Around 5am on November 22, 2012, morning walkers informed the police about the body of a young woman lying in pool of blood on the roadside in Sector 21 of Panchkula. The police post in-charge, assistant sub-inspector (ASI) Kashmira Singh, got the body shifted to a mortuary and recovered a purse, a bag with clothes and a liquor bottle from the spot.
It was the bag that opened a Pandora's box and eventually led the trail to Himachal Congress legislator Ram Kumar Chaudhary from Doon.
The girl they killed
The bag carried an identity card of Jyoti Rani, 24, native of Bhunga village of Hoshiarpur, issued from an educational institute in Mohali where she was doing her B.Ed. The police contacted the sarpanch of the village and through him Jyoti's father, small-time tailor Buti Ram, was called to Panchkula. The face was smashed, possibly overrun by a vehicle, but Buti Ram managed to identify the body.
Though he was not aware of her address in Chandigarh - a rented accommodation in Sector 21 -- Buti Ram said Jyoti had left home six years ago and used to visit the family regularly. She worked part-time in a security agency and was to visit her village two days from the day she was found dead, he said. The police registered a murder case against unknown persons and handed the case to inspector Ajay Rana.
It is now alleged that 42-year-old Chaudhary, who has since surrendered, had patronised Jyoti for the sexual gratification of himself and his men since 2009. And when she got fed up and threatened to make it public, even blackmailed him, they killed her brutally, sources in the police claim. Her family wants justice but remains cagey, as the episode has social stigma attached to it.
Zeroing in on Ram Kumar
The case against Chaudhary found its roots in Jyoti's bag, which the murderers had probably not checked before leaving. The first clue towards the Baddi-based Congress leader was his visiting card - Ram Kumar Chaudhary, general secretary, Himachal Pradesh Congress Committee (HPCC) - found inside the bag. That was barely a week before polling in the assembly polls that Chaudhary, whose father was also an MLA for several years, won from Doon segment.
The card carried a mobile number, 9816044340, which the police traced along with the tower location of the number 9915259514 found on Jyoti's ID card. At 8.14pm on November 21, hours before she was killed, Jyoti's number was in Sector 21, Chandigarh, where she stayed on rent. After that the locations of both numbers coincided up to Sector 21 of Panchkula, where Jyoti's number was switched off.
From Jyoti's call details, the police zeroed in on another number, 9816464060, which was also found to be moving with the other two. This number had been bought by Chaudhary on a fake Kullu ID from a shop in Baddi, said the police after arresting and interrogating shop-owner Ashish Kumar. Police say that Chaudhary mostly contacted Jyoti through the number bought on fake ID.
Abortion and money
Meanwhile, besides confirming murder by head injury, the post-mortem examination of Jyoti's body revealed that she had got pregnant in August and aborted the foetus in September/October. Though her family claims to know nothing of it, the police allege that when she had gone to get the abortion done at a nursing home in Sector 21 of Panchkula, Chaudhary had accompanied her.
This lent credence to the theory that she was being sexually exploited, but what added the blackmail angle was her bank account -- number 004301535745 in ICICI Bank, Sector 11, Panchkula. Even though she came from a humble family and earned barely Rs 8,000 a month from her part-time job, there were regular deposits of Rs 20,000-30,000 in the account from the ICICI branch in Baddi, Chaudhary's town.
The account carried over Rs 1 lakh.
Father speaks up
On December 7, Buti Ram finally named Chaudhary as suspect, and on December 15, he alleged that Chaudhary was offering him Rs 50 lakh to keep quiet. He added that Chaudhary had attended the wedding of his daughter Ishu in 2009, of which he had photographs. Her father also claims that the night before the murder, Jyoti spoke to him around 9.15pm and told him that she was with Chaudhary.
This put Chaudhary at the heart of the case.
In between, the investigation was taken from inspector Rana and handed over to ACP (headquarters) Virender Sagwan.
The cops also found that the location of mobile numbers of Chaudhary's alleged aides Paramjit, Satpal, Gurmeet and Dharampal was also in Sector 21 of Panchkula on the night of murder.
The case was claimed to have been cracked, and the police said Jyoti had not only been in touch with Chaudhary since 2009, but was with his team in Baddi for six months during the election campaign. Even her father claims that Jyoti had told her family that she was part of the MLA's team in Baddi.
Arrest opportunity missed
But even as the police claimed to have a watertight case to nab him, Chaudhary remained absconding till December 20, the HP poll verdict day, when he came out on the streets to celebrate his win from Doon. The Panchkula police had arrest warrants against him, but Himachal Police feared a law and order problem so he was not arrested that day.
After that, a cat-and-mouse began, as cops raided Baddi and nearby places to catch him, but in vain. On December 26, a day after his party's government took oath in Himachal, a Panchkula court rejected Chaudhary's bail plea, and on December 31 he withdrew his appeal from the high court.
Surrenders, and shifts blame
Chaudhary surrendered on January 8, 2013, before the chief judicial magistrate, Panchkula, who sent him in police custody for six days. But the MLA was ready with his counter-theory.
He says his personal security officer (PSO) Satpal, who also belongs to Punjab, had a relationship with Jyoti. The police have recovered Chdudhary's phones and the Skoda car allegedly used in the crime; but there is little direct evidence against Chaudhary except tower location of his mobile phones.
But in his since-withdrawn bail plea before the high court, Chaudhary has said that his mobile phone used to remain with Satpal, and on the night of murder after dropping him, he had taken the car to Panchkula.
As for photographic evidence that he had attended the wedding of Jyoti's sister, he claims that someone who was close to Jyoti had taken a lift from him, so he had just gone along.