On September 18, 2015, Dharm Singh came back from the dead. The 30-year-old resident of Badli village in the north-western peripheries of Delhi had been declared dead and was reported to have been cremated 26 days before. His grandmother fainted on seeing him walk towards their home, exchanging pleasantries with shocked neighbours. The village elders gathered for a meeting, wondering if he was an evil spirit. A police team was sent to Badli, said a senior police official who was formerly the officer in charge of Outer Delhi district.

Singh, a truck driver, had gone missing in August that year, leaving his mobile phone at home. Soon after, his family lodged a missing person complaint. On August 23, a man was beaten to death in a neighbouring village on suspicion of being a thief. When his identity could not be ascertained, the police went through missing persons reports and called Singh’s family to the police station to identify the body. But there was a problem: the dead man was so severely beaten up, his face was no longer recognisable, said the official.

But the relatives insisted it was Singh, he added. “They said the body had the same build, wore the same clothes Singh had left home in and had the same birthmark as Singh,” the official recalled. “The body was handed over to them and it was eventually cremated after getting the post-mortem examination done.”

On his return, Singh told the police he had left in a hurry for a long tour without telling his family and that he could not call home as he did not have his phone.

So who was the man who was cremated? “His identity could never be ascertained,” the official said. “The police did not face any trouble as nobody came to claim the cremated man’s body.”

The Uttar Pradesh Police, however, had no such luck when they cremated a 22-year-old Manipuri man who had gone missing from a concert in Greater Noida on September 8 and was found dead in Noida’s Nithari area the next day. Pravish Chanam’s relatives had lodged a missing person complaint on September 9.

Protesting students in Delhi have accused the Uttar Pradesh Police of not making much of an effort to identify Pravish Chanam's body. (Credit: Manipur Student Association Delhi)

The police initially said they followed the rules that allow them to send an unidentified body for post-mortem and then cremation or burial 72 hours after its recovery. Later, they suspended three officers and transferred one for alleged inaction.

The incident sparked outrage in Manipur, prompting the Manipur Police to send an additional director general-rank officer to Noida on September 21 to assist the investigation. Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh later met Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath on Monday to discuss the case.

It has also raised questions about the sincerity with which the police deal with unidentified bodies. Student groups in the National Capital Region have accused the Uttar Pradesh force of not making enough of an effort to identify Chanam.

On average, 95 unidentified bodies are found every day in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. The Zonal Integrated Police Network system – in which the police departments of eight North Indian states update case details, including about unidentified bodies – shows at least eight unidentified bodies were found every day in Delhi and one each day in Uttar Pradesh’s Gautam Buddh Nagar district, which has Noida and Greater Noida under its jurisdiction, between January 1 and September 15 this year.

Bodies piling up in morgues

According to guidelines laid down by the several state Autonomy Acts and standing orders followed by police departments across states, an unidentified body can be sent for post-mortem, and subsequently cremation or burial, after a minimum preservation period of 72 hours, provided the viscera and other evidence – including DNA samples, clothes, accessories and other belongings – are preserved, and the police have made all necessary effort to ascertain the identity of the deceased and contact his or her blood relatives, said officials at Delhi’s biggest and oldest mortuary in the Subzi Mandi area.

Investigators can also seek an extension of the preservation period if they have made progress in the case.

But here lies another problem city authorities face while dealing with unidentified bodies.

“While the law is silent about the number of extensions that can be sought, nature imposes its own limits,” said a senior official at the mortuary, who did not wish to be identified. “The extensions lead to a massive pile-up of bodies in mortuaries, way beyond their capacity. The biggest problem is mutilated bodies, whose preservation becomes a big challenge and poses serious hazards to workers who deal with bodies in the mortuary every day.”

Delhi has 14 mortuaries – two of them autonomous, three under the Central government, one under the municipal corporation and eight under the Delhi government. Most are filled beyond capacity, said senior government officials.

This problem had led to the Subzi Mandi mortuary in March 2015 throwing out 29 unclaimed bodies after a dispute with the police. The incident had left residents horrified and was finally settled, with the intervention of senior officials of the Delhi Police and city government, by cremating the bodies.

“We had no option,” the mortuary official said. “In recent years, we have been dealing with decaying bodies more than three months old. It is not only a health hazard but also a matter of dignity of the human employees working in mortuaries. And none of them have a permanent government job.”

Identifying the dead

It is rare for the police to seek a second extension these days, said a police officer at Delhi’s Kashmere Gate Police Station, which accounts for the highest number of unclaimed bodies recovered from areas under its jurisdiction after the Railway Police. This year, the police station has recovered at least one such body per day, he added.

“The number of cases are so high, the police have to put a limit on the number of extensions they seek,” the officer said. “The first extension can be sought for another 72 hours, followed by subsequent extensions of 48 hours, depending on the progress of the case.”

Explaining how bodies are identified, he said it starts with putting up the case details on the Zonal Integrated Police Network and other networks that connect the police with organisations like the Central Bureau of Investigation, Intelligence Bureau and National Crime Records Bureau. Simultaneously, the police look into missing persons complaints lodged in all 182 police stations in Delhi and later in neighbouring states.

“The process of sharing details with the UIDAI [Unique Identity Authority of India, which issues Aadhaar numbers] to match biometrics for efficient identification of bodies is still underway,” he said. “This can make the process simpler.”

The decision on whether a body is to be cremated or buried is based on physical signs, such as tattoos or a circumcised penis. In case no such sign is found, cremation is considered the default process, he said.

The officer admitted the police slip up sometimes. “Mess-ups in the identification of bodies do happen occasionally as police organisations fail to keep a tab on the ZIPNET on a regular basis and also miss out on missing persons complaints at times,” he said.

Unanswered questions

In the case of Pravish Chanam, the Uttar Pradesh Police are yet to answer some difficult questions on what went wrong.

Chanam’s brother Ravi Kant Chanam told mediapersons, “On September 9, I lodged a missing person complaint at Knowledge Park Police Station in Greater Noida and by September 11, we had started pasting missing persons pamphlets in crowded localities in Delhi-NCR, with the consent of the police. There is clear criminal intent in concealing the identity of the victim.”

The family wants the Central Bureau of Investigation to look into the case.

Pravish Chanam, a humanities student in Hyderabad, had come to Delhi on September 7 to attend the concert in Greater Noida the next day. He had stayed with friends and attended the show with three of them. He went missing from the concert venue.

Protesting outside Uttar Pradesh Bhavan in Delhi on September 21, several student groups pointed out that since Pravish Chanam had the distinct facial features of a person from the North East, the Uttar Pradesh Police could have informed the various north-eastern forums in the National Capital Region. This could have helped with the identification process, they said.