On August 24, the Madhya Pradesh High Court struck down the rape conviction of Sumit, handed down about a decade ago. The “whole trial” that led to his conviction by a sessions court in Dhar “appears to be a farce”, Justice Subodh Abhyankar observed, not least because the police “literally slept over the forensic reports”. The result was that the real culprit was never caught and Sumit, now 43, ended up being locked away for 10 years. It was a “sheer injustice” not only to Sumit, the judge noted, but also to the victim “whose culprit has never been caught or has walked free today by the order of this court”.
The victim was Arthi. Sumit’s stepmother. She was 26 years old.
Arthi was found dead in a field in Dhar’s Kukshi area on January 17, 2011. Her body was battered beyond immediate recognition, head smashed in. “Her blouse was above her breasts, her petticoat was above her waist and her underwear was on her stomach,” the high court’s ruling recalls. In her clenched fist was a lock of hair and a blood-stained stone lay nearby.
The autopsy found wounds on Arthi’s right ear, a bruise on her head, tears on her lips, fractures in the face, two missing teeth, several broken bones, and damage to the brain. There was “no injury” to her vagina, however, so “no definite opinion can be given regarding the rape”. Nevertheless, her vaginal swabs were collected for forensic testing.
The police quickly settled on Sumit as the suspect, arrested him the next day, and sent him for a medical exam which found no smegma in his corona glandis. Smegma is a fluid that’s usually found in a man’s foreskin for up to 24 hours after intercourse.
The investigation was entrusted to Sher Singh Bhuriya, then SHO of the Kukshi police station, Dhar. Bhuriya interviewed a friend of Arthi’s named Rekha, who claimed Arthi had visited her the previous day and was picked up around 8pm by Sumit on a motorcycle.
The motorcycle belonged to Sumit’s neighbour Mohanlal, who later told the trial court that Sumit had borrowed it earlier that evening and returned it between 9 pm and 10 pm.
Arthi’s husband was jailed for allegedly murdering his first wife, and she had since been making a living washing dishes at a local dhaba and sleeping in whichever house would provide her shelter. “Nobody seems to know which village she originally came from,” a local journalist told Newslaundry.
Sumit worked as a labourer for an event management company. “He used to erect tents for weddings,” his brother said over the phone.
Another witness named Kekadiya told the police he had seen Arthi with Sumit at 8 pm that evening. In the sessions court, however, Kekadiya claimed that “a policeman had threatened him to give this statement”. He, in fact, “does not know anything” about the incident.
The high court would later rule that Kekadiya’s statement “cannot be relied on in any manner”.
The hair found in Arthi’s hand was sent for forensic tests, which concluded that even though it was similar to the hair on Sumit’s head, “no definite opinion can be given” and only a DNA analysis could provide a firm answer.
The DNA analysis was never done.
Swabs from Arthi’s and Sumit’s genitals, Arthi’s blood-stained pants and vest, a blood-stained stone found by her body, and Sumit’s sperm-stained underwear weren’t sent for DNA testing either.
Still the sessions court convicted Sumit of raping and murdering Arthi on August 3, 2012 – based on little more evidence than that the stepmother and son were “last seen together”.
India recorded nearly 4 lakh cases of “crimes against women” in 2021, including 31, 677 cases of rape, according to the latest data from the . That amounts to 49 cases every hour. In 284 of the cases the victims were killed after being raped.
Madhya Pradesh recorded 30,673 new cases of crimes against women in 2021 while 4,202 cases from the previous year were awaiting investigation. In all, 34,875 such cases in Madhya Pradesh are yet to be investigated while 1,04,212 cases are pending trial. As many as 3,509 cases of crimes against women in 2021 were found to be false.
Madhya Pradesh reported 2,947 rape cases last year, the most of any state other than Rajasthan. Which means that on an average, 14 women and girls are raped in the state every day, a 16 percent increase over the previous year.
Sumit promptly appealed his conviction in the high court, which revered it last month.
In his ruling, Abhyankar noted that Arthi was last seen with Sumit at around 8 pm and her body was found at 9 am the next day, but the police couldn’t explain what happened in those 13 hours. Thus, the judge ruled, “the circumstance of last seen together cannot by itself form the basis of holding the accused guilty”.
The police had crucial forensic evidence which could have made the case watertight if sent for testing, the judge pointed out, but they “literally slept over the forensic reports”. If this is how police investigations are conducted, the judge said, “then there is simply no point in prosecuting any person at all”. It’s “not acceptable”, he added, and directed the government to initiate an inquiry against the officers “who are guilty of dereliction of their duties”.
When Newslaundry contacted Bhuriya, the first investigating officer, three days after the ruling, he didn’t know the high court had reversed Sumit’s conviction and strongly criticised the police.
He claimed to have “sent all the swabs for forensic analysis”, but because the results did not come back soon enough, he filed the chargesheet without them. “I was transferred as soon as the chargesheet was filed,” added Bhuriya, now the sub-divisional police officer in Dhar. “So it was the responsibility of the next investigating officer to send the evidence for DNA profiling.”
Bhuriya was replaced as Kukshi SHO, and investigating officer in Arthi’s case, by Palwinder Singh Sandhu. He declined to speak to Newslaundry.
Sumit, who moved to Dhar’s Barud after his release rather than his village in Kukshi area, is “trying to get back to his life”, his brother said. “He is fine and trying to get back to his life,” his brother said. “But he is still to find a job.”
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