Hyderabad, Dec 03, 2019: The scene changes drastically as you drive off the Hyderabad-Bangalore highway at the Chatanpally crossing. The wide road leads to a narrow path, concrete gives way to mud, and bright lights switch to total darkness. On this zigzagged path, an underpass opens out on to the service road on the other side. Inside this underpass is one of the quietest, darkest, and remotest patches of land on the 285-km route connecting two state capitals. It’s so cut off from the buzz of speeding cars above that it’s unlikely anyone would have noticed someone being set on fire inside it — especially in the middle of the night.
And no one did on the intervening night of November 27 and 28.
At 5am on November 28, a milkman from Chatanpally village took the underpass on his way to the other side and saw something burning. He dismissed it as a fire lit by someone to keep warm. On his way back, at 7am, the fire was still on. Curious, he went to inspect it and saw a human hand sticking out of the fire. He called up the police on his mobile phone. By then, officers at the Shadnagar police station were already looking for a missing person for a few hours.
A 26-year-old veterinary doctor in a southern suburb of Hyderabad left her house at 5.30pm the previous day. The last time her family heard from her was at 9. 22pm when she called her sister from a toll plaza on the Bangalore-Hyderabad highway, and told her that she was feeling scared. She said her scooter had a puncture and a bunch of men had offered to help, but she was feeling uncomfortable around them. “Keep talking to me,” she told her sister a few minutes before disconnecting the call. When her sister rang her back on her mobile phone at 9. 45pm, she found it switched off. Her sister rushed to file a complaint at the nearest police station at Rajiv Gandhi International Airport police station, but she was told by the officers on duty that the toll plaza didn’t fall in their jurisdiction. The family claims they were told that she may have just “eloped with a boyfriend” and also asked whether she had any “lovers or affairs”.
At 3.10am, the family finally managed to register a missing-person complaint at Shadnagar police station. These were crucial hours as the police would discover later: between 9.45 and 10.30pm, the woman was gang-raped and murdered a few metres off the Nehru-ORR toll plaza. The crimes were allegedly plotted hours previously.
At 6pm, when the 26-year-old drove to the toll plaza from her house, 10km away, to park her scooter and hail a shared taxi farther into the city, a common practice for residents in the suburb, she didn’t notice four young men sitting in a circle and sharing a bottle of whiskey. As the police later pieced together, the four men, Mohammed Arif (26), Jolly Shiva (20), Jollu Naveen (20) and Chenna Keshavalu (21), worked as drivers and cleaners of a lorry that plied between Bangalore and Hyderabad carrying construction material, mainly iron nails and bricks. Somewhere on the route, the police said, they stopped at a scrap shop, sold off a pack of iron nails, and bought four bottles of liquor. They were making their way through the first bottle when they noticed the young woman park her scooter and get into a taxi headed towards Gachibowli, 20km away, where she had an appointment with a dermatologist.
One of them punctured her scooter’s tyre shortly after she left. Then they resumed the drinking, and waited for her to return. At 9. 20pm, when she came back and discovered the flat tyre, the leader of the group, Arif, approached her and offered help. Arif walked with her to the toll booth and asked the operator to point them in the direction of a bike repair shop, as the operator, Shonu, told the police. He gave them directions to a repair shop a short distance away, but on the side road leading off the highway. As the vet dragged the scooter with the group of men off the highway, Arif suggested that one of his men proceed to the repair shop while the others wait with her near toll plaza. The remaining three men persuaded her to walk into a dark compound housing an abandoned worker’s room surrounded by overgrown bushes to the left of the plaza. This is when she panicked and called up her sister, but between the time she hung up and her sister called her back, the fourth man had returned, and one of them had seized her mobile phone and turned it off. Then the group was taking turns to rape her, after forcing her to consume some liquor, according to the police report. “They forcibly committed gang rape against her will and consent, robbed her of her belongings, and murdered her by smothering,” said the remand report of the Shadnagar police.
By 11pm, the four men allegedly tossed her dead body into their lorry and planned its disposal. While two of them, with Arif at the wheel, drove the lorry towards Bangalore, the other two followed them on the vet’s scooter. They then decided to burn the body.
“Shiva and Naveen went to a petrol bunk to purchase petrol but the worker there refused to give petrol,” the report said. It was he who later gave the investigating officers their first breakthrough. On November 29, a worker at an Essar petrol bunk near Nandigama village, called the Shadnagar police after watching the news, and told them that on the midnight of 27/28 November, two men aged around 20 came in on a red Hero Maestro scooter and asked for petrol to be filled in a plastic bottle. “They went to another bunk and purchased petrol to set fire to the body. On the way, near Ashiyana Hotel, they found a bridge and decided to dispose of the body under the bridge,” the report added. “Chenna Keshavulu turned the lorry towards Hyderabad and they took the dead body under the bridge. Arif poured petrol on the body, Naveen poured diesel, and Shiva lit the fire with a match box. Sim card, handbag of the deceased were thrown in the flames … Arif and Keshavulu left the spot in lorry, Shiva and Naveen followed on the scooty. On the way, near Kothur bus stop, Shiva and Naveen parked the scooty and boarded the lorry.” They removed the number plate of the scooter before leaving it behind. Then they went to their villages, changed their clothes, and went to bed. At 7am on November 28, the police station in Shadnagar received information about the burning body. A police team arrived shortly with the father of the missing doctor who took one look at the remains and identified his daughter.
