On October 11, the stench of putrid flesh filled the air of a sprawling and somewhat isolated compound at Elanthoor village. The dense foliage surrounding the tile-roofed Kadakampallil House in the compound suddenly looked eerie as the police exhumed mutilated body parts from the backyard of the house. By evening, the property, where Bhagaval Singh, a 68-year-old popular traditional massage therapist (Vaidyar), regularly treated patients, buzzed with macabre tales of ritualistic human sacrifice having taken place on its premises over the last few months.
The news sent shock waves through the village, located some 10 km north of Pathanamthitta town in Kerala. Nobody could have imagined Singh, popularly called Anjilimoottil Vaidyar, and his 59-year-old wife Laila murdering two women, allegedly driven by the superstitious belief that it would make them richer, for they were known to be mild-mannered and progressive.
The police have identified the victims as Rosli Varghese, 49, and Padmam, 52, who had gone missing from Kalady near Angamaly town and Elamkulam in Kochi city on June 8 and September 26, respectively. A postmortem on October 13 confirmed that the remains were of two women, but their identities can only be confirmed through a DNA analysis for which samples have been collected. The victims are suspected to have been ‘sacrificed’ on the nights they went missing.
While the remand report filed by the police at the Judicial First Class Magistrate Court in Ernakulam gives a chilling account of how the murders were planned and committed, even seasoned policemen are averse to talking about it.
‘A progressive, helpful couple’
The villagers are trying to reconcile with the postulation that it was an obsession with superstition and sorcery that landed the couple in the company of a history-sheeter, Mohammed Shafi a.k.a. Rasheed, whom they met on Facebook as ‘Sreedevi’, and who masterminded the act.
The villagers say the couple had Left-leaning political and social positions. “Bhagaval Singh was the son of the celebrated massage therapist Vasu Vaidyan. He was a public figure in every sense. The couple had been of great help to people and were politically active,” says Mercy Mathew, president of the Elanthoor panchayat.
Singh followed in his father’s footsteps after his attempts to migrate to West Asia failed. A few years ago, he moved the therapy clinic to a building close to his residential compound. The clinic was located near a garden of medicinal plants. Singh was active on social media where he frequently posted haiku poems. In February, he led an online session on Malayalam haiku poetry.
Laila, who married Singh 26 years ago following his separation from his first wife, was also active in the local women’s collectives. The couple has a son, who is employed in Dubai. The older daughter of Singh, from his first marriage, also lives in West Asia with her family. By all accounts, the family led a peaceful life with a sound financial base of landed property and regular income.
A few in the village, however, had doubts about the couple, especially Laila, performing some rituals. The sight of unfamiliar cars going into the property during late hours fuelled their suspicions, but no one noticed anything sinister. “We were not so sure of anything, as we had no access to the property. Given the family’s reputation, we never suspected witchcraft anyway,” says Sasikumari, 69, from the neighbourhood.
Shafi, a habitual criminal
When her sister Padmam went incommunicado on September 26 evening, Palani Amma, living just a few kilometres away in Kaloor in the heart of Kochi city, instantaneously became anxious. So did Padmam’s family in Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu, for this was unlike her. Padmam, a lottery vendor, would unfailingly contact her family and close relatives every day. Palani Amma filed a ‘missing person’ complaint with the Kadavanthra police the next day. Padmam’s son Selvaraj rushed to Kochi in search of his mother.
S. Sasidharan, Deputy Commissioner (Law and Order), Kochi City, too had a hunch that this was not a routine missing case. His instinct proved critical in unravelling the case. Sasidharan put together a team drawn from several police stations and launched a round-the-clock check across police station limits. “Sifting through CCTV footage along the stretch (of nearly 100 km) between Kadavanthra in Ernakulam and Aranmula in Pathanamthitta district where Padmam’s cellphone was last located was a laborious task,” he says.
But the effort was worth taking, as a blurred image showed Padmam getting into an SUV registered in the name of Shafi. But Shafi, a habitual criminal with eight cases against him, including cases of rape and attempt to murder over the last 15 years, proved a hard nut to crack.
The police needed more evidence to confront him. They traced him to the house of the co-accused, Singh and Laila. More significantly, they exposed his fake social media profile, Sreedevi, using which he had established a rapport with Singh. But the police were in for a shock when they realised that there was another victim.
“The intelligent guess that a man who can commit such a gruesome murder is perfectly capable of doing it more than once, along with an interrogation, led to the revelation of Rosli’s murder,” says C. H. Nagaraju, District Police Chief (Kochi City).
The picture of Shafi that has emerged since then is that of a sexual pervert and a psychopath who derived sadistic pleasure from torturing his victims. The police say the injuries he had inflicted in the private parts of the two victims were similar to what he had done to a 75-year-old woman he was accused of raping in 2020.
A Class VI dropout, Shafi had left home in his teens and had since been doing odd jobs while looking for people to prey on, in the local community. He lured Padmam and Rosli with the promise of money, the police say. They are looking into reports of Shafi having approached several women with such offers.
