“In Part One of MeToo Bundelkhand – a special Khabar Lahariya Series, and a Firstpost exclusive, on the silences surrounding horrendous crimes against women in rural Bundelkhand, and the unspoken normalization of these silences – we take a deep-dive into a suicide-murder case which was our eerie parallel world in the weeks after the MeToo movement took the country by storm
It is the news report of the moment.
In that it is, at its heart, the story of a young, ambitious, working woman, favoured bread-winner of the family, who eventually paid the price for being a young, ambitious working woman,with her life.
Khabar Lahariya follows up on a crime story that refuses closure, which amidst the hullabaloo of sansani news reports and revelations of long-term sexual assault in the era of fast-paced media, lies buried.
On the evening of September 4 –a few weeks prior to Tanushree Dutta going public with her harrowing tale of sexual harassment at the hands of a film industry complicit in the perpetuation of a sexist, violent attitude towards women – Neetu Shukla, a constable at Kamasin thana, in Banda district, Uttar Pradesh, was found hanging, a dupatta around her neck, from the ceiling of her assigned one-room bedsit in the police quarters.
Neetu had just turned 22.
Under the directions of Station Officer Pratima Singh – one of three women posted at Kamasin thana, of whom Neetu was one – the body was sent for a post mortem examination even as the police machinery at Kamasin was being jolted about. Nobody from Neetu’s immediate family had arrived until then. “We were not informed”, said Rahul, Neetu’s brother, “Isn’t the family supposed to be notified at once, you tell me?”
Once Neetu’s family arrived on the scene –initially just Rahul, who took the overnight train from Lucknow– they started protesting vehemently and demanding answers. They accused Neetu’s colleagues of having planned a cold-blooded murder, and more.
The official quote given to the media was that promising young police officer Neetu Shukla had, due to reasons unknown, committed suicide.
The Neetu Shukla Case (or “kaand” as is the preferred term in Hindi language media)was a forest-fire news item all through September and October too.The sound bytes played on loop:Some said it was the doing of a jilted lover; a drugging that went very wrong; a heated argument over a due promotion that escalated; a “blue film” that went viral.‘What is the point of our daughters studying, clearing IPS exams and earning, when this is the fate that awaits them?’, hollered many a male reporter across our timelines, having cottoned onto the perfect ‘angle’ for their report, and not needing any suspects. In the meanwhile,what seemed to be underway was a classic cover-up.
Our initial investigations revealed that the death by hanging scenario was not exactly a water tight argument. When one did the math – low ceilinged room, Neetu’s height (noted in the post mortem report as 165 cms, she had an above-average height), the placement of the charpai, the length of the dupatta – it simply did not add up.
Person of Interest Number 1 was Pratima Singh, the Station Officer at Kamasin, known “as that mahila S.O.” – infamous for her ill treatment of young female police recruits, though nobody had ever said that on record. Neetu’s mother spoke with us over the phone from Lucknow, and confirmed Singh’s reputation. “Neetu would call me, from time to time, almost in tears, complaining about her – that she would be rude, taunt her, mock her, make nasty comments about her friendships with members of the opposite sex. Ab saath mein uthna-baithna toh hota hai na, thane mein? (In a police station, you will mingle with everyone, won’t you?) Will everything a girl does be questioned and interpreted in wrong ways?”
Singh herself had gone underground, in the days after the incident. We were told she’d been transferred soon after the Neetu episode came to light, but details of her new posting were unclear. According to Anil Shukla, Neetu’s father,Singh had been present at the post mortem. Shukla, an ex Sub-Inspector himself (Dewariya district), told us that he had spotted Singh hanging out at the Kamasinthana, two weeks after the episode, despite having been transferred. “What business did she have there?”, he asked us, as if his question answered the many that were hanging over our interview. According to Shukla, the Banda Superintendent of Police S. Anand requested his signature on the post mortem sanction after it had been conducted. And promised him then, that justice would be done. Anand has since refused to meet with the press on the case.
“If it is the criminals who are handling the investigation, what will come of it, you tell me?” said Rahul, point blank.“We don’t want the post mortem here, because records can be fudged easily,” added Dinesh Kumar Shukla, Neetu’s uncle“We are not comfortable with this investigation happening anywhere in Banda. Perhaps we need to seek a higher intervention.”
“CBI jaanch”is a mantra that Ram Singh* , Rahul’s close friend and Kamasin resident – hence also the first person on the side of the victim’s family to have reached the scene of the crime – seems stuck on.
On November15, a “shanti havan”, a prayer for peace,was organized at the Kamasin police station.A higher intervention of its own, you could say, it was an unprecedented event, causing much local stir. “Maybe her ghost haunts them all, who knows?” said one compulsive Banda What’s App-er.The havan itself turned into a social gathering of sorts, with a distribution of laddoos towards the end, as is the norm.
