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Know Your City: The Joshi-Abhyankar serial murders that struck fear in the hearts of Pune’s young and old

The sensational killings – known as the Joshi-Abhyankar serial murders – had shattered Pune’s identity as a laid-back, culture-rich, pensioners' paradise in the late 1970s when a state of internal emergency was in force across India.

The serial killings in Pune had made headlines across the country. (Credit: The Indian Express Archive)

Around 39 years ago, on October 25, 1983, four college students Rajendra Jakkal, Dilip Sutar, Shantaram Jagtap and Munawar Shah were hanged to death in Pune’s Yerawada Central Prison for the ten murders they committed between January 1976 and March 1977 when they were in their early 20s.

The sensational killings – known as the Joshi-Abhyankar serial murders – had shattered Pune’s identity as a laid-back, culture-rich, pensioners’ paradise in the late 1970s when a state of internal emergency was in force across India.

Till the killers were apprehended, deserted streets and empty cinema halls had become a common sight in the otherwise bustling city. The series of murders over a span of 14 months is a horrifying, yet unavoidable chapter in Pune’s history.

The case

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It was 1977. In the last week of March, the Pune police apprehended Rajendra Yallappa Jakkal (then 25), Dilip Dnyanoba Sutar (21), Shantaram Khanoji Jagtap (23), who were pursuing a commercial arts course at the Abhinav Kala Mahavidyalaya creative arts college, Munawar Harun Shah (21), who was pursuing a commerce degree, and their friend Suhas Chandak (21). The police also questioned their friend Satish Gore (21).

It was an investigation done backwards. Caught for the murder of their friend’s brother Anil Gokhale, it soon emerged that this group of friends was behind the series of murders committed across Pune over several months.

During the trial, Chandak turned approver while Gore, who was said to be aware of the crimes, was not charged by the police. Jakkal, Sutar, Jagtap and Shah were sentenced to death by a court in Pune on September 26, 1978. After the sentence was upheld by the high court and the Supreme Court, and after their mercy plea was rejected by the President of India, the four were hanged to death in 1983.

While the police investigation and the arguments of the prosecution at the time pointed to robbery as the central motive behind the murders, there are many who do not completely agree. Noted interviewer, author and former journalist Sudhir Gadgil, who reported on the serial killings for a Marathi daily in Pune and also for a weekly news magazine at the time, says, “Robbery might seem as the main motive. But it was more about the sense of superiority that they used to get out of these acts, the idea of being in control. The notion that in spite of doing all these crimes no one could do anything to them. And it was this overconfidence that ultimately led to their arrests.”

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Prabhakar Shukla, who retired as deputy commissioner from the Maharashtra Police force in 2002, was a young sub-inspector in Pune in the late 1970s when he became part of the team that worked to draw up the charge sheet in the Joshi-Abhyankar murder case. Speaking about the group, Shukla says, “They came from very common family backgrounds and to the outside world they lived a normal life. For example, Jakkal had a photo studio. But a study of the papers while working on the case made me realise that they were inhuman and savage when they committed those crimes. The two sides of those people were very shocking and distressing at the same time.”

The murders that rocked Pune

On January 15, 1976, Jakkal, Sutar, Jagtap and Chandak decided to stage the kidnapping of Prakash Hegde, their fellow student from Abhinav Kala Mahavidyalaya, and demand money from his father who owned a famous hotel in Pune. They sought a ransom of Rs 25,000 from Hegde’s father, but ended up strangling him to death in captivity. They later stuffed his body in a drum and dumped it in a lake in Peshwe Park. Till the arrest of the accused 14 months later, the police treated Hegde’s disappearance as missing person case.

On August 8 and 9, 1976, Jakkal, Sutar and Shah went to Kolhapur to rob the house of oil businessman Arvind Kashid, but could not succeed for two consecutive days as they did not get an opportunity to strike.

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On October 31, 1976, the group targeted the house of Achyut Joshi in the Vijaynagar area of Pune. They brutally killed Joshi, his wife Usha and son Anand by strangling them with ropes and smothering them. The gang fled with some silver idols and sprayed the crime scene with a strong perfume. In the absence of clues or fingerprints, police probe in the case soon reached a dead end. Panic spread in Pune after the Joshi family murders.

Smriti’ bungalow on Bhandarkar Road, where the Abhyankar family lived, is now a home for people with speech and hearing impairment. (Express Photo by Pavan Khengre)

On November 20, 1976, Jakkal and Sutar unsuccessfully attempted a break-in and robbery at the bungalow of the Bafna family on Shankarsheth Road in Pune. It was during an argument about the failure in this case that the gang hatched the plan to strike at the house of the Abhyankar family on Bhandarkar Road.

