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Palwal horror: What made a doting father, protective husband become a ‘psycho killer’

HT visited Naresh Dhankar’s hometown and family to look into how he changed from a compassionate man to a cold-blooded killer of six vulnerable strangers.

india Updated: Jan 11, 2018 12:19 IST
Shiv Sunny and Snigdha Poonam
Shiv Sunny and Snigdha Poonam
Palwal, Hindustan Times
Palwal horror,Psycho killer,Serial killer
Naresh Dhankar, 43-year-old former army officer, went on a murderous spree early on Tuesday, randomly killing six persons with an iron rod in Haryana’s Palwal town, 60 km south of Delhi. (Burhaan Kinu/HT Photo)

Two winters ago, when Naresh and Seema Dhankar still followed some rituals of family life, they had visited a shopping mall together. Naresh liked a jacket for himself, and after some hesitation over its price, bought it at Seema’s urging. He wore the jacket to work the next day.

“When he returned home that evening, he was shivering. He had donated the jacket to a poor man on the street. He couldn’t bear to see anyone suffer,” said Seema.

Between 2.30am and 6.30am on January 2, Naresh clubbed six persons to death. Five of them were men working night shifts under the cold sky.

Who is the real Naresh Dhankar -- “loving father”, “protective husband”, “incorruptible officer”, as described by his family, or cold-blooded killer of vulnerable strangers, as he currently appears to the world?

We will only know his version of the events when Naresh, who is currently recovering from his own injuries from the night, is interrogated.

This is what we know so far

Around 2.30am on January 2, Naresh entered Palwal Hospital, a three-storey building in the heart of the town, on the outskirts of Delhi, armed with an iron rod. He climbed the steps to the first floor and walked past a row of people sleeping on the floor towards the lobby.

There was only one person there. Thirty-two-year-old Anju Khan was sleeping on a bench outside the ICU, where her sister-in-law had been admitted. Naresh swung the rod. “He smashed her head and face,” says Ashwani Kumar, SHO of Palwal City police station.

Anju fell off the bench. The thud was loud enough that her brother-in-law, Tasleem, who was sleeping on the ground floor, rushed up the steps. “I saw Naresh standing next to Anju’s body with a rod in his hand. When he saw me, he took a wild swing at me, but missed. He turned around, ran, and locked himself in the bathroom next to the ICU,” said Tasleem.

Over the next five minutes, Naresh emerged from the bathroom a number of times to try to break into the ICU, but its occupants had locked the door from inside. “People gathered outside, but no one dared approach him. Some minutes later, he ran downstairs, keeping us away with wild swings of his rod. He did not speak a word,” Tasleem added.

CCTV footage from the hospital shows Naresh walking in after 2.35am and leaving before 2.45am. Over the next two hours, Naresh swung the rod again and again, smashing in the heads of five men within a close radius of the hospital. Three of them were security guards. All of them died on the spot. “After we found three dead bodies, we realised we were dealing with a serial killer,” said the SHO.

Around 6.30am, Naresh walked over to his in-laws’ house in Adarsh colony, 500 metres from one of the murder spots. Their neighbours remember waking up to a ruckus. Kapil Vikal said Naresh was shouting abuses at his wife. “When they did not let him in, he began rattling my iron gates, urging me to allow him in. When I refused, he said he was dying of cold and begged me for tea,” said Vikal.

He had barely unlocked his gates when Naresh attacked him with the same rod. Vikal’s hand was injured, but he ensured that Naresh did not leave the neighbourhood until the police arrived there at around 7.15am. Naresh attacked the police, the police attacked him back, and he ended up with a brain haemorrhage. By 8pm, he was lying unconscious on a bed in Delhi’s Safdarjang hospital.

He finally woke up on January 5. “He recognises us, but doesn’t seem aware of all that has happened,” said his brother, Satyaprakash. No one really knows why 43-year-old Naresh Dhankar went on the killing spree. The police are still trying to ascertain the trigger.

People who know him have been pointing to his “uncontrollable anger.” His family has also spoken about a long history of mental illness, including depression and delusion. The image that emerges from these accounts is of a man who carried extremes within himself.

Clues in the past

A native of Machgarh village in Haryana’s Ballabhgarh district, Naresh is the youngest of five brothers. “He was a boxing champion and an active theatre performer. He was well-read and had topped his batch at Hisar Agricultural University. He had cracked the Combined Defence Services Examination in the first attempt,” said his brother, Shyamsundar, at the family’s village home.

Just as the signs of brilliance were there for everyone to see, so were the signs of trouble. In 1999, a 23-year-old Naresh joined the Indian Army as a lieutenant, but could only keep the job for three years.

“He did not like to take orders and would get into confrontations with his superiors. The army’s medical board ruled that he suffered from psychiatric illness and retired him,” said another brother, Chandrapal. “When he had returned to his village, he was violent at times and had to be tied up,” Chandrapal added.

