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Missing Navi Mumbai cop: A tale of love, deceit and murder

Multiple searches and arrests later, there’s still no trace of Ashwini Bidre’s body.

mumbai Updated: May 17, 2018 13:14 IST
Debasish Panigrahi
Debasish Panigrahi
Hindustan Times
mumbai news,ashwini bidre,Navi Mumbai
Navi Mumbai cop Ashwini Bidre

In April, a team of investigators from Navi Mumbai police kept returning to Vasai creek, each time equipped with better technology. They spoke to local fishermen and explored the area with the help of the Navy. They hired a private firm that specialises in marine search, which scanned the riverbed using highly-specialised and expensive equipment like magnetic gradiometers. An incense stand and a sword were found, but there was no trace of what the investigators were looking for: a chopped-up female body.

Two years ago, on April 11, 2016, assistant police inspector Ashwini Bidre, 37, told the watchman at her apartment complex in Kalamboli that she was going home and so the milkman shouldn’t leave any milk for the next couple of days. Home for Bidre was Alte, a village near Kolhapur where her father Jaykumar lives with his wife Sumitra who is a patient of dementia. Bidre didn’t go to see her parents. Neither did she go to Hatkalange, where her husband Raju Gore, a local politician, lives with their nine-year-old daughter. The last person to see Bidre was inspector Abhay Kurundkar, who met her that evening at a hotel near Thane railway station.

For the next three months, there was no trace of Bidre and no one paid much attention to her absence. Jaykumar got a call from Bidre’s office in June, asking of her whereabouts because she had not reported to work for two months. They hadn’t been in touch, he told the officer who called him. That month, Jaykumar got another call about Bidre from her landlord who said her rent was overdue. Jaykumar felt a prickle of concern. Since he couldn’t leave Sumitra on her own for long stretches, Jaykumar called his son Anand, who lives in Chennai, and asked him to file a missing person’s report in Navi Mumbai. Anand evidently saw no reason for urgency. He reported Bidre as missing in July when a work trip brought him to Mumbai.

At this stage, most people who knew Bidre were convinced the police would find her. They had no idea that after two years and lakhs spent on the investigation, one basic question would remain: where was Ashwini Bidre?

Not just a missing person

Women make up 15% of the 2.25 lakh police force in Maharashtra. It’s a male-dominated profession that makes it difficult to maintain a work-life balance, especially at junior levels. Bidre got through the Maharashtra Public Service Commission exams at the third attempt. She was married at the time and was posted to Pune and Sangli. Gore would go and stay with her whenever he could. “She would be busy at work while I took care of the household,” he said. Colleagues and seniors describe Bidre as a disciplined and efficient officer. “She was an amiable person and good at her work. Never ever was there any complaint against her,” said a former colleague who is presently attached to the office of the Inspector General of Police (IGP), PCR.

Although Gore and the rest of Bidre’s family has criticised the Navi Mumbai police, they have left no stone unturned in their efforts to find out what happened to the police officer. From old-fashioned search warrants and interrogations to high-tech gadgets and analysis of smartphone data, investigators have used everything at their disposal. Bidre’s phone yielded approximately 200 contacts, which the police analysed. Teams were sent to vipassana centres in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh after cards for such establishments were found when Bidre’s apartment was searched.

Deputy Commissioner of Police Pramod Shevale told investigators that she’d sent him a text message on April 14, in which she’d said she wanted leave to do a course of vipassana. Kurundkar also said Bidre had called him around April 10-11 to tell him she was going to a centre in Uttar Pradesh to do vipassana.

“It started off as any other investigation into a missing complaint. But later, it turned out to be among the five or six tough investigations I have done in my three-decade-long career in the force,” said senior inspector Kondiram Popre of Kalamboli police station, who led the investigation from July 2014 to October 2016. But there was no sign of Bidre anywhere.

Inspecting the inspector

Assistant commissioner of police (ACP) Sangeeta Shinde Alphonso was brought on for her expertise in cybercrime and she was able to extract a wealth of information stored in Bidre’s phones and Google drive. She and Popre have collected the bulk of the evidence that has been gathered so far in this case. From interviews, CDR and the phone’s GPS, the police were able to map Bidre’s movements before her phone was switched off on April 11. They revealed at least one interviewee as a suspect: Kurundkar.

