At 11.47 on the night of October 23, Inspector Kiran Chaudhary of the Ahmedabad Detection of Crime Branch sent a WhatsApp message from Bengaluru to his boss, Deputy Commissioner of Police Deepan Bhadran. “Got him,” it read. Right above the message was a photograph of a man wearing an expression of disbelief.
Tarun Jinraj, 42, had been arrested for allegedly murdering Sajni, his wife of three months, on February 14, 2003.
For 15 years after the murder, Tarun allegedly managed to give police the slip by moving cities, taking on the false identity of ‘Pravin Bhateley’ and eventually settling down in Bengaluru with Nisha Menon, whom he married around a decade ago, and their two children.
Over the years, Chaudhary and his team spread out across five states — Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Kerala — kept a close surveillance on Tarun’s family and friends and trawled through at least 4,000 phone numbers looking for clues that might lead to him.
When police finally got to him, they told Tarun to inform his wife about the arrest. As Chaudhary listened, Tarun tersely said, “I am not Pravin, I am Tarun and I am under arrest.”
On February 14, 2003, Tarun’s wife Sajni, a 26-year-old bank executive, was found dead in the flat they shared in Bopal area on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Though the original FIR lodged by Tarun’s elder brother Arun Jinraj, who lives in Ahmedabad, said “unknown persons killed Sajni with the intention of loot”, Tarun, a basketball coach at a school in Ahmedabad’s Memnagar area, soon emerged as the prime suspect and he went underground three days later.
Tarun and his brother grew up in Madhya Pradesh, where the family, originally from Kerala, lived. Tarun studied at the Kendriya Vidyalaya in Neemuch, where his father Karunakaran worked as a sports teacher, while the family lived in Mandsaur, 60 km away. After his Class 12, Tarun moved to Gwalior for his Bachelor’s degree in physical education and later to Kerala for his Master’s. He then joined his brother Arun, who had by then settled down in Ahmedabad.
A source close to the family says the brothers are “opposite personalities” and “do not get along”. The murder, the source says, only served to push them further apart. When contacted, Arun refused to talk.
In 2003, Tarun married Sajni, whose family, also originally from Kerala, lived in Vejalpur in Ahmedabad. It was an arranged match, and Sajni moved into the Bopal flat. It was here that she was killed. Police records show that Karunakaran, his wife Anamma, Arun and his wife Roopkanta were briefly arrested in 2006, when Sajni’s parents filed a dowry case against them.
At their home in an old residential neighbourhood of Vejalpur, Sajni’s father O K Krishnan says, “I am glad they got Tarun. My wife and I have been living in the hope that we will get to see this day.” On the wall behind him is a freshly garlanded photograph of Sajni. “I kept pursuing the case till 2009, after which my son-in-law P K Sashidharan (his elder daughter’s husband) took over,” says Krishnan.
In 2006, members of Sajni’s family, including her sister Rajni, had met then chief minister Narendra Modi to seek a “fair probe”. Supervising the investigation then was DIG (Ahmedabad Range) Arun Kumar Sharma, currently CBI Joint Director, who finds himself in the middle of the raging controversy within the agency.
In 2012, when Sharma was appointed joint commissioner of police, DCB, he opened the files once again. By then, police had gathered information about Tarun’s family and friends, gone through call data records and arrived at a motive for the murder — Tarun, they allegedly found out, was in a relationship with a basketball player, whom he had met before his marriage to Sajni.
In the hours before Sajni’s death, police reportedly found, Tarun had gifted the friend a digital diary while she had given him a wallet, and that Tarun had called her two days after the murder.
Police say it was this woman who in 2016 gave them the first lead about Tarun. In March-April that year, she told police that one of her friends had seen someone resembling Tarun in a mall in Delhi.
By then police had been closely monitoring the movements and call data records (CDRs) of Tarun’s mother Anamma Chacko, with whom he was known to be very close.
DCP Bhadran says a team of police officers posed as officials seeking data for government schemes and went to Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh, where Annamma, a retired nurse, lived. “Neighbours told us Anamma’s husband Karunakaran had died in 2009 and that she had two sons — one in Ahmedabad and the other in Bengaluru,” says Bhadran.
