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Double Death: When Lalbazar's source network brought a vengeful housewife to justice

18 October, 2020 11:23:25
Double Death: When Lalbazar's source network brought a vengeful housewife to justice

Today's edition of Crime Time is about two murders, one suicide, and a love triangle. Dating back to 1991, this case also stands out for a couple of other reasons. One, set as it is in pre-mobile times, this remains one of the finest examples from the modern era of exactly how effective Kolkata Police's source network is. Two, from 1991 to 2008, the quest for justice dragged on and on in courtrooms built by humans, until a higher power stepped in. 

The killings had been horrific. The man, Girish Kumar Nowlakha (59), was found dead on the study floor, an expensive shawl forming a noose around his neck, blood oozing in a thin stream from his nose and mouth. His wife, Veena Nowlakha (55), was lying face down in one of the bedrooms, her nightgown ripped to shreds, her body and face bearing clear signs of violence, with some bleeding. One end of the sari wrapped around her neck was tied to the ceiling fan, suggesting attempted strangulation, while a pillow lay under her stomach. Their flat had been ransacked, except for the room belonging to their son and his wife, who were away on holiday. And the telephone wires had been cut.

The bodies had been discovered by Jugal Kishore Khetawat, their neighbour and long-time family friend, who lived in the flat next door on the 10th floor of a luxury highrise on Sarat Bose Road, which had been built by Jugal Kishore himself. With interests in real estate and transport, Jugal Kishore also occupied a flat on the 11th floor along with wife Vimala, their two flats having been merged to form a duplex.

The Khetawats and Nowlakhas had known each other since the early 1980s, as neighbours on Mullen Street, in an upmarket part of Ballygunge. In 1986, the Nowlakhas sold their Mullen Street property and moved into the Sarat Bose Road highrise, Jugal Kishore practically gifting them their 10th-floor flat, at a ridiculously low price. Why such generosity? We'll come to that later. 

The bodies were discovered on Christmas Day, 1991, at roughly 8.30 in the morning. It had become customary for Jugal Kishore to join the Khetawats for his morning cup of tea and, when nobody opened the door for him that morning, he gained entry using a set of duplicate keys kept in the care of the Khetawats' trusted domestic help. Given the sensational nature of the murders, and the socio-economic status of the victims, the spotlight was firmly on Kolkata Police from the very beginning. How had the killers got past a high boundary wall, surmounted by iron spikes, 24-hour uniformed security guards, and the mandatory Yale lock on the door of every flat, to not only enter the Khetawats' home, but also to leave, unseen, once the deed was done? 

From the outset, based on their inspection of the crime scene, as well as fingerprint evidence, investigators from Kolkata Police's Detective Department had realised that this must have been an inside job, involving multiple perpetrators. The post-mortem report confirmed that the murders had been committed on the night of December 24, between 10.00 and 10.30. Clearly, the killers had not forced their way in, which meant that either Girish or Veena had opened the doors to them, which in turn indicated a previous acquaintance. Today, identifying the intruders would have been a simple matter of checking the building's CCTV footage, but three decades ago, such things were a luxury that few invested in. 

Working on the inside job assumption, detectives began the painstaking process of interrogating residents of all the building's 36 flats, all full-time and temporary domestic help who came and went, members of the security agency who guarded the building, and everyone else they could think of. And yet, 48 hours after the incident, not a single actionable clue had come up to take the investigation forward. Remember, this was four years before mobile phones were to arrive in India, and technological surveillance was still in its infancy. Therefore, in many cases, even if discrepancies emerged in answers given to the police, cross checking the statements using technology wasn't always an option. 

With no bright idea in sight, the detectives finally turned to their 'source network'. A police source network is a most wondrous thing. Its members hover in the grey zone between good and evil, with one foot permanently in the dark depths of the criminal world. Needless to say, those who gather information from those depths can hardly be saints themselves, which means that for a police officer, operating a source network is as much about ensuring that the sources remain dedicated to the job, and as far away from committing a grave offence as possible, as it is about extracting authentic information. However, the sheer depth of Kolkata Police's network ensured the successful resolution of hundreds of investigations in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the Nowlakha murder case, the brief given to the informants was fairly specific: one, were the twin murders being discussed in the city's underworld? Two, was anyone suddenly splashing money around? Had there been a sudden upward shift in their lifestyle? Having sent out the hounds, the sleuths sat back and waited. 

They didn't have to wait long. Deep into the night of December 27, an informant brought them a nugget of solid gold. A regular at a drinking and gambling den near Padmapukur, he had come across a man he had never seen there before, gambling large sums of money, lavishly treating all and sundry to imported liquor, and flaunting an expensive Yashica Electro-35 camera he had just bought. Intrigued, the informant had begun casually chatting up the drunken young man, soon finding out that he was employed as a peon with "a rich family", a job he intended to quit immediately. 

