Pappi Devi died soon after childbirth. Her in-laws claimed her baby was stillborn. Her father suspected foul play, but his complaints to the police fell on deaf ears.
We didn’t go looking for Pappi Devi’s story. In fact, that’s part of the problem. Nobody went looking for Pappi Devi, or her baby, or her story.
We first heard of her on September 23, during a conversation with Rajeev Pandey, a criminal lawyer who has been practising at the Lakhimpur Kheri civil court for 19 years. We were meeting Pandey to discuss how three girls had been raped and murdered in Lakhimpur Kheri within a span of 21 days, between August 14 and September 3.
“What about women’s safety?” we asked.
He almost laughed.
“A woman’s life is in danger before she is born,” Pandey said. “A year ago, Pappi Devi was pregnant. Her husband and his family wanted a boy but a girl was born. Between when the mother and child were discharged and the family reached their home, they had disposed of the girl child. The next morning, the mother died.”
Two suspicious deaths and yet it took four months for the police to even file an FIR, Pandey said. “That’s women’s safety for you.”
That was how we learned about Pappi Devi.
Her father said Pappi Devi’s husband and in-laws wanted her to have a son. But she gave birth to a girl. She died soon after, as did her baby. Her in-laws claimed the baby had been stillborn, a claim refuted by a doctor and a few other people present at the time of her birth.
Pappi Devi’s father, Sri Krishnan, 50, suspected foul play and repeatedly went to the police to file a complaint. It took the police over four months to file an FIR, on September 1 this year, and launch an investigation, which seems to have gone nowhere.
This, then, is the story of a father’s struggle to find out how he lost his daughter and granddaughter, and an apathetic state’s relentlessness in thwarting him.
The tragic story couldn’t have had a happier beginning, with Pappi Devi marrying Bablu on May 15 last year at her father’s home at Tamolipur village in Lakhimpur Kheri, Uttar Pradesh. She left to live with her in-laws in Lalapurwa, about half-an-hour’s drive away from where Krishnan has lived his whole life, and raised three daughters and a son with his wife Kushma Devi.
It wasn’t long before trouble started, Krishnan said. “They demanded a lot of dowry from us. They wanted a cooler, a fridge, a motorcycle,” he explained. “I don’t make enough money for all that. I borrowed money and gave them whatever I could but that was never enough for them.”
Krishnan works at a sugar mill near his village, earning Rs 4,000 per month. He spent Rs 3 lakh on Pappi Devi’s wedding and dowry. Much of the money was borrowed and he’s still repaying it.
In October, five months after the wedding, Pappi Devi’s in-laws “beat her”, Krishnan alleged, and sent her to his place. “In December, I negotiated with them to take her back,” Krishnan said. “She was pregnant by then.”
It’s a decision Krishnan and his family will regret forever. Today, the father wishes his daughter had been more vocal about her troubles.
“She had said she was never given food on time and that they weren’t treating her properly. But then she would also tell me to let it go and that it was okay,” he said. “So, I also thought these were normal fights.”
His wife, Kushma Devi, said whenever Pappi Devi telephoned them, her in-laws would stay close as she spoke. “She would try to tell us something and they would beat her,” she alleged.
Then, at around 10 am on April 22 this year, a month after the Indian government had imposed a national lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus, Krishnan received a call from his daughter’s neighbour in Lalapurwa.
Pappi Devi was dead, the neighbour said.
Krishnan and Kushma Devi recalled conversations with Pappi Devi’s in-laws during her pregnancy. They claimed her husband Bablu and his parents demanded she give birth to a male child, as if she had a say in the matter, and allegedly threatened to harm her if she didn’t.
FIR not filed
Soon as he got the call from his daughter’s neighbour, Krishnan rushed to Lalapurwa. Pappi Devi’s body lay in the courtyard of her in-laws’ house. Nobody from the family was home. A neighbour told him Pappi Devi had given birth to a baby girl early that morning.
