Kerala human sacrifice: Hundreds turn up to watch bodies get exhumed

It was Jose Thomas, the accused couple’s neighbour, who provided the police with the CCTV footage that clinched the evidence in the case.
The crowd gathered in front of the murder site in Elanthoor
The crowd gathered in front of the murder site in Elanthoor
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Elanthoor, a charmingly sleepy village at the Kozhencherry taluk near Kerala’s Thiruvalla, had woken up to a rude shock on Tuesday, October 11. Phones ringing and televisions blaring, residents of the quaint green village were just coming to hear of a brutal twin murder, which had apparently happened right under their noses. News channels described, in excruciating detail, how two women were viciously murdered in a ritual human sacrifice in their neighbourhood over the past few months, that too by two of their own — Bhagaval Singh and his wife Laila — a seemingly ordinary couple they had peacefully lived alongside for years. Bhagaval Singh is learnt to be a former branch member of CPI(M) in Elanthoor.

While police vehicles streamed in one after another, cordoning off the now-arrested couple’s house with barricades and ‘do not cross’ tapes, the elderly men and women —  who mostly populated ward 13 of the Elanthoor grama panchayat — slowly retreated into the comfort of their homes, stunned into silence with disbelief. Around 1 pm, the police brought Bhagaval Singh and Laila, along with the alleged mastermind behind the incident Mohammed Shafi, to the crime spot for evidence collection and exhumation of the bodies. In tandem, the premises of the murder site swelled, as hundreds of people from near and far started to gather in droves, hoping to catch a glimpse of the police action, and to see the faces of the three people accused in the horrific crime.

Media vans simultaneously lined up on the winding roads of Elanthoor, and many made a beeline to the house of the accused couple’s neighbour, Jose Thomas. The CCTV footage obtained from his house had proved to be the clinching evidence in the case. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and mundu, Jose stood in the front yard of his house, patiently answering the media’s never-ending queries, offering water to the police personnel busy at work, and accommodating the curious onlookers who had camped on his premises to peer at the police procedure next door.

The crowd attempts to catch a glimpse of the police action from neighbour Jose Thomas's house

It was around evening last Sunday that the Circle Inspector of Kadavanthra in Ernakulam contacted Jose, asking if he lived next door to Bhagaval Singh. “It was apparently [Bhagaval] himself who gave the police my number. The CI had asked me to lend them the footage from the CCTV camera in my house over a particular time period, and obviously I agreed,” Jose told TNM.

But the police wanted to know more, specifically about Bhagaval’s fame as an ayurvedic healer, which piqued Jose’s curiosity. “They told me that they had caught a culprit in a case in Ernakulam, who seemed to have frequented [Bhagaval’s] house. They were wondering if his expertise as a healer was so famed that people from such faraway places approached him often. To that, I had to say no. They didn’t ask me much else after that. But the very next day, the Kadavanthra police came here, carried out an investigation and arrested Bhagaval and Laila.”

“We were all in shock, and we are still,” Jose said. “People in this area have never had any complaints about this couple, not even a bad habit to point out. So we were naturally dismayed when the police came to their house. We were left wondering — for what possible reason could they be arresting them?” The subsequent revelations, however, turned out to be even worse than the Koodathayi murders that shook Kerala three years ago, Jose said. “We later learned that the two had slit the throats of those poor women and severed their bodies. It was unbelievable. The situation here is such that women who struggle to make ends meet cannot trust anyone, anymore.”

Once he realised who Shafi was, Jose was also sure he had spotted the man in the area a few times before. “Just two weeks ago, I saw his white Scorpio car parked beside their house. One time, I had also seen him walking to and fro in their backyard, talking on his phone. I simply assumed he was there for some kind of ayurvedic treatment,” he recalled.

Police personnel enter the crime site

Meanwhile, news emerged that both the bodies had been exhumed, and that the relatives were unable to identify them. The few area residents who gathered in front of the murder site launched into a heated discussion about the grotesque nature of the crime, and the smear the incident had cast upon their peaceful village. “Our Elanthoor is world-famous now, isn’t it?” one of them quipped, with an almost sad smile on his face. “Could have been for better reasons,” another responded. As one of the residents, Gopinathan, later told TNM, Elanthoor was a place where people of all political parties and ideologies came together, despite differences. “For as long as I can remember, we haven’t had any serious crime reported here. This incident is a tremendous shock for us in many ways. Considering what happened, where it happened and who did it, we are still reeling from the severity of it all,” he said.

Evidence collection underway at the house of Bhagaval Singh and Laila

Sasipalan (name changed to protect identity), who lives just a few metres away from the accused couple’s house, echoed Gopinathan’s words. “This is an unprecedented case, not only for Elanthoor or Thiruvalla, but for Kerala itself. We have heard of such incidents happening in other states, but I could have never imagined that something like this would happen here,” he said.

Sunny, another nearby resident, however pointed out that Kerala was not without its share of superstitions and prior ‘sacrifices'. “I remember a case in Kollam a few years ago, where a young woman was starved to death in the name of black magic,” he recalled, referring to the 2019 domestic violence case that had resulted in the death of a 22-year-old woman near Kottarakkara. Thushara was physically tortured, mentally abused, locked in a room and starved by her husband and mother-in-law, reportedly over dowry. It was later found that the in-laws had given only sugar water and soaked rice as food to Thushara, who weighed only 20 kg when she died, allegedly as per the directions of a ‘tantrik’ who practised black magic.

The crowd gathered on the premises of the crime site

“I didn’t even tell my children, who are abroad, about what happened. I didn’t want them to be worried that such a ghastly incident had happened in the house adjacent to our own. But they watched the news on TV and called me up,” 77-year-old Padmini (name changed) told TNM. Padmini hadn’t left her house since morning. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to stomach seeing the exhumation of two bodies, from the house of a man she once thought of as family. “Besides, I am hearing that there is a bad stench on the premises,” she pointed out. Instead, Padmini opened up her house for worn out police personnel to freshen up and drink tea, because it was "the least she can do".

“The atmosphere here now is reminding me of the Karikkin Villa murder case in Thiruvalla many years ago. I was much younger then. For a long time since then, if I had to travel past that area with my family, I would point to that house and shake my head in disbelief. I think the house was later taken over to establish a church (it was actually bought by Bishop KP Yohannan of Gospel for Asia, and is now the office of Last Hour ministry),” Padmini recalled. “But now this has happened in our place. This is where people would point at and shake their heads.”

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