In spite of the turbulence, Naresh prepared for and passed an exam that qualified him to become an agriculture development officer in 2006.

Just months into his job at Palwal district’s agriculture department, his family arranged his marriage with Seema, the daughter of a retired army man, Dharampal Malik. “Naresh seemed normal. He was still undergoing psychiatric treatment, but he must have been medically fit to have landed an important government job,” said Malik. After their wedding, Seema, a college graduate, moved to Naresh’s village, 30 kilometers from Palwal town.

A troubled marriage

The problems started four years into the marriage. First, there was the matter of dowry. Naresh, who hadn’t demanded a dowry at the time of the wedding, now complained about not having received a car from Seema’s family. “His family had also been taunting me for not bringing dowry.”

In 2009, I filed a dowry complaint, but I withdrew it after apologies by Naresh and his family,” said Seema, dressed in a salwar-kurta and a sweater, at her parents’ house in Adarsh colony in Palwal town. In 2009, Naresh was transferred to Nuh, around 50 kilometres from Palwal.

He moved to a rented apartment with his wife. In 2010, Seema gave birth to their son. Naresh adored him. “Our son was god to him,” said Seema.

It was around this time that Seema started to notice Naresh’s “psychotic behaviour”. “At times, he would speak non-stop like a radio, no matter if someone was listening or not. Sometimes he would sleep all day and at times stay awake all night,” Seema said. One of those days, he slapped her — “repeatedly, over a non-issue.”

In 2012, Naresh was transferred to Palwal town. They moved to an apartment in Adarsh colony, where Seema’s parents already lived. The change of setting made no difference to his behaviour. “Once he landed at the school where I was teaching and said I did not have to earn since he was working. He created a scene and was thrashed by my colleagues,” Seema said.

Seema, wife of 43-year-old Naresh Dhankar. (Burhaan Kinu/HT Photo)

On another occasion, when Seema tried leaving the house to visit her parents, Naresh locked her in. She called the police, but the episode ended in Naresh slapping a policeman and getting booked. It became known in the vicinity that he was problematic. “When he was abusive, he was a monster,” said Seema.

“Naresh was not social. His neighbours preferred to avoid him as well,” said Abhimanyu Lohan, head of the SIT formed to investigate the serial killings.

From bad to worse

Two years ago, Naresh bought, on EMI, a three-bedroom flat in Omaxe City, a residential neighbourhood in Palwal. His behaviour continued to be erratic. Residents of Omaxe City told HT that they often saw him bonding with his son — playing football, riding the bicycle. They also noticed his aggression with his wife.

“We would cut short our conversations with his wife if we spotted him,” said a neighbour, who did not want to be named. His family still felt torn about him. “He did not look good when he abused or beat Mummy. But he would talk nicely whenever I threatened to leave home,” his son said. Seema, too, felt that despite the violence, her husband loved her. “He encouraged me to wear fashionable clothes and visit clubs.”

The beatings were becoming more frequent, however. She often ran away to her parents’ house. That led to more trouble, according to the neighbours. “Naresh would come loaded with fruit and eatables for his son, but Seema’s family wouldn’t let him in. Sometimes they would pelt stones at him,” said Devender, a local resident.

Naresh was also getting increasingly aggressive at work. Seema said his “obsession with idealism” led him to become a “law into himself”. In 2016, he was transferred from Palwal to Bhiwani where he lived alone as a paying guest.

Naresh’s last known quarrel with his colleagues happened on December 29, three days before the killings. “He had picked up a fight with a superior. Naresh was taken to the local police station, but was let off after he apologised,” said the SHO.

Two days later, on December 31, when he visited his wife and son at his laws’ house, where they had been staying since Diwali, he was a loving man again. “He had come loaded with eatables for his son. I scolded him for bringing ice-cream in winter, but we had lunch together,” said his father-in-law.

Naresh insisted that his family return home. “He was willing to do anything to see his son happy,” said Seema. She found his manner unusual. “He did not see us in the eye. He looked troubled. He said his head was feeling blocked and he can’t make out his own words. He wanted to be taken to a hospital.”

Seema and her family say they neither saw Naresh nor heard from him on January 1. However, their neighbours offer a different account. “He had visited around 11am on January 1 and even wished me Happy New Year. He was carrying milk packets, a dozen varieties of fruit, Frooti bottles, peanuts, etc. He wanted to see his son, but wasn’t allowed,” said Ashok, a shopkeeper down the lane.

Naresh returned to the neighbourhood that night, says Vikal. “He created a ruckus outside his in-laws’ house around 11.30pm. Naresh was shouting to be allowed in. He appears to have left the neighbourhood before midnight.”

The son next saw his father on television. From then, Naresh Dhankar was always going to be the “psycho killer” behind “Haryana’s night of horror”. The child has refused to watch TV at home since.

First Published: Jan 11, 2018 08:22 IST