14 years later, no justice for Pardhi woman who ‘died in police custody’

A resident of Burudgaon village in Ahmednagar, Suman was a police informer who provided vital inputs to the police about organised dacoities and other offences committed by members of the Pardhi community.

Nearly 14 years after Suman Kale, a 50-year-old woman from Pardhi tribe, allegedly died in the custody of Ahmednagar Police, her family is still waiting for justice. Following a recent order by the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court (HC) and the Supreme Court, the trial court is now expected to decide the case within six months.

A resident of Burudgaon village in Ahmednagar, Suman was a police informer who provided vital inputs to the police about organised dacoities and other offences committed by members of the Pardhi community.

During colonial rule, the Pardhi community was branded as a ‘criminal tribe’ by the British. Even today, after dacoity incidents in Maharashtra’s rural areas, it is still a routine practice for the police to look for persons from the Pardhi community. According to Suman’s family, police often pick up innocent Pardhis for questioning.

“Suman was upset when one of her family members was picked up by the police in a dacoity case. So, she started working as a police informer and helped the police arrest actual dacoits, thus saving innocent Pardhis from police action. She used to voluntarily accompany the police party during raids for nabbing the criminals. Apparently, she played a role in the surrender of over 100 criminals from the Pardhi tribe,” said her brother Girish Chavan.

Top police and government officers had even felicitated her for arranging ‘surrender rallies’.

Suman’s ‘death in police custody’

According to Suman’s son Saheba Kale, Ahmednagar Police had arrested a woman, Astari Chavan, in a dacoity case. “Police forced Astari to falsely say that Suman Kale was in possession of the gold stolen during the crime. Police picked up Suman on May 12, 2007, and then tortured her to death,” he alleged.

Ahmednagar Police, however, have denied all allegations of custodial death and claimed that Suman died by suicide. According to police, Suman consumed poison after years of abuse by her husband. Police claimed that she came to the office of the superintendent (SP) of Ahmednagar Police on May 14, 2007, along with her nephew Kangar Kale, when she told him that she had consumed “lice pesticide”. Police said they rushed her to ‘Deepak hospital’, where she died on May 16. Police had also lodged an offence of attempt to commit suicide against Suman under IPC Section 309.

But the inquiry report dated January 8, 2008, submitted by Vikas Pansare, the-then sub divisional magistrate, Ahmednagar, stated that Suman had been “inflicted with multiple wounds at the hands of police” between May 13 and 14, 2007 in the “illegal custody of the superintendent of police and his special investigation team”.

The report mentioned that “she died of multiple wounds and injuries on her body” as pointed out by the government doctor.

CID says suicide, family claims it was murder

As the family sought action against police, more than two years after the incident, the state criminal investigation department (CID), the agency that investigates cases of deaths in police custody in Maharashtra, lodged a complaint at Bhingar police station at Ahmednagar on August 14, 2009, as per which eight persons including seven policemen – Inspector T K Wahile, Inspector D B Sonawane, Sub-Inspector A R Devkar, Assistant Sub-Inspector S B Sudrik, Constables Deepak Haral, Sunil Chavan and B S Ahiwale, and a doctor, S S Deepak of Ahmednagar, were booked under Indian Penal Code sections 306 (abetment of suicide), 330, 331 (causing grievous hurt to extract confession), 342, 342 (wrongful confinement), 201 (giving false information to screen offender), 166, 34 and 120 (b).

One of the accused, Deepak Haral, died in a road accident in 2015.

The CID complaint, filed by then deputy superintendent N P Tandale, stated that Suman was picked up by police on May 12, 2007, from her home in Burudgaon and then allegedly confined illegally and tortured severely to extract a confession about possession of gold.

According to CID, Suman consumed poison in police custody on May 14, as she could not bear the torture any more. To hide the incident, police allegedly admitted her to a private hospital (where she died on May 16) run by accused Dr Deepak instead of taking her to government hospital. Dr Deepak allegedly made no mention of the injury marks on Kale’s body on her treatment sheet and only treated her for poisoning. The CID subsequently filed a chargesheet against the eight accused. They were arrested in December 2010, but later released on bail.

Suman’s family was not satisfied with the CID probe and moved petitions before the Bombay High Court, seeking murder charge against the accused policemen and handing over the probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The family claims CID took no action against the then SP of Ahmednagar Police.

“We submitted before the HC details of the chemical analyser’s report dated September 9, 2007… no poison was detected in a laboratory after chemical analysis of stomach wash, viscera and also in nails and hair of the deceased (Suman). If poison was not detected, then how can it be a case of suicide…,” said advocate Rajendra Deshmukh, who represented Suman’s family.

Partly allowing the petitions filed by Suman’s family, on January 13, 2021, the Aurangabad bench of Bombay High Court passed an order, stating, “The court had made some observations regarding the evidence, which is available for consideration of framing of charge for the offences punishable under sections 302, 201 read with 120 b of the IPC and it is open to the trial court to consider that evidence at the time of framing of charge.” The order also stated that “trial court is expected to decide the case within six months from the date of receipt of this judgment.”

Supreme Court dismisses SLPs of accused

Claiming that Suman had not died in police custody, some of the accused had moved special leave petitions (SLPs) before the Supreme Court, seeking that the HC order be quashed and set aside. The SLPs claimed that the “High Court did not consider the well-settled law” that it “should not embark upon an inquiry whether the allegations in the complaint are likely to be established by evidence or not. That is the function of trial court when the evidence comes before it. In this case, the High Court has literally conducted a mini trial and suggested the sessions court to proceed in the trial in a particular way…..the High Court has suggested the trial court to frame charges in a particular way, to consider the evidence on record and arrive at a conclusion that death of deceased was a homicidal death.”

On February 15, the SC dismissed the SLPs and ordered that, “We are only inclined to clarify the obvious in law. Findings and observations by the HC are tentative and not binding ruling on facts. The trial court would independently examine evidence and material against each accused, including the aspect of presumption, if any, which can be relied at the time of framing of charge and subsequent stages.”

Saheba’s lawyer in SC, advocate Pravin Satale, said, “The trial court is now expected to decide the case within six months. The process of framing of charges in trial court is likely to begin soon.”

Pravin Salunkhe, inspector general of police, CID, said, “We are prepared for the trial.”

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