Barkha Dutt - How Namrata Damor's murder was cloaked as suicide

At the tiny, nondescript, government hospital in the temple town of Ujjain, people gather under the shelter of a large banyan tree and in wary whispers, point to the small, obscure post-mortem room that has become an unlikely national talking point. This is where the autopsy on the body of a young woman called Namrata Damor was conducted in January 2012. A medical student who was reported to have got her seat through the now infamous ‘Vyapam’ admissions racket, she’d been found dead on the railway tracks 30 kilometres outside of the city limits.

Today, no one at the hospital is ready to go on record or even have a conversation off camera about how and why that autopsy report was manipulated. No one except the man who wrote the report. Dr BB Purohit, a forensics specialist, is an affable, excitable diminutive man with a big smile. He seems slightly stupefied by the sudden media interest in him; no journalist or investigator had bothered to get in touch all these years since Namrata’s murder, he tells us.

Unflustered and unafraid he elaborates on why the nature of her injuries made him come to the conclusion that she was strangled. “Violent asphyxia” and “signs of homicide” were the lucid, unambiguous findings in his report. Yet, filing a closure report two years later, the police disregarded these findings and insisted that Namrata had taken her own life. And as so often happens when young women are at the centre of a crime, the police findings alluded to a love affair gone wrong.

To buttress their manipulation of the original autopsy the police cited a second forensics report from a doctor who worked at the Madhya Pradesh government’s state run medico-legal institute. Shockingly, this doctor never even examined the body; yet he said that by looking at the photographs he could tell that it was suicide. And this is how Namrata’s murder, one among many mystery deaths of those accused in the Vyapam admissions scam, came to be covered up. The cloaking of homicide as suicide may have also never been investigated and discovered by the media, were it not for the sudden inexplicable death of a young journalist immediately after he interviewed Namrata’s family.  

In his 30 years of practice, Purohit tells us this was the first time that a post mortem report prepared by him had been subverted in so deliberate and audacious a manner. His autopsy had also recommended more tests to determine whether sexual assault of any kind had taken place; he says those tests were never taken forward. Purohit reveals that the local police did not even care to discuss or deliberate the findings with him, bypassing the hospital to reach a conclusion that clearly suited someone.

 I mentally contrasted his blunt and empathetic courage with the officious, unconvincing responses I had heard in Bhopal from politicians, bureaucrats and policemen. Even the judge heading the Special Investigation Team probe panel had gone on record to tell me that so far investigators had not been able to link a single mystery death, among the 48 seen to suspicious, to the admissions scam and the related cover-ups. But here was concrete proof of how the truth behind the murder of a young woman was buried in a graveyard of complicity and deceit.

The state leadership has argued that many of the deaths took place before the FIR in the Vyapam probe was filed and thus could not be connected to the admissions scandal. But every skeleton that tumbles out of the Vyapam cupboard — literally and metaphorically —will raise more and more questions about who is hiding what and why.

The emergence, for instance, of Sudhir Sharma, a billionaire mining baron at the heart of the scam, has reinforced the impression that even the racketeers now in jail, like Sharma, wielded extraordinary influence. A 2013 Tax Report clearly details how Sharma used to not just chair a group of educational institutes; he also used to get kickbacks from two other colleges linked to the Vyapam board, which he would then pass on to an aide in a state minister’s office.

The report, written before the admissions scam erupted and Sharma was imprisoned, also elaborates on how he used to bankroll travel and other expenses for a host of BJP and RSS leaders, and a Congress legislator as well. When Sharma was first raided by the tax authorities some details of what they found were reported in the media. What’s peculiar is that once he was imprisoned for Vyapam, the special task force never revisited those allegations of financial links between a kingpin of the scam and the political establishment.

As we are consumed by the political consequences of Vyapam, the really frightening aspect of this corruption in admissions and recruitments is of course not just about livelihood but life itself. Not just in MP, but everywhere in India, with private medical colleges mired in controversies of capitation fees and associated lowering of admission norms, are we creating a generation of doctors not qualified to entrust our lives with?

Many of these private colleges are owned by politicians and businessmen and the Supreme Court judgment delivered by then Chief Justice Altamas Kabir that struck down a common national admission exam, disturbed many for the carte blanche it provided to an insidious nexus of money and power in the one sphere that should be spared for the sake of all our lives — medical education.

Delivered on the eve of his retirement, the verdict sparked a huge debate nationally and had a powerful dissenting note by Justice AR Dave, who wrote about the need to constrain “unscrupulous and money-minded businessmen operating in the field of education”.

Vyapam should make us revisit that question nationally.

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