This report is part of #MeToo Bundelkhand — is an exclusive two-part series on the continued silence around horrendous crimes against women in rural Bundelkhand, and the normalisation of this silence. We take a deep dive into a suicide-murder that rocked Uttar Pradesh's hinterland. While there are gaps in this narrative, what emerges is that systemic violence and discrimination against women, especially in rural areas, runs deep, and goes beyond just the sexual.
It is the news report of the moment.
At its heart, it is the story of a young and ambitious working woman, a family's favoured bread-winner, who eventually paid the price for being a young, ambitious working woman, with her life.
We follow up on a crime story that refuses closure, a story which lies buried under the hullabaloo of sansani news reports and revelations of long-term sexual assault, in this era of fast-paced news.
On the evening of 4 September, Neetu Shukla, a constable at Kamasin thana in Banda district, Uttar Pradesh, was found hanging — a dupatta wound tightly around her neck — from the ceiling of her assigned one-room bedsit in the police quarters.
Neetu had just turned 22.
Under the directions of Station Officer Pratima Singh — one of three women (including Neetu) posted at Kamasin thana — the body was sent for a post mortem examination, even as the police machinery at Kamasin was recovering from the shock of their colleague’s suicide. Nobody from Neetu’s immediate family had arrived until then. “We were not informed,” says Rahul, Neetu’s brother, “Isn’t the family supposed to be notified at once, you tell me?”
Once Neetu’s family arrived on the scene — initially just Rahul, who took the overnight train from Lucknow — they started protesting vehemently and began demanding answers. They accused Neetu’s colleagues of having planned a cold-blooded murder, and more.
The official quote given to the media was that a promising young police officer Neetu Shukla had, due to reasons unknown, committed suicide.
The Neetu Shukla case (or kaand, as is the preferred term in Hindi language media) was a forest-fire news item all through September, and a good part of October. Various sound-bytes played on loop: Some said it was the doing of a jilted lover; a drugging that went very wrong; a heated argument over a due promotion that escalated; a blue film that went viral.
“What is the point of our daughters studying hard, clearing IPS exams, and earning, when this is the fate that awaits them?” hollered many a male reporter across our timelines, having cottoned on to the perfect angle for their report, not requiring any suspects, or even facts.
Meanwhile, what seemed to be underway was a classic cover-up.
Our initial investigations revealed that the death by hanging scenario was not exactly a watertight argument. When one did the math — low-ceilinged room, Neetu’s above-average height (noted in the post mortem report as 165 cm), the placement of the charpai, and length of the dupatta – it simply did not add up.
One of the Persons of Interest in the case, Pratima Singh, is the station officer at Kamasin. Mostly referred to as “woh mahila S.O.”, she is infamous for her ill-treatment of young female police recruits — though nobody has ever said that on record. Neetu’s mother, who spoke with us over the phone from Lucknow, confirms Singh’s reputation, “Neetu would call me in tears from time to time, complaining about her — that she would be rude, taunt her, mock her, make nasty comments about her friendships with members of the opposite sex, etc. Ab saath mein uthna-baithna toh hota hai na, thane mein? (You will mingle with everyone in a police station, won’t you?) Will everything that a girl does be questioned and interpreted in a wrong way?”
One of Neetu’s uncles, Rajendra Prasad Mishra, shares with us the line of reasoning the cops used with the family. According to Mishra, they appealed to the classic, intangible value placed on izzat: “They asked us not to pursue the case anymore, and warned us that if we do, Neetu ki badnaami hogi, parivaar ki badnaami hogi, police ki badnaami hogi (Neetu would be defamed, the family and the police force would be defamed).”
In the days after the incident, Singh herself went underground. We were told she’d been transferred soon after the Neetu episode came to light, but details of her new posting are unclear. According to Anil Shukla, Neetu’s father, Singh had been present during the post mortem. Shukla, an ex-Sub-Inspector (Dewariya district), told us that despite Singh having been transferred, he had spotted her at the Kamasin thana, two weeks after the episode. “What business did she have there?” he asks, as if his question answered the many that were hanging over our interview. According to Shukla, the Banda Superintendent of Police, S Anand, had requested his signature on the post mortem sanction after it had been conducted, promising him then, that justice would be done. Anand has since refused to meet with the press on the case.
“If it is the criminals who are handling the investigation, what will come of it, you tell me?” asks Rahul, point blank. “We don’t want the post mortem to be done here, because records can be fudged easily,” adds Dinesh Kumar Shukla, another of Neetu’s uncles, “We are not comfortable with this investigation happening anywhere in Banda. Perhaps, we need to seek a higher intervention.” This translates into a “CBI jaanch”, a mantra that Ram Kumar* — Rahul’s close friend and the first person from victim’s side to have reached the scene of the crime — seems stuck on.
On 15 November, when a shanti havan was organised at the Kamasin police station, one could see “higher intervention” being sought there too. It was an unprecedented event, causing a stir. “Maybe Neetu’s ghost haunts them all, who knows,” commented one compulsive Banda WhatsApp-er. The havan itself turned into a social gathering of sorts, with laddoos being distributed towards the end, as is the norm.
