The case of the sisters on death row
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New Delhi/Pune: The ground outside the women’s prison of Yerwada Central Jail, Pune, is dotted with scattered groups of people. Children run around, playing games only they can understand, occasionally being brought to heel.
Standing a little distance from the crowd are four young men, talking to each other, occasionally breaking into laughter. They are here to meet their aai and mavshi, mother and aunt respectively. The second oldest brother, now 23, is particularly happy. “I feel very good after meeting aai,” he says breaking into a wide smile.
The youngest, 18, doesn’t really know his mother. She has been in prison since he was six months old. In fact, out of all the brothers, it is only the oldest, 26, who has any abiding memories of his mother and aunt. He was eight years old when they were arrested.
Thirtieth August is not a particularly significant day for the brothers, other than it being the second day of Ganesh Chaturthi. Sandalwood pastes on their forehead indicate a visit to a temple or a pandal. Neither is 31 August, although it was on this date eight years ago that the Supreme Court confirmed the death penalty awarded to their mother and her sister by the Bombay high court in 2004. The aai and mavshi the boys come to meet so diligently, dutifully and—in the case of Rajiv—excitedly are Renuka Shinde and Seema Mohan Gavit, half-sisters convicted of the killing of five children and the kidnapping of 13 others between 1990 and 1996. The kidnapped children have never been found.
To that roll of infamy the pair might soon add another: the dubious distinction of becoming the first women to be executed in India in nearly 60 years after President Pranab Mukherjee rejected their mercy petition on 19 July. The aai is Renuka, though out of the four brothers, only Sudhir* knows what she stands accused of and what the future might hold, having spent the better part of his 26 years protecting his younger brothers from the truth.
There might still be some hope for Sudhir in all this, as the Bombay high court on 19 August ordered a stay on the execution of the sisters till it hears a petition filed by them seeking their sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment due to the “inordinate delay” in the rejection of their mercy petition. The court has ordered the Centre and the state of Maharashtra to file their replies by 9 September, when it will hear the case again. And Sudhir, Rajiv, Prakash and Navin are at the prison this week to meet their mother’s lawyer, Sudeep Jaiswal, who filed the mercy plea on the sisters’ behalf in 2010 as well as the recent petition in the high court.
Where it all began
When inspector Mandaleshwar Madhavrao Kale was assigned the kidnapping case of a nine-year-old girl, Kranti Gavit, in Nasik in October 1996, little did he know that it would lead to the unravelling of a spate of crimes unlike any he would see in a career that spanned 36 years.
At the centre of the shocking child killings were an unlikely trio of women: a mother, her daughter and step-daughter, who operated in and around Nasik, Pune and Kolhapur in southwest Maharashtra.
“Pratibha Mohan Gavit, wife of a Mohan Gavit, had filed a kidnapping case against her husband’s first wife, Anjana Bai, his step-daughter Renuka Shinde and daughter, Seema Gavit. Pratibha’s older daughter Kranti had been missing and she was convinced that these three women were responsible,” Kale recalls.
Mohan Gavit was the second husband of alleged mastermind Anjana Bai. Anjana already had a history of crime, mostly petty theft and pickpocketing. Fed up with repeated harassment by the police owing to Anjana’s life of crime, Mohan Gavit abandoned her and the two girls and remarried.
The three women, who began to hold a deep grudge against Mohan Gavit and his new family, went underground when police began investigating Kranti Gavit’s disappearance.
But they resurfaced within days, to kidnap Pratibha and Mohan Gavit’s younger daughter. Before they could do so, however, Nasik police arrested them.
Police officer Kale remembers all three as being particularly obstinate witnesses, especially the mother Anjana.
“She would just sit there and look. Never once did that woman crack.” The weak link in the chain was Anjana’s step-daughter Seema who finally broke down, admitting to the kidnapping and killing of Kranti, but she said it was all under their mother’s orders.
