The needle of suspicion of locals is on Aslam, who was arrested by police after questioning the first suspect Jahid.
Locals say Aslam was a sexual predator with a history of cases of assaulting minors. They complain that he was allowed to roam free.
On Sunday, one could not walk a hundred metres in Tappal without spotting a bunch of policemen on duty.
Some Hindu organisations had announced protest marches against the murder and mutilation of a two-year-old girl at the hands of some Muslims here. Protesters were streaming in this Aligarh town, in west Uttar Pradesh, from as far as New Delhi and Haryana. The atmosphere was tense.
Locals point this correspondent to a lane they call 'panditon ki gali' (street of Pandits). A tent is set up and carpet laid outside the house of the victim’s family.
Manoj Sharma (name changed to protect identity of the victim), father of the child whose barbaric death has shocked and shaken the conscience of the country, emerges from the gathering of mourners.
He gets irritated when asked about the money dispute that the police have announced in the media to be the motive of the crime. "You really think somebody would unleash such brutality on a child for 10,000 rupees?” he asks. “That too when we did not even force him to return the money?"
Manoj, however, refuses to comment further on the motive. "All I ask for is that the culprits, whoever they are, should be hanged," he says with folded hands. "Or better, stoned to death at the highway,” he adds bitterly.
Manoj's father steps in and narrates the events that led him to name Jahid as suspect.
Jahid, 27, was the first to be arrested in the case, followed by his 42-year-old neighbour Aslam. Jahid's wife Sabusta and younger brother Mehdi Hasan were arrested later for complicity.
He says he had a spat with Jahid two days before the girl went missing on 30 May. "I was walking by when I saw Jahid engaged in an argument with bicholia," he says. Bicholia (middleman), also a Muslim, had got him to lend Rs 50,000 on interest to Jahid about a year ago. Jahid had returned Rs 40,000 so far.
"They were fighting over money. When they saw me, bicholia ordered Jahid to return my money. I snapped at the bicholia saying he should be the one to return it as I was dealing with him and not Jahid. We had some more arguments. But for me, the matter ended then and there and I moved on though I heard Jahid say loudly that he would deal with everyone [main sabko dekh lunga]," he says.
The grandfather does not recall Jahid directing the threat at him, but shares why his needle of suspicion fell on Jahid immediately when he saw the battered body of his child.
On the morning of 2 June, a woman sweeper raised an alarm after she discovered a maggot-infested body thrown in a pile of garbage and being fed on by stray dogs around 6.30 am. A crowd gathered at the spot that is hardly 200 metres away from the Sharma house.
The sight left them stunned. It was mutilated beyond recognition.
The barbarity unleashed on the child can be gauged from what a doctor later told a newspaper. “In my seven years of doing post-mortems, I have never seen such brutality. Her nasal bridge was damaged and her left leg and left arm were broken. Her right hand had been removed from her body."
The post-mortem report, which was circulated widely on social media, also mentions ‘liquefied brain’, ‘both eyes tissues loosened’ and ribs seen separately. Her abdominal organs were missing, including uterus and genital organs. It suggests death by shock.
The family recognised the body only by the yellow shorts. "I saw the yellow knickers and immediately knew it was my child. The same moment, Jahid's face appeared before my eyes. I did not even realise that I was screaming his name,” the grandfather says.
He shares that the crowd promptly caught hold of Jahid and thrashed him. When the police arrived, they handed Jahid over to them.
Jahid lives right opposite the garbage mound. Four-five houses away, in the same lane, resides Aslam, alone in his two-room house. Police picked up Aslam after questioning Jahid, but so far, have not commented on his motive for getting involved in the crime. As for Jahid, they have said he did it to “avenge” the insult meted to him that day.
Locals say that when sniffer dogs were taken to the garbage heap, they ran towards Jahid’s house. A senior cop at Tappal station testified to this. Subusta came under the scanner as it was her dupatta that the body was found wrapped in. The murder is being probed under the National Security Act.
Locals, however, are refusing to buy the police’s explanation. Those gathered for mourning told Swarajya that they found it difficult to believe that Jahid planned the crime as “he was not criminal-minded”. They believe it was masterminded by Aslam - a serial sexual predator who targeted minors. But in the same vein, they say Jahid was a "nashedi ganjedi" (drinker, smoker) like Aslam and the two were sometimes seen hanging out together. “Maybe he helped Aslam,” says one.
Cops at the Tappal police station said Jahid had no prior criminal record. Aslam, on the other hand, had been booked twice in the past under POCSO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) Act and once under UP Goonda Act.
In 2014, he was booked under IPC 376 (rape) and sections 3 and 4 of POCSO (penetrative sexual assault) Act for raping his nine-year-old daughter after taking her to a field (FIR number 41/14).
In 2015, he was booked under the UP Goonda Act under various sections (FIR number 43/015).
In 2017, he was booked under sections 452 (house-trespass) and 354 (outraging modesty of woman) and sections 7 and 8 of POCSO (sexual assault) for molesting a minor girl after breaking into her house (FIR number 76/017).
