A little after midnight on March 2, Praveen Jamdade brought his 25-year-old wife’s body to the civil hospital in the town of Sangli in Maharashtra. Jamdade, a farmer, asked the hospital’s medical officer to keep the body of his wife Swati in the morgue.
“He told me that they wanted to conduct the funeral when the deceased’s parents arrived from Puducherry,” recalled Dr ST Patil, for whom such requests are not uncommon.
Patil started the paperwork and asked for Swati Jamdade’s death certificate. Praveen Jamdade handed, a sheet of paper to Patil that read: “Complaints of loose motions and vomiting. Accidentally, I found her dead.” The sheet was signed by a Dr Babasaheb Khidrapure, a homeopath practicing in Mhaisal, a village on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border.
Praveen Jamdade lived with his family in Manerajuri, a village about 36 kilometers north of Mhaisal. Jamdade’s relatives told Patil that the family had been visiting a temple in Mhaisal when Swati Jamdade suddenly took ill. Patil thought that the death certificate looked suspect. Besides, Swati Jamdade’s abdomen appeared like that of a pregnant woman.
“While I was taking down the medical history, no relative mentioned that she was pregnant,” said Patil. “Even the death certificate had no reference to the pregnancy.”
Patil alerted the local police station and recommended an autopsy. “A pregnant woman had died possibly of unnatural causes,” he said. “We had to find out how.”
Patil’s suspicions about the death certificate and the subsequent autopsy exposed an interstate sex-selective abortion racket running in Sangli and Belagavi, which is about 150 kilometres away in Karnataka. The police investigation revealed that Swati Jamdade had undergone an illegal abortion at Bharti hospital in Mhaisal run by Khidrapure, who is a homeopath and not legally permitted to conduct abortions. She had allegedly had a sex determination test at the clinic of Dr S Ghodake, a homeopath in Belagavi.
According to Belagavi health officials, Ghodake owned an ultrasound clinic whose registration had not been renewed since November.
The Maharashtra police have arrested 13 people, including Praveen Jamdade, Khidrapure, Ghodake and other accomplices and booked them under relevant sections of Indian Penal Code, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act and the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act. The police have found plastic bags containing foetuses on the banks of Krishna river allegedly dumped by Khidrapure’s milkman Vishnu Sutar.
While Swati Jamdade’s autopsy was underway, her parents and other relatives arrived at the Sangli civil hospital. Her father Sunil Jadhav told doctors that she was pregnant and had undergone an ultrasound when she visited them in Puducherry in the last week of January.
Jadhav also told the police that his daughter was unhappy. “Tila khup dadpan hota,” said Jadhav. She was in acute stress. He said that after her first daughter was born, Praveen Jamdade and his family harassed her and things got worse after their second daughter was born. Praveen Jamdade had supposedly called Jadhav a few days before Swati Jamdade’s death to say that he was taking her to Mhaisal for an abortion.
“When he told me that Swati is pregnant with a girl, I asked him not to do anything and accept whatever God gave,” said Jadhav. However, Jadhav said, that Praveen Jamdade insisted that his wife should get an abortion: “Tyala pishvi khali karaichi hoti.” He wanted to empty the uterus.
The police and district health authorities went to Bharti Hospital and found Khidrapure absconding. The police arrested and interrogated Sandeep Vanmore, a helper at the clinic, who told the police that illegal abortions took place in the hospital. An arts graduate, Vanmore had been working at the hospital for five years.
“The doctor would admit the women in the basement rooms and bring them to the operation theatre when the foetus was to be removed,” Vanmore told Scroll.in. “Smaller foetuses would be thrown in the toilet but bigger ones were disposed of by the milk-man.” The milkman Vishnu Sutar was allegedly paid Rs 300 for every foetus he disposed of.
The more advanced a pregnancy, the larger the foetus will be. The law allows registered medical practitioners to perform medical terminations of pregnancies on foetuses that are 20 weeks old or younger.
