While the rape and murder of a young veterinarian on the outskirts of Hyderabad sparked fear and outrage across the country, the killings by the police of the four accused have been met with mixed reactions. Abhinay Deshpande pieces together the details of the ghastly incidents
Two weeks after his daughter was brutally raped and murdered in Hyderabad, rage has morphed into deep sorrow for Disha’s* father. He patiently recalls his 27-year-old daughter’s hobbies. “She loved cooking for us,” he says. “She also liked collecting saplings as she was interested in gardening.” Disha’s family lives in the suburbs of Hyderabad in a middle-class gated community with a small garden. “She was artistic; she used to turn scraps into artefacts. And of course, she loved animals.” Disha was a kind-hearted person who got along well with people, he says.
Disha had always dreamt of becoming a doctor. She opted to become a veterinarian when she was selected to study a course at the P.V. Narasimha Rao Telangana Veterinary University. She landed a government job in Mahabubnagar in 2017, less than a year after she graduated. “She had no life beyond the family and her work,” her father says.
Every day Disha would leave home at 8.30 a.m. on her scooter, a red-coloured Hero Maestro, which had been handed down by her father. She would park it near the Shamshabad Bus Station, 5 km from her home. From there, she would board a bus to reach her office, 37 km away. She would return home by 4.30 p.m. Disha was a creature of habit.
A deflated tyre one dark night
On the fateful day of November 27, Disha reached home by 5.00 p.m. She was having a busy day: she had scheduled an appointment with a dermatologist in Gachibowli that evening. She had been seeing a dermatologist once in three months, her father says, to get treated for a mild acne rash. At about 5:40 p.m., she again left home. She parked her scooter at the Tondupally toll plaza, 7 km from the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport (RGIA), along the Outer Ring Road, to catch a cab to Gachibowli. It must have been after 6 p.m. when she parked her scooter at the plaza. After her appointment, she returned by 9.30 p.m. to drive back home. Disha had called her mother earlier to say that she wanted watermelon for dinner and to ask if her mother, who had high blood pressure, wanted her to buy any medicines from a pharmacy nearby.
The spot where Disha parked her scooter is a busy area. Apart from vehicular traffic, there is always the drone of aircraft landing and taking off. In the dark, when she returned, Disha discovered that the rear tyre of her scooter had been deflated. As she wondered what to do, a man stepped out of the shadows to offer help. His name was Mohammed Arif and he was a 26-year-old lorry driver. Arif called his helper, Jollu Shiva, to fix the tyre. Shiva took her scooter away only to come back after a while to inform her that all the repair shops had closed. He told her that he would take the scooter in the other direction in search of shops.
Discomfited by this turn of events, Disha called her sister. She told her that she was afraid and urged her sister to continue talking to her as there were not many people in the area. Her sister asked her to leave the vehicle there. She said she would call back as she was on night shift that day. When she did, about 15 minutes later, Disha’s phone was switched off.
A huge crowd gathers at the site as the bodies of the Hyderabad rape and murder accused are taken away.
| Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal
According to the police, Arif and his two accomplices, Jollu Naveen and Chennakeshvulu, abducted Disha and then took turns to rape her. Arif forced a soft drink laced with alcohol down her throat. The noise from the aircraft and vehicles would have drowned any scream or sound from her, the police say. Jollu Shiva, who had taken her scooter away, returned with it and joined the men. Then the four of them together held her down and closed her mouth and nose for a long time. Disha died of asphyxiation. They then took her body to an underpass near Chatanpalli and set it on fire. Policy say that during interrogation, the four men confessed to having checked if Disha had burnt beyond identification. After the dastardly crime, they all went home.
‘Please dial 100 first’
The next morning, the country woke up to the terrible news of the heinous gang rape and murder of the young veterinarian. The incident brought back memories of the gang rape of a young girl in Delhi in December 2012. That crime had also involved a working woman and was as nauseating in its barbarity.
By the time a numbed female workforce reached their offices the next morning, the police were already on the lookout for the accused — a suspected lorry driver and his helpers. Fear gripped the city. Human Resources departments of hundreds of IT firms sent out intra-office emails and WhatsApp alerts, cautioning women employees to Dial 100 or use the Telangana police mobile app, ‘Hawk Eye’, in case of emergencies. Of the workforce in the 1,283 IT companies in Hyderabad, about 2.3 lakh are women. Most work in the day shift, some work at night. Many organisations follow a rule: if a woman is working after 7 p.m., a male guard from the organisation should accompany her home in a cab rented by the company. As nearly all software companies offer cab drop services to their women employees, few commute to work by two-wheelers. However, a vast number of women own scooters and drive around the city.