Based on information from the CCTV cameras on the highway and leads from the toll-booth operator, the scooter repair mechanic, the petrol pump workers and the owner of the lorry fleet, the police arrested the four suspects from the neighbouring Narayanpet district hours after the discovery of the dead body. They are currently in a 14-day police remand in Cherlapalli jail just outside Hyderabad.
As news travelled, people across India reacted in outrage to the brutal rape and murder of the 26-year-old veterinarian. Many were reminded of the Delhi gang rape in 2012, when a 24-year-old physiotherapy student was raped and murdered in a moving bus by a group of six men, a crime that drove a nationwide movement for women’s rights and a revision of rape laws. In common with the 2012 case, this too was tangled up in gender and class battles; while the victim was a middle-class professional from the city, the perpetrators are blue-collar workers from villages. Protests took place widely, from outside the police station and jail, where the suspects were produced to campuses and streets, from Hyderabad’s Charminar to Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. Near the toll booth where the veterinarian was raped and murdered, 26-year-old protestor Swati Devarakonda, a software developer, said, “ When they said on TV that it was just a few metres away from the toll booth, I couldn’t believe, given that it is busy round-the-clock. Which is why I came to see for myself. She was the same age as me and must have had similar dreams and ambitions. I carry a pepper spray but if four men attack one girl, how can anybody defend themselves? . We should make an example of culprits.”
“If our women and children are not safe, what is the use of police and government. Like in Arab countries, publicly behead culprits. This has nothing to do with religion. We should not allow anybody to divide us. If the police, courts can’t handle the culprits, hand them to the public, we will take care,” said Maqdoom Pasha, a fruit seller, who had come to the spot with his wife.
Many politicians and ministers in Telangana have visited and consoled the victim’s family. In a series of tweets, KT Rama Rao, minister in state cabinet and son of chief minister K Chandrashekara Rao, pleaded with the Prime Minister: “Hon’ble PM @narenramodi ji, 7 years after Nirbhaya’s ghastly rape and murder, the convicts are not hung…”
On Sunday, KCR said that fast track court would ensure speedy justice in the case and that the government would extend all assistance required to the victim’s family. “Everybody comes and tell us justice will be done. What is the use? Will our smiling daughter comeback? After Nirbhaya case too, nothing has changed. That is the tragedy of the country,” said the deceased’s uncle at her building complex.
‘HOW CAN MY SON DO THIS?’
Nearly 150km away, in Narayanpet district, the villages are eerily quiet. All four suspects in the case belong to this district. Three of them, Naveen, Shiva and Keshavulu, are from the Gudigandla village, and the main suspect, Arif, from Jakulaire village. Although the district is close and well connected to the IT hubs of Hyderabad, most people in the villages either work in the farms or pick up odd jobs around the city. The three suspects from Gudigandla are school drop-outs who, when they weren’t picked up from the village by lorry drivers, spent their time loafing or sleeping, according to their families and neighbours.
“For last six months, he hadn’t worked. He had left for the lorry cleaning job three days ago,” said Lakshmi, mother of Jolly Naveen. Since her husband died in 2006, she works in other people’s farms. She did not have the time to track her son’s habits and movements. “I have my job. I have my daughter,” she said. “When he left he didn’t say where he was going. His work was loading and unloading boxes. He made ~5,000 a month from it. When he came back, he used to be grimy from head to toe. When he came early morning on Thursday, he followed his routine -- had a bath, had food, and slept. Some time later, he got a call from his cousin Chenna Keshavulu and left for his house. He didn’t come back,” she said.
Naveen was arrested from the house of Chenna Keshavulu, where the police was waiting for him. Lakshmi found out why he had not returned after watching the news on television and from neighbours. She has been angry ever since. “He is my only son, so I naturally love him, but if they did what is being alleged, then they all deserve to be hanged.”
At the house of Jollu Shiva, his father, Jollu Rajaih, says he wasn’t even around when his son left or when he came back, because he was away at a distant farm where he lives and works. He has been to the police station since, he says, but he wasn’t allowed to talk to his son. “I wanted to ask him how and why all of this happened. He never drank, he never spoke to any girl in the village, never troubled anyone,” said Rajaih. The father said he will follow his principles, though. “He is young but he is responsible for his actions. I have a daughter. I won’t stand for any of this if its true.
Across the road from Shiva’s house, Keshavulu’s mother, also a farm worker, refuses to believe her son is capable of rape and murder. “No way he would have done anything. Perhaps he tagged along, stood and watched,” she said. For years, she says, his son has suffered from a kidney defect whose treatment, including monthly dialysis, swallows up most of the family’s earnings. “We took very good care of our son, we pampered him. When will they release him? My husband is very angry, he wants to drink himself to death. I don’t have the will to live,” she said.
A short drive from Gandigudla is Jakulaire, Arif’s village, where his parents, too, are dealing with shock. “When he came back that morning, he didn’t eat, he even refused water. He said while he was driving the lorry one girl drove in the opposite direction on her scooter and he hit her by mistake, and she died. This is all I know,” said his mother, Moole Bi. She received information about his alleged actions since, but she would rather not believe it. “How can my son do this?”