Maharashtra’s gory record

Puja Changoiwala | Updated on January 10, 2018 Published on September 15, 2017
The good battle: Children pay tributes to rationalist Narendra Dabholkar after he was murdered in August 2013. Maharashtra’s law against human sacrifice and other black magic acts was enacted days later, but activists rue that awareness, both of the law and the nature of these crimes, is low among the police force. Photo: K Murali Kumar

The good battle: Children pay tributes to rationalist Narendra Dabholkar after he was murdered in August 2013. Maharashtra’s law against human sacrifice and other black magic acts was enacted days later, but activists rue that awareness, both of the law and the nature of these crimes, is low among the police force. Photo: K Murali Kumar   -  The Hindu

Missing watchmen: There is no government body to keep track of the crimes perpetrated through superstition.

Missing watchmen: There is no government body to keep track of the crimes perpetrated through superstition.   -  Shutterstock

At least seven cases of human sacrifice have come to light after a law criminalised the evil practice in 2013 at the end of an 18-year struggle by the slain rationalist Narendra Dabholkar

For two days in November 2014, nine-year-old Ramesh Mule’s family searched for him in every nook and corner of their village, Mahakali, in Maharashtra’s Wardha district. All they could eventually find was his mutilated corpse in a school backyard. The perpetrators had not just killed the boy they had also removed his kidney, heart, and dismembered his penis. The local police initially suspected it to be a case of organ theft, but soon discovered the motive was superstition. The child had been “sacrificed” as part of a grisly ritual to help locate a “hidden treasure”.

“A godman had convinced a family in Ramesh’s village that there was a hidden treasure in their fields, and they would need to sacrifice a young boy to find it. Since Ramesh belonged to a lower caste, the accused believed they could get away with the crime without repercussions. The godman kidnapped Ramesh after luring him with sweets, and strangled him to death. He took the body to a nearby temple, carved out the organs, and cut off the penis. He then ate the parts while performing prayers to propitiate a goddess,” said Gujender Surkar, a 57-year-old social activist in Wardha, who has been campaigning against the practice of human sacrifice and other superstitions for the past two decades.

Surkar said the godman denied the allegations during interrogation. To get him to confess, the investigating officer filled a pair of shoes with water and threatened to force the godman to drink it. The locals believe that drinking such water would strip any godman of all powers. Fearing the worst, the godman confessed to the killing and was arrested with 12 others for it.

In August this year, a Maharashtra sessions court, in perhaps a first-of-its-kind judgment in the State, pronounced seven persons guilty of severing a seven-year-old girl’s head and drinking her blood to propitiate a village deity. The godman accused in this case had convinced the villagers that he was possessed by a goddess, and a young girl had to be sacrificed for the well-being of the villagers’ clan. All the seven convicted were awarded the death sentence.

Disturbing as they are, the gruesome killing of the girl child and, earlier, Ramesh Mule are not one-off incidents.

There’s a law against it

According to data collected by the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), a volunteer organisation working for decades to bust superstitions, the police have registered at least seven cases of human sacrifice in the State in the past three years, after the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and other Inhuman, Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act, 2013 was brought in. Another six attempts were foiled in the nick of time.

It was the slain rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar who had campaigned for 18 years to bring about the anti-superstition Act. His son, Dr Hamid Dabholkar, said the practice of human sacrifice was not limited to remote pockets alone. It’s prevalent even in cities, he said, adding that at least half the cases were reported from prominent towns, including Pune, Nashik, Amravati and Thane. It is a “deep-rooted custom”, where people believe that gods respond to blood, and that human lives could be bartered for the fulfilment of their wishes.

“Further, there are several cases which go unreported because people are afraid of approaching the police against godmen. Only this year, an eight-year-old boy living in a baba’s ashram in Amravati fled after the guru attempted to slit his throat during prayers. The boy was admitted to a civil hospital to treat the deep cut on his neck. Although it was clear from his description that it was a case of attempted sacrifice, his family refused to file a complaint, fearing repercussions from the powerful godman. The crime was eventually passed off as an accident,” said Hamid.

