In the middle of a field with knee-high grass, a mahua tree towers above the surrounding vegetation. Its branches and leaves almost touch the ground and shroud its trunk completely. Any passerby has to get really close just to spot its trunk. Cowherd Rupesh Sapale of the neighbouring Chanda village would not go there except to graze his cattle. At 10 am on November 20, an unusual, rotten smell reached his nose. He had to get closer than he would have liked to investigate and forgot all about his cattle when he spotted three pairs of legs suspended from the ground among a swarm of flies.
“Sapale ran back to the village to alert others. When the villagers called me, I went with them to the tree but did not dare get too close. After verifying what Sapale had seen, I informed the police,” said Nandini Nimse, Police Patil for the Umbarkhand Group Gram Panchayat, which oversees Chanda.
Over a week since the discovery of the bodies, the police in Shahapur — a town and taluka on the Mumbai-Agra Highway in Thane — has concluded that on the night of November 14, a new moon night celebrated as Laxmi Puja, three men had hanged themselves believing they would be reincarnated with supernatural powers.
Nitin Bhere (33), a self-styled godman and worshipper of Goddess Kali, who stayed in Shahapur, is accused of brainwashing his fellow deceased disciples — Chanda natives Mahendra Dubhele (28) and Dubhele’s nephew Mukesh Ghavat (22) — into hanging themselves using three sarees he had brought along.
Sachin Kankoshe, a 25-year-old resident of Kundangaon village and the fourth man present in the field that night, had declined to join them in taking the final step. Kankoshe is now behind bars for failing to inform the police about his friends’ suicide until his arrest on November 24. Both he and Bhere have also been booked under the Maharashtra Prevention and Eradication of Human Sacrifice and Other Inhuman Evil and Aghori Practices and Black Magic Act.
The police’s investigations have found that Bhere, Ghavat and Kankoshe met in Shahapur in the evening on November 14 and purchased two bottles of Tango Punch — a brand of vodka-like country liquor brewed by a company in Nashik — two bottles of Thums Up and a bottle of water, the police said. “They drank one bottle of Tango Punch between themselves sitting by a canal near the highway in Shahapur. This is where Bhere told Kankoshe about his plans and asked if he would join them. Kankoshe told Bhere that he did not want to kill himself but would accept any powers that Bhere would bestow upon him,” said an official at Shahapur police station. At 10 pm, the trio rode to Chanda, woke up Dubhele and went to the field.
Call Data Records extracted by the police show that at 11.30 pm, Kankoshe received several phone calls from his father. His father wanted Kankoshe to return home at once. “After 10-15 calls from my father, Sachin finally answered the phone, got on his bike and came home,” said Kankoshe’s brother Keshav Kankoshe.
Once Kankoshe left, Bhere is believed to have knotted one saree into a noose for himself and tore a red coloured one into two pieces — one noose each for Mahendra Dubhele and Mukesh Ghavat. Bhere tied the third saree to a strong branch and used it to climb up the tree. Once there, he tied the three nooses to three different equally strong branches. Sometime after Kankoshe’s departure, the police said, the men hanged themselves from their nooses after emptying the second bottle of Tango Punch. “Country liquor gives a strong kick. You cannot do what those men did unless you are extremely drunk,” said the official. A fourth strip of cloth remained unused, leading the police to believe that it might have been intended as a noose for a fourth person.
Over the course of the past week, the police discovered during Kankoshe’s interrogation just how strong a sway Bhere held upon a group of pious young men living in and around Shahapur. Kankoshe and his dead friend were among several men in a WhatsApp group called “Mahakaal”, which Bhere operated. Mythological legends name Lord Shiva as Mahakaal for having transcended both time and the cycles of birth and death. In one picture on his Facebook profile page, the word Mahakal is superimposed on Kankoshe’s right forearm.
At Bhere’s plain brick home in the locality of Ganesh Wadi, the police found books detailing black magic and occult practices in his private shrine. “Bhere would claim to solve people’s problems using black magic. The other men would bring such people to him and Bhere would ‘cure’ their problems in the shrine,” said Navnath Dhavale, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Shahapur. The police has since locked up the shrine.
In an FIR filed against Bhere and Kankoshe, Dubhele’s younger brother Ravindra Dubhele claimed the self-proclaimed holy man was known to his disciples simply as “Guru” or teacher. “Bhere would have convulsions to back up his claims that he was possessed by a goddess. He also claimed to have knowledge of occult practices and of cures and poisons,” states the FIR.
Until the Covid-19 lockdown, Bhere’s day job was of a daily-wage worker painting houses. The police said that he met Dubhele during one such job. But the men only grew close last year when they nursed Ghavat back to health after he was injured in a motorcycle accident. Both Ghavat and Kankoshe, who worked at the warehouse of an e-commerce firm in Bhiwandi, are believed to have met Bhere through common friends while studying at Sonubhau Baswant College of Arts and Commerce in Shahapur town.
All that remains now at the homes of the dead men are framed and garlanded photos and distraught families wondering what went wrong. Bhere leaves behind his parents, wife and three daughters. Dubhele is survived by his mother and younger brother and Ghavat has a brother, a mother and a father, who is a crime reporter.
Each family said that it was clueless about the activities of the deceased after dark. Because the men always returned late from their nightly excursions, it took until November 17 for their families to be worried enough to report their disappearance to the police.
“There was nothing exceptional about Nitin. Since there was no work to be found, he used to stay home and pray twice a day,” said Dhubele’s wife Maya. Ghavat’s father Ramesh said that there was no reason for his educated son to kill himself. “I am in no state to speak at the moment. But I am sure that Mukesh did not take his own life,” he said.
Kakoshe’s family only holds anger towards the police. “Since the person responsible for the deaths is also dead, the police wanted someone to blame the incident on. They would have remained in the dark unless Sachin had told them what happened,” said Keshav Kankoshe.
Sachin Kankoshe is currently held in 14-day judicial custody at the Shahapur sub-jail. His lawyer, Praveen Gawale, will apply for bail this week at the Sessions Court in Kalyan. “His presence at the scene of the crime does not mean that he drove the men to hang themselves,” said Gawale.
DSP Dhavale, however, does not doubt that this is a case where blind faith had tragic consequences and ruled out foul play. “We have evidence showing that the accused was present at the scene of the crime and stayed quiet despite knowing what his friends would do,” he said.
As for the choice of location, Dhavale claimed that Bhere chose that spot because he needed an isolated place to perform occult practices.
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