Dharshini's severed head and limbs recovered on May 10
The recovery of severed body parts of a three-year-old girl from a forest in Aarey last week has driven a wedge between the police and locals. The police have nearly made up their mind that she was a victim of a leopard attack, but her family and locals insist that the Aarey unit has not seen a man-animal conflict in the last 10 years.
The girl's mortal remains recovered two days after her disappearance on May 8 have been inconclusive in providing clues to her death. Her missing vertebrae and rib cage, however, point at a more sinister plot at play.
Dharshini Muthuvel went missing from outside her shanty on a hillock at unit 13 in Bhavani Nagar, Aarey, on the night of May 8. The unit abuts a forested patch. The girl's body parts were found two days later from a desolate spot in the forest, 400 m from her house. The police were quick to blame the death on a leopard attack, despite there being no evidence of leopard movement in the unit.
Dharshini's head, limbs and muscles recovered from a forest adjoining unit 13 in Aarey
Vijay Ovulkar, senior inspector of Aarey police station, asserted that it was indeed a case of man-animal conflict. "Just two days after the child's remains were found, locals saw a leopard attacking a dog," he said.
Asked if any dog carcass had been recovered from the nearby forest, he said the police didn't go looking for it. "We did not look for the carcass, and believed what the locals were discussing."
To bolster the police's claim of man-animal conflict, he pointed at an attack on a child by a leopard in the neighbouring unit in March. "Luckily, the child's mother saved him. We believe that that girl was similarly attacked."
However, Ovulkar admitted that there had been no report of a leopard attack in unit 13 in the last 10 years, a claim made by locals.
Velmurugan, a relative of Dharshini's father, Muthuvel, said locals find it difficult to believe the police's theory. "No one in the locality heard the child's cries for help that night. She disappeared a little past 9 pm, when shops were still open and neighbours were around. Dharshini stepped outside the house after dinner to wash her hands and vanished."
He said the family has been staying in unit 13 for nearly a decade. "Never has a case of leopard attack being reported here. We suspect that someone kidnapped her and no one saw it as it was the night after Poornima."
The postmortem examination of Dharshini's remains hasn't helped resolve this dispute.
A preliminary certificate issued by the postmortem centre of Siddharth Hospital in Goregaon West states the death was caused by "shock and haemorrhage due to multiple injuries and fractures, with evidence of mutilation". It makes no mention of whether Dharshini was a victim of an animal attack or of homicide.
Sources from the postmortem centre said the child's head, both upper limbs (without the shoulder), half a right foot, pelvic bones with a few muscles attached, a portion of the right thigh, a part of the intestine and a few bones were recovered on May 10. The neck, the torso, the lower limbs, the private parts, the rib cage and the vertebrae were missing.
A forensic surgeon said the remains, which had maggots, showed signs of decomposition. As the neck hasn't been found, the doctors couldn't ascertain if the child died of strangulation. The stomach, which is missing, could have established if she was intoxicated at the time of her death. The loop of intestine recovered, though, will be tested for presence of any intoxicant. "We could, however, establish through the face that she wasn't smothered to death," said the forensic surgeon.
He said the girl suffered two injuries on the head - one on the scalp above the left ear and another behind the right ear - prior to death. All other injuries were sustained after death, indicating that the remains had been eaten by stray animals, maybe even a leopard.
The body samples have been preserved for histopathology, chemical and DNA examinations. "The unidentified bones have been sent to the anatomy department of Grant Medical College to find out which body part(s) they belong to," said the surgeon.
The forensic surgeon revealed that the police asked if the autopsy report could make a mention of teeth marks and, thereby, attribute the death to a leopard attack. The team, however, refused to acquiesce.
DCP (zone 12) Dr Vinaykumar Rathod said the leopard attack is the police's primary theory. "But are keeping all other angles also open. We have spoken to forest officials, the autopsy surgeon and wildlife experts, who have all hinted at the probability of a leopard attack. We are awaiting the medical reports."
Raising suspicion of foul play, a wildlife expert said usually, bodies of victims of leopard attacks are found intact. "At the location where the girl's body was found, there are a number of stray dogs. It is not known whether dogs competing for food dragged the body away."
Dharshini's mortal remains have been cremated near her shanty. Sources from the Thane forest department said based on the postmortem examination report, the compensation process (see box: R8-L compensation) will be initiated shortly. But a local alleged that the police are trying to pass off a murder as a man-animal conflict to avoid doling out compensation. "The police need to investigate the case thoroughly. It isn't clear whether the girl was killed and then the body eaten by a wild animal or whether she died in a leopard attack."
With inputs from Ranjeet Jadhav
Head, upper limbs (without the shoulder), half a right foot, pelvic bones with a few muscles attached, a portion of the right thigh, a part of the intestine and a few bones
Neck, torso, lower limbs, private parts, rib cage and vertebrae