On the night of February 5, 2005, Yash Panchal’s grandparents, in Balva village of Patan, woke up to the wails of the four-year-old. Yash’s mother Bhikhi Panchal, who had been sleeping next to him, was missing. After a frantic search of an hour, they found the body of a woman in an adjacent farm, wearing a maroon sari similar to Bhikhi’s, her face burnt beyond recognition.
The body was suspected to be of 24-year-old Bhikhi, and her parents-in-law and sister-in-law were arrested on the charge of murdering her. Bhikhi’s husband Prakash was away in Mumbai, where he worked as a welder at a factory.
It’s 14 years later. Almost a month ago, Prakash received a call from the local Crime Branch of Palanpur in Banaskantha, telling him to WhatsApp a photograph of Bhikhi. Says Prakash, “Ironically, I was in my village, walking in the same farm post-dinner where Bhikhi’s body had been found, when I received the police call. It was all very confusing, so I asked the officer to call my brother in the morning. I went back to the house, looked at a portrait of Bhikhi, and went to sleep.”
Police had called to tell Prakash, Bhikhi might be alive. As he listened dumbfounded, they added that she might have been living all these years as Bhavna Rathore, with a lover, just 50 km away, and may have killed the woman who was mistaken as her.
A couple of days later, along with his elder brother Prahlad, sister Kokila and cousins Dashrath and Dalpat, Prakash went to Palanpur to identify the woman. He says during the identification parade, it was Bhikhi who spotted him first and shouted, “He’s my husband.” “I was numb and couldn’t speak a word. Bhikhi had lost weight and the glow on her face was gone… I just nodded,” Prakash says.
Now 40, he was recently diagnosed with liver cancer and is bed-ridden and can’t work. He and son Yash, now 18, live in Ahmedabad.
According to police, Bhikhi staged the 2005 murder with a paramour, Vijubha Rathore, killing a mentally unstable woman and burning her face with kerosene. Officials say the couple have been living in a rented flat in Mehsana since, and Bhikhi has confessed and claims no regrets. Police have also arrested two of Bhikhi and Vijubha’s alleged accomplices, Zenaji Parmar and Vakhat Parmar. The woman who was murdered in 2005 has been identified as Sharda Rawal. Since she was a destitute, police say, no one filed a missing person’s report. According to police, Bhikhi gave her food once in a while and hence gained her trust.
“Bhikhi and Vijubha faked her death so that they could start a new life. They lured Rawal to Balva in a van owned by Vijubha’s accomplices and killed her. Bhikhi then put her own sari on her, and all four fled the village,” says Ajit Rajan, Assistant Superintendent of Police, Palanpur.
The Panchals say Bhikhi’s cover blew after Vijubha was held for another theft recently. “He and his gang had stolen Rs 20 lakh from Khimana. The Local Crime Branch kept him in remand for a week, where he revealed his past misdeeds. It was then that police checked the story with us,” says Prahlad Panchal.
However, ASP Rajan claims to have received a tip-off that Bhikhi was living in Mehsana. Police say she had covered her tracks well, and avoided going out much, including to shop or to socialise with neighbours.
Prakash says the case hastened the death of his parents, who spent a fortnight in jail for “murder” and faced a two-year-long trial before acquittal due to lack of evidence. While father Amrit Panchal died of a heart attack in 2006 while the trial was on, his mother Babuben died following prolonged illness in 2013.
Says Prakash’s sister Kokila, who was also arrested, “Bhikhi ruined our lives. No one was willing to marry Prakash after the incident. We had to leave Balva due to the shame.”
They are struggling to understand the justification given by Bhikhi, that she did it all for “love”. A native of Khimana village in Palanpur of Banaskantha, Bhikhi was the youngest of four siblings who lost her father at a young age and dropped out of school after Class 7. She married Prakash when she was 18. He belonged to a family of ironsmiths and was unemployed at the time. Their wedding photos include one of her posing with her family’s wedding gift to him: a wrist-watch and Rs 50.
Soon after their marriage, the two moved to Ahmedabad, where Prakash took up a welding job at a factory. Prakash recalls that Bhikhi never liked the city. “She urged me to move to Mumbai. Two of her brothers were in Mumbai at that time. After two years, I moved to Mumbai and Bhikhi went back to Patan.” By that time, Yash had already been born.
He says he tried to keep in touch with her over phone, and Bhikhi would urge him to bring her to Mumbai. “After one year, I had some money and deposited Rs 40,000 to a landlord for a small flat. Bhikhi was supposed to move to Mumbai when I heard of her ‘death’.”
Police believe Bhikhi came in touch with Vijubha during her frequent visits to her maternal home in Khimana. A native of Mudetha village in Sabarkantha, Vijubha faces multiple cases of theft, including in Palanpur area.
After Bhikhi was suspectedly killed, her mother Chuniben lodged a complaint of murder against Amrit, Babuben and Kokila Panchal accusing them of dowry demands.
Holding up a vernacular newspaper report on their acquittal from 2007, which is now fading, Prakash says, “My father could not bear the shame of the charge. Suddenly, we were ‘daughter-in-law killers’.”
Balva sarpanch Govind Desai says the charge stunned them too. “We knew the Panchal family was not greedy. The murder did not make any sense. But who could deny the presence of a body in the village?”
In her own statement to the police, Bhikhi has said she was tired of living secretly and would not mind jail. She made no mention of her son. Yash just finished schooling and is enrolled in a certificate course at an Industrial Training Institute, the first in his family to pursue education beyond Class 12.
Asked about his mother, he says the only maternal figure in his life is his “badi maa” or aunt Prabha Panchal, Prahlad’s wife. Prakash is convinced “Bhikhi couldn’t have hatched such an elaborate plan” and it was Vijubha’s idea. “Still, I would like her to stay in prison for all her life for the manner in which she duped me.”
The family has let Bhikhi’s portrait stay where it hangs though, from one of the doors at their ancestral house in Balva. It says on February 5, 2005, she “went to heaven”.