Police say that for about 15 days in April 2016, Thane (Rural) Crime Branch police inspector Abhay Kurundkar and his friend Rajesh Patil would turn up at the Bhayander Creek in north Mumbai, tell fishermen that they were investigating a murder case and ask if they had seen a body rise to the surface. None, they were told.
Nearly two years later, from March 5-8, 2018, a team of Navi Mumbai policemen, Navy divers and the local municipal authorities ploughed through the muddy waters of the same creek, looking for two iron trunks which, they believe, hold crucial evidence in the disappearance and alleged murder of Ashwini Bidre, an assistant police inspector with the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) unit of the Navi Mumbai Police.
On December 7, 2017, police arrested Kurundkar, who was allegedly in a relationship with Bidre, for the murder. Police say Kurundkar killed Bidre at his Bhayander residence on April 11, 2016, dismembered her body using a chainsaw, stuffed it into two iron trunks — one allegedly containing her head and limbs and the other her torso — and dumped them into the creek. They say Kurundkar used the heavy trunks to ensure that the body wouldn’t float to the surface, but for days after the alleged murder, he would come back to the spot to ensure “that things had gone to plan”.
Police have made three more arrests in the case — Patil, with whom Kurundkar had spoken for a few hours after the alleged murder, and Kundan Bhandari, Kurundkar’s driver. But it’s the latest arrest, on February 28 this year, of Mahesh Falnikar, a Pune-based banker and childhood friend of Kurundkar’s, that police started scouring the creek for the trunks. They have had no success so far but police say they will seek the help of private companies to carry out the underwater search.
For now, the police case hinges heavily on Falnikar’s confession. “Falnikar told us that Kurundkar had chopped Bidre’s body into three parts and stuffed the same into trunks. The same day, Kurundkar flung one of the trunks into the creek, but the one with Ashwini’s (Bidre) torso was too heavy so he kept it in the refrigerator of his Bhayander home and called Falnikar for help. The next day, on April 12, Falnikar and Bidre flung the second trunk into the creek,” says ACP Sangita Alphonso, the investigating officer in the case, adding that police have seized Kunrundkar’s double-door refrigerator to gather traces of Bidre’s DNA.
Bidre, 37, was last seen on April 11, 2016. A few weeks earlier, she had applied for a 10-day leave to attend a Vipassana session at a centre in Igatpuri, Nashik. When she didn’t return to work on the day her leave ended, her colleagues and seniors didn’t think much of it. “She appeared stressed for months leading up to the leave. We thought she needed more time,” a colleague of hers is said to have told the Navi Mumbai Police.
According to Anand Bidre, Ashwini’s brother, it was only in June, after a few calls that he made to her went unanswered, that they realised that she was missing.
“None of us knew where she was. The last we heard from Ashwini was on April 14 (two days after she was last seen). She sent me a message on WhatsApp, saying she was going to Uttar Pradesh for five-six days on work. She also sent a similar message to our brother-in-law (sister Seema’s husband). We thought that was odd, because she never messaged him otherwise. But we didn’t make much of it,” says Anand. The family found her message strange for another reason: its tone was more formal, not like her usual SMSes.
The family now believes Kurundkar had killed Bidre by then and sent those messages from her phone. Police are yet to recover Bidre’s phone.
“Kurundkar knew it would be long before anyone realises Bidre was missing. We suspect he was also aware of Bidre’s leave application,” says Tushar Doshi, DCP (Crime Branch), Navi Mumbai Police.
On July 14, 2016, Anand approached the Kalamboli police in Navi Mumbai and lodged a missing person’s complaint. Since they knew and disapproved of Bidre’s relationship with Kurundkar, the latter was their natural suspect, says Anand.
During investigation, police retrieved Bidre’s laptop from her Kalamboli flat, and on it Bidre’s family found several videos of her and Kurundkar. One of the videos, in which Kurunkdar is seen slapping Bidre, also found its way to the media.
In October 2016, unhappy with the pace of the probe into the missing person’s complaint, Bidre’s family approached the High Court. After the court asked police to file a report, on January 31, 2017, an FIR was regisrted under Sections 497 (kidnapping or abducting in order to murder) and 506(2) (criminal intimidation), among others, against Kurundkar.
Bidre, the eldest of three siblings, was from Kolhapur in Maharashtra. It was in college that she realised she could join the police. While in her second year, she met Raju Gore from nearby Hatkanangale village who helped her with books and reading materials to prepare for her entrance exams.
“We met in 1997 and married in 2005,” says Gore, 42. “Madam”, as he refers to Bidre now, “was quite keen on becoming a Class 1 officer. In 2005, she gave the state MPSC examination for the police and cleared it. She started working as a police sub-inspector in 2006. In 2009, our daughter was born.”
Gore says he used to work as a “field engineer”, but is now a “social activist” and was with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena for a while.
Anand says that over the next few years, his sister’s marriage ran into trouble. “Since I was younger to her, she never discussed her problems. But she wasn’t happy with Gore’s attitude towards her job. Though he never stopped her from working, he didn’t want to move with her every time she got transferred. She was close to her daughter and wanted to take her on all her postings, but Gore got the child to stay back with him.”
In 2012, Bidre was moved to the Sangli Local Crime Branch. “That is where the downfall began,” says Gore.
Here, Bidre’s senior was Inspector Abhay Shyamsundar Kurundkar, from Ajara town in Kolhapur. Kurundkar, 15 years older and a father of two, was known as an able investigator. In January 2017, months after Bidre’s family alleged his role in her disappearance, he was one of the 39 officers awarded the prestigious President’s Medal.
A police inspector who was posted in Sangli with Kurundkar and Bidre says, “The two would always be seen together. There was a lot of talk about them in the department. A senior officer warned them about this. When things did not change, Bidre was transferred out to Ratnagiri.”
It was around this time that Bidre informed her husband about Kurundkar. “She told me and her father that she wanted to marry him. I was upset but agreed to a divorce. Her family, however, blamed her. She started staying separately and was hurt that her family sided with me. She almost stopped talking to them,” Gore says.
In 2014, Bidre’s mother suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with dementia. With that, Bidre grew even more distant, says Anand, adding, “She rarely visited us.”
In 2016, Bidre was transferred to the PCR department of the Navi Mumbai Police while Kurundkar got a transfer to Thane (Rural) Crime Branch. Bidre stayed alone at her apartment in Kalamboli now.
Police say that her and Kurundkar’s relationship soured after he went back on his promise to marry her. “She had left her family for him, so when he started avoiding her, it was too much for her,” says an officer.
He says that Bidre, desperate to prove their relationship, even installed CCTV cameras at her house and, unknown to Kurundkar, filmed him every time he visited her.
Police are now relying on these recordings to prove their case against Kurundkar. “We have information that she had told Kurundkar that if he did not marry her, she would be forced to file a rape case against him,” a senior officer said.
Kurundkar’s brother Sanjay Kurundkar, a senior inspector in Pune, refused to comment on the case.
Kurundkar’s lawyer, Vishal Bhanushali, said he had become “a victim of media trial”.
“For months (after she went missing), police did nothing to look for her and acted only when there was media hype. The only proof they have is that my client and the woman were in a relationship. Even the call data records, on the basis of which they have been making arrests, only show that they were in places nearby. Her family was not in touch with her at all. Now, after almost two years, they are worried for her and are blaming everybody. I will move for bail soon,” Bhanushali says.