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Negligence and lies: Mumbai cops shamed in missing techie case

The night after Delhi's law minister was staging a televised midnight raid in Delhi, a family gathered in Mumbai from Machilipatnam, Vijayawada, and as far as Doha, Qatar. They first huddled together in a police station, and then in the dank mortuary of a public hospital.

The tale of 23-year-old Esther Anuhya, employed with Tata Consultancy Services in Mumbai, had reached the dark turn they had been dreading for days. Esther, who had gone missing on 5 January after alighting at the suburban Lokmanya Tilak Terminus and had just been found that evening, dead, partially burnt, her body decomposed beyond recognition, blunt injuries on her body.

 Negligence and lies: Mumbai cops shamed in missing techie case

For Esther Anuhya's still-wounded family, that her life was cut short by a cruel stroke of fate is tragic enough without the added injury of being called liars by senior policemen.

But even that grief was outpaced by the outrage they felt — they had told the Mumbai Police on 6 January that they had traced her cellphone's last signal to Bhandup, but not only had the police been unwilling and their response cold, but the body was also eventually found by despairing family members who formed search parties and combed the thicket themselves.

Over the next few days, amid the din of the vigilante ministers and the Sunanda Tharoor-Kejriwal dharna headlines, the sorry tale of the Mumbai Police's inaction, negligence and tragedy, one that would have had urban India choking, was covered quietly, minus the de rigueur television outrage.

For those who joined us late, the story till now:

A young engineer with TCS, Esther is on her way back to Mumbai after a Christmas holiday in her hometown of Machilipatnam. She boards a train from Vijayawada, meets a friend who boards in Secunderabad briefly to hand over a packed lunch, calls her father from Solapur to say the journey was uneventful and that she would call him the following morning from Mumbai and then vanishes. There is a short struggle to register a missing person's complaint, the usual runaround over jurisdiction, but a complaint is finally lodged. The family taps connections in cellphone service providing companies to locate her cellphone signals — both her phones were last in Bhandup.

Immediate family members rush to Mumbai and, along with some pressure from senior policemen from Andhra Pradesh (the girl's grand-uncle is a retired commandant of special police), approach senior police officers including at least one IPS officer. The police seem certain Esther has eloped and will show up eventually. Despairing, the family, now joined by relatives from the city and from as far as Doha, form search parties and start scouring the area around that glaring clue, the Bhandup cellphone towers. It takes them less than 12 hours to find the body, burnt and badly decomposed, identified from a finger-ring, the crime scene bearing signs of sexual assault.

Feeling let down by the Mumbai Police, the family grieved, jousted briefly with the idea of protesting the criminal negligence by authorities in not combing the area around the cellphone towers, but stifled their anger and sought justice before travelling back to Mahcilipatnam for the last rites.

The story might have ended there, for the headlines at least, had it not been for statements from policemen including Mumbai Police Commissioner Dr Satyapal Singh who said, almost as an afterthought, that it was in fact the Mumbai Police who found the body. Dr Singh even told CNN-IBN that there appear to be vested interests behind the allegation that the police investigation was tardy.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, say family members, who earlier described the reception they received from the Mumbai police, including an IPS officer who didn't make eye contact for the first 15 minutes of a conversation when the desperate family approached him, and a police station where officials asked why they had approached them when they did not have jurisdiction over the case.

Firstpost spoke to several members of the search parties formed that day. All confirmed independently that they found the body without the assistance of police officers or a patrol vehicle. In fact, policemen they approached had thrown their hands up, pleading inability to assist. Here are the accounts of those who were actually part of the search party.

1. Suzeeth Emmanuel, Esther's cousin:

I arrived in Mumbai on 12th and we, (me, a cousin and volunteers of an NGO) walked around the Bhandup slums and up the hillock there asking people if they had seen Anuhya. We were carrying her photograph. We got nothing from there. On the morning of 16 January, we went to the Kanjurmarg police station, they didn't know that such a case was being investigated by Unit Five of the Crime Branch or that the last signal her cellphone picked up was at Bhandup. We gave them the entire case details once again but were eventually told it was not their jurisdiction. If we wanted help with searching, we would have to approach Bhandup police station.

We went next to Bhandup police station. The inspector was away and we spoke to a constable on duty, gave in writing the entire case details. Eventually, as no help was forthcoming, we split into two groups and started combing the area in two cars, one was a hired taxi and the other was a relative's car. A friend of the taxi driver joined us on his motorbike. Two volunteers of an NGO came along too. I was leading one group and Deepak, another cousin, was leading the other team.