In addition, locals mention a prominent case where Aslam sexually assaulted a minor boy for two weeks.
Mohit Pratap Singh, who lives adjacent to Aslam’s house, says, “About two years ago, he brought a minor boy from Delhi and kept him in confinement for two weeks. It was only after a police team from Delhi raided his house and rescued the boy that we came to even know about it.” Scores of locals corroborated this account.
A senior cop at Tappal police station said he knew about the case but it was recorded in Delhi and thus he could not furnish details.
Locals also recall Aslam as violent. A neighbour says that a day before the body was found, Aslam chased his wife with a butchers' knife in the street. "He would have probably killed her if not for our intervention," the neighbour says. He adds that his wife had come home from her maiden place the same day.
Neighbours say Aslam's wife left him last year when he assaulted his daughter again. She would, however, visit occasionally.
A key reason why residents suspect Aslam of executing the crime is because the back gate of the house of the girl's grandfather opens into the locality where Aslam has another house.
The Sharma family has two corner houses in the same lane, right opposite each other. The lane is closed, and thus the girl would move between the two houses - her father’s and grandfather's - safely and frequently.
"She did not go anywhere else at all," the girl's uncle says. “There is no possibility of her going towards Jahid’s locality. No one seems to have spotted him here either.”
When she went missing around 8.30 am on 30 May, the family informed the Tappal police and launched a search operation on their own. They roamed around the village with loudspeakers, telling residents to be on the lookout for the baby. An FIR was filed the next day against an unknown accused under section 363 (kidnapping).
In the following days, the family extended their search to adjoining villages, but to no avail.
The family believes that the kidnappers would have thrown the girl’s body into the Yamuna river - some six kilometres away - but for the spirited search operation “that had almost the entire village on the streets”. "We feel the killers were left with no option but to eventually dump it in the garbage," the girl's maternal grandfather says.
He questions the police’s conduct in the initial days. He says the Tappal police did little to find the girl. "Had it been their own daughter, would they sit silently for four days?" he asks.
He also accuses them of trying to cover up the case. He says that when the body was discovered, the cops immediately took it to the police station and, without informing the family, began to take it “somewhere” in their vehicle. But residents confronted the cops, asking them where the blood relatives of the girl were.
“The police lied to them saying the girl's grandfather was in their vehicle. Residents protested saying he was still in the thana. The public understood that the police were trying to show the recovery at a distant location and forced the vehicle to stop,” he says. The body was then sent to the local hospital. Stuffed in a bag, it was later taken to Aligarh for post-mortem. This time, there were family members too, he says.
A relative says the police wanted to hush up the case as it was “a Hindu-Muslim matter”.
For the same reason, locals are criticising the police's hurried statement ruling out rape.
"If there was no rape, why are police adding POCSO?" asks a relative. "The post-mortem had no evidence of rape but did not rule out the possibility. Also, when the forensic report [examining vaginal swabs of the girl] is awaited, why was police in a rush to declare no rape took place?" he asks.
Locals find it difficult to believe that Aslam, in particular, did not rape the child. "Are we expected to believe that a man who doesn’t spare his own daughter, brings boys from Delhi to satisfy his urge, peeps into minor girls’ bathrooms, would spare this girl?" asks a neighbour.
Aslam, it is learnt, had been boycotted by many residents. Mohit Agarwal, who runs a grocery store, says he would refuse to deal with Aslam. "Other customers would also protest if he turned up at my shop," says Agarwal.
Neighbours say the locals held a meeting last year and called for Aslam to be driven out of the village. But the move was halted by some members of his Muslim community, they say. "People with political interests from his community saved him," says Mohit Pratap Singh. Others testify to this.
At Aslam's other house near Jahid’s, near which the body was discovered, the largely Muslim neighbours refuse to speak. Several houses were in fact locked on Sunday.
Rehanna, an immediate neighbour of Aslam, said she did not know much about Aslam as he lived alone. "I know as much as you do from the reports," she said.
Asked if Muslim families were fleeing the locality, she said she did not know as no neighbour told her anything before leaving.
One of the rooms in Aslam's house has fodder stocked for cattle. Locals say this is where he kept the minor boy he had brought from Delhi.
Residents, who have refused to buy the monetary dispute motive, now ask why a serial sexual predator like Aslam was allowed to roam freely despite several cases against him.
A relative of the girl asks, "In the case regarding his daughter, it was his own family who got him out on bail. But why was he given bail in other cases too?"
A senior cop from Delhi told Swarajya that repeat offenders get bail because most cops do not do their job well. "During court hearing, it is the duty of the investigating officer to tell the judges that the accused has a criminal history. The court wouldn't give bail then," the cop said.
Locals, meanwhile, rue that the case has impacted little girls in the town deeply. A woman who did not wish to be named but let this correspondent record her audio statement, said that little girls have been hearing elders talk about a baby girl being mutilated and killed, and this has left them very disturbed.
"They are very scared," she said. "These days, you cannot even afford to hide much from them. They are telling us they are scared to even go to school.”