“In case of any emergency or vehicle breakdown, please dial 100 or press the SOS button on the Hawk Eye app to reach out to police immediately,” read a WhatsApp message sent by the vice president of a prominent IT company operating in HITEC City, a buzzing tech industry hub.
Sharing a WhatsApp message, a 28-year-old data analyst with a software company says her manager told all the women employees to call the police first if they were faced with any problem on the street. “My boss specifically told all of my female team members to contact the police even in the case of a bike or car tyre puncture,” she says.
The police did not anticipate the reactions that came in. Within hours, as panic set in, working women began to reach out to the police in large numbers. The Cyberabad police WhatsApp number was so flooded with texts that it had to be deactivated. It was restored in less than 48 hours. What turned into a bigger nightmare for the police was the fact that Disha’s real name became a top trending search keyword on prominent porn websites.
So pervasive was the fear that the Hawk Eye app was downloaded by over one lakh people in less than five days. For at least a week after the incident, Hyderabad looked like a ghost city. People retreated into the comfort of their homes, paralysed by the incident and trying to come to grips with the ugly side of their city.
Even as the police sprung into action that morning, they came under fire for the manner in which they handled Disha’s sister’s complaint the night she was abducted. When Disha could not be contacted, her sister grew worried. Anxiety slowly turned into a sense of foreboding as the clock ticked on. Along with her colleagues, she went to the RGIA police station to file a missing person report. Later, her father joined her at the police station. There, instead of assuring them, the police subjected them to humiliating comments. Instead of registering a Zero FIR (where the information about a cognisable offence is received, irrespective of whether the police has got territorial jurisdiction or not), the police asked if Disha had a boyfriend, suggesting that she had eloped with him. They also refused to register an FIR saying the case did not fall in their jurisdiction, the family says.
Disha’s sister says the police took a look at the CCTV cameras in the area and concluded that Disha did not return from Gachibowli that night. Disha’s sister first reached the RGIA police station at about 11.30 p.m., she says, but the missing person FIR was registered only at 3.10 a.m. at the Shamshabad police station. After filing the report, the police drove around the area with Disha’s father for two hours looking for her.
The police provided no explanation for either the delay in filing the report or for their failure in locating Disha’s body. It was a milkman who spotted her burnt body on November 28 morning. He saw it first on his way to a farm and thought it was a camp fire. It was only on his way back, at around 7 a.m., that he realised that it was a body burning. He alerted the sarpanch who called the police.
Later, three policemen were suspended for dereliction of duty.
Four accused versus 10 policemen
Within 48 hours of the gang rape and murder, Arif, Jollu Shiva, Jollu Naveen and Chennakeshvulu, all aged 20, were arrested from their villages on the Telangana-Karnataka border in Makthal mandal in Narayanpet district. The police had identified the lorry thanks to a large, unmistakable swastika symbol on its rear end, which was clearly visible in the CCTV footage. They tracked down the owner, Srinivas Reddy, who told them about his employees and escorted them to Arif’s home in Jaklair, about 50 km from Mahabubnagar city.
Arif had been plying the truck without a licence. Two days before the rape, he had been caught by Road Transport Authority officials in Mahabubnagar. Police say Arif used a rod from the vehicle to stall the lorry, thus preventing officials from towing it away. As the officials walked away, he drove away in his truck.
When the police arrived at Arif’s doorstep, he led them to the other co-accused, who lived in Gudigandla village, about 48 km from Mahabubnagar.
The police changed the first FIR case, registered on November 28, from Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (death in suspicious circumstances) to Sections 376, 302, 506, 201, 392, and 120-B of the Indian Penal Code. All four men were at home when they were arrested; none of them had anticipated arrest.
While social media debated solutions to the problem of sexual assault in India, with many advocating death to rapists, pressure mounted on the police to solve the case. On December 6, exactly a week after the accused were arrested, the country woke up to the shocking news that all the four men were shot dead in what was described by the police as an “exchange of fire”. The police claimed that the four men had tried to escape from police custody at the crime scene where they had been taken for a “reconstruction of the crime”.
