Acres of rice fields await harvest in Mahagaon in Aheri taluka in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra. In the middle of this peaceful landscape lies a patch of land that has been cleared. It contains three graves with mounds of fresh mud heaped on. They belong to Shankar Kumbhare, 57; his wife Vijaya, 55; and their son, Roshan, 29. The area is strewn with the remnants of firecrackers. In this region, villagers beat drums and burst strings of firecrackers when they take bodies to graves. They believe in celebrating life rather than mourning its passing. Even when the deaths are of unnatural causes.
Shankar; Vijaya; their daughter Komal Dahagaonkar, 34; Vijaya’s sister Varsha, 41; and Roshan died within two months. All of them died of thallium poisoning. Thallium is an odour-less, tasteless chemical used mostly in science laboratories and chemical industries, and also in small quantities during radiology tests in hospitals.
According to the police, Roshan’s wife Sanghamitra, 22, who holds a B.Sc (Agriculture) degree, with the connivance of his maternal uncle’s wife (maami), Roja Ramteke, 36, sourced a bottle of thallium from a Mumbai-based pharma company.
The alleged poisoning has left four others affected: Roshan’s brother, Sagar; Roja’s husband Pramod; Vijaya’s sister Sujata’s son, Bunty Undirwade; and Shankar’s driver Rakesh Madavi.
Seven kilometres away from the grave site, the two accused — Sanghamitra and Roja — are in police custody in the Aheri taluka police station. Police say that the women, who are distantly related and were neighbours, had hatched a conspiracy to kill multiple family members.
Deputy Superintendent Sudarshan Rathod, the investigating officer, says the police interrogate them for up to 10 hours every day. “Roja keeps changing her story about how the thallium was procured. She first accused her elder daughter in Nagpur of helping them, and then her brother in Telangana. She has sent us on a wild goose chase. Sanghamitra doesn’t talk much,” he says. In the lock-up, Roja begins crying, while Sanghamitra looks on.
Mahagaon is sandwiched between the thick jungles of the Gadchiroli forest reserve and the Tadoba National Park-Andhari Tiger Reserve. It is known to be a Maoist region. “The police are used to responding to combat situations. To find two seemingly average-looking women involved in so many murders and that too using sophisticated means is new for us. Thallium has been used in the past for criminal purposes in privileged circles, but it is rare in rural areas,” says a senior police official involved in the investigation.
Shankar and his wife Vijaya lived in a bungalow built on land that belongs to Vijaya’s father, Gattu Ramteke. According to Gattu, 77, who lives next door, the couple loved farming, so they bought some land with their savings and started growing cotton and vegetables. “Teak is available in abundance in the jungles of Gadchiroli, so Shankar, who was also skilled in carpentry, opened a small furniture workshop outside the house and employed four workers. He also bought a transport truck to deliver furniture to bustling urban hubs,” says Gattu.
Shankar and Vijaya’s son Roshan worked at the Aheri taluka post office. In July last year, he met a new trainee, Sanghamitra, at work and the two of them fell in love. As Sanghamitra’s family did not approve of the relationship, the couple decided to elope. Sanghamitra married Roshan in a temple in December. Her mother Nalini Gavai told the police that Sanghamitra was intelligent, driven, and stood first in her undergraduate class.
A month after their wedding, Sanghamitra had temporary facial paralysis, say the police, and Roshan’s family sent her to her parents’ place in Akola, 10 hours from Mahagaon by road. “She was on steroids. She discovered then that she was pregnant. The doctor asked her to abort the baby saying the drugs would affect the pregnancy,” says an official involved in the case.
Following the facial paralysis and the abortion, Sanghamitra’s father Ashok Gavai and Roshan’s parents had a nasty spat, say the police. In April, Ashok died by suicide. Sanghamitra, who was distressed by his death, tried to self-harm.
In July, Sanghamitra and Roshan went out for dinner on their seven-month wedding anniversary. When she told her husband that she wanted to go back to her parents’ place in Akola for Rakshabandhan (festival dedicated to brothers and sisters), Roshan refused. “He allegedly assaulted her, grabbed her by the throat, and beat her up,” says Sudarshan. “Her in-laws too would keep taunting her. She slowly grew bitter.”