Born into a prominent family in Kolhapur and well-networked, inspector Abhay Kurundkar met Bidre when she was transferred to Sangli’s LCB in 2012. When he was serving in the LCB at Sangli, the Superintendent of Police filed a report to the Director General of Police in which he alleged Kurundkar had colluded with and passed on secret information to a political party in the run-up to the 2014 state Assembly elections. “More than his investigating skills, Abhay was known for his money, power and high political connections,” said one officer, requesting anonymity. “He’s spent most of his time in the local crime branch which is considered a plum posting in districts. A job in the crime branch not only ensures a steady flow of extra income, it also helps in developing proximity with local politicians. That proximity can be encashed at a time of need.”

Among Kurundkar’s family friends is Eknath Khadse of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Khadse’s nephew, Raju Patil, was among those interviewed by the police in connection with Bidre’s case. His and Kurundkar’s phone records showed the two of them had spoken and met on the night of April 11. Patil, who is a hotelier, said he and Kurundkar had talked and met to plan a dinner. The police suspect Patil, who was arrested in December 2017, knows what happened to Bidre and Kurundkar’s role in her disappearance.

The first one to point fingers at Kurundkar was Gore, Bidre’s husband, who refers to Bidre not by her name, but as “Madam”. Gore was questioned by the police both as a next of kin and also as a possible suspect as Bidre’s brother had dropped hints that Bidre’s marriage was troubled. Gore told the police in July 2016 that he suspected Kurundkar had killed his wife. “From day one, I suspected she could have been murdered by Kurundkar and even told this to the police,” said Gore, who became the Kolhapur district president of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) in 2010. “She had been treading dangerous path and this was inevitable.”

The affair

In 2014, two years after she met Kurundkar, Bidre had dropped a bombshell on Gore. She told him she wanted a divorce and showed him a one-page statement from Kurundkar on stamp paper, declaring he had accepted her and would divorce his first wife. The two had been having an affair for more than a year. At the time, Bidre and Gore’s daughter was five years old. Her decision to leave her marriage and continue her relationship with Kurundkar would estrange her from the rest of her family.

The police discovered Bidre and Kurundkar’s affair while going through Bidre’s CDR and computer. In February 2016, she’d made 321 calls to Kurundkar. Only eight calls were from Gore and not one of Bidre’s outgoing calls were to him. The police also found photographs that showed Bidre and Kurundkar’s relationship was intimate. There was further confirmation from Bidre’s watchman who identified Kurundkar as the “sahab” who visited Bidre regularly.

At first Kurundkar insisted he had only a professional relationship with Bidre and admitted to their affair only when the police showed him the photographs on Bidre’s laptop. “The expression on his face changed completely,” said Popre, who had interviewed Kurundkar in 2016. As the investigation continued, the police found video footage – Bidre had installed a CCTV camera in a teddy bear – that revealed Kurundkar was often violent with Bidre.

None of this explained how or why Bidre had vanished without a trace.

What the team led by Popre and Alphonse did have, however, was an idea of what probably happened to their fellow police officer. From the locations recorded on Bidre and Kurundkar’s phones, the police knew that the two had met at Thane railway station on the evening of April 11. Kurundkar initially denied this and then admitted to it. Then, Bidre had gone with Kurundkar to his apartment in Bhayandar. The phone was active till 8.01pm that night and was reactivated the next day. It would remain active for the next two days before being switched off. Kurundkar insisted that he came back to his apartment alone. However, Bidre’s phone’s global positioning system (GPS) shows she was in his apartment building. Her phone would be used to send out messages over the next two days. The police noticed that the spelling in these messages were uncharacteristic of Bidre. She would usually use “u” for “you”, but in the post-April 11 messages, “you” was abbreviated to “y”, which is how Kurundkar writes it.

Kurundkar’s phone showed he had made six calls to Patil between 9.30pm and 10.30pm on April 11. Patil called him back and then came to meet Kurundkar. He didn’t go up to the flat, but spoke to Kurundkar at the parking lot. Then, Patil left for a meeting he had in Churchgate. Kurundkar called his driver late at night. The next day, he made a call to his childhood friend Mahesh Phalnikar, who works in a bank in Pune. Kurundkar’s phone locations showed that he made repeated trips to Vasai creek in the days after Bidre disappeared.

