Three years ago, on July 23, Shamim Modi did not suspect anything when the watchman of her building in Vasai (Thane district), Jang Bahadur alias Rakesh Bhandari, entered her flat ostensibly to check water flow in the tank. A familiar face, Bhandari was friends with her son Palash and often kept an eye on him when Shamim and her husband Anurag, activists of the Shramik Adivasi Sanghatana in Beitul, Madhya Pradesh, were out at work. Newly appointed assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Ms. Modi divided her time since June that year between her work at TISS and her activism.
That afternoon a shock was in store for her when Bhandari tried to strangle her and then hit her repeatedly on the head with a baton. He insisted he was not there for the money before slitting her throat and abdomen and leaving her to die. It was only her presence of mind and courage that helped her survive the murderous assault, which the police tried to pass off as a robbery. However, Bhandari only took Rs. 2,500 in her purse before escaping and has not been caught since.
Three years and two writ petitions later, justice eludes Ms. Modi, who is now demanding a CBI inquiry. The Modis have been the target of attack earlier in Beitul where they had taken up issues such as bonded labour on behalf of tribals against powerful politicians. In fact, on the orders of a Jabalpur court, Ms. Modi was escorted by armed guards after threats to her life and an earlier attempt to kill her. The Manikpur police station in Vasai registered a case of robbery despite Ms. Modi naming two persons as accused and stating it was a conspiracy to kill her. The police did not record her statement or that of her husband properly and left out vital aspects. They did not take into account crucial evidence like her blood drenched nightdress, insisting she was wearing a salwar kameez at the time of the attack, says Anurag Modi. It was only after the TISS faculty and the Samajwadi Jan Parishad, of which the Modis are members, took up the issue with the authorities that Shamim’s statement was re-recorded on August 3, 2009, where she points fingers at the former Madhya Pradesh Revenue Minister, Kamal Patel, and his associate Natwar Patel.
Despite naming these two who represent powerful business lobbies in Madhya Pradesh as suspects, the police only called them here to record statements and did not conduct an investigation into their activities in Harda. The CBI is conducting an investigation in Madhya Pradesh against Mr. Kamal Patel and his son in a separate case of attempt to murder and concealing evidence, according to a writ petition filed by Ms. Modi in the Bombay High Court in 2009.
Crime Branch probe
The court transferred the investigation to the Crime Branch, Dahisar, asking it to complete it in three months in October 2009. The police also had to register a case of attempt to murder after the court intervened. However, the police did not take any action and only arrested Bhandari’s brother Dharmsingh Dalsingh who was chargesheeted for harbouring a murder suspect, i.e. his brother Rakesh. He is now out on bail, says inspector Vijay Khandwalkar.
A second petition was filed on August 25, 2010 highlighting the failure of the Crime Branch in completing investigation, says Mr. Modi. It also demanded a case against inspector Ashok Pawar of the Manikpur station for various acts of omission, which include refusing to lodge a first information report, tampering with evidence, manipulating statements of the victim and her husband, and for refusing to accept that Ms. Modi’s life was already under threat and registering a case of conspiracy to kill her. The petition demands a CBI inquiry into the matter and adequate security for Ms. Modi.
Accused in Nepal?
Suspecting the main accused to be in Nepal, a letter of request/rogatory was issued to the Nepal government last year for assistance in investigation. Interpol Kathmandu was also asked to get details of Bhandari from his native village in Bardia district. In the last hearing of February, government counsel sought more time. The case will be heard next week, says Mihir Desai, lawyer for Ms. Modi. Meanwhile the fight for justice drags on.