On December 1, 1976, the gang struck at the house of noted Sanskrit Scholar Kashinathpant Abhyankar. The gang barged into Smriti bungalow on Bhandarkar Road and killed Kashinathpant (88), his wife Indira (78), their granddaughter Jai (20), grandson Dhananjay (19) and elderly housemaid Sakhubai by strangling them with a rope. They then robbed jewellery, valuables and cash worth over Rs 30,000 and fled after spraying the strong perfume across the house, leaving no fingerprints behind. The incident led the Pune police to conclude that they were dealing with serial killers who had a specific modus operandi and left no trail.

Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) named lane number 15 of Bhandarkar Road after Sanskrit scholar Kashinath Sastri Abhyankar, a victim in the serial killings. (Express Photo by Pavan Khengre)

On March 23, 1977, the gang struck one last time before their arrests. They murdered Anil Gokhale, the younger brother of their classmate Jayant. They later tried to break in and rob his house near Senapati Bapat Road, but could not succeed. Till they attempted the robbery at Gokhale’s house, Anil’s body was kept at Jakkal’s makeshift dwelling. After the failed bid, the gang stuffed Anil’s body in a gunny bag and dumped it in the Mula-Mutha river near the Bundgarden bridge.

Investigation and arrests

After dumping Anil’s body in the river, the group joined the search for him and even went to the police station. Soon, the body was discovered and the missing person probe turned into a murder investigation.

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Speaking about how the case unravelled, retired DCP Prabhakar Shukla recounts, “When Anil Gokhale’s case was being investigated, Jakkal, Sutar and others from the group used to regularly visit Bundgarden police and enquire about the progress in the case. Sometimes they even used to behave arrogantly. Their curiosity soon raised suspicion. The police kept a close watch on their movements.”

When officers came to know that before his disappearance, Anil was seen with Jakkal, the police detained him, Sutar and the other group members for questioning. “As the probe progressed, Jakkal was found to be in possession of a bottle of the same perfume which was sprayed in the houses of Joshi and Abhyankar. This was a major clue and prompted investigators to look into their role in the earlier killings.”

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During sustained questioning, Satish Gore – to whom Jakkal had reportedly boasted of everything the gang had been up to – broke his silence. His revelations led the police to launch a full-scale investigation into the killings that had shattered the city. The probe was led by assistant commissioner of police Madhusudan Hulyalkar and police inspector Manikrao Damame of Bundgarden police station.

A still from Marathi film Maficha Sakshidar (the approver) released in 1986 based on the serial murders shows the group concocting the perfume that was sprayed at the crime scenes to distract sniffer dogs. In the film, Nana Patekar (right) played the character based on Rajendra Jakkal.

Sudhir Gadgil says, “It is also important that we look at the investigation from those days in comparison to today’s investigations. Back in the late 70s, there were no security cameras, no cell phones or cell phone-based tracking and no modern forensic techniques. The arrogance and overconfidence with which they repeatedly went to the police station to check on the progress of the case, led to the group’s arrest.” During the probe, the murder of Prakash Hegde also came to light.

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Jakkal, Sutar, Jagtap and Shah were charged for the murders of 10 people. Chandak turned approver in the case. The trial began in May 1978 and the court of sessions judge Waman Narayan Bapat sentenced them to death in September that year.

According to a report that appeared in The Indian Express issue dated October 26, 1983, while delivering the judgment on September 28, 1978, Judge Bapat had observed, “Life for life may appear barbarious in modern civilised society, especially when modern penology leans less towards death sentence and especially when there is a clamour for abolition of the death penalty. But so long as punishment continues on the statute book – and in my humble opinion it should continue so long as atrocious murders as in the present case continue to be committed which show total void of basic human tenderness – the accused do not deserve any lenience.”

Their death sentence was executed five years later. Munawwar Shah penned a book titled ‘Yes, I am Guilty’ (first published in February 1983 by Nirali Shubhada-Saraswat Prakashan) while he was lodged in the Faasi Yard of Yerawada prison awaiting the death sentence. The book triggered a controversy at the time with many questioning the purpose of publishing a work by a condemned criminal.

Says Gadgil, “For the brief period that the cases were still undetected, bustling streets used to be deserted in the evening. The theatres, cinema halls used to be empty. The series of murders, the arrests of young people, trial and death sentence had a deep impact on Pune’s psyche. It was as if a corner of the city’s persona underwent a change.”

First published on: 01-10-2022 at 01:05:25 pm
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