A search team sent to their house in Nasik uncovered evidence of more kidnappings such as discarded clothing of children. And the mysterious presence of several children who were not locals in photographs of birthday party celebrations of Renuka’s children. Nasik police was quick to figure out that the three women were a pick-pocketing gang also involved in petty crimes, but who were the children?
A little over 10km from Yerwada prison is one of Pune’s famous religious places, the Chaturshringi temple. It was here that the story of Renuka Shinde and Seema Mohan Gavit took a sinister turn in 1990.
The catalyst was the toddler Sudhir, Renuka’s son from her first marriage. Her attempt to pick someone’s pocket in the temple complex went wrong when the person caught her. But showing her presence of mind and cunning, Renuka used Sudhir as a foil. Her argument was, “How can a woman with a child commit a crime?” The crowd let her go and, later, Renuka shared the incident with her mother and sister.
According to the case details, it was after this incident that the trio decided to always take along a child while committing a crime. “The children served both as a foil and a distraction, depending on the situation. In Kolhapur, when Seema was caught pick-pocketing, Anjana Bai, the mother, deliberately injured a kidnapped child, Santosh, by throwing him down with force in order to create a distraction,” recalls Ujjwal Nikam, the public prosecutor in the case.
Most of the kidnappings took place in busy places such as temple compounds and fair grounds in cities like Nasik, Kolhapur and Pune. While missing children reports were filed in some cases, it is thought that many of the kidnappings went unreported as the children came from poor families and the police did not pay heed. “It is estimated that the kidnappings might have been more than 40 in number but we had no evidence to back that claim,” says Nikam. The women, it is believed, could have let go of some of the children after kidnapping and using them.
One of the first charges brought against the sisters and their mother was of the murder of Santosh, the boy Anjana had flung down to create a distraction. The prosecution describes it in chilling detail.
After the incident at temple, the injured Santosh wouldn’t stop crying. Anjana Bai calmly stated that the child was of no more use and, therefore, she bashed his head in with an iron bar. Later, another child was drowned in the bathroom with one of the sisters holding the legs to stop her flailing in the water. The children were mostly killed when they wouldn’t stop crying. The women were finally charged with five counts of murder; those of three boys and two girls, whose post-mortem indicated injuries from being thrown down stairs or hit repeatedly.
They were also declared guilty of kidnapping and murdering their step-sister Kranti, whose disappearance first attracted the attention of police.
“Kiran Shinde, Renuka’s second husband, turned approver and provided details of how the crimes were committed and bodies callously disposed of. In one instance, the sisters actually watched a movie while a body stuffed in a gunny bag lay between them. They eventually left it in the women’s lavatory before leaving,” says Kale.
Another child was killed by them while travelling from Pune to Surat. At no point, according to the prosecution, did the accused show any concern or remorse.
Anjana Bai died in 1997 even as the case was underway while Kiran Shinde was rewarded with an acquittal for his co-operation. This left the two sisters to bear the brunt of the law though they kept insisting they were innocent.
Photographs from 1996 when the sisters were arrested show two healthy looking young women. Renuka is dressed in a sari with jewellery, a traditional Marathi nose ring and hair garland. Seema stares blankly into the camera, dressed in a blue salwar kameez.
Over the years, there have been only a handful of photographs of the pair; the last from their sentencing in 2004 reveals shrivelled frames and gaunt faces. After the Supreme Court verdict, the sisters were separated, with Renuka sent to Nagpur jail. A human rights lawyer who worked closely with Renuka in this period to ensure she had access to her children recalls a woman given to bouts of irritability at being kept apart from her sister. She would also continuously fret over the future of her children who had been taken to a juvenile home in Kolhapur. The two sisters were finally united after several requests and promises of good behaviour.
Apparently, the sisters had quite a reputation as troublemakers when together.
“Renuka was transferred to Yerwada prison in 2011 and since then, there have been instances of them picking fights with their wardens and heckling Fahmida Sayed, one of the 2003 Mumbai blast accused, who, too, had been sentenced to death by the Bombay High Court. Officials and lawyers familiar with the two identify Seema as the more loquacious and talkative of the two, always wanting to know the status of their mercy petition. In fact, when the President rejected their plea, it was Seema who called up Jaiswal, asking him to come immediately.