Picked up the same night, the young man was brought straight into the interrogation room at Lalbazar, his drunken haze having evaporated quite magically. And the confession was instantaneous: "I'm Khokon Giri, sir, I work as a peon in Khetawat sahib's office. I didn't kill them alone, Raju, Kamini, and Jagdish were with me." And his motive for murder? The answer rendered even the veteran detectives speechless for a moment. "Greed, sir. Madam said she would pay us a lakh for the job." Which madam? "Vimala madam, Khetawat sahib's wife."

Vimala Khetawat. The middle-aged, conservative, religious-minded, reserved woman, married to Jugal Kishore for decades, had hired killers to get rid of her friends. 

Why? The primary motive, apparently, was the long-time affair between her husband and Veena Nowlakha, an affair that had begun during the Mullen Street days, and had only intensified with the passing of time. It was the reason why the Nowlakhas had been virtually gifted their flat, and it was obvious that Girish Nowlakha knew about his wife's infidelity, but chose to stay quiet about it. After years of trying to get her husband back, after countless arguments, tears, and threats, Vimala had fallen physically ill from the strain. The couple's only son was immersed in his own life, with little or no concern about his parents' domestic misery.

Finally, unable to bear her ignominy and anger any longer, Vimala had sent for Khokon, a long-time employee whom the Nowlakhas knew well, and repeatedly enticed him with the prospect of big money, should he successfully kill the Nowlakhas. Initially taken aback by the proposal, Khokon eventually succumbed when Vimala handed him Rs 40,000 in cash, promising to pay the remainder once the job was done. In those days, Rs 1 lakh was serious money, more than enough to give up a peon's job and start a small business. And so the Nowlakhas' fate was sealed. Veena was to die for her infidelity, and Girish for having tolerated it.

As accomplices, Khokon chose Raju alias Ranjit Rao, who had once been the Khetawats' driver, but now worked for another resident in the building; Jagdish Yadav, a cleaner in Jugal Khetawat's office on the ground floor of the highrise, and Kamini Kumar Roy, a mechanic at a garage in south Kolkata, whom Jagdish knew. The deal was, they would each receive Rs 25,000 for the job. The advance was split into four parts too, with Khokon and Raju splurging on expensive cameras, and Kamini buying a fancy suitcase. 

Not only had Vimala paid to get the Nowlakhas killed, she had actually rung their doorbell at around 9.30 p.m. on a flimsy pretext, only to make sure that the couple were by themselves in the flat. When the doorbell rang again at around 10.00 p.m., Girish spotted the familiar face of Khokon through the door's eye hole, and opened up, without realising that there were three others with him. Once inside, the four overpowered Girish and strangled him with his own shawl. Emerging from her bedroom, Veena tried to run to the telephone, which had already been rendered useless. The killers stopped her and, having beaten her savagely, tried to strangle her with a sari. Unsuccessful, they had then used a pillow to smother her to death. Once the couple were dead, the four had robbed whatever valuables they could find, and left as they had come. 

Significantly, nobody had thought to stop them, because Khokon, Raju, and Jagdish were known to the security guards, while Kamini, because he was accompanied by three known faces, was not viewed with suspicion either. 

Faced with Khokon's confession, Vimala Khetawat admitted to her role in the killings, and having gathered the requisite evidence, Kolkata Police presented a watertight chargesheet within a mere three months of the arrests. In the interim, Raju turned state witness, making the police's job slightly easier. 

However, a theatrical saga had only just begun. Armed with a battery of renowned lawyers, the immensely wealthy Khetawat family fought long and hard to secure bail for Vimala. But the watertight chargesheet held. Eventually, in 1999, the Alipore District and Sessions Court read out a sentence of life imprisonment for Vimala Khetawat, Khokon Giri, Kamini Kumar Roy and Jagdish Yadav. State witness Ranjit Rao was granted a pardon.

Predictably, the Khetawats went to the High Court against the sentence, signalling the start of yet another protracted trial, which finally ended in 2006, with the court upholding the lower court's decision. Still the Khetawats wouldn't give up, deciding to go to the Supreme Court. By now, Vimala Khetawat had fallen seriously ill, one half of her body virtually paralysed, hobbling, rather than walking, with the help of a crutch. Finally, 15 years after she had been sent to prison, the Supreme Court granted her bail plea, on the grounds of failing health. The only condition was that she would surrender again, once her health improved. 

And it was this decision that produced the final, morbid chapter in this saga of love, loss, and death, as the ultimate court of law, where humans have no say, stepped in. 

Back in what had been her home, Vimala Khetawat had retreated into a shell, spending long hours sitting on the balcony, starting vacantly into space. She ate and slept little, and spoke even less. Finally, on a sultry, quiet afternoon in June 2008, the broken old woman stood up shakily from her balcony seat, grasped her crutch firmly, and jumped, her body smashing into the concrete 10 floors below. Mercifully, death came as soon as she hit the ground. 

By the time the Supreme Court made its decision, once again upholding the original sentence, Vimala Khetawat was beyond earthly laws, free at last of her terrible burden of guilt, shame, and a lifetime of imprisonment.

Story Tag:
  • Kolkata Police, West Bengal

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