That’s how Krishnan found out he had become a grandfather. He didn’t know where his grandchild was or how his daughter had died. He enquired from Pappi Devi’s neighbours who said she had given birth to a stillborn girl that had been “buried immediately”.
“Everybody said my daughter had given birth to a stillborn baby girl, whose last rites had been performed the previous night,” he recalled. “And Pappi Devi had died soon after from health complications, they said.”
As Krishnan stood in the courtyard, an ambulance arrived, accompanied by the police, to take Pappi Devi’s body to the district hospital. Krishnan wasn’t sure who had called the ambulance. “Perhaps someone from Pappi Devi’s husband’s side,” he said, adding that the husband and his parents were nowhere to be seen.
As far as Krishnan remembered, it was the ambulance staff and the police that took Pappi Devi’s body away. “Nobody was listening to me and I was not allowed to enter the ambulance,” he claimed.
Two hours later, at around noon, a desperate Krishnan telephoned his three brothers. They rushed to the Dhaurahra police station, which has jurisdiction over Lalapurwa as well as Tamolipur.
“I didn’t believe my daughter had died a natural death,” Krishnan said. “But the police officer refused to file an FIR. He told me, ‘If you make a fuss about it we will send you to jail.’” Instead, he alleged, he was made to “sign a few papers” he didn’t understand.
The police station’s general diary, which Newslaundry accessed, documents Krishnan’s visit on April 22. It records a complaint signed by him at 12.44 pm stating that he was told Pappi Devi had given birth to a “dead female child” that morning, and later died under “doubtful circumstances”. He asked for a postmortem.
The police, however, added a note to Krishnan’s complaint describing Pappi Devi’s as an “accidental death”. And they didn’t file an FIR.
Five months later, Krishnan struggled to precisely recount the events of that day. His daughter’s postmortem took place at 3.53 pm. That evening, he said, “someone” told him Pappi Devi’s body had been returned to her in-laws’ and she was being cremated immediately.
Save for a nephew who managed to reach the cremation ground quickly, Krishnan and his family were unable to attend his daughter’s last rites.
It would take Krishnan four months, 15 letters to the district police chief, multiple trips to the police station, and a visit to the director general of the Lucknow Zone police to finally have an FIR filed in his daughter’s death, and find out more about his dead grandchild.
Pappi Devi’s postmortem
Pappi Devi’s postmortem was conducted at the Lakhimpur Kheri district hospital. The postmortem report, seen by Newslaundry, lists “shock and haemorrhage” as the cause of death and notes that she had suffered from postpartum haemorrhage, or excessive bleeding following childbirth.
Between July 1 and July 30, Krishnan wrote seven letters to Poonam, then Lakhimpur Kheri’s superintendent of police. In his letters, he asked for an FIR to be filed and for the baby’s body to be located. Poonam was transferred out on July 26, and replaced by Satyendra Jain.
Having received no response from the district police, Krishnan on July 20 wrote to the additional director general of police, Lucknow Zone, Satya Narain Sabat, appealing for help. Krishnan said he had sought to file an FIR regarding his daughter’s death but the station house officer, Hari Om Srivastav, had turned him away. “Sir, I request that my FIR be logged in Dhaurahra police station, the corpse of the newborn girl be located and her safety be ensured,” he wrote in his letter to Sabat.
‘Baby was healthy’
In August, the lawyer Rajeev Pandey took up Krishnan’s case. They filed an RTI request for hospital records of Pappi Devi and her baby.
These records tell a disturbing story.
Pappi Devi was admitted to the local community health centre at 11 pm on April 21 by her husband Bablu. She had a normal delivery, giving birth to her first child, a girl, that weighed 2.34 kg at 2.30 am.
The hospital records clearly establish that Pappi Devi’s child was born alive, not stillborn. The baby was “normal” with no complications, and cried, urinated and defecated immediately after birth. Skin-to-skin contact was established between mother and child. From 2.50 am, Pappi Devi breastfed the baby for 30 minutes.