Death row conundrum
According to the National Crime Records Bureau report of 2012, India has 414 convicts on the death row. Of them, 13 are women. Although India is among a minority of countries that still allow capital punishment, no woman has been hanged in India since 1955, when Rattan Bai Jain, convicted of killing three girls, became the first and only woman to be sent to the gallows. Several of the women have appeals pending in the Supreme Court.
According to Suhas Chakma, director of the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights, from 2001 to 2012, 5,934 convicts were sentenced to death in India of which 1,552 were confirmed while the rest were commuted to life. The figures are based on National Crime Records Bureau reports. Chakma argues that the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent.
According to Mumbai-based lawyer Yug Mohit Chaudhry, every death sentence is still one too many. He bemoans the lack of an abolitionist movement in India. “We have to stop every execution that happens. How are just a handful of lawyers, spread across the country, going to do all that?”
In India, the confirmation of a death sentence by the high court effectively gives the government permission to execute if it so desires. The power to commute a death sentence— the power of mercy—also kicks in when the sentence is confirmed. On 21 January, the Supreme Court commuted the sentence of 15 death row prisoners to life imprisonment.
President Pranab Mukherjee had already rejected the pleas of all 15. But the court ruled that delays ranging from seven to 11 years in the disposal of mercy pleas are grounds for clemency. Among those whose sentences were commuted was Sonia, only the third woman on death row in India, whose sentence had been upheld by the apex court itself. She is currently lodged in Ambala Central Jail. The daughter of a former Haryana legislator, Sonia and her husband Sanjiv were sentenced for the killing of seven of her family members in a dispute over inheritance.
It’s been eight years since Renuka and Seema’s death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court. In their petition to the high court on 19 August, they contended that “the extraordinary and unjustified delay in execution of our death sentence has caused immense mental torture, emotional and physical agony to us,” and this should be considered reason enough to commute the sentence.
The sisters also cite their young age at the time the crimes were committed—Renuka was 27 and Seema 25 at the time of conviction in 2001 by a Kolhapur sessions court—as well as the abandonment by their father at a young age in their defence.
“Going by the details of the case, we find no mitigating circumstances in favour of the appellant, except for the fact that they are women,” says the Supreme Court judgement in the case. “Further, the nature of the crime and the systematic way in which each child was kidnapped and killed amply demonstrates the depravity of the mind of the appellants.”
While a few news reports have labelled the sisters as “serial killers” owing to the number of murders they stand accused of, there has been no effort on the part of the state to analyse the sisters or the crimes. Clinical psychologist Dr Rajat Mitra, who has worked extensively with sex offenders in Tihar Jail in Delhi, says it’s very important that psychological profiling of criminals be introduced in India.
“This will help in the creation of a database which helps us understand the changing nature of crime and the different kind of criminals in society today.”
Mitra hasn’t profiled the sisters but rules out the possibility of them being serial killers. “They (serial killers) are controlled by an urge to kill, a desire which leaves them with a high once the deed is done. There seem to be no such compulsions in this case.”
The way ahead
Sudhir stands at a little distance from his brothers, all three of whom are cracking jokes and laughing with each other. “What will happen next?” he wants to know. Lawyer Jaiswal hasn’t shared much of the details of the hearing with them and Sudhir is eager for information.
But whatever the future holds for his mother and aunt, the soft-spoken young man with a ready smile is determined to protect his brothers.
He has been taking care of them since he turned 18 and left the juvenile home. He rented a room in Kolhapur and stayed put, doing odd jobs until he got custody of all three. He had to give up his B.Com course in the second year of college due to financial constraints and though he holds a steady job today, like two of his other brothers, money is still a problem.
Unlike his brothers, Sudhir hasn’t met his mother in eight months now as his surname is different from hers and rules for visitors have been changed.
But he still comes diligently, to get news of his aai. Nine September couldn’t come quickly enough for him.
*The names of Renuka’s sons have been changed to protect their privacy.