This article has been written by Oishika Banerji of Amity Law School, Kolkata. This article provides a detailed analysis of the well-known Burari death case that had grabbed several eyes back in 2018.
This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar.
The Burari deaths case was a terrifying incident back in 2018 where 11-members of a family in Burari, Delhi had killed themselves. Many call it to be a case of mass suicide. While very little is known about the case, the majority of the information stands baseless or unreasonable, as has been often portrayed by television media. A family with a deep inside story was revealed to the world in a much better way because of Leena Yadav’s documentary on Netflix titled, ‘House of Secrets: the Burari Deaths‘. Until a death in 2007, the Chundawats (familiarly called the Bhatia family), were like any other middle-class family, settled and focused on a better future. While many who viewed the family from the outside thought they had found consolation in spirituality, there is no one left to describe what happened behind the four walls of the Burari house. The present article highlights the much-discussed case from different angles and information that were available, so as to make the reader understand the story behind the closed doors of the 11-member family.
Mysterious death of 11 members of a family
On 1st July 2018, when the neighbors, Gurcharan Singh, Kuldeep Singh, and Pritpal Kaur went to check the Bhatia family (originally Chundawat), who owned a grocery shop and had neither opened the same in the morning (which generally used to open at 5:30 am in the morning) nor had collected milk from the daily milk-man and were not responding to the neighbors’ calls, they found the main door open as it was not locked from inside. As they went upstairs, they were left shocked to discover nine family members hanging from an iron grill on the ceiling of the roof in a circular formation. The tenth member, a lady, was hanging right opposite to them and their mother was lying in the other room, on the floor, near her bed. The family members were blindfolded, hands and feet bound, while they had hanged themselves. The family’s dog, the only member alive, was tied on the roof and was said to be barking continuously.
Three generations lived together in the same house. All of the members were well-educated and well-adjusted social members. It was a family of 11 members who were living in that house in Burari, Delhi. The matriarch, Narayani Devi, was a widow who was a mother of three sons and two daughters, among which two sons and one daughter used to reside with her in that house. Bhuvnesh was the elder son and Lalit was the youngest. Both were married to Savita and Tina respectively. While Bhuvnesh and Savita had two daughters and one son (Maneka, Neetu, and Dhruv), Lalit and Tina were parenting one son only, Shivam. Narayani Devi’s daughter Pratibha was the mother of her only daughter Priyanka.
The family had a general store and the younger son, Lalit had a plywood business. Neighbors have claimed that the family was doing fairly well in both their businesses. Professed to be religious people, neighbors, relatives and associated colleagues claimed that the 11-member family involved nice, generous, and harmonious people who were never involved in fights amongst each other or with people around. While the children in the family were intelligent, good in academics, and offered respectful behaviour, the other members were eager to help their relatives and friends whenever in need. Sujata Nagpal, the surviving sister, and eldest brother, Dinesh, agreed to the opinions of the neighbors about her family when she was asked about the same. None of the family relatives were accepting the fact that the 11-member daily had attempted a mass suicide. This was majorly because the family had thrown a huge celebration for one of their daughters, Priyanka’s engagement, that happened exactly 14 days before the occurrence of the discussed incident.
Role played by the Delhi Police
Rajeev Tomar, Head Constable, Burari Police Station (2017-2020) and also the family’s former neighbour was the first one to be informed about the horrific incident which was presumed to be a suicide initially. Tomar witnessed the aforementioned happenings and was of the opinion that the mass suicide formation depicted a banyan tree. When Manoj Kumar, Station House Officer (SHO), Burari Police Station (2016-2019) had approached the crime scene with his team, he claimed to have never witnessed such an incident in his entire career. Witnessing lack of circumstantial evidence contributing to the alleged mass killing, no sign of burglary as the women were wearing all their ornaments and absence of signs calling the incident to be a suicide as the members were blindfolded along with lack of suicide note, the police officers were perplexed with more questions than answers. Owing to the fact that the family-owned grocery store is often crowded in the morning time, the news of the incident started spreading like forest fires which was an add-on challenge for the investigators. Media reporters, curiosity among residents nearby and around the locality had all gathered to take a glimpse of the unusual occurrence. Therefore, controlling the crowd and safeguarding the crime scene was of foremost importance and the same was dutifully carried out by the Delhi Police.
Forensic Science Laboratory, Delhi (FSL) was informed of the spine-chilling incident subsequent to which they had arrived with their expert team. Both FSL and the police investigators were of the opinion that the motive behind the happening of the incident was to be known. The police officials during the investigation period took into account the footage of a CCTV camera which was positioned in one of the walls of the house, front-facing the lane, was checked from the previous night till the time of the incident. This was carried out in order to rule out the possibility of an outsider’s entry and to ensure that no outsider had their involvement in the incident that took place.
