Mohammad Yousuf, a 40-year-old driver with taxi aggregator Ola, went missing on August 9, apparently while ferrying a passenger from Delhi to Alwar in Rajasthan. Acting on a missing person’s complaint filed by Yousuf’s wife Salma, the Delhi Police contacted their counterparts in neighbouring states. On August 11, the Uttar Pradesh Police sent word that the taxi had been found in Agra and that the body of an unidentified man had been recovered from a canal in the outskirts of Mathura on the same day, around 60 km away from where the cab was found. The man’s hands were tied with a rope and there were injury marks on his head.

On August 12, Salma identified her husband’s body with the help of a photograph shown to her by the police. But when Yousuf’s family claimed his body for burial in accordance with Islamic rites, they were told that the Mathura Police had cremated him on August 10 itself, his relatives said. The family has accused the Uttar Pradesh Police of making no effort to ascertain his identity and of depriving them of their right to conduct the last rites according to their beliefs.

“It could be an incident of hate crime, revenge or robbery, the family is too distressed to think over motives or raise suspicion against anyone,” said Abdullah Mallik, a friend of Yousuf.

The incident also points to a serious violation of police guidelines that say that an unidentified body must be preserved for a minimum period of 72 hours before being sent for post-mortem, let alone performing the last rites.

The office of Senior Superintendent of Police (Mathura) Babloo Kumar told that it would enquire into the matter and respond to queries later. But despite several calls to his office subsequently, there was no response by the time this report was filed. The office of Deputy Inspector General of Agra Love Kumar, which has Mathura under its jurisdiction, asked for the details of the case but did not respond later. Kumar’s senior, Inspector General of Agra Zone Durga Charan Mishra did not respond to phone calls and messages by the time this report was filed.

Rahul Srivastav, public relation officer to the Director General of Uttar Pradesh Police, also asked the publication to send queries but has not yet responded to them.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Ola confirmed the booking had been made through the company’s rental services. “We are saddened by the incident which took place with one of our driver partners,” the spokesperson said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. We are in constant touch with the police and are extending full assistance that may be required in the ongoing investigation.”

Not the first instance for both UP Police and Ola

Last year, the Uttar Pradesh Police had faced a massive backlash for cremating a 22-year-old Manipuri man without establishing his identity. While the Noida Police had cremated Pravish Chanam on September 13, four days after his body was discovered, they had faced flak for failing to identify him despite a missing person’s complaint having been filed on September 9.

The police action had led to protests in Manipur, demands for the case to be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation and a meeting between Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath and his counterpart in the north-eastern state, N Biren Singh. Three policemen, including two sub-inspectors, were suspended. And a senior police official from Manipur was sent to Noida to monitor the case, which remains unsolved.

In March, an Ola driver was murdered by a passenger who had booked the cab through the aggregator’s mobile application, leading to protests by hundreds of Ola drivers in Delhi-NCR who demanded stringent evaluation of passengers on the platform too and linking passengers’ accounts with Aadhaar if needed.

In this case, the driver, Hari Narayan Parmar, had picked up a passenger, later identified as Ashu, from Noida Sector 28 for Narela in the north-western peripheries of Delhi. The rider had even rated the driver through the Ola App, said police. Later, Parmar’s body was found in Alipur area in the outskirts of Delhi. A towel was found wrapped around Parmar’s neck and his mobile phone, wallet and few other belongings were missing.

Case of murder, abduction

In Yousuf’s case, the police have registered a first information report against unidentified persons pressing charges of abduction and murder. The case has been registered in North Delhi’s Sadar Bazar police station where Salma initially reported her husband missing.

Salma, who lives with her six-year-old son Abdullah in the Sadar Bazar area, said in her police complaint that Yousuf had called her on the phone several times on the night of August 9. She said he mentioned that he was to pick up a passenger from the Capital’s Sarai Kale Khan area and drive him to Alwar, 170 km from Delhi. Yousuf told his wife he would be back early the next morning, the police said.

According to the police, their last conversation was at around midnight, after which Yousuf’s phone was unreachable and later switched off. Salma went to the police when he did not come home in the morning.

On August 13, Salma, along with some of her relatives, went to Mathura where they were handed over the Yousuf’s ashes.

But the confusion ddid not end here.

“How do we believe that the ashes handed over to us are Yousuf’s?” said his younger sister Atifah Bi. “We need justice. Only when the accused is jailed and the police gives us a legitimate reason about why they cremated him when he could be easily identified as a Muslim [referring to Yousuf’s circumcised penis]. The police also have to prove the ashes are of Yousuf’s body.”

Once that is done, the relatives will bury the ashes in adherence to their faith, she said.

What the rules say

The guidelines dealing with unidentified bodies are laid down in several laws implemented by the states and are also part of standing orders followed by police departments across states, senior police officials said. They explained that an unidentified body can be sent for post-mortem and, subsequently, cremation or burial after the 72 hours have lapsed provided the viscera and other evidence – including DNA samples, clothes and other belongings – are preserved and the police have made all necessary effort to ascertain the deceased’s identity and contact his or her immediate family.

In case the body remains unidentified, the police take a call on burial or cremation on the basis of visible signs, the officials said. They explained that these could be tattoos in the form of a signature or texts in Urdu or Hindi, or a circumcised penis in the case of a Muslim male – though the accuracy of such a deduction could be challenged given that circumcision can be done by people of other faiths too. In the absence of any visible sign, the police cremate the body, they added.

“We have formed several police teams to probe the case,” Deputy Commissioner of Police (North Delhi) Nupur Prasad said on Thursday. “The person who booked the cab has been identified and police teams are looking for him. The sequence of events concerning the criminal offence, intent and motive will be clear only after his interrogation.”

She declined to comment on the actions of the Mathura Police. However, other senior police officials in Delhi, who did not want to be identified, said that the Uttar Pradesh Police had clearly violated the guidelines.

Tracking down through technology

In Parmar’s case, it was GPS logs Ola shared with the police that had ultimately led to the accused being arrested. In Yousuf’s case too, the police are using the same method.

“This, however, happens to be a reactive measure which starts only after a criminal offence has taken place,” said a police official privy to the details of the case. “The ideal situation would be round-the-clock GPS coordination between cab aggregator services and the police. It would help curb instances of criminal incidents in which the drivers are the perpetrators, in which the drivers are the victims and the ones in which the cabs are used for committing any crime, irrespective of the driver’s involvement.”

Such a protocol does not exist currently.

But a protocol of this sort could lead to problems of its own, said, Kislay Chaudhary, a cyber security consultant to several government agencies. “First, it is a breach of privacy. Second, it will automatically lead to surveillance. It is highly prone to unethical use. For instance, private detective agencies often keep a look out for such data and any police official or government official of the lower-rung who has access to such data can be bribed to procure such movement details of an individual. If the individual is a senior government servant himself, whose family uses such cab aggregator services, it can lead to a security threat too.”

In September last year, the Aam Aadmi Party government told the Delhi High Court it was finalising a regulatory framework for taxis plying in the National Capital Region. Called the City Taxi Scheme 2017, it was supposed to be notified by the end of last year. That has not happened so far.

Among many regulations laid down by the Scheme, one relates to sharing of GPS logs round the clock by the cab aggregator services with both Delhi government and Delhi Police. The Scheme did not go down well with the cab aggregator companies because it also prohibited shared or pool rides, said an Ola official who did not want to be identified.

In Yousuf’s case, the investigators said, that they are yet to find leads to connect the dots between the location in Agra where the car was found and the location in Mathura where his body was discovered. A Delhi Police team is scheduled to return to the city with the car on Saturday.