Speaking to fishermen who saw Kurundkar, the police learnt that he had told the fishermen that he was looking for the body of a constable’s wife who had committed suicide in Vasai creek. The police began to suspect Kurundkar had murdered Bidre and disposed of her body in the creek. However, all they had was evidence that suggested an affair. They had nothing that could concrete to prove Kurundkar’s guilt.

Alive in public memory

In October 2016, Gore and Anand Bidre wrote to Bombay High Court, alleging Kurundkar was responsible for Ashwini Bidre’s disappearance and that he was being protected by the police. Gore still believes there is a conspiracy to protect Kurundkar. “This is because the detection of the case would have resulted in the collapse of the government, given Kurundkar’s proximity to senior BJP leader Eknath Khadse who happens to be the uncle of Raju Patil, another accused in the case,” he alleged.

Contrary to Gore’s claims, Popre and Alphonse’s investigation covered a lot of ground and gathered most of the existing evidence within the first year. The obstacles they faced were the lack of conclusive proof that Bidre is dead and connect Kurundkar to her possible murder. Bidre’s case was also raised in the Maharashtra assembly in 2017. Dhananjay Munde of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) was one of the five Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) who raised the issue in the House. He said of Bidre, “She wasn’t just another woman. She was a police officer. And the manner in which she was killed by her superior officer is a blot on humanity itself.” He also accused the police of trying to “suppress” the case.

So far, however, there doesn’t seem to have been any suppression. If anything, the case has been investigated in the glare of media coverage and publicity, largely thanks to Gore’s relentless efforts to keep Bidre in public memory. He’s leaked information, shared theories (which haven’t always been accurate) and campaigned tirelessly for his once-estranged wife. “I want justice for her,” he said.

The remains of the day

As far as the police was concerned, the needle of suspicion targeted Kurundkar, who had been caught lying by the police on more than one occasion. The weakest link in his alibi was Patil – why had Kurundkar been so desperate to talk to him and why had the two met in the parking lot? In December 2017, Kurundkar was arrested on the suspicion of having kidnapped and possibly murdered Bidre. Patil kept changing his story, which gave the police enough grounds to arrest him on the suspicion of being Kundalkar’s accomplice. In February 2018, a chargesheet was filed.

With Kurundkar in custody, the police had a breakthrough. Kurundkar’s childhood friend Mahesh Phalnikar finally told the police that Kurundkar had called him on April 12 to tell Phalnikar that he had killed Bidre. Phalnikar said Kurundkar had confessed to hitting Bidre with a cricket bat in a fit of rage.

This killed her instantaneously. Kurundkar had then cut her body into pieces with a saw, stored it in his house overnight and the next day, with Phalnikar’s help, Kurundkar had dumped the body in Vasai creek. The body parts had been packed with weights to ensure nothing floated to the surface. Finally, it looked like the mystery of what had happened to Bidre had been solved.

Unfortunately for Navi Mumbai police, the case has weakened in the past two months instead of becoming watertight. Forensic tests revealed no traces of Bidre’s DNA in the samples taken from Kurundkar’s refrigerator (where, according to Phalnikar, her torso had been kept overnight). Tests on a bloodstained towel revealed it was Kurundkar’s blood, not Bidre’s. In early April, Phalnikar’s lawyer said his client had been pressured by the police and “subjected to brutal techniques” to give a false statement. Phalnikar would like to record his statement again and is waiting for the court’s permission on the matter.

With no body, no confession and no forensic results to prove the police’s theory of how she was killed, Bidre’s case remains frustratingly unresolved. After the Navi Mumbai police called off the search in mid-April, Bidre’s father wrote a letter to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, threatening to self-immolate and accusing the police of conspiring to protect Kurundkar.

On April 26, the Navi Mumbai conducted their “final search” for Bidre’s remains in Vasai creek, at two spots that they explored using dredgers and a magnetometer. Balasaheb Daundkar, former director of the state forensic science laboratory, said: “Even if the body tissues had decomposed, eaten up by fish, or disappeared, bones will still be there. A strong object like bone remains intact even after it is buried for many hundred years, as we see in case of fossils. It can easily survive sea water for a couple of years.”

However, it was a futile search, again.

Alphonso remains attached to the case, much to the relief of Bidre’s family. They’ve pinned their hopes on her. She remains determined. “I will find the body, or parts of it, come what may,” she had said when the exploration of Vasai creek began in early April. Now, after three unsuccessful attempts, hope seems bleak.

First Published: May 17, 2018 12:16 IST