We started searching around 11.30 am or 12 noon, I don't remember the exact time. We searched for a couple of hours but didn't find anything. Then we broke for lunch and resumed after eating. That's when we found the body off the service road on one side of Eastern Express Highway. It appeared to be of a female, from the hair and as there were undergarments lying nearby. We could not identify the face, it was badly decomposed. There were dogs around the body. I then called out to Deepak who was across the highway and then went looking for a police patrol -- whoever it was, the body couldn't be left there. We found a police patrol nearby and then registered a complaint. The police patrol was not accompanying us.

The police were initially hesitant to move the body, but we insisted. Had we left the body there another night, dogs would have destroyed it.

2. S Rufus Deepak Prasad, Esther's cousin:

I was on the other side of the road when the body was found. One gentleman helping us to search was on a motorbike and didn't take a u-turn that we took, he went ahead. He spotted something and asked us to come. Suzeeth was there next. He called me from across the road. After that we approached a local police patrol.

3. A member of a Mumbai-based NGO whose volunteers were searching with the family members:

I sent two of our volunteers to go along when I realised that Suzeeth and Deepak had decided to search themselves. The search first concentrated on the Bhandup West area, since the telephone tower locations mentioned a Bhandup Talao, and there is a pond in Bhandup West. The common area of the signal from two cellphones was mapped carefully by the victim's cousins, but then we realised the pond could be one on the east. That's when it was decided to search along Eastern Express Highway.

My volunteers were with the search party until around 3 pm, but the body was found only later. There was no police patrol with the search party.

4. The FIR registered at Kanjurmarg police station by Esther's father after the discovery of the body (it was identified by the finger ring) is also amply clear.

The FIR, as translated from Marathi, says the family searched Bhandup East area on Mumbai-Thane line along the service road and found a body near the trees. The hands and legs of the body were partly burnt but a yellow metal ring was found on the middle finger of the right hand. Having identified the body as that of his daughter Anuhaya, he had reached the Kanjur Marg police station to complain, it states.

Esther's life in Mumbai will now be part of the police's investigations — the family has no information from the police, just the news updates. They know now that four men were detained, but are not sure if there were any arrests or if there is any evidence. Her laptop remains untraced too.

Esther, in sharp contrast to the wretched questions around her death, appears to have been a sunny 23-year-old, tweeting birthday wishes to Roger Federer, straightening her hair, asking Ian Somerhalder on Twitter if there would be a fifth season of Vampire Diaries. After a particularly bleak week of Mumbai's rains last August, Esther tweeted: "In 3 mounths, this week is of ful sunlight outside with sun held high on the blue sky... Good afternun mumbai...."

For her still-wounded family, that her life was cut short by a cruel stroke of fate is tragic enough without the added injury of being called liars by senior policemen. In response to the Commissioner's statement that the body was found by the police and not by the family, they released a simple statement. The FIR is self-explanatory, they said. "We have lost a dear daughter at the age of 23. What vested interest do we have?" they asked.

Esther's father Jonathan Prasad, deeply disappointed with the Mumbai Police and with no apparent progress in the case even 20-odd days after she first went missing, approached Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, who wrote to Maharashtra Home Minister RR Patil directing a speedy investigation. He also met Yogendra Yadav. "Mr Shinde took it quite casually," Prasad says, speaking to Firstpost over the phone from Machilipatnam. "He issued a formal letter to RR Patil."

Over the days that he was in Mumbai, Prasad says, he sensed increasingly after the first three or four days that the Mumbai Police were doing nothing useful. "They kept checking the CDRs (call data records) of my daughter, pointing out that she had spoken for 20 minutes to this person or that. We had to get a ticket for one of her friends to visit Mumbai and back so that the police could speak to him — they just kept thinking that it was a boyfriend who she was with. If she had been with a boyfriend I would have been happy — her safety was primary. I sensed that she was in danger. And the police wasted the first week in checking her phone records, just saying again and again that they were checking,"

He approached the Aam Aadmi Party hoping somebody will raise their voice against the police inaction. "My demand is that if they have the culprits then they should recover her belongings and her laptop, then we can be sure they have the right men," Prasad says.

But it has been 21 days now since his daughter went missing. "I am losing hope."

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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2014 09:48:47 IST