Gavit sister case files: How a 25-year-old legal battle unfolded

The kidnappings and murders took place between 1990 and 1996. Anjanabai Gavit lived in a room on rent in Gondhale Nagar, Pune with two daughters, Renuka (aka Rinku aka Ratan) and Seema (aka Devki)
Seema Gavit (left, in red saree) and Renuka Shinde, from August 31, 2006. The two sisters were convicted in 2001 by the Sessions Court in Kolhapur for kidnapping thirteen children and murdering six of them. (HT Archive)
Seema Gavit (left, in red saree) and Renuka Shinde, from August 31, 2006. The two sisters were convicted in 2001 by the Sessions Court in Kolhapur for kidnapping thirteen children and murdering six of them. (HT Archive)
Updated on Jan 18, 2022 10:38 PM IST
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ByHT Correspondents

Mumbai: More than two decades after they were convicted for kidnapping 13 young children, and killing five of them, and seven years after Pranab Mukherjee, the then President of India, rejected their mercy petitions, Renuka Shinde (48) and Seema Gavit (43) will not be hanged.

The Bombay high court (HC) on Tuesday commuted their death sentence to life imprisonment — they will remain lodged at Pune’s Yerwada jail for the rest of their natural lives — on account of the state’s delay in seeking a decision on their mercy petitions after the Supreme Court rejected their appeal in 2006. The mercy pleas were presented in 2014.

The kidnappings and murders took place between 1990 and 1996. Anjanabai Gavit lived in a room on rent in Gondhale Nagar, Pune with two daughters, Renuka (aka Rinku aka Ratan) and Seema (aka Devki). The trio moved around in western Maharashtra, including Mumbai Metropolitan Region attending jatras (processions), festivals and other celebrations and visiting landmark temples, where they made a living out of stealing valuables including ornaments of women at these crowded places.

Renuka’s husband, Kiran Shinde, who worked as tailor in Pune, reportedly also assisted his wife and in-laws in these thefts. In 1990, Renuka visited a temple with her baby boy. She tried to snatch the purse of a woman but was caught. She was, however, let off, after she raised a hue and cry that she was falsely implicated and she was merely the mother of a small toddler.

It was then that the four decided to conduct these thefts with small children in tow, to help them escape easily.

According to the police, between 1990 and 1996, the family kidnapped 13 small children below five years of age. According to the police, the women killed nine of these 13 children, disposing of the bodies of at least five in different places in Kolhapur district. They were arrested by the Kolhapur police in October 1996.

On June 28, 2001, an additional sessions judge at Kolhapur convicted the two sisters for kidnapping 13 minor children and killing at least six of them — four girls and two boys —sentencing them to death.

Five years later, the Bombay HC upheld the sentence but, convicted them for the murder of five children. On August 31, 2006, the Supreme Court upheld the HC’s ruling.

Using toddlers as cover

Their first victim was the son of a beggar in Kolhapur and was picked up by Renuka in July 1990. They brought him to Pune and named him Santosh. In April 1991, they took him to Kolhapur, where Seema was caught while trying to steal purse of a devotee at the Mahalaxmi temple. To divert attention away from Seema, Anjanabai dropped Santosh, barely a year old at the time, who sustained injuries. In the melee that ensued, Seema managed to escape, the 2006 SC judgement narrated.

The three then went to Kolhapur bus stand where they flicked some purses, but Santosh was crying continuously because of his injuries. Worried that they would get caught, Anjanabai pressed his mouth and dashed his head on an iron bar. Santosh died on the spot, the order further explained.

Apart from Santosh, the four also kidnapped children between one and five years, including Anjali, Bunty, Swati, Guddu, Meena, Rajan, Shradha, Gauri, Swapnil and Pankaj — they were convicted for their wrongfully confinement — and murdered at least five of them including Santosh, Shradha, Gauri, Swapnil and Pankaj.

In October 1996, Anjanabai, Seema and Renuka were arrested over an unrelated matter — they were accused of kidnapping Anjanabai’s ex-husband’s daughter from another marriage — and during a search of their house, Kolhapur police found several clothes of small children. This opened an investigation which led to the revelation of their heinous crimes.

Suhas Nadgauda, one of the investigating officers in the case recalled how a team of policemen from different districts worked hard to establish the chain of events in the court.

Nadgauda who is currently assistant commissioner of police at the Anti-Corruption Bureau posted in Kolhapur as a sub-inspector at the time.

“The case was first detected in Nashik when the local police arrested Anjanabai. Later, the Crime Investigation Department constituted a team of officers from various places to probe multiple crimes committed by Anjanabai and her two daughters. These cases were later clubbed together and the trial was held at the sessions court in Kolhapur where I was posted,” said Nadgauda.

The prosecution’s case was strengthened after Kiran Shinde, Renuka’s husband, turned approver.

“Kiran first submitted an application in the Nashik court seeking permission to turn approver. He explained the chain of events, and the roles played by Anjanabai, Renuka and Seema,” Nadgauda said. Kiran also told the police of where the trio had disposed of the children’s bodies.

According to advocate Manik Mulik, who represented Renuka and Seema at lower court between 2000 and 2002, some of the parents of the victims would attend the proceedings and deposed before the judge. “Later, they stopped coming and all of us lost their touch,” Mulik said.

During the trial, the prosecution examined 156 witnesses. Anjanabai died in 1997 before the trial began. Kiran Shinde was pardoned by the court.

The case of the mercy pleas

After the SC ruling, Seema and Renuka filed a mercy petition on October 10, 2008 and October 17, 2009, respectively. After the President rejected their mercy pleas in 2014, they approached the Bombay HC seeking commutation of their death sentence on the ground that the state had taken an inordinate time causing an unexplained delay in seeking their mercy plea.

Their petition stated that on August 28, 2013, the Governor of Maharashtra had rejected their mercy plea and thereafter the file was forwarded to the Central Government – to be submitted to the President of India, who decided on the pleas on July 7, 2014 — within 10 months of receiving it. Shinde and Gavit contended that the President took more than five years to reject their mercy petitions when such a plea should have been disposed of within three months.

Through that time, they contended that they lived under the constant fear of death which had caused mental torture, emotional and physical agony to them.

On its part, the Maharashtra home department maintained that there was no unreasonable delay on part of the state in forwarding their mercy pleas to the Governor and the President of India. “Whatever delay has been caused, has occurred for complying with the procedure required to be followed at each level,” the state’s affidavit contended.

An affidavit filed by the Central government, however, indicated that in April 2012, it sought information from the Maharashtra government on the mercy petitions filed by Renuka and Seema.

The Union’s affidavit added a reply from the Maharashtra government dated May 2013, stated that the file pertaining to the sisters’ mercy pleas was destroyed in a fire that broke out in the Mantralaya on March 9, 2013 and work on recreating the file was ongoing.

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