Meanwhile, in our interviews with all the characters of the drama, Person of Interest Number 2, Ram Singh*, as the self-styled eye witness, was the most informative. A resident of Narayanpur, 10 kilometres from Kamasin, Ram Singh* described it as a crime of passion and blackmail. A close friend of Rahul’s, Ram Singh* had bumped into Neetu and her aides a couple of times at the thana, which he would often visit, in his capacity as local kotedaar. The chai dhaba outside the thana was a popular spot for Ram Singh*, its owner having already described Neetu to us as a “hans-mukh ladki” (jovial girl).
Neetu, whom Kuldeep refers to as “hamaari sister”, was in a relationship with fellow constable Harendra Pal, according to him, but Pal decided to end the relationship after having filmed Neetu in a compromising position. “She would never do it of her own will”, said Ram Singh*, “She was drugged and the film was made when she was knocked out.” Neetu’s mother corroborated part of this, “She called me one day, she was furious, she was howling. She kept saying that she couldn’t remember the events of the last 24 hours and that she was sure something untoward had happened to her, something had been done to her. She was very incoherent. I just assumed it was Singh bothering her again, I really didn’t think that much of it. But it made me upset. Why is my well-earning daughter, adored by everyone, being tortured like this, I thought?”
This phone call was made on September 1. Two days later, Neetu was dead.
Pal, who, according to the official records, still held his Kamasin posting, had for all practical purposes, disappeared. We’d managed to corner Singh though, at the end of a long trail of changed phone numbers and missed calls and unacknowledged Whatsapp messages. “I am the victim here, let me tell you. Who, in the end, bore the brunt of this entire fiasco, you tell me that? Who got the line hazir summons? Who had to leave? None of the men who caused this entire kaand in the first place. It was me. I had to pay the price.” She refused to say more though, not even about the victim whose body she had stood over at the post mortem house, “What about her? I tried to toughen her up. It’s my job.”
In the bone-chilling hours of a pre-dawn Banda, we set out to Kamasin once again, 62 kilometres and two-odd hours from Banda town.
As the sun rises, we find ourselves outside Neetu’s quarters once again. The room is now sealed off, and the single window boarded off with a flimsy piece of cardboard. Inside, it is easy to imagine the life a woman police worker must have led – one only among three others, including Neha Shukla, Neetu’s colleague at the thana and Singh –who left this room every morning to work with 22 men in the thana, and so many more, outside.
“Jo phaansilagata hai, kaaran toh wohijaanta hai. Aur kaun jaanta hai?” (The one who hangs himself, alone knows the reason for the decision. Who else can venture to guess?)” Yogesh Maurya, the DTP operator at the station is in a good mood this crisp December morning. “She should’ve shared with us, whatever her problems were, instead of taking such a big step.” Almost immediately after, he adds, “Kisi se kuch zyaada matlab nahi rakhtithi woh. (She used to mind her own business). You know how it is. Everyone’s busy with their responsibilities, everyone’s always exhausted with work.”
“She used to be on the computer all day,”supervisor Lakshmi Narayan tells us, as we try and piece together a day in the life of. Posted to Kamasin in January 2018, Narayan tells us he observed everyone who worked there –
“they’re all kids here, they act impulsively”. According to Narayan, the case is sub-judice. We tell him that the three-month mandatory investigation period is now over, and but for Neetu’s family, the case seems all but closed. “I would say she was unwell of late. Even Neha told us that Neetu wasnot feeling well when she didn’t attend an important meeting at the police station.” This meeting, a monthly stock-taking session, was called on August 29, we learn from Narayan’s records – the same day that Neetu spent sleeping, or drugged. We look up the leaves register andsee that Neetu isn’t marked for sick leave – noteworthy for a government employee.
Narayan, who didn’t really see much that fateful day, “it was so crowded”, tells us that it is his belief the station officers did everything in their power to save Neetu, “jo ban sakta tha unse”. But wasn’t she already dead, we ask? “Oh, she was, wasn’t she?”, he replies, riddle or rhetoric, we’re not sure. He does wonder if we saw the fan though, “Pankhe se hui thi na maut, aapnedekha?”, he adds, the words almost obliterated by a ball of paan masala, the ever-presentnemesis of an otherwise clear audio recording in Bundelkhand.
Spitting out the paan masala, he smiles at us, wondering if we’d like more chai, sketching out Neetu the person clearly, being his helpful self.Describing Neetu, a working woman in Banda, he says, “She was friendly, a little different from how girls generally are, you know.”
Postscript: We tried to find Neha – the only other person besides her immediate family, whom Neetu is said to have confided in – but she is on a long leave of absence from her workplace, we’re told. Pal, Neetu’s alleged lover and co-worker, is still on the record as a constable at Kamasin, and is still missing.
*Name changed on request.
As reported to Pooja Pande by Kavita and Meera Devi of Khabar Lahariya
Co published with Firstpost.