At about 6.10 pm, just as it was getting dark on November 27, Disha (name changed to protect identity), parked her red Hero Maestro scooter near the Tondupally toll plaza in Shamshabad on the Nehru Outer Ring Road (ORR) skirting Hyderabad. The 27-year-old veterinarian boarded a share taxi to Gachibowli, some 26 km away, to keep her appointment with a dermatologist. When she returned at around 9 pm, Disha was dismayed to find that her two-wheeler had a flat. The driver of a lorry parked nearby, Mohammed Arif, and his assistant, Jollu Shiva, offered to help. They persuaded her to allow Shiva to take the scooter for repairs.
Unsure as to whether she was doing the right thing, a tense Disha tried to call her younger sister. Even before she could connect, Arif offered to share his mobile number and dialled her phone to establish his bonafides and win her confidence. Twenty minutes later, when there was still no sign of her scooter, a worried Disha called her sister again saying she was still at the toll plaza waiting for her scooter. “Keep talking to me until the scooter is back,” her sister told her. “They are all standing here…I am scared,” Disha whispered on the phone. Her younger sister advised her to abandon the bike and take a taxi back home in Nakshatra Colony. The six-minute, 45-second conversation ended when Disha hung up saying she would call back soon. That was the last time they spoke.
A candlelight vigil in Delhi, Dec 1 (K Asif/Mail Today)
What happened thereafter is still not clear. What is certain, though, is that Arif and Shiva, along with two other associates, Chennakesavulu and Naveen, had been keeping a watch on her since the time she parked the bike and were waiting for her return. The lorry crew seem to have dragged her to a nearby vacant plot, forced her to have liquor, gagged and then raped her. One of them is believed to have smothered her so that her screams would not be heard. Most likely, Disha died of suffocation. Shiva, who had returned with her scooter, continued his sexual assault even after she died. Thereafter, the men took her body to the cabin of the lorry (registration no. TS07-UA-3335). Arif and Chennakeshavulu drove along the Hyderabad-Bengaluru highway towards Shadnagar, while Shiva and Naveen followed on Disha’s scooter in search of a desolate place to dispose of the body.
While on the highway, the men on the scooter tried to buy petrol in a jerry can from the Essar Mahalaxmi fuel station at Nandigama village. The cashier, sensing something amiss, refused. They managed to get it at a pump in Kothur further down. The accused then took a U-turn at the Shadnagar crossroads to return with the body in the direction of the city. They stopped at a culvert at Chatanapally, some 22 km south of the toll plaza, took the body wrapped in a blanket to the underpass below and set it ablaze. Disha’s scooter was abandoned near Kothur, after which all of them returned to Hyderabad. While three of them got off near Aram Ghar on the city’s outskirts, Arif took the lorry to its garage at Attapur and fled the city.
(Illustration by Raj Verma)
Meanwhile, finding her phone switched off, Disha’s sister and family had reached the toll plaza at around 10.20 pm. When they approached the police station at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport (RGIA), they refused to register a complaint, though the police station was located on the highway and was nearer to the toll plaza from where Disha had gone missing. The family was asked to go to the Shamshabad station late at night. It was only at around 3 am that some constables went to the toll plaza along with the family members, but they found nothing.
It was still dark when Shamala Satyam, a farmer from Lingojiguda village, noticed what seemed like the remnants of a bonfire while passing by the Chatanapally underpass. He didn’t give it much thought then. It was only on his return journey, after daybreak on November 28, that he saw a hand jutting out. The local police arrived on the scene, and soon the Shamshabad rural police station, where Disha’s family had registered a complaint, was also informed. They reached the spot and Disha was identified on the basis of a torn scarf, the buckle of her handbag and a Ganesha gold pendant on the charred body.
It had been some 10 hours since her family had reported her missing. The avalanche of bad press and protests that followed all but destroyed the department’s reputation of effective and innovative policing. However, the police did redeem themselves somewhat by deploying 10 teams and arresting all four accused within 48 hours of the crime. “The sexual assault on the lady veterinarian was planned. We tracked down the accused with the help of human intelligence and CCTV footage,” says Cyberabad police commissioner V.C. Sajjanar. But there was more bad news for the Cyberabad police, after reports came to light that they had five cold cases of charred bodies at hand, all women found in 2018 who could not be identified.