Social activists cite several motives for human sacrifices — to find hidden treasure, in the hope of a windfall, to get rid of bad luck and chronic illnesses, for peace at home, for the protection of one’s family or clan from the ‘devil’, or for increasing one’s spiritual prowess. The victims are mostly poor and belong to the weaker sections of society. Surkar added that there was a preference for orphans, girls who have recently started menstruating, and boys who were breech babies — born leg-first.

An ill-prepared force

Despite having powers under Maharashtra’s Black Magic Act to crack down on such cases, the local police are accused of hampering investigations. Avinash Patil, executive president of MANS, said the police apparatus was not familiar with the thriving superstitions and social beliefs that perpetrate such crimes. Additionally, they lack an understanding of the relatively new law to combat the crimes.

Take this case in Rahuri taluka, for instance. During an after-dinner stroll, a farmer noticed a few people gathered under a peepal tree in his field. On going closer, he saw a woman sitting naked in the company of five to six men, even as three godmen surrounded them chanting prayers. Sensing that something untoward was about to happen, he rushed to the village centre and brought back with him a group of people.

On noticing the villagers approaching, the godmen and their accomplices fled. The villagers found a cauldron filled with skulls next to the spot where the woman had been sitting. Further, they found a cup with three paper chits, each containing the name of a boy from the village.

“We found out from the boys that the godmen had been in touch with them for eight days preceding the night’s incident. The boys, aged 9-12, had been offered chocolates to win over their trust. The plan was to bring the children to the tree that night, murder them, and offer their blood as sacrifice,” one of the villagers told advocate Ranjana Gavande, who has been examining such cases in Ahmednagar district for the past decade.

Gavande alleged that the cops had refused to register a case. A businessman who had allegedly organised the ritual to unearth ‘heaps of gold’ from under the peepal tree, had bought the police’s silence, Gavande further alleged. Determined to register a First Information Report in order to send a strong message to other godmen, she approached several state authorities with all the related evidence, but in vain.

“When the police got tired of my perpetual nagging, they finally registered a case on behalf of the businessman, stating that a few unidentified godmen had lured him to perform human sacrifice by promising tons of gold. It’s been two years now, but no arrests have been made yet,” Gavande said.

Fears of reprisal

The advocate equally blames the families of the victims for not doing enough to demand an investigation into such crimes. In the wake of a gruesome murder, the victim’s family usually fall into a bout of depression, and human sacrifice as a motive appears unthinkable to them.

“In any murder case, the first two days after the crime are the most crucial for investigations... the trail will increasingly go cold after that. As had happened more than a year ago, when a seven-year-old boy went missing from near his home in Akola. A day later, his battered corpse was discovered. Several body parts —ear, nose — had been cut off. To us, it was a clear case of sacrifice as godmen usually dismember these parts to facilitate streams of blood, for offering as ‘prasad’ to their deities. But the grieving family was in no mood to even consider this angle to the crime,” said Gavande.

When she approached the police with her theory, they saw merit in it and began investigating along those lines. They soon determined that it was indeed a case of human sacrifice and arrested a godman for his suspected involvement in the crime. Two other suspects were declared absconding.

“The cops refused to talk to me when I followed up on the two missing accused persons. ‘If the family is not bothered, why are you?’ they’d ask, and I didn’t have an answer. When the family did approach me later, complaining that the police investigation was shoddy, the trail had already gone cold. We even organised rallies to bring the perpetrators to book, but they were never found,” said Gavande.

Hamid, on his part, said that the Black Magic Act had provisions for vigilance officers to keep track of superstition-related suspicious activities in their respective beats. The senior inspector of every police station is the vigilance officer under the law, but awareness — both of the law and the nature of these crimes — was low among the lawkeepers. The law is adequate to bring the perpetrators to justice, but what is lacking is the training and sensitisation of the police force to implement it in the right spirit, he said. “It is surprising that unlike in the case of other offences, there is no government body to keep track or compile data on the crimes perpetrated through superstition. The magnitude of this problem in our country is either understated or not understood. When it comes to offences like human sacrifice, it is not about the number of cases registered. Even a single such murder is a denigrating commentary on the social fabric of the country. The guilty should be adequately punished. Such crimes do not just claim the lives of innocents... with every such murder, the entire country regresses by several decades.”

Puja Changoiwala is an independent journalist, and author of The Front Page Murders: Inside the Serial Killings that Shocked India

Published on September 15, 2017
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