to Newslaundry.
According to the police, Rupali and Surendra had been in a relationship. Station house officer Avinash Sengar said that Surendra was “angry” with Rupali because, after discovering he was engaged to be married, she had posted something about his fiancée on Instagram. Surendra then asked her to come to his farmhouse on May 13.
“He called her under the guise of resolving their differences, he told her he wants to marry her,” Sengar claimed. “Rupali went to the farm with her nephew Pawan. Surendra’s friend kept Pawan talking while Surendra killed her. He then told Pawan Rupali had cut herself and asked him to bring Mamtabai.”
Pawan complied, Sengar said, and Mamtabai was killed. “They told Pawan that Rupali is not even listening to her mother and asked him to bring Divya and Pooja so everyone could convince her to get married,” Sengar alleged. One after the other, Sengar said, the family members were killed, the last being Pawan. This is the police’s official version of events.
When asked about three of the bodies being unclothed, Sengar said, “It does not seem to be rape. He just wanted to kill. He told us he removed the clothes because they do not decompose easily.” Sengar did not know why the other two bodies were clothed.
Bharati’s brother Santosh Kaaste told Newslaundry he thinks his two sisters and Pooja were gangraped before they were killed. His anger against the police was palpable.
“Their attitude was lackadaisical in finding our family,” he said. “It’s shameful. If the family of someone rich or powerful had gone missing, the entire police force would have been searching for them. But such concern by the police does not apply to the poor.”
The Gondwana Gantantra Party’s Tomar told Newslaundry that Surendra has the “protection” of the Nemawar station house officer, Avinash Sengar.
“He used to travel along with Sengar all the time,” he alleged. “He has connections with BJP leaders. That’s why they didn’t lay hands on him.”
Anand Karpe, a Gond community leader and district secretary of the Anusuchit Jati-Janjati Karmchari Sangatan, a union of SC/ST government workers, told Newslaundry there is “foul play in the whole police investigation”.
“The role of the police is fishy. Only a CBI inquiry can reveal that,” he said. “They did not even consider the basic thing, that the last call to the victim [Rupali] was made by the accused. The victim’s family informed the police about their suspicions of the prime accused Chauhan. The police didn’t even care to interrogate or investigate him in detail.”
Karpe also pointed to the fact that three of the bodies were unclothed and said the police must provide answers.
‘The accused misled the police’: Home minister
Newslaundry spoke to various police officers attached with the Nemawar police station about the case.
Head constable Vishnu Mandloi was the first person to investigate the matter after Bharati filed the missing persons complaint. Mandloi is the cop who took exception to Bharati asking whether her sister’s phone could be tracked.
“I investigated the case for only three days,” Mandloi told Newslaundry. “I was not well so I asked senior officials to hand the case to someone else.”
About Rupali’s phone, he said the phone number was given to the cyber cell and its location “was not tracked till the time I was on the case”.
Head constable Manish Meena took over the case from Mandloi. Meena said, “Chauhan had an affair with Rupali for the past year and a half. But he did not want to marry her. He told us during the interrogation that she was not a good girl and that’s why he didn’t want to continue. He told us Rupali posted some objectionable post about his fiancée which infuriated him. After that, he killed the family.”
Meena said the case was then handed over to sub-inspector Shivpal Singh Parihar, after Neetu had filed a case of kidnapping against Rupali.
“The whole family was murdered on the night of May 13 itself,” Parihar said. “But our investigation could not find out about it at that time. But then the police did a very detailed investigation and detected the case.”
Why did it take so long for the police to question Surendra Chauhan?
“We had investigated the matter from all angles but could not find the next clue at that time,” Parihar said. “We had no idea the case would turn out like this, into gruesome killings. It was only after we were told by informers to focus on Chauhan that we achieved a breakthrough. I cannot tell more than this about the matter. Senior officers are handling it now.”
Newslaundry asked the Dewas superintendent of police Shiv Dayal about the police’s laxity in their investigation. He said, “People easily slap allegations against the police but in the start itself, we got Rupali’s call data records and interrogated 10-12 people who could be primary suspects, including Chauhan.”
Newslaundry contacted Madhya Pradesh home minister Narottam Mishra and asked why the police had been casual in its investigation. Why was Surendra not interrogated when they knew the last call on Rupali’s phone was from him?
“We have taken action and the accused have been arrested,” Mishra said. “The accused misled the police for a very long time using the victim’s phone and social media accounts. He was also helping the family search for the victims. He was a suspect and the police cannot just straight away put a suspect behind bars.”
On being questioned further, Mishra cut the call. Newslaundry tried contacting him again several times but he did not respond.