Barmer, April 16 : SURROUNDED BY a vast expanse of sand and a thatched hut nestled between its roots, a Khejri tree stands amidst the barren landscape of Swaroop Ka Tala, a remote village in Barmer district.
Villagers who ride motorcycles or pickup trucks through a narrow strip of road leading to Chohatan, the nearest town, throw quick, furtive glances towards the tree before speeding away.
Two days ago, the village woke up to the sight of three bodies hanging from a branch of the tree — two Dalit girls and a Muslim boy, all minors. Their deaths have left many unanswered questions.
“My daughter Shanti (13) and niece Madhu (12) were sleeping with us in our house on Thursday night. We woke up after midnight to find that they were missing; their bodies were found on Friday morning. We are certain that they were kidnapped, and then raped and murdered,” says Bhairu Meghwal (41), father of one of the girls.
However, he fails to explain how the two girls were forcibly taken from their house even as other family members were sleeping near them.
As people from the Meghwal community huddle near the house of Kishan Meghwal, the father of Madhu, they point fingers at Deshal Khan, the 17-year-old who was found dead with the girls.
“A year back, we had convened a panchayat meeting, where I had complained that Deshal would often loiter around our houses. He was not a good boy, a few of his friends would often create ruckus in the village,” says Bhairu Meghwal.
Many in the village say the deaths came at the end of a long relationship between the two girls and Deshal — all three were illiterate, hailing from families which earn their livelihood through farming. “We knew that they had some kind of a relationship, and most people in the village knew about this,” says Kauri, a resident of Swaroop Ka Tala.
Hamir Khan, another villager, also says many in the village knew about the relationship between the two girls and Deshal. While the families of the girls deny this, Deshal’s relatives echo what other villagers say.
“We don’t know what happened. But yes, we did hear that he was friends with the girls…It must be love which made him take such a step,” says Sumer Khan, a relative of Deshal.
Deshal’s father, Kasim Khan, says he believes that his son committed suicide. “I don’t know why he did this as he wouldn’t come home regularly. But there’s no doubt about the fact that he committed suicide,” he says.
But the Meghwals allege that the girls were raped and murdered. They also allege that people from the Muslim community threatened them. “I was threatened by them just a day before,” says Kishan Meghwal.
Some villagers claim there were four sets of footprints leading up to the tree. “We went near the spot on Friday morning and I saw four sets of footprints. This suggests that someone else was there,” claims Bhairaram Meghwal, a relative of the family.
They bring up the name of Mohammed Hasan, who was reportedly Deshal’s friend, and allege that he may have been the fourth person at the spot. But Hasan’s brother, Wali Mohammed, denies any involvement. “My brother doesn’t know anything about the incident. He is busy working as a labourer most of the time,” he says.
The police have maintained that there were only three sets of footprints. Barmer Superintendent of Police Gagandeep Singla says preliminary investigation suggests that the trio committed suicide. “Many villagers told us during investigation that the two girls were in a relationship with the boy. The post-mortem report and other medical reports also suggest that they committed suicide. We did question Hasan, as part of our routine procedure,” he says.
A case under Section 174 CrPC (unnatural death) has been registered.
“We found only three sets of footprints after searching the spot for evidence. The post-mortem report and other investigation leave no doubt that this is a case of suicide,” says Surendra Kumar, Circle Officer, Chohatan. “During our investigation, we came to know that the two girls had told some of the women while working in a field that they would commit suicide if Deshal decided to give up his life. So far, we have found no trace of foul play,” he says.
The distrust between the Meghwals and Muslims has resulted in the villagers being wary of strangers. “Neither the Meghwals nor the Muslims are telling the full truth. I think there’s a lot more than meets the eye… After seeing the bodies, it’s difficult to imagine that such a horrific incident is just a case of suicide,” says Alam Khan, a villager.