"We once got a volunteer who was ready to undergo craniotomy to establish the truth of fabricated surgeries. But we couldn't let it happen on ethical grounds" - Subhash Yadav, who began investigating the cases as Hisar SP in 2010
"I feel that I am under threat all the time. The local MP is close to a few doctors involved in the case. They are trying to withdraw my police protection" - Hardeep Singh, whose sting operation exposed the racket
"To get your hands, feet or teeth injured is common in rural areas while settling property disputes. But, it was for the first time that I saw people risking their lives for it" - Dr S.K. Dhatterwal, head of department of forensic medicine at PGIMS
Sitting in his office at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences in Rohtak, Haryana, Dr S.K. Dhatterwal looks mildly bored. Then I mention the nakli chot, asli note [false injury, real money] cases, and his eyes light up. The 54-year-old head of department of forensic medicine perks up as he starts talking―his words resonating with memories of a mystery that had him playing the part of Sherlock Holmes.
Like most mysteries featuring the iconic detective, Dhatterwal’s began with a summons. On a hot afternoon in 2010, he got a phone call saying the dean of the institute wanted to meet him urgently. He rushed to the dean’s office to find Subhash Yadav, superintendent of police in Hisar, waiting for him. Yadav wanted Dhatterwal to investigate a curious set of cases involving physical fights and resultant head injuries. The cases were related to disputes regarding property and money between hundreds of families at towns near the Rajasthan border.
Interestingly, most victims had similar injuries and had to undergo craniotomy―the surgical removal of a portion of the skull. In most cases, about two inches of skull were removed from the right side of the skull, called the peritoneal region of the brain. In some cases, bone was removed from the frontal region.
“How could all the people involved in fights across the region suffer from the same kind of injury?” asked Yadav. The officer suspected that the injuries were not the result of violent clashes, and that there was more to them.
Yadav studied crime records in Hisar after he was appointed SP in January 2010. He found that an unusually high number of cases were registered under section 307 of the Indian Penal Code, for the non-bailable offence of causing a life-threatening injury with intention to kill. He noticed that in one particular case, the accused was an 83-year-old, frail lady. Her victim: a six-foot-tall young man. “It was bizarre,” says Yadav, who is now commissioner of police in Faridabad. “I decided to probe it.”
He found that cases like this had started surfacing in 2004. In many cases, the police had filed charge-sheets and the courts had given verdicts. By 2010, the number of such cases had gone up. Before he enlisted the help of Dhatterwal, Yadav warned him: “You could face a lot of pressure to quit. Your life could be threatened.”
The following day, Dhatterwal got his gun licence renewed. He was asked not to go on his morning walks alone, not to plan his travel schedule in advance and, if he did so, not to share it with his colleagues.
At first, Dhatterwal did not appreciate the need for such precautions. “But later, I realised that the day I started working on the cases, I started getting random calls from unknown people who asked me weird questions about the case. It had never happened before, though I deal with criminal cases all the time,” says Dhatterwal.
Determined to solve the mystery, he formed a team of eight doctors―two radiologists, two neurosurgeons, one orthopaedist, one prosthodontics and two forensic medicine experts, including himself. With Dhatterwal as its head, the team meticulously went through each of the 46 case files Yadav gave them.
It found out that there were a lot of holes in the way the cases were recorded. A lot of clinical data was missing. Radiology reports were available only in 14 cases―and these, too, were not signed by authorised radiologists. “In such a situation,” says Dhatterwal, “it is possible that the scan does not belong to the person under investigation.”
The weapons suspected to be used in the crimes were provided as evidence in only five cases. Medico-legal reports had no mention of blood on clothes the victims were wearing when they were injured. “The scalp is a vascular area,” says Dhatterwal. “It is impossible not to have bloodstains on clothes in case of a head injury.”
The doctors who wrote MLRs, however, had not provided the police with the victims’ clothes. Even the reports themselves lacked mandatory information like two identification marks and the picture of the victim. There were no descriptions of stains or tears on clothes in the records. And there was no mention of any ‘defence wound’ (suffered when a person tries to shield himself from an attack) on the bodies of the victims.
For six months, Dhatterwal and his team worked round the clock―examining all 46 case files, verifying radiology images with the medical reports and studying weapons suspected to be used in the assaults. It was a difficult task, as most of the cases were several years old. In forensics, says Dhatterwal, identifying the nature of an injury after six months is a challenge. Wounds heal, and tissues grow back, with time.
“We asked the police if we could meet the people who had undergone these surgeries. The police traced a few of them and brought them to us. But these people were reluctant to cooperate with us. Some promised to come back for further investigations, but never did,” he says.
Dhatterwal and his team concluded that there was “possibility of foul play and fabrication of injuries”. Of 46 cases he investigated, 13 patients underwent surgeries at Metro Hospital, six at AMC Hospital, five at Sapra Hospital, four at Sarvodaya Hospital and two at Lifeline Institute―all in Hisar. As many as 46 doctors―25 in the private sector and 21 working at government-run institutions―were found to be involved in cases related to fabricated injuries.
“In my 35 years as a forensics scientist, I have seen many awful crimes. Even fabricating injuries is not unusual. To get your hands, feet or teeth injured is common in rural areas while settling property disputes. But, it was for the first time that I saw people risking their lives for it,” says Dhatterwal. “The brain is a delicate organ. A person cannot lead a normal life after undergoing such a surgery. Convulsions and loss of sensation in some or the other part of the body are common aftereffects of such a surgery.”
