It’s a question that has been haunting the Delhi Police since November 18 – nearly three years after the 23-year-old’s husband reported her missing and her father spent as many years in jail for allegedly killing her in the name of honour.
Nearly a month after she first went missing in January 2020, a highly decomposed body fished out of a canal near Bulandshahr in UP was identified as Sheetal’s by her husband Ankit Bhati. Her father, 43-year-old Ravinder Chaudhary, was arrested based on Ankit’s complaint and the father’s call detail records.
Last week came the twist: the results of two DNA tests have established that the body is not Sheetal’s. The Delhi Police are now grappling with a curious situation — they have no victim and no accused either.
On November 18, while granting bail to Sheetal’s father, Additional Sessions Judge Vishal Gogne stated that “there’s a strong likelihood” that the body recovered from the canal in UP in February 2020 was not of his daughter’s.
Ankit has not responded to calls from The Indian Express seeking a comment on the developments. He was not available at his New Ashok Nagar residence either.
A missing complaint and the same gotra
A month before the country went into the first lockdown due to Covid-19, Ankit Bhati received a call from the Delhi Police on February 19, 2020. The 27-year-old had filed a police complaint on February 6, 2020, stating that his wife was missing since January 18, 2020.
The Indian Express accessed the FIR in the case, which states that “Sheetal’s parents didn’t allow Ankit to meet her” and that they “intentionally kidnapped her and hid her somewhere”. Ankit also alleged that Sheetal’s parents were against their marriage as they belonged to the same gotra.
On February 19, 2020, when the UP police reached out to their Delhi counterpart based on the latter’s entry on Zipnet (the Zonal Integrated Police Network, which logs details of missing persons), they were told that on January 30, 2020, a decomposed female body in “blue lowers and light blue jersey with wire-like dental braces” had been fished out of a canal near Bulandshahr. According to the post-mortem report dated February 2, 2020, the time of death was estimated to be “5-6 days ago (around January 29, 2020)”, while the cause of death “could not be ascertained”.
The next day, as per his police statement, Ankit was shown a photograph of a highly decomposed body — which, as per the police bulletin, “was missing skin due extreme bloating in the water” — and a bundle of clothes for identification. Claiming he had gifted the clothes in the bundle to his wife, who also had dental braces, Ankit “confirmed” the body was Sheetal’s. Over the next two days, Ravinder, his wife Suman and their relatives were arrested under Sections 201 (disappearance of evidence), 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 302 (murder). While the others were released on bail, Ravinder remained in jail for over three years.
Mismatched DNA samples and the body “switch”
As per procedure, DNA samples from the body and Ravinder were sent to the Forensic Science Lab in Delhi’s Rohini. A 2022 report from the lab stated that the two DNA samples did not match. The police then collected a sample of the mother’s DNA to test it against a sample from the body. This time, too, the samples didn’t match. So the body was not Sheetal’s – where was she?
A scrutiny of court documents reveals that two bodies were recovered on the same day from the same canal. While both bodies underwent autopsies, samples were preserved from only one body, the documents add.
Ravinder’s lawyer Deepak Sharma alleged that the Delhi Police “botched up” the murder investigation and made arrests based “solely on the husband’s statement, without verifying facts”.
However, the Delhi investigators accused their UP counterpart of “negligence”.
A Delhi Police officer said, “They (the UP Police) had photos of both the bodies. Ankit identified his wife from the photo. We think they switched Sheetal’s body with the other woman’s since both were unidentified as far as they were concerned.”
Her family claimed they had seen the photographs of the bodies too but were sure that none of them was Sheetal.
When contacted, the UP Police said the case was very old and they “do not have the details”.
The November 18 court order stated, “….even the examination of the photographs by the expert from the FSL did not yield sufficient reference material for comparing the admitted photographs of the daughter of the accused with the photographs of the decomposed body of the victim.”
Stating that the identity of the second body remains unknown, Delhi Police said “both bodies have been cremated”.
To a question on why the DNA result took nearly two years, a senior FSL officer said, “We have over 20,000 cases pending since last year. The pendency is huge, so is the staff crunch. We also have to prioritise cases based on the nature of the crime and police requests. That’s why it took two years to get the report (in this case). The Covid-19 lockdown slowed us down tremendously.”
A courtship and a secret marriage
Court documents detail Sheetal and Ankit’s courtship, which started after they met because of a common friend around 2016. Though Sheetal and Ankit were supposed to find a match for their common friend, they fell in love instead.
Sheetal, a graduate, started taking tuition classes in the locality, while Ankit started working at his uncle’s dairy shop. In 2019, the couple decided to tell their parents about the relationship. According to the police, Sheetal’s parents allegedly beat her up and didn’t allow her to leave the house for a while.
On October 23, 2019, the couple secretly tied the knot at an Arya Samaj temple in Tis Hazari and allegedly went back to their houses in New Ashok Nagar. According to Ankit’s police complaint, in January 2020, Sheetal allegedly told him that she would inform her parents about their marriage. As per the police, the couple last spoke on the phone on January 18, 2020. Ankit filed a missing complaint on February 6, 2020, and an FIR in the case was lodged 10 days later.
As per the chargesheet, Delhi Police relied “heavily” on the father’s call detail records and his location near Bulandshahr around the time of Sheetal’s murder. Sources said the police will reinvestigate the case since the father is no longer a prime suspect. Investigators told The Indian Express that Ankit will be called for questioning since her parents have alleged that they never saw Sheetal after her wedding.
Investigators will also look into the two complaints filed by Ankit in the case. In his February 6, 2020, complaint, he stated that Sheetal and he stayed together for a few days after their secret wedding in October 2019, before she went home to convince her parents. Ankit alleged that her phone was constantly switched off and that his in-laws didn’t let him meet her.
In the complaint dated February 16, 2020, Ankit alleged that after Sheetal went back home to convince her parents, they spoke on the phone regularly till January 18, 2020.
Meanwhile, Sheetal’s mother Suman told The Indian Express, “Ankit’s allegations are false. We were opposed to the marriage, but we would never kill our only child. I last met her around November 2019. We didn’t speak to her after she eloped with him. The police blamed us for killing her and taking her body to Aligarh (near Bulandshahr). How could we kill her when we didn’t even see her? We have suffered enough. My husband was in jail for more than three years. We lost a daughter and don’t know where she is.”