The police’s interrogation of Vanmore led the police to Sutar, who then directed them to the spot where he would bury the foetuses. The police have recovered about 19 bags of foetuses on the banks of the river Krishna, which flows through Mhaisal. The samples have been sent for forensic DNA examination to the Forensic Science Laboratory in Pune to confirm the sex of the foetuses. The police say that they are are also considering matching the DNA of couples they suspect have undergone abortions at Khidrapure’s clinic with the DNA samples of the recovered foetuses.
The surprising postmortem
Meanwhile, Patil of the Sangli civil hospital and forensic doctor AB Dheeraj conducted the postmortem on Swati Jamdade at the Government Medical College in Miraj, which is 12 kilometers from Sangli city and on the road to Mhaisal. The postmortem confirmed that Swati Jamdade was four and half months pregnant at the time of her death. But there was also another surprising result of the postmortem – a finding that the pregnancy was ectopic. An ectopic pregnancy is one in which the embryo attaches outside the uterus in the fallopian tube. This kind of pregnancy is potentially dangerous and, if not detected in time, can cause the fallopian tube to burst. The postmortem report said that Swati died of “haemorrhage shock due to rupture of a tubal pregnancy”.
The postmortem findings are surprising because ectopic pregnancies do not usually last as long as Swati Jamdade’s had. More surprising was the fact that none of the doctors Swati Jamdade had previously seen detected the condition through ultrasounds. An ultrasound or sonography is conducted for various reasons during the course of pregnancy and one of the reasons is to ensure that the embryo is attached in the uterus. An embryo growing outside the uterus is not viable. “It is extremely rare for an ectopic pregnancy to advance up to four months,” said a senior gynaecologist not related to the case.
Swati Jamdade had two ultrasounds, say the police. The first one was at Puducherry when she visited her parents in January and the second one was at Ghodake’s clinic in Belgavi. According to police investigation, Khidrapure referred the Jamdades to Ghodake.
“I have given the report on the basis of what I saw on the scan,” said Dr S Natarajan, the doctor in Puducherry who conducted the first ultrasound. “Her pregnancy was not ectopic.”
A cover up?
A senior doctor involved with the case said that the postmortem findings are “more accurate” than an ultrasound. “The postmortem findings clearly show that it is an ectopic pregnancy and the sample has been sent to the forensic laboratory for further tests to confirm the autopsy findings,” he said.
Activists working against sex-selective abortions in Sangli allege that the postmortem report is a cover-up to protect Khidrapure. Activists say they have repeatedly complained against Khidrapure for performing illegal abortions in the past and alleged that the conflicting reports are an attempt to protect Khidrapure.
“The government wants to show that she died of some pregnancy complication and not because of abortion,” said Nana Kamble, one of the activists who has complained about Khidrapure earlier.
However, Dr Deepali Kale, deputy superintendent of Sangli police refuted the allegations of a cover-up. “Swati’s death is a result of an illegal sex-selective abortion performed by Khidrapure,” she said.
As contradictions grow and the investigation continues, a tall poster has been hung outside Swati Jamdade’s maternal home. It has a picture of her smiling, flowers adorning her hair neatly tied in a bun. This photo was taken during her younger sister’s wedding.
During Swati Jamdade’s own wedding, her parents had gifted her husband Praveen Jamdade gold and home appliances. Now, her grandmother angrily said, “We don’t care about the gold. I just want to see Praveen being hanged to death. Only, then female foeticide will stop.”
In anger, Swati Jamdade’s parents lit her funeral pyre right outside her in-laws’ house. “We want them to always remember that they are responsible for her death,” said Jadhav, her father.
A few years ago, Swati Jamdade’s childhood friend Pratibha was allegedly murdered by her husband for bearing three daughters. The case is pending in the court. “Swati is the second woman in our village to die for not having a son,” said Jadhav.
This is the first story in a series about sex-selective abortions and the continued preference for male children in Sangli.
This reporting project has been made possible partly by funding from New Venture Fund for Communications.