A post-delivery checklist notes that Pappi Devi was in a “poor” condition. She was bleeding heavily due to postpartum haemorrhage, or PPH, and required to be shifted to a better facility. The delivery registry says she was “referred to the district hospital due to PPH”.
A doctor who attended to Pappi Devi at the health centre confirmed to Newslaundry that she had given birth to a healthy child. Pappi Devi herself had been in critical condition, added the doctor, who did not want to be identified for fear of police action.
As per protocol, an Accredited Social Health Activist, or ASHA, was present during Pappi Devi’s delivery and attended to her that night. Mariamma G, the ASHA, said when Pappi Devi’s condition deteriorated she was referred to the district hospital.
But was her baby stillborn?
“No, not at all,” Mariamma said. “She delivered a healthy baby and the child had no complications.”
Both mother and child left the health centre alive, Mariamma said, but in a private vehicle, not an ambulance.
“After they left, I have not been in touch with them,” she said. “I don’t know if she reached the district hospital or not. I have had no contact with them since.”
Krishnan suspected Pappi Devi had not been taken to another hospital. His daughter may have died due to haemorrhage, he argued, but her in-laws could have saved her life if they had taken her to a better medical facility.
From multiple accounts, it appears Pappi Devi left the health centre with her baby, husband, and his family members, and bled to death at her home a few hours later.
The baby was last seen at the health centre, alive and well. Only Bablu and his family can explain what happened to her.
When Newslaundry contacted Bablu, he refused to even confirm if he was Pappi Devi’s husband. He reluctantly said Pappi Devi “died on the way” from the health centre. Contradicting the medical records, the doctor, and the ASHA, he claimed that the baby’s condition was “not stable” when they left the health centre.
The only testimony to the baby’s life are records that show that on April 22, her heart was beating. There is no photo, no video. The only identity marker is a hospital record showing a baby’s footprints alongside a thumb impression of Bablu’s mother, a witness to a life that barely lasted.
In August, after multiple letters and much pleading from Sri Krishnan, the Lakhimpur Kheri district magistrate, Shailendra Singh, ordered that the baby’s body be exhumed and a postmortem conducted to determine the cause of death.
And so on August 20, the baby’s body was exhumed. Her grave was probably pointed out by her father’s family members who had buried her, just metres away from where Pappi Devi was cremated.
Not much was left of the baby except a few bones.
The postmortem was conducted by a panel of three doctors at the Lakhimpur Kheri district hospital at 8.10 pm on August 20. Under “name of child”, the postmortem report said, “Loose lying human bones said to be of neonate of late Pappi Devi”. Four pieces of skull and six other bones were identified, and the cause of death “could not be ascertained”.
The bones were then sent to an overburdened forensics laboratory in Lucknow.
Finally, an FIR
On August 31, several things happened.
An exasperated Krishnan wrote to the police superintendent, Satyendra Jain: “I’m tired of the relentless harassment by the police and I have decided that either the police file an FIR quickly or mercy kill our entire family.”
He accused the police of creating a “fake GD” – the general diary entry about Pappi Devi’s “accidental death” – and said he felt “powerless”. He also listed the 12 other times he had written to the district police chief.
It wasn’t just a question of writing a letter and posting it, Krishnan told Newslaundry. Every time he wrote a letter, he would travel from Tamolipur to the Kheri main town, about an hour away by bus, forgoing a day’s wages, and using public transport during a pandemic. Yet, he had received no response and no action was taken.
On the morning of August 31, Krishnan, his wife, son, and daughter met the district magistrate, Shailendra Singh, and showed him a letter they had written to Jain. The family then sat in protest outside Singh’s office until 11 pm, demanding that the FIR be filed.
This time, Singh acted. He signed an acknowledgement of the letter to Jain and asked for a proper investigation to be conducted.