A lonely and vulnerable Sanghamitra found a friend in Roshan’s maami Roja, who lived next door. Roja was the head of a small savings group of women. “Sanghamitra would peep over the boundary wall and call Roja Aai (mother in Marathi),” says Gattu, who is Roja’s father-in-law.
Gattu and his wife had six children, including Pramod (Roja’s husband), Vijaya, and Varsha. Two years ago, Gattu’s wife died of a heart attack. “A year later, when the family gathered for her Shraddh rituals (a ritual paying homage to ancestors, especially dead parents), my daughters started demanding their share in my 5-acre plot. An argument broke out between my daughter-in-law Roja and daughter Vijaya,” says Gattu.
“Vijaya and Roja would hurl abuses at each other across the boundary wall,” says the police official. “Roja told Sanghamitra that she wanted to eliminate all the legal heirs to Gattu’s property. The two of them hatched a plan.”
Things fall apart
According to the police, Sanghamitra’s Internet search history on her mobile phone showed that she had searched ‘Top 10 slow poisons’. “Sanghamitra wrote an email to a Mumbai-based pharma company posing as a researcher with a university in Gadchiroli. She said that she required thallium for research purposes. Her childhood friend, Avinash Tajne, a resident of Buldhana, paid the company for the thallium,” says a police official. Avinash confessed that he helped Sanghamitra source thallium, the police say.
“Though Sanghamitra grew distant from Avinash following her marriage to Roshan, they reestablished contact while she was in Akola at her parents’ place. She told him that her in-laws were torturing her and that she wanted to kill them,” the official says. The Gadchiroli Police arrested Avinash on October 26.
On September 8, when Shankar and Vijaya returned home to dinner after a day in the fields, Sanghamitra allegedly fed them mutton laced with thallium. She excused herself from dinner saying she had ulcers in her mouth. Roshan was not at home that day.
Shankar, who first began to feel sick, visited the out-patient department of the Mahagaon primary health centre (PHC), complaining of a dry tongue. “In August, Shankar had been diagnosed with diabetes,” says Darshana Raut, medical officer at the PHC. “This time when he came, his sugar level and BP were in control. I was unable to figure out the cause of his problem, so I referred him to the Aheri Taluka Hospital.”
Shankar’s family belongs to the Dalit community and later converted to Buddhism. A majority of the 307 families living in Mahagaon are followers of B.R. Ambedkar. Shankar and Vijaya organised a day-long puja in their house to ward off the ‘evil eye.’ “The family called some priests to perform buvabaji (rituals about which the rationalist Narendra Dabholkar wrote extensively). They spent at least ₹40,000 on this,” says Sanjay Ahlawane, deputy sarpanch of Mahagaon village.
Meanwhile, Vijaya’s health had also started deteriorating. The couple decided to get admitted in a private hospital in Chandrapur, 150 km away. They asked Rakesh Madavi, 21, their driver, who also lived in the same village, to take them. Roshan went with them.
Sanghamitra packed a bottle of water for them and insisted that they keep sipping the water that she claimed had been blessed with jadi booti or medicinal properties. She said during the interrogation later that the water had been laced with thallium, say the police.
Rakesh says he too gulped water from the bottle. “The next day, when I returned home to Mahagaon, I realised that my lips and cheeks were turning black. There was a persistent tingling in my limbs and a terrible ache. I was hospitalised at Chandrapur for 11 days,” says Rakesh, who is now on the road to recovery in his kuccha house.
As Shankar and Vijaya did not get better in either of the private hospitals that they had been taken to in Chandrapur, Roshan, Sanghamitra and some of their relatives took the couple on September 25 to KIMS-Kingsway Hospital in Nagpur, 150 km away from Chandrapur. A senior doctor at KIMS-Kingsway says no amount of antibiotics helped the couple. “Their breathing became laboured and their blood pressure plummeted,” says the doctor.