Posing as Sreedevi, Shafi touched base with Singh on Facebook in 2019 and assured him that he would bail him out of his presumed financial distress. ‘Sreedevi’ waxed eloquent about the powers of a traditional healer, ‘Rasheed’, whose number ‘she’ shared with Singh. Until the police told him, Singh apparently never suspected that ‘Sreedevi’ and ‘Rasheed’ were the same person, i.e., Shafi. ‘Rasheed’ had Singh and Laila under his spell to the point where they agreed to his idea of human sacrifice. Singh had reportedly paid ‘Rasheed’ an initial sum of ₹3 lakh, though the police are still verifying their transactions.
While the Kochi City police are being praised for their efforts, the Ernakulam Rural police are receiving brickbats for not having efficiently probed Rosli’s disappearance, which many believe would have spared Padmam’s life months later. Though Rosli went missing from June 8, her live-in partner failed to report it. Eventually, Rosli’s daughter Manju, who works in U.P., filed a complaint with the Kalady police on August 17 after failing repeatedly to contact her mother.
The investigators, meanwhile, have not ruled out the possibility that the accused may have committed similar crimes. They have revived investigations into other cases of women going missing across Kerala. There are three such cases in Aranmula police station alone. Elanthoor village lies within the Aranmula police station limits.
The veneer of Kerala’s progressive visage
The murders have sparked off a debate about how irrational beliefs, superstitions, and the occult still hold sway over sections of Kerala society, which prides itself on high literacy rates, progressive stances, and the legacy of renaissance. Police records show reports of such incidents, mostly from the countryside. There have been many incidents of abuse and assault involving occultists and sorcerers. Idukki district, which has some of the most remote villages in Kerala, alone has reported at least four such cases.
Behind the veneer of Kerala’s progressive visage is the hard crust of superstitions, says K. Padmamkumar, Additional Director General of Police. He feels there is a dire need to sensitise the public against the lure of easy money.
Some are also pointing fingers at the State’s ‘flawed education system’ that discourages critical thinking. “If a school student were to ask about the human sacrifice incident in a classroom, he or she would likely be ticked off and asked to focus on lessons instead of being given a rational explanation. Besides, the obsession of our middle class with wealth makes them easy victims of cheating. Ponzi investment schemes, for instance, still thrive here,” says A.P. Muralidharan of Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP), a popular people’s science movement.
He also says the political class has compromised on principles and ideals in matters of religion and faith. “Superstition is nothing but an assertion of faith in rituals shaped over time despite the progress we have achieved through science and technology. There has been a blurring of the line dividing belief and superstition. That’s why a crocodile is celebrated for being ‘vegan’ without anyone asking if it’s logically possible,” he says, referring to the recent news about the death of a crocodile in a temple pond in Kasaragod.
Social activist Sunny M. Kapikkad, too, refuses to see the Elanthoor incident in isolation. “It’s a reflection of the rot in Kerala society,” he says. “The ritualistic Hindu burial accorded to the temple crocodile and the massive rebellion of upper caste women against the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all age groups to Sabarimala temple are all pointers to the decay [in society].”
While human sacrifice remains a crime, the performance of Sathru Samhara Pooja (a temple offering made to destroy one’s enemy) and installing a Dhanakarshana Yanthra (a piece of metal with some inscriptions on it aimed to attract wealth and prosperity) in homes and offices has become a normal and acceptable practice. There is not much distance between the Sathru Samhara Pooja and human sacrifice, Kapikkad argues.
He contends that superstitions are mostly endorsed by the upper castes, with the marginalised sections bearing the brunt. “Kerala failed to take forward the anti-caste movement after the 1940s. While the Left claims to be the torch-bearer of the movement, it has remained busy reaping political gains rather than taking the movement further. Meanwhile, some Hindutva groups went to the extent of saying that the anti-caste movement would destabilise social harmony. The vacuum created by the absence of such movements is occupied by socially regressive institutions that promote and protect social evils,” Kapikkad says.
Kerala tried framing an anti-superstition law in 2014, 2015, and some two years ago. Reports of back-to-back killings of three persons in different parts of the State some eight years ago prompted A. Hemachandran, the then Director General of Police (Intelligence), to take the initiative to draft the Kerala Exploitation by Superstition (Prevention) Bill, 2014. All acts “purported to be undertaken invoking supernatural or magical powers, with the intention of obtaining wrongful gratification” will be made accountable as “exploitation by superstition,” the Bill said. Traditional ceremonies, rituals, and practices which are either associated with places of worship or with different faiths of communities were exempted from the ambit of the Bill.
The KSSP also drafted an anti-superstition Bill and presented it to the government when Oommen Chandy was Chief Minister. But it has remained in cold storage ever since.
The Elanthoor human sacrifice has forced the State government to revive the draft Kerala Prevention of Eradication of Inhuman Evil Practices, Sorcery and Black Magic Bill, 2019, which was drawn up by the Kerala Law Reforms Commission headed by former Supreme Court judge K. T. Thomas. The Bill lists 10 acts as prohibited or inviting the attention of the Act.
The investigation into the Elanthoor case is in the preliminary stages, but there is already a fervent cry for a law against sorcery and witchcraft on the lines of the ones in Maharashtra and Karnataka, to prevent another such incident.