Trigger warning: the following article contains potentially distressing material; please avoid reading if you feel disturbed by violence.
Like many children around India, nine-year-old Rohit (name changed to protect privacy) loved playing football. Every day after school, just before lunch, he’d run out for a quick game with his friends in Sayli, a tribal hamlet located about 7 km from Silvassa, in the Union Territory (UT) of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu.
On the afternoon of December 29, 2022, as his grandmother Jalliben was cooking dal- chawal (lentils-rice) on a mud chulha (clay stove) in an open kitchen, the boy skipped out to play as usual. Ms. Jalliben waited. And waited. It was the last time she saw her grandson.
By the evening, the angst-ridden grandmother, her husband and the boy’s grandfather, and their son, the boy’s father, began a search in the village, beginning near the Damanganga canal, and extending to all the places the boy frequented. They screamed his name, their anxiety peaking, but in vain.
“We looked for him everywhere in the village. I was screaming my lungs out — Rohit, Rohit, Rohit — but my little boy was nowhere to be seen. He didn’t have his lunch or evening tea and it was time for dinner. The boy must have been very very hungry,” Ms. Jalliben said in Gujarati, crying inconsolably.
The next afternoon, almost 24 hours after Rohit went missing, the family members along with community heads and villagers went to the Silvassa police station to lodge a complaint.
After an initial inquiry, the police registered a kidnapping case against unidentified persons, since the boy was a minor. They formed teams and launched a probe.
Two days after his disappearance, on December 31, a Silvassa sub-inspector Anil Kumar T.K., who is on the investigation team, got a phone call from the neighbouring Gujarat police even as his own search was on.
He was asked if there had been a kidnapping (or missing) case registered in their jurisdiction, as they had found a decapitated body of a child, about 10 years old, in the Damanganga canal near Karvad village in Valsad district of Gujarat.
Within an hour after the call, Mr. Kumar and his team, along with the boy’s father, rushed to Karvad, about 15 km from Sayli. When he saw the body with just the trunk and arms, the father burst into tears. He identified his son from the mauli (sacred red thread) on his wrist.
However, the police are yet to conclude that it was indeed Rohit’s body, and are awaiting the DNA report. “We have collected samples [blood and bone] of the father and the body and sent them to the forensic laboratory in Surat,” Mr. Kumar said.
Shock and horror
While the killing of the child was horrific enough, what left Ms. Jalliben and her family doubly shocked was the way the child had been barbarically murdered, his body parts chopped off by the killers. The villagers and family members alleged that the boy had been a victim of witchcraft.
Taking into consideration the brutality of the offence and the alleged human sacrifice angle, police officials widened the probe, and over 100 police personnel were assigned different tasks to crack the case.
They collected video footage from surveillance cameras installed near the hamlet and its surrounding areas to zero in on the perpetrators. The investigators questioned residents in the village, besides shopkeepers and industrial workers, to gather leads. Mobile phone call detail records were analysed and areas near the village and the canal were searched.
While examining the video footage, the police noticed Rohit walking with a teenager in a black hoodie, face covered with a handkerchief, and a plastic bag in hand.
Villagers identified the person in the black hoodie as a 16-year-old boy who worked at a chicken shop in the village. Rohit frequented the shop and spent time with the teen. “The boys became good friends, and whenever Rohit bought chicken, the teenager would give him extra pieces,” Mr. Kumar said.
The next day, the teenager was detained for questioning. The suspect, a native of Karjun village in Kaprada taluka of Valsad, had come to Sayli six months before for work. He was employed as a butcher at the local chicken shop.
During the interrogation, the boy confessed to the police that he had kidnapped Rohit on December 29, 2022, and killed him as a human sacrifice. He had been helped by Ramesh Bhadiya Sanvar, 53, from Athal village in Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and Shaileshbhai Afanbhai Kohkera, 28, who lived in Dungrifaliya and hailed from Upla Mahal in Dang, Gujarat.
The teen told the investigators that he had carried out the human sacrifice to attain superpowers to fly, disappear, and punish people. He added that Mr. Sanvar had wanted money from a relative, whom he intended to dominate with the power he got from the killing.
“Shailesh had allegedly joined hands to witness the process, and thought the duo would help him in need,” the police officer said. Mr. Sanvar and the teenager’s mother were good friends, and he would frequently visit her, they claimed. The police also found out that she reportedly performed black magic, and it was from her that the teen had learnt the ‘basics’.
After detaining the juvenile, the police added Sections 302 (murder), 201 (causing disappearance of evidence), and 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code to the FIR. Subsequently, Mr. Sanvar and Mr. Kohkera were also traced and arrested on January 3, 2023.