Because of the surviving family members’ claim, a murder case was registered by the police initially, although the latter had dissented with the former. In the FIR lodged by the police officials, the entire incident and the evidence taken care of were detailed. The bodies of the 11 members were properly packed before they were sent to the mortuary. They were brought down by the police officials only. The post-mortem reports revealed that the deaths of the members were due to hanging only. The eldest member of the family, Narayani Devi had died due to partial hearing. The presence of faecal matter (digested, solid waste) in the large intestine of all the dead members suggested that no one was stressed. The case was further shifted to Dr. Joy N Tirkey, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Crime Branch, Delhi, and his team.
Crime branch and the investigation that was carried out
When the crime branch took into account every minute detailing in the house where the incident had taken place, they were of the opinion concerning a few things which were:
The elder son, Bhuvnesh had tried to set his hands, which were tried, free, as clear signs of struggle could be seen in his fingers. The children of the house were tied not only by their hands but also by their feet, ruthlessly with telephone wires. There were no signs of struggle by any of them. Both eyes and mouths were tapped and their ears were stuffed with cotton. The eldest member of the family, Narayani Devi was found lying dead in the other room beside her bed with a half-turned body. There was a belt around her neck which resulted in a few marks on the side of her neck.Everyone in the family had a scarf around their neck, which was used to hang themselves. Evidence of a ritual that was performed the night before was discovered as well. A leftover ritual pyre was found. From the ashes that were lying around the pyre, it was clear that the same was used a day prior to the incident.On 28th June 2018 (as the CCTV camera had shown), Tina, Lalit’s wife, and her son, Shivam were seen to have purchased four stools. Further, on 30th June 2018 at 9:40 pm, Tina was seen to be carrying some newly purchased tools with Neetu. At 10:29 pm, Lalit’s son, Shivam, was seen opening their plywood shop and carrying a small bundle of wires upstairs. A packet of milk was kept in the fridge for the following day’s usage, and Lalit, the family’s youngest son, had recharged the phones of other family members the day before the event. In the kitchen, soaked chana dal (black gramme) was discovered, most likely for the next day’s supper. A register was found beside the temple in the house. After a rigorous search, 11 diaries were discovered where the earliest entry was dated 2007 and the last entry was made the night before the incident (2018).
11 diaries and the story behind them
The crime branch had opined that the language that was used in the diaries was instructional, commanding, and conversational. The last page of the diary had all the instructions that needed to be followed by the family, and that eventually unfolded to become a horrifying incident. The first mention of Bhopal Singh in Lalit’s diaries occurs on September 7, 2007, when the notes had asked the family to remember him by keeping his black-and-white photograph in front of them. The September message had stated, “Mann mein dhyan yahi rakho ki Daddy meri purani aadatein chhut jaye” [pray that you get rid of your old habits].On 24th June 2018, the last diary entry that was made explained a ritual called “Banyan Tree Ritual” which would run for a period of seven days along with the puja called, Badh Puja. Badh is originally a tree that has its roots hanging from the branches. The time of the incident was mentioned in the diary (supposedly at 1 am in the morning). Concerning the Badh Puja, it was instructed that;
The same would be religiously carried out for a period of seven days and if anybody would have come to visit the family then the puja was supposed to take place the following day. It was directed that nothing related to the puja should be visible to any of the outsiders coming to the house. Dim light should be used in the puja and eyes should be completely shut. The blindfold should be properly tied in the eyes, the mouth should be gagged by a handkerchief, and the mind should be focused and empty. The eldest member, Narayani Devi was directed to complete the ritual by lying down only as she was aged and overweight. It was directed that while performing the puja, it should be imagined that the branches of the tree were wrapping themselves around an individual’s body. The ritual should therefore be performed with unity and determination, which will help repent mistakes.
4. The diaries mentioned every little and minute detail that the family was abiding by in order to conduct their lives. The diaries also had indications of the family conducting witchcraft and occult practices. It felt as if some third person or mystical energy was directing the 11 members thereby controlling them.
5. Although the crime branch had tried to contact some person with a religious or a spiritual background who were related to the family, their efforts went down the drain as no such contact was available.
Expert evidence and sayings in light of the Burari deaths case
The Bhatia family was headed by Bhopal Singh, the husband of Narayani Devi who had died in 2007. After his dismissal, the family was leftover with no one who could control it or be an authoritative figure to control the ups and downs associated with it. Clinical hypnotherapist Anita Anand claimed that in a typical Indian family when the patriarch dies, there is a vacuum in the family. A somewhat similar kind of incident could be noticed in this case. Bhopal Singh, until his death, used to control the family, their planning, children’s education, etc. The responsibilities that Bhopal Singh used to swiftly carry out-landed over on his youngest son, Lalit’s shoulders, after his death. Friends and relatives of Lalit voiced that it was because of his maturity and decision-making skills which made other family members follow him and treat his sayings as the supreme one. It is to be noted that neighbours, friends, and relatives of the family have repeatedly agreed to the fact that the deceased Bhopal Singh was a very nice, broad-minded human being and therefore it was unlikely of him expressing such commands.
