Police in Gujarat state found Sitaram Bhatane nearly 700 km away from the scene of crime, in Maharashtra. Photo for representational purpose: Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Sitaram Bhatane was 27-years-old when he bludgeoned his 70-year-old landlady to death in India’s Gujarat state on Sept. 11, 1973. But after evading justice for his crimes for 49 years, he was finally arrested from a village in Maharashtra state, nearly 700 km away from the scene of the crime. He is now 76 years old—around the same age as the woman he killed—hard of hearing and has trouble walking. Police told VICE World News that he confessed to the murder, and is now behind bars.
All it took for Bhatane to be found was one curious cop who chased a cold case pushed further into the backburner of India’s criminal justice system, which has acute backlogs and sees hundreds of thousands of unresolved cases disposed of every year. Given the bleak future of cases such as Bhatane’s, the fugitive’s arrest was “pure luck”, said investigating police officer PV Gohil, who led the operation. “Usually, a case this old is updated in case the accused dies to make an evidence summary for our record,” Gohil told VICE World News. “But we didn’t have any information on this man after the police complaint was registered [decades ago].” This particular cold case stuck with Gohil. The landlady had no living relatives at the time of her murder, and police filed the case for the victim. Gohli made sure Bhatane, the main suspect, was included in an annual list of fugitive criminals that police searched for. Gohil said that despite several notices since 2013 from the Gujarat police to their counterparts in Maharashtra—where Bhatane was hiding out—the culprit couldn’t be found. Then, after getting a tip from police in Maharashtra last month, Gohil sent a team who asked Bhatane for his Aadhaar ID—India’s digital identification ID and the world’s largest biometric system, introduced in 2009.
“At first he didn’t confess, but during our consistent questioning, he ended up telling us that he did it,” said Gohil. “Aadhaar helped solve the problem of his identification.”
Aadhaar is the Indian government’s billion-dollar project aimed at digitising the country’s economy. With over a billion adult users across the country, linked to all aspects of Indian citizens’ lives—from bank accounts and phone connectivity, to food subsidies and government schemes—privacy and internet freedom activists have raised concerns over Aadhaar’s database. Police count Bhatane’s arrest among the “rarest of rare” cases. According to police records dated Sept. 14, 1973, Bhatane killed his 70-year-old landlady Mani Shukla in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad city. Bhatane was robbing Shukla’s house while she was sleeping, when she woke up and tried to tackle him. He bludgeoned her to death and escaped. Back then, Bhatane’s two brothers, Mahadev and Narayan testified against him, confirming his record of theft and sexual assault in their village. But Bhatane evaded arrest. Both the brothers are dead now, said Gohil. No additional charges have been filed against Bhatane. Gohil said the arrest might be five decades late, but it’s a moment of reckoning. “Even after so many years, this man remembered what he did,” he said. Bhatane had been spending his last few years begging and singing religious devotional songs. He told police his failing health prevented him from doing anything else. Gohil said that when his team brought him back to Gujarat last week, Bhatane turned to the officers and said, “This day had to come. It was written in my fate.”Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.