The police have claimed that a plan was hatched a few weeks before the murder, when the trio sat at the chicken shop and discussed life and the problems they were having. Since all three of them reportedly believed in black magic, their solution was allegedly human sacrifice.
Further, the teen had also seen videos on YouTube about human sacrifice, and decided to carry out the ‘rituals’ in the bushes behind the cremation ground on the outskirts of the village. This was on the banks of the Damanganga.
Soon, the three collected items such as a black cloth, coal, and haldi-kumkum (turmeric-vermilion) and started looking for a person to carry out the ‘rituals’. “Out of desperation, they reportedly kidnapped a young man and tried to perform the tantrik vidhi (ceremonies) on him. However, the man, who is yet to be identified, managed to escape from the clutches of the accused persons,” an officer said.
This is when the accused realised they needed someone who was not strong enough to resist or escape, and they singled out Rohit.
“Since everything was ready [for the human sacrifice], without any further delay, the 16-year-old boy alerted Ramesh and Shailesh and took Rohit to the cremation ground on the pretext of playing with him,” the police officer said.
When the boys reached the ground, the two other conspirators were waiting for them. “Soon, they took Rohit, gagged him, tied his hands and legs, and performed some ‘rituals’,” said the officer, adding that they used the butcher’s knife from the chicken shop for the killing and decapitation. They dumped the trunk in the Damanganga canal that runs next to the ground.
“The trio dug a small pit, and placed the head and a photograph of Ramesh’s cousin, whom he wanted to ‘overpower’ to get money from. This was part of the ritual,” Mr. Kumar said, adding that everything was completed within two hours of the abduction. They dispersed and acted normally.
“They were tough nuts to crack. Each one of them had a different story to tell. Finally, after days of interrogation, the truth came out. They shared the chilling details of the murder,” a police officer said. The trio’s arrest was announced on January 10.
A family lost
The gruesome murder shook Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Gujarat because of the way it was executed and also because at the heart of it was another juvenile.
Back in Sayli, a grandmother’s grief is unquenchable: she shivers and weeps inconsolably; no one can comfort her. The family has only a passport-size photograph of Rohit and doesn’t have the money to get a photo frame. They don’t even have a picture of Rohit’s mother, who passed away a few months after his birth.
“When we don’t have money to buy groceries, how can we afford to get his photograph framed? My son hardly earns ₹2,000 to ₹2,500 per month, with which we can’t even meet our daily requirements, forget about medical expenses,” Ms. Jalliben said, sitting outside her mud house. The asbestos sheets and terracotta Mangalore tiles seem ready to collapse in one part.
In fact, they had no money to conduct the last rites of the child, turning to the community for help. To reach the family, a visitor must cross the Damanganga canal and walk about 500 metres down a narrow path with paver blocks; thorny bushes act almost as a deterrent.
Ms. Jalliben said her grandson was a quiet boy with very few friends, and a love of football. Despite the simple food they could afford — they bought chicken only once every few months — he never complained. “The boy was not demanding. He used to adjust to whatever was available,” she wept.
He loved talking to older people and getting to know things outside his little world. “When we did not cause anyone harm, why did my child have to face this?” she said, adding that she had been taking care of Rohit and his elder brother, 12, after their mother passed away.
The family is unlettered and only remember that Rohit first went missing from the hamlet on a Thursday and his body was found on a Saturday. They don’t know dates.
Rohit’s father said that the child loved school. “Since I never went to school, I don’t know about his marks and subjects, but I can say he was a good student. He never missed going to school, and always loved spending time with the village elders,” he said.
Meanwhile, Prabhu Tokia, a tribal leader in the UT, said that the nine-year-old’s killing was disgusting and inhuman and a very serious crime. “We never heard of such heinous crimes happening in the UT. It is surprising that in the age of technology, people still believe in black magic,” he said.
Mr. Tokia demanded a central law that exclusively deals with crimes related to witchcraft and superstition. “In Maharashtra they have a law against human sacrifice. The Government of India should introduce a law to prevent such incidents from happening in future,” he said.
There is no specific section in the Indian Penal Code for the punishment of human sacrifice, and a majority of the cases are registered under murder and kidnapping. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s 2021 report, in India, five deaths were linked to human sacrifices.
Beyond the larger issues of superstition and the law though, is a family bereft. Ms. Jalliben is unable to believe that her little grandson will never come home again, bounding down the path. “Now, our house bears a weary look. I can’t even believe that Rohit is no more. They killed him for no reason. He was an innocent and happy child.”