Despite media coverage and VIP interest, police unable to make headway

Ten days after the bodies of three sisters were found in a well near Murmadi village of Lakhani tehsil in Bhandara district of Maharashtra, the police have made no arrests and the perpetrators are still at large.

Residents of Murmadi, Lakhani and nearby villages continue to protest by blocking the National highway No.6, taking out candle marches, and by observing bandh.

“I haven’t slept properly since that fateful day and we are not allowing our children to come out of the house,” says one neighbour of the family.

The three sisters aged 11, 8 and 6 went to their school as usual on February 14. But the elder sister came back from her school at 1.30 p.m. She then went to the school of her younger sisters and told them that their mother had called them home for “eating Hurda”.

But the teacher of the school did not allow the two younger sisters to go with their elder sister.

The elder sister returned to the school and took away her two sisters without informing the teacher. This time the school teacher Mr. Gajbhiye was in a meeting.

Mr. Gajbhiye has been suspended by the district administration, for failing to notice the absence of the two girls at the time when the mid-day meal was being served despite their bags being in the classroom.

The family of the three sisters became worried when one of the classmates of the two sisters brought back their schoolbags.

“We searched them all over the village and at 9 p.m. We went to the police station. But the police took our complaint at 1.30 a.m. next day,” says the grandfather of the victims.

The bodies of the victims were all found in a well at a farmhouse, about two km away from the village on February 16. Two days later, the police declared that the three sisters were “raped and then killed”.

“My daughters were found in the well near the village which means they must have been near the village. Had the police acted on time, my daughters could have been found,” says the mother of the victim.

On Sunday, the mother and the grandmother of the victims were admitted in a hospital in Bhandara.

“Many have come to visit the family. Many politicians, TV journalists have visited and the police have been constantly interrogating the family since the incident took place,” said one relative.

The mother of the victim has not been eating properly since her daughters were found dead. She did not eat anything in the first three days after the incident.

“Police interrogation has only increased her agony. Every day police are taking her statements,” says one neighbor.

Many VIPs have visited the family of the victims including the Union Heavy Industries Minister Praful Patel, the former BJP president Nitin Gadkari, and Maharashtra Home minister R.R. Patil.

But these VIP visits have only added to the problems of Bhandara police who are facing the heat for “slow investigation”.

“There is a lot of pressure on us to crack the case, but half the police machinery has to be deputed for the VIP visits. And there are these protests,” said one senior police officer posted in Bhandara.

With every passing day, the pressure on the police is increasing. On Saturday, Varsha Gayakwad, Maharashtra cabinet minister for child and women welfare, said that the case would be handed over to the Crime Investigation Department (CID), if the police could not catch the culprits within two days.

Rajendra Singh, the Inspector General of Police, Nagpur range, said, “We have formed the chain of events of the incident, and there are some clues but nothing can be divulged now”.

The Maharashtra Home Minister said on Friday that the case was “80 per cent solved” and blamed the villagers for not cooperating with the police.

But the villagers are confused about the incident. Some blame blanket sellers from Rajasthan who had camped in the village. But the police said that the blanket sellers disappeared on February 12, two days before the girls went missing.

A friend of the victims, however, said that the blanket traders used to offer chocolates to the victims as well as other girls of the village.

Nevertheless, police have sent one team to Rajasthan in search of the blanket traders.

One senior officer associated with the probe of this case confessed that this is one of the toughest cases he has seen in his career.

According to some police sources, apart from the blanket traders, police have launched a massive hunt for some boys from a nearby village. Some 10 boys are absconding since February 14. Police have been able to trace four of them.

The police maintain that they are interrogating the suspects.

Highlights bad law and order situation

On Sunday, Lakhani and Murmadi observed a bandh again. If advocate Bharat Gabhane of Lakhani is to be believed, the “bad” law and order situation of the town may have sent a message to the culprits that they will get away with the crime.

“People from Lakhani, Murmadi and nearby villages faced difficulties even for registering an FIR in the police station. There is a sense of insecurity among all the villagers and people do not feel safe despite the police station in the town,” says Gabhane.

The inspector of Lakhani Police station Mr. Munde was suspended on the second day of the incident.

Despite the police forming more than 15 teams and officers of the ranks of Additional Director General of Police (DGP) and Inspector General (IG) being assigned to the case, the culprits have continued to evade arrests.

The mother of the victims does not want sympathy from visiting VIPs and false promises from the police or compensation. She lost her husband five years ago. She alleges harassment by her mother-in-law but said that she tolerated it for her daughters.

“But I have lost everything now,” says the grieving mother. Even as the police have made no breakthrough in the rape and murder case of the three sisters, a 13-year-old girl on Friday accused her school teacher of sexually assaulting her near Belati village in the district’s Lakhni division. The place is some 25 km away from Murmadi.

The teacher was arrested on the same day.

The Bhandara rape and murder of three sisters which came less than two months after the Delhi gang rape, has only highlighted the widespread nature of crimes against women in the country.