Meanwhile, in our interviews with all the people involved with the case, Kumar, a self-proclaimed eye-witness, was the most informative. A resident of Narayanpur, a village barely 10 km away from Kamasin, Kumar describes the incident as a crime of passion and blackmail. Kumar had bumped into Neetu and her aides a couple of times at the thana, which he would often visit with his uncle, the local kotedaar. The chai dhaba outside the thana was a regular spot for Kumar, its owner having already described Neetu to us as a “hansmukh ladki (jovial girl)”.
Neetu, whom Kumar refers to as “hamaari sister”, was in a relationship with fellow constable Harendra Pal. According to Kumar, Pal had decided to end the relationship after having "filmed Neetu in a compromising position". “She would never do it willingly,” says Kumar, furhter alleging: “She was drugged and the film was made when she was knocked out.” Neetu’s mother corroborates parts of this version, “She had called me one day, howling… she was furious. She kept on saying that she couldn’t remember the last 24 hours, and that she was sure something inappropriate had happened with her… something had been done to her. She was very incoherent. I assumed it was just Singh bothering her again; I really didn’t make that much of it. But it did make me upset. I wondered why my well-earning daughter, adored by all of us, was being tortured like this.”
This phone call was made on 1 September. Two days later, Neetu was found dead.
Pal, according to the official records, still holds his Kamasin posting, and for all practical purposes, has disappeared.
We did manage to corner Singh at the end of a long trail of changed phone numbers, missed calls and unacknowledged WhatsApp messages. “I am the victim here, let me tell you," Singh said. "Who bore the brunt of this entire fiasco in the end, you tell me that? Who got the line hazir summons? Who had to leave? Certainly not the men who caused this entire kaand in the first place. It was me, I had to pay the price.”
She refuses to say more though, not even about the victim at whose post mortem she was allegedly present, “What about her? I tried to toughen her up. It’s my job.”
In the bone-chilling pre-dawn hours of Banda, we had set out for Kamasin once again, a 62 km drive from Banda, covered in two-odd hours.
We were outside Neetu’s quarters once again. The room was now sealed, and the single window was boarded off with a flimsy piece of cardboard. Once inside, it is easy to imagine the life of a woman police worker — one among the only three women in the thana, including Neha Shukla, Neetu’s colleague, and Singh — who left this room every morning to work with 22 men, and so many more, outside.
“Jo phaansi lagata hai, kaaran toh wohi jaanta hai. Aur kaun jaanta hai? (Who hangs themselves alone knows the reason behind their decision. Who else can venture to guess?)” remarks Yogesh Maurya, the DTP operator at the station, who seems to be in a good mood. “She should’ve shared with us, whatever her problems were, instead of taking such a big step,” following which he immediately adds, “Kisi se kuch zyaada matlab nahi rakhti thi woh (She used to mind her own business). You know how it is. Everyone’s busy with their own responsibilities; everyone’s always exhausted with work.”
“She used to be on the computer all day,” supervisor Lakshmi Narayan tells us, as we try and piece together Neetu’s usual day at the thana. Narayan informs us how he observes everyone who works there, “They’re all kids here, and they act impulsively.” According to Narayan, the case is sub judice, but we inform him that the three-month mandatory investigation period is now over, and for Neetu’s family, the case seems all but closed, after which he says, “I would say she was unwell of late. Even Neha told us that Neetu was not feeling well, when she didn’t attend an important meeting at the police station.” This meeting, a monthly stock-taking session, was called on 29 August, we learn from Narayan’s records — the same day that Neetu couldn’t recollect. We look up the leaves register and observe that Neetu isn't marked for a sick leave — noteworthy for a government employee.
Narayan, who didn’t really see much that fateful day (“It was so crowded”) tells us that it is his belief the station officers did everything in their power to save Neetu, “Jo bhi ban sakta tha unse”. But wasn’t she already dead, we ask? “Oh, she was, wasn’t she?” he replies, whether with a riddle or rhetoric, we’re not sure. He does wonder if we saw the fan though, “Pankhe se hui thi na maut, aapne dekha?” he adds, the ball of paan masala making his words almost incomprehensible.
Spitting out the paan masala, he smiles at us and tries to sketch out Neetu’s personality for us. Describing her, a working woman in Banda, he says, “She was friendly, a little different from how girls generally are, you know.”
We tried to find Neha — the only other person besides her immediate family, Neetu is said to have confided in — but she is on a long leave of absence from her workplace, we’re told. Pal, Neetu’s alleged lover and co-worker, is still on the record as a constable at Kamasin, and is still missing.
As reported to Pooja Pande by Kavita & Meera Devi of Khabar Lahariya, a women-only network of rural reporters from Bundelkhand.
*Name changed on request.
Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.
Updated Date: Jan 25, 2019 19:30:21 IST