Police apathy is a striking feature in the Disha case. There are five patrolling parties each from the RGIA and Shamshabad rural police stations on the move in the area, but not one thought to check why the lorry or the scooter were parked for so many hours in the lonely spot. The men have admitted they were consuming liquor at the spot for some hours before they saw Disha leave her scooter near the toll plaza. Even after she returned, or during the horrific events afterwards, or while the men were moving around with her body, not one police team seems to have noticed anything untoward.
None of the five patrolling parties from the RGIA and Shamshabad police stations in the area noticed anything amiss
Meanwhile, protests continued unabated in Hyderabad. Adding fuel to the fire was home minister and deputy chief minister M. Mahmood Ali’s insensitive comment that the victim should have dialled 100 and raised an alarm instead of calling her sister. In a knee-jerk reaction, Sajjanar has placed a sub-inspector of the Shamshabad rural station and two head constables of the RGIA station under suspension for the delay in registering FIRs.
THE FOUR ACCUSED: (L-R) Jollu Naveen, Chennakesavulu, Jollu Shiva and Mohammed Ali(alias Arif). Truck driver Arif and cleaner Shiva were joined by the other two some time before the incident. The rape and murder of the victim took place near the Tondupally ORR toll plaza in Shamshabad I near Hyderabad
All the accused in the Disha case are from the arid Makthal area of Narayanpet district bordering Raichur district in Karnataka, and in their 20s. While Arif is from Jaklair, Naveen, Shiva and Chennakesavulu are from Gudigandla. While Naveen, Shiva and Chennakesavulu are widely known as troublemakers in their village, Arif, who has been working as a truck driver for the past two years without a valid licence, was considered a calm person who never got involved in any quarrels or disputes. Chennakesavulu would go regularly to the state-run Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences, Hyderabad, for dialysis.
The national outrage over the Hyderabad incident echoes the public response after the Nirbhaya episode of 2012, suggesting widespread concern about such crimes against women, particularly in the cities. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which released its 2017 data this October, says a total of 359,849 cases of crimes against women were reported, a 6 per cent rise over the previous year. Of these, assault on women with ‘intent to outrage her modesty’ comprised 21.7 per cent and rape 7 per cent. The criminal justice delivery system is still not equipped to cope with this. The NCRB data indicates that in 86 per cent rape cases, the police file charge-sheets but trial courts are able to dispose of only 13 per cent of the pending cases, with the conviction rate as low as 32 per cent. In child rape cases, the conviction rate is 34.2 per cent and pendency 82.1 per cent.
Public reaction, whether on social media or in the utterances of politicians and celebrities, has been marked by demands for violent retribution. Many feel that capital punishment for the guilty is a justifiable response. Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao has promised an exclusive fast-track court to bring the offenders to book. In Parliament, members cutting across party lines not only demanded the hanging of the accused but also argued for the death penalty as the “only punishment” for a rape offence. “There cannot be a more inhuman crime than this. The entire country has been shamed by this incident. The government is ready to amend the Indian Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code to ensure faster justice in cases of rape and murder,” said the MoS for home affairs G. Kishan Reddy. Lawyers, though, argue that summary death penalties without appeal-as many have been demanding in such cases-are not possible or desirable in a democracy like India.
Even as it sears the collective conscience of the nation, the post-Nirbhaya lessons about making public spaces safer for women, particularly at night, are yet to be learnt. Travelling alone in a cab or returning home late continues to be a challenge for women in Indian cities.
The Centre’s Safe City project, intended to strengthen the safety and security of women in public places, is yet to take off, at least in Hyderabad. It was among the eight cities-Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad and Lucknow being the others-included in the project, which has proposed several measures, including installing surveillance cameras in buses, isolated places, mobile forensic laboratories for onsite visits and enhancing the capabilities of the Dial 100 facility. If building and maintaining public safety infrastructure for our metros remains a challenge, it pales in comparison to the task of overcoming the culture of predatory masculinity that threatens the lives and safety of women across the country.