Entry in the diary had started right after Bhopal Singh’s death and the majority of the directions and diary entries were concerning Lalit. As the investigation proceeded, experts and state actors came to recognize the youngest son of Narayani Devi, Lalit to be the mind behind the Burari incident. Lalit was supposedly involved in direct communication with his deceased father in his dreams where his father used to tell him how to conduct the family and the same was followed. He started sharing these conversations with his family. It was Neetu, one of the children who had informed the neighbors that her uncle, Lalit, was possessed by their grandfather’s spirit and it was the latter that guided them. Whenever Lalit used to converse with his family about the instructions he received from his dead father, his voice used to change to that of his father’s. The diary clearly mentioned that the deceased father’s spirit would visit the family every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. The instructions that were given resulted in the financial well-being of the family. This made the family believe more whatever the deceased father was directing. It was promised that the deceased father, Bhopal Singh was supposed to visit the family after completion of the Banyan Tree ritual and save the family members. The irony was although the family was made to believe that they will be saved, they eventually called their death all by themselves.
Savita and Tina, Narayani Devi’s daughters-in-law, fulfilled the stereotype of capable housewives. They got up early, prepared food for the family, looked after the youngsters and the elderly and were kind and well-behaved to everyone they encountered.
Dr. Virendra Singh, Handwriting Division, Forensics Science Lab, Delhi was provided with the copies and diaries that were discovered from the Bhatia family’s house for identifying the handwriting in the entries. It was revealed that Pratibha’s daughter, Priyanka, and Bhuvnesh’s daughter, Neetu, were the ones who were writing these notes.
As it slowly came out to the experts involved in the present case that Lalit was the one behind the incident, they could gradually read the minds of Lalit and the thought-process he had been going through. In many ways, he had felt being out of control, as has been explained by clinical hypnotherapist Anita Anand.
The Chundawats changed their way of life as well. They ceased to consume and prepare non-vegetarian meals. At home, Bhavnesh quit drinking. Pujas became a common occurrence. The number of stores expanded from one to three, including Lalit’s plywood shop, Bhavnesh’s grocery store, and the third one they were opening jointly, as well as the house’s floors.
The story surrounding Lalit
In 1988, Lalit had his first bike accident because of which he was hospitalized for a prolonged period. It was revealed that due to the accident, Lalit had suffered head injuries. Friends have claimed that he used to fall asleep very early. After shifting to Delhi, Lalit had been subjected to another attack on 26th March 2004, which was more about an attack with an intention to kill him. This incident had taken place when Lalit used to work in a plywood shop in the suburbs across the Yamuna river. He was locked in the shop and set ablaze. This occurrence had resulted in Lalit losing his voice. Vascular surgeon, Dr. Ambrarish Satwik observed that it was highly unlikely for a person to lose his voice unless there is physical damage, trauma, or disease in the larynx. Clinical psychologist, Dr. Roma Kumar made an observation in light of the present case stating that nobody in the family had tried to offer treatment for helping Lalit recover from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although the doctor who had treated Lalit had suggested a psychiatrist check-up taking into notice his conditions, the family had ignored the same. In the language of psychology, if a trauma is not treated in any individual who has been subjected to it, a certain level of psychosis sets in, which is the inability of the mind to deal in a rational way. One of the direct results of psychosis is hearing voices. A year after his father’s death, Lalit had regained his voice. Neighbors have claimed that Lalit’s behaviour pattern appeared to be changing a few days before Priyanka’s engagement was scheduled to take place. It was possibly his belief system that reminded him that nobody should be leaving the house and going away. He had slept for a period of two days at a stretch after the engagement.
Conclusion of the investigation
After the ground investigation was completed, the crime branch had decided to go for a psychological autopsy in which a group of scientists and psychologists go into the minds of the dead individuals in order to find out what had happened. It was Lalit who had psychosis and he was slowly transmitting it to his family members, making it a case of shared psychosis. This was why the family members had started believing Lalit blindly. It was discovered that the family had not planned to commit suicide, instead, it was the circumstances that made them do so. The crime branch had concluded the three-year-old investigation stating that the Burari death case was neither a murder nor a suicide as there was no foul play involved, it was specifically an accidental death that had taken place. The eldest brother had donated the eyes of the family members prior to cremating them.