The Telangana police maintained that the young men, who were “not handcuffed” when they were taken to reconstruct the crime scene, attacked the police with sticks and stones before snatching away two pistols and opening fire. “In self-defence, our men retaliated and minutes later all the four accused were shot dead,” said Cyberabad Commissioner of Police, Vishwanath Channappa Sajjanar. Sajjanar, who is referred to by his colleagues as a “silent operator”, is known to shun the limelight. He has the unenviable reputation of having watched over more than a dozen ‘encounters’ in which ‘criminals’ were killed. He is simply called the “encounter specialist”.
The gunning down of the accused led to celebrations in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and across the country. At the shoot-out site near the Chatanpalli underpass on the Hyderabad-Bengaluru highway, hundreds of people showered flowers on the policemen, burst firecrackers and distributed sweets.
But there are also many who are dismayed by the incident. “Bullets from armed policemen in the thick of the night cannot ensure justice to victims or survivors of rape. It is done in spite of our judicial system, but more worryingly, it sets the wrong precedent by making police the ultimate authority in dealing with crimes,” says Akshita, who works for a start-up in Gachibowli.
Sreya V.S., a postgraduate student from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad, says that there are many issues that need to be addressed to tackle the problem of sexual assault. While tackling the problem of patriarchy will take time, effective law enforcement and separation of powers of the executive, judiciary and legislature are urgent, she says.
While inaugrating the new building of the Rajasthan High Court, the Chief Justice of India, S.A. Bobde, said justice can never become instant and loses its character if it becomes revenge.
As TV channels discussed the killings, more and more questions were raised about the police version. Why were the men not handcuffed? How did four men overpower 10 police officers? Why were all four of them, and not the two who snatched the guns, shot dead?
The police claims that Arif and Chennakeshvulu snatched their weapons and opened fire, while Jollu Shiva and Jollu Naveen attacked them with stones and sticks. On the parched agricultural field, barely 300 m from the underpass where Disha’s body was torched, the bodies of the accused lay on the ground with bullet wounds. Sources say that over 20 rounds were fired from both sides. The firing ceased within 15 minutes. However, no policeman was injured.
The four men were taken to Chatanpalli around 5.45 a.m., the police say. By 6.15 they were dead. The police maintains that the men were taken to the site early in the morning because an angry mob had threatened to cause chaos when the men were being shifted from Shadnagar police station to Cherlapally central jail. The police say their weapons were unlocked that day. The accused had not been handcuffed as the police wanted them to show them what had exactly happened that day, they say.
In Gudigandla village, Kurmaiah, Chennakeshvulu’s father, does not believe the police version. He says his son would not have had the strength to overpower the police as he had been suffering from end-stage renal disease. “He is not that strong to attack the police and snatch their weapons. He was undergoing kidney dialysis at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad. Doctors had advised complete bed rest,” says Kurmaiah, an agricultural labour. Chennakeshvulu, a former truck driver who had been under Reddy’s payroll, had become a cleaner less than a year ago on the advice of the doctor.
Probes into deaths of accused
On December 1, five days before the accused were killed, Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao had ordered the immediate constitution of a fast-track court in Shadnagar to try the accused. He had instructed officials to take measures to speed up the trial of the case and award severe punishment to the accused persons. But none of this became necessary when all the four were killed.
Taking suo motu cognisance of media reports that the accused were killed by the police, the National Human Rights Commission ordered a detailed investigation into the incident. On December 7, a seven-member panel landed in Hyderabad. The team visited the Mahabubnagar Government Hospital, where the bodies had been preserved after autopsy. Disha’s family also informed the NHRC team of the inaction of the Cyberabad police on November 27, when they went to lodge a missing person complaint. The investigation team headed by Senior Superintendent of Police, Manzil Saini, recorded the statements of the policemen involved, and the family members of the accused and the victim. But since then the NHRC probe has been stayed by the Supreme Court. The court set up an inquiry commission led by its former judge, Justice V.S. Sirpurkar, to probe the incident and complete the investigation within six months. Earlier, the Telangana High Court had directed that the bodies be preserved. In its order, the Supreme Court has allowed this position to continue until further orders.
*The name Disha was given to the victim by the police after consulting her parents
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