Finally, at 2.34 pm on September 1, an FIR was filed at the Dhaurahra police station. It named six people in connection with Pappi Devi’s death – Bablu, his unnamed mother, his father Jamuna Prasad, his brother Chotu, Chotu’s wife Chandni, and another relative Kanhaiya Lal. All six face charges under the Indian Penal Code related to cruelty, voluntarily causing hurt, dowry death, murder, and disappearance of evidence, as well as under the Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961.
Apart from Bablu, Newslaundry was unable to speak to any of Pappi Devi’s in-laws named in the FIR despite repeated attempts.
But why did the district magistrate take so long to act? Why wasn’t the FIR filed earlier?
“As far as the FIR is concerned, it has been filed,” Shailendra Singh said. “Regarding the delay, I can’t comment. Only the circle officer of Dhaurahra, Arvind Verma, can answer that question post investigation.”
On November 9, over two months after the FIR had been registered, Verma said, “No arrests have been made.” Asked if Pappi Devi’s in-laws had been questioned, he said, “No, we are waiting for the forensic report.”
But a forensic report isn’t required to start an investigation? “Now,” Verma replied, “just because somebody names someone in an FIR doesn’t mean we can just arrest them or question them, does it?”
Contrary to Verma’s claim, the police have the authority to investigate, question and hold in custody a suspect named in an FIR.
Not long after the FIR was filed, Jain was transferred and replaced as the district police chief by Vijay Dhul. He didn’t “know enough about the case”, Dhul said. He refused to comment on the delay in filing the FIR, but said that if they found “any negligence from the side of any police officer, we will immediately take strict action”.
It was Hari Om Srivastav, the station house officer of Dhaurahra, who had taken down Krishnan’s complaint but not filed an FIR. He has since been transferred. “I wrote the complaint that the man had,” Srivastav said. “He wanted a postmortem. It was being done anyway. Apart from that, I don’t know anything.”
Why didn’t he file an FIR at the time?
“They had no complaints so why would I lodge an FIR?” Srivastav said, referring to Krishnan and his brothers. “They said the baby was born dead so we wrote that.”
Asked why it took four month to file an FIR, Hari Om Srivastav simply said, “There was no delay in filing an FIR.”
Newslaundry also accessed Pappi Devi’s inquest panchnama, filed the same day. The panchnama is a record attested by five witnesses of the condition in which the body was found. The panchnama states that Pappi Devi had given birth to a stillborn. But one of the witnesses, tehsildar Anil Kumar Yadav, told Newslaundry he is “not really involved” in the case. “I don’t know about the baby,” he said. “I only went for Pappi Devi’s panchnama.”
Crucially, neither Srivastav nor Yadav checked with the local health centre, where hospital records would have shown that Pappi Devi had delivered a healthy baby.
‘I can’t take this pain anymore’
Rajeev Pandey, who is fighting Pappi Devi’s case, is exasperated.
“What is the point of schemes such as Beti Padhao Beti Bachao if the administration refuses to even acknowledge the loss of a woman’s life?” he asked. “All these schemes are useless if the mindset of even our leaders doesn’t change.”
Kushma Devi collapsed while talking about her daughter. Clutching her stomach, she sobbed, “My stomach hurts, my body hurts, my head hurts when I think of her. I can’t take this pain anymore. Everything in this house reminds me of her.”
Pappi Devi was Kushma Devi’s only child to graduate college. Her sister, Sapna Devi, 17, has studied only till Class 10. Leafing through her sister’s textbooks, Sapna said Pappi Devi loved studying. “We would start crying when we had to go to school, Didi would get ready, say namaste to our parents, and quickly leave,” she said.
Her mother added, “My daughter would encourage other girls in our village to study. In our family, no one has studied as much as she had.”
Did Pappi Devi have dreams of pursuing a career? “I don’t know,” Sapna said. “Even if she did, how would my father have fulfilled her dreams? So she just got married. And then she and her baby died.”
Pictures by Akanksha Kumar.
Anil Verma, Riya Agarwal, and Diksha Munjal contributed reporting.