Anamma’s CDRs and other surveillance reports showed she had been making frequent trips to Kerala and Bengaluru since 2009. In Kerala, police found she made frequent trips to the Divine Retreat Meditation Centre, a Catholic prayer centre in Trissur.
Police would later find that sometime in 2009, Tarun had met his parents at the Kerala centre — the first time he reportedly met them after the murder. Incidentally, it was during this meeting that Karunakaran died following a massive cardiac arrest. Police say Tarun’s mother asked him to leave the place at once, fearing relatives would spot him.
In March 2018, Anamma received calls from a couple of Bengaluru phone numbers. One, a landline number and the other a mobile number registered in the name of one Nisha Pravin Bhateley. Police also found that the phone Anamma was using was registered in the name of her relative. “The CDRs of these cellphone numbers showed that they were used only to make calls to each other; not for any other calls or messages,” says Bhadran.
The landline number was of Oracle customer care. Police thought it strange that Anamma should be getting calls from here. By then, police had found that Nisha Bhateley lived in Bengaluru with her husband Pravin, their two children and her mother Lata Menon. The DCB social media tracking team also found out that Pravin never featured in any of the online photo albums of this family.
By now, almost certain that Pravin was none other than Tarun, a team reached Bengaluru on October 22. The next day, Inspector Chaudhary emailed Oracle, asking for details of its employees. By evening, he got the list with Pravin’s name on it.
When Chaudhary landed at the Oracle office, he knew of one way to identify Tarun — a broken right ring finger. “Tarun had injured his ring finger in an accident. I shook hands with him and felt the broken ligament on his finger,” says Chaudhary. That clinched it — he was Tarun Jinraj, not Pravin Bhateley.
But who was Pravin Bhateley? Did such a person even exist?
After the arrest, police recovered certificates in the name of Pravin Bhateley, which Tarun had allegedly used to forge his new identity. By October 30, the Ahmedabad Crime Branch confirmed they had identified the real Pravin Bhateley, a judo karate coach in Bhopal.
Speaking on the phone from Sonepat, where he was away for a sports competition, Pravin says he had no idea that someone was impersonating him. “I got to know when someone on my WhatsApp group posted a newspaper report of Tarun’s arrest,” he says.
Pravin, his wife Bitu Sharma and Tarun studied in a physical education college in Gwalior in the mid 1990s. Bitu says she and Tarun were classmates for a year before she lost a year to a knee injury. Pravin was a year junior to Tarun but the two shared the same hostel and were “friends”.
Pravin recalls that sometime in April-May 2003, Tarun came to Bhopal looking for a job. Pravin and his wife had started a personality development centre near Bhopal railway station and Tarun taught Spoken English here for nearly a month and a half, says Pravin, 40.
But the centre ran into losses and Pravin shut it down, forcing Tarun to leave. “He told me he would find a job somewhere in South India. But he must have scanned my documents during his stay here,” says Pravin.
An Ahmedabad Police official says, “Tarun got Pravin’s driving licence, Aadhaar card and passport made based on forged documents. He even travelled to the United States thrice.”
In custody, Tarun is said to have confessed to strangling Sajni with a dupatta and making it seem like a case of burglary. He has reportedly said that after he fled Ahmedabad, he went to Surat and called his girlfriend and told her about the murder. When she allegedly snubbed him, he left for Bengaluru and from there to Delhi.
“In Delhi, he got a job at a call centre. All this happened within a week of the murder,” says Bhadran. In 2008, he left Delhi and worked in Pune for a while, where he met Nisha Menon.
Police say he told Nisha that he was an orphan. A year after Tarun met Nisha, the couple moved to Bengaluru.
With Tarun in juducial custody at Sabarmati Central Jail in Ahmedabad, police say they can finally hope to close a 15-year-old case that had baffled them.
As police brought Tarun from Bengaluru to Ahmedabad, he was no less perplexed. “He kept asking us all the way, ‘Sir, how did you find me out?’,” says Inspector Chaudhary.