On September 26, Shankar died. The next morning, so did Vijaya. Unsure of what caused their death, the doctors sent their bodies for post-mortem to the Indira Gandhi Medical College in Nagpur. They also registered a medico-legal case at the Sadar police station in Nagpur.
It was only nearly two weeks later, on October 11, that information about their deaths reached the police station at Aheri. The police immediately relayed this information to the Superintendent of Police, Neelotpal, at the Gadchiroli district police headquarters. The Gadchiroli Police realised that something was amiss when they learned that Shankar and Vijaya’s daughter Komal had died on October 8 and that Vijaya’s sister, Varsha, too had died on October 14. Sometime in between, Pramod and Bunty had also been poisoned.
After his parents and sister’s death, Roshan had allegedly grown suspicious of Sanghamitra, say the police. He and his brother Sagar, a graduate of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, had threatened to approach the police to register a complaint. “Sanghamitra freaked out. Before they could go to the police, she and Roja mixed thallium in a cup of tea and in some dal and gave it to Roshan. They gave Sagar a glass of ORS (oral rehydration solution) with thallium,” says investigating officer Sudarshan.
However, when Roshan’s health started deteriorating, Sanghamitra, seemingly overcome by guilt, frantically called Dr. Imran Noormohammad, an intensivist at the Critizone Hospital in Nagpur. She and Roja took Roshan to the hospital.
“She pleaded with me to save her husband,” recalls Dr. Imran. “She also kept saying that it could be thallium poisoning and that we could administer Prussian blue, an antidote.”
The doctor grew suspicious. “I asked her how she knew so much about thallium. I also told her that Prussian blue was unavailable in Nagpur as such cases of poisoning are very rare,” he says.
Roshan, who was admitted in the intensive care unit, had a shock of black hair. The nurses pulled at his hair to check if there was hair loss, a classic symptom of thallium poisoning. Tufts came out. On the afternoon of October 15, Roshan’s blood report, accessed by The Hindu, revealed that he had been poisoned with thallium. “While the normal range of thallium in the body is between 0.15 to 0.36 units, Roshan had more than 250 units. But he died before his reports arrived,” says Dr. Imran.
While Sanghamitra and Roja were on their way to Mahagaon with the body, the Gadchiroli police picked them up and interrogated them separately. This is when they broke down and confessed to their crime, the police say.
A terrified village
After Shankar and Vijaya died, there were rumours in the village that the family had unearthed ancestral gold in the premises of their bungalow. The villagers believe that this brings bad luck. “They say that if you do this, you will incur the wrath of your ancestors’ spirits and people in the family will start dropping dead,” says Sanjay, the deputy sarpanch of the village.
The doctors from the PHC swung into action and took the blood samples of the residents of the 35 houses surrounding the Kumbhare bungalow, which is now called the “ghost house”. Members of the panchayat say they were worried about environmental contamination from thallium. “We ensured that all our water sources, including bore wells, were treated with bleaching powder,” says Sanjay.
On October 24, as the Dussehra celebrations intensified and all the villagers nearby gathered at Aheri taluka to get a glimpse of MLA Raje Ambrishrao, who is a member of an erstwhile royal family, being paraded in a palanquin, there was a pall of gloom over Mahagaon. “After seeing five deaths and four people admitted in hospital, the villagers are scarred and scared,” says Sanjay.
The police, who have held Roja and Sanghamitra in custody for 10 days now, say that the local court has extended their custody for another four days. They will then move the court for judicial custody of the accused. Both women have been booked under Sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 328 (poisoning), and 120 B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code.
Roja’s daughter is unaware of the shockwaves that the deaths have caused in the village. With her mother in police custody and her father Pramod admitted to the Nagpur Hospital, she does all the housework. The Class 7 student has not been to school for 10 days. “Her school is 7 km away. Pramod used to drop her at school and pick her up,” says her grandfather Gattu. “How will she go alone now?”
A woman police officer of the Aheri taluka comes to inquire about the child’s well-being. “All I want to do is go to school. I will make sure that I finish cooking early so that I can go,” says the child and disappears inside the house to finish her chores.
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