Six months before 78-year-old Sarojini Bartwal, a former journalist, was murdered in her east Delhi flat in 2012, she had complained to the Delhi Police beat officer about a “strange visit from a pesky man claiming to be an insurance agent”.
Police looked for him then. And looked for him after Bartwal was found dead in the bedroom of her Mayur Vihar Phase-I flat, almost 22 hours after she was murdered on the morning of January 10, 2012.
“The murder took place when several cases were being reported of senior citizens being targeted by fake insurance agents. We started visiting different areas and came up with a description of the agent, but could never trace him,” said a Delhi Police officer, who was part of the probe team.
Bartwal had been living alone after her journalist husband’s death in 2008. She was smothered to death, her spectacles and chappals were found in the drawing room, there were bloodstains on her shawl, and her gold bangles were missing.
“My mother was very social, and cautious. She enrolled herself in the Senior Citizen Cell, kept all doors locked, and was fiercely independent. She told me about the LIC agent’s visit and also went to the police station about it. After she was killed, I did mention this to the local police but they couldn’t find him,” said Hemendra Singh Bartwal, the victim’s son, who worked at the British High Commission at the time.
Bartwal also maintained a diary, which provided clues to Delhi Police — including the number of a house painter who was linked to the murder of lawyer Rebecca John’s mother, Anna Mammen, in Vivek Vihar. This was the first line of investigation into Bartwal’s killing, which hit a brick wall after the painter established that he had never met the victim, and that she probably got the number through reference.
It was after this that the search for the insurance agent began. “My mother was suspicious of this man because he inquired about the jewellery she kept at home. That’s when she asked him to leave, and informed police,” said Hemendra. This lead too didn’t yield any results.
Police prepared a list of 154 suspects and questioned each several times — from the two domestic helps and the guards to labourers near the house, as well as drug addicts in the area. “Three months after the murder, I requested the Delhi Police to transfer the case to the Crime Branch. I also met then chief minister Sheila Dikshit about this but nothing happened. I have no hope now,” said Hemendra.
In the absence of an accused, police settled on the theory that it was a robbery gone wrong. In 2015, police asked Hemendra if he would give consent to close the case. “I said no. How could I? I don’t know who killed my mother. It’s stressed me out for seven years,” he said.
Recounting her last call at 10.30 am the day she was killed, Hemendra said, “It was to inquire about her granddaughter. At 9.30 pm, our routine call time, her phone was switched off. The next morning, too, I couldn’t get through. At 11 am, I got a call from a neighbour that she was dead.”