Rumors and stories that feed common people’s minds
Reporters had noticed 11 pipes (7 facing downwards and 4 facing straight) in one of the bare walls of the house where the family used to reside and the place of occurrence of the incident. They had related the same with the fact that the 11-member of the Bhatia family who had died, consisted of seven females and four males. The matter of fact was that the pipes were placed in a similar way in which the family had tied themselves from the iron ceiling. The news which was shown in the television media claimed that the pipes were fitted in order to let the 11 souls escape, although the person who had installed the pipes aired away such claims and firmly believed that the pipes were installed for light and ventilation. There were 11 grills that were present in the main entrance door of the house and 11 rods in the railing of the terrace. Along with the same the house had exactly 11 windows and vents. The idea behind the same was that the number 11 had significance and deep relevance with the Burari incident. The plumber who had fitted the pipes in the house, his daughter, Geeta Mata, was unnecessarily dragged into the incident and was related to being a tantrik who was responsible for the death of the 11 members. The media had interviewed the woman and declared her to be associated with black magic, just because she was dressed in red clothes. Geeta Mata was referred to as the family’s spiritual guru although she burst all bubbles relating to the Burari incident and claimed that she was unnecessarily harassed by the media.
Burari deaths and the learning
India’s federal government released the country’s first National Mental Health Policy five years ago. Although the intentions are genuine, accomplishing the objectives appears to be a difficult task. The government intends to ensure that all mentally ill persons have access to high-quality care. According to the policy, “Poverty and mental ill-health are intimately connected in a negative vicious cycle and those from lower socio-economic categories are more sensitive to mental-health problems.” It pledges to enhance financing and ensure the availability of sufficient competent workers. One of the policy’s main goals is to combat stigmatization. The prevalence of mental morbidity is found to be very high in metropolitan areas, where there is a higher frequency of schizophrenia, mood disorders, and neurotic or stress-related diseases. The reasons behind the same could be fast-paced lifestyles, experiencing stress, the complexity of living, a breakdown of support structures, and issues of economic instability.
The Burari death incident questions the very existence of Indian society and the mechanism with which it is functioning. This question becomes stronger when it is revealed that the family members who had killed themselves were educationally and financially well-off. They represented themselves to be a ‘perfect Indian family’ which had its own secrets hidden for a period of 11 years. Mental illnesses are stigmatized and shamed across all socioeconomic classes. As a result, patients themselves are often hesitant to seek expert assistance. They believe that they would be regarded as a shame and that their relatives may reject them. Patients often do not like to admit that they have a mental health condition, whether it be anxiety, sadness, or addiction. The fact that addictions can be fueled by anxieties and depression, makes the scenario even more difficult. Lalit’s situation might have been somewhat similar to the above discussion.
In India, there is virtually little forensic psychiatric infrastructure and training. The majority of psychiatric units lack a specific forensic psychiatry ward or unit. The treating psychiatrist, who has had little or no formal training in forensic psychiatry, does the majority of forensic examinations. As a result, rather than being based on expertise and competence, many judgments are made via trial and error or in good faith. Further, in India, there are no specific forensic psychiatric training programs. After completing three years of basic psychiatric training, countries such as the United Kingdom provide a three-year advanced structured training program in forensic psychiatry. There are a few places in the country where forensic psychology training is being offered. While Burari’s death is one such case where a psychological autopsy was carried out, there are a plethora of such cases that fail to reach the media radar and therefore do not come out in the open. Not that the investigation, in this case, was in any way wrong or negligent in the process but what is more intriguing is that India even in the 21st century lacks communication and openness within its society.
In a case where there are no offenders, no witnesses and no victims, it is generally very difficult to reach a conclusion amidst wildfire rumours and superstitious beliefs heavily prevalent in Indian society. The Burari death case was somewhat like that and therefore even though the police investigators, crime branch and other state actors have reached the conclusion that the case was an accidental death, surviving family members and relatives refused to agree to the same till today.
Well-known journalist Barkha Dutt, in light of the Burari incident, has said that one of the things that had gone clearly wrong with this case and the reason why people have very little knowledge about the Burari case was because of the way it was reported, possibly in a crime drama manner. The involvement of numerology and tantrik dimensions have been key catalysts in presenting the case in an exaggerated way before the general public. The Burari incident speaks of the lack of interconnectedness in society. To a considerable extent, Indian culture is clearly unprepared to address mental health difficulties in ways other than appealing to morals or repeating religious precepts. It exacerbates the challenges caused by society’s rapid change. Ancient community relationships are still important to many individuals, but they are disintegrating in many circumstances, not only because traditional standards no longer match a modernising society. This is most visible in cities, but it also impacts rural communities, which now have access to not just mass media and the internet, but also connect with relatives who have relocated to the metropolis. India’s mental-health system must become an essential element of the country’s overall healthcare structure if it is to develop. Psychiatrists and psychologists must work more closely with general practitioners and specialists.
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