Says Dr Ishwar Singh, a neurosurgeon who was part of Dhatterwal’s team: “Removal of the protective skull bone exposes the brain and makes one highly susceptible to fatal injuries. Even a fall or a jerk may prove deadly in such a case.”
The police gave 43 more cases to the team. The findings were similar. This time, however, the team received a truckload of weapons suspected to have been used in the assaults, ranging from wooden rods to axes. “The idea, I felt, was to confuse us,” says Dhatterwal. “Some junior-level police officers were reportedly helping the people involved in the case. Those months were the busiest in my 35 years of service. It was certainly the most challenging case I had ever handled.”
The modus operandi of the crimes was interesting (see graphics). Investigation revealed that two doctors at the civil hospital in Hisar―senior medical officer Bhoop Singh Khatri, who was later convicted, and one of his associates―charged around Rs.40,000, half of which reportedly went to the police, to make false MLRs stating that victims had suffered severe head injuries. On paper, every case was referred to the district hospital. The ‘victim’, however, would go to a private hospital, where a specialist would inflict an injury on the scalp and then carry out surgery to treat it. This injury/surgery cost the victim anywhere between Rs.1.5 lakh to Rs.9 lakh, depending on his bargaining skills.
The victim would then lodge a complaint with the police against his enemies, who would be arrested and charged with attempt to murder. In case of a conviction, the enemy and his relatives would be jailed for five to ten years, giving an opportunity for the victim to encroach on their property or demand a huge amount for an out-of-court settlement.
According to Yadav, FIRs were registered on the basis of false MLRs in Hisar, Bhiwani, Sirsa and Fatehabad districts. “We once got a volunteer who was ready to undergo craniotomy to establish the truth of fabricated surgeries. But we couldn't let it happen on ethical grounds,” he says. “The volunteer helped us reach two people who accepted bribes from him and took him to the operation theatre. But we couldn't risk his life and had to arrest them before we could reach the doctor and see the weapon.”
Yadav says undergoing craniotomies became a trend over the years. “I once came across a small group that, instead of going to a doctor, wanted to inflict the injury on a young boy inside a roadside restaurant. When I caught them, one of them was holding a hammer in one hand and a nail in the other. Had we been late by a few seconds, they would have killed the boy,” he says.
While Yadav was investigating the crimes, a lawyer called Hardeep Singh of Churu, whose family was facing false charges under section 307, approached him. Hardeep’s elder brother Pavan was arrested for injuring people in a fight related to a property dispute. When Pavan told the police his side of the story, he was told to undergo surgery to prove that his injury was more severe than that of his enemies.
Hardeep approached Yadav and sought permission to do a sting operation to expose the racket. He met two middlemen―Balwinder Singh and Kuldeep, who worked in the CT scan department of Anant Ram Medical Centre and Metro Hospital, respectively―and agreed to pay Rs.50,000 as advance to undergo a craniotomy. The police arrested the duo while accepting the money.
Hardeep made enemies by exposing the racket. He was arrested in a case of attempt to murder, which, as he later found out, was fabricated by Dr Khatri. Following the exposure, Khatri was made the accused and the case against Hardeep was annulled by the court.
In 2011, the Punjab and Haryana High Court observed that doctors had been issuing false MLRs for money. Terming the pattern of such crimes as “a monster”, the court directed the police to refer similar cases to the team headed by Dhatterwal.
The police say the number of such cases may run into hundreds. Many of them are under trial, and courts have delivered verdicts on a few. Raj Kumar of Golagarh was arrested for allegedly shooting at one Sombir Singh. It was later found that Sombir had undergone a craniotomy after fabricating an injury with the help of Dr Tarun Sapra of Metro Hospital. Raj Kumar was acquitted by the court. Sapra, who was among the nine doctors arrested for allegedly issuing fake MLRs, however, told THE WEEK that fabricating a brain surgery is not medically possible. He says the whole issue was the police’s creation.
Evidence and court verdicts, however, tell a different story. In one case, 83-year-old Narayani Devi of Badwa village and her family were sentenced to five years imprisonment for attempt to murder. Narayani spent three months in prison before the charges against her were found to be fabricated and she was released.
In some cases, however, closure seems distant. Take the case of Sugriv Singh of Adampur, who inherited seven acres from his father. He was arrested on the basis of a false MLR submitted by Dr Khatri for Preetam Singh, his cousin who had laid a claim over the land. Sugriv, along with his brother and father, was put in jail for a week. When his brother got bail, Preetam told him that he would undergo a craniotomy and implicate him under sector 307 if he failed to pay up Rs.20 lakh.
“My father couldn't bear the embarrassment. Fifteen people attacked our family on June 19, 2009. They beat us up. My father suffered multiple fractures in his hands and legs. He passed away two years after the incident. And the court case is still on,” says Sugriv Singh.
Hardeep’s life, too, has taken a turn for the worse. His family was attacked several times by goons allegedly sent by the doctor he tried to expose. Last year, his younger brother Vedpal was shot at by unknown gunmen. Singh is now compelled to live under police protection round the clock. “I feel that I am under threat all the time. The local MP is close to a few doctors involved in the case. They are trying to withdraw the police protection,” says Hardeep.
For his part, Dhatterwal is fed up of visiting courts for hearings of cases he investigated. But he is happy about one thing: a paper based on his investigations has been accepted by the International Journal of Forensic Science. Next month, he will present the curious case of the ‘skull crackers’ of Haryana at the international forensics conference in Atlanta in the US.
A ‘cracking’ plot
Investigations have revealed that there was foul play and fabrication of injuries in a set of cases involving violent clashes and resultant head injuries. The cases were related to property disputes between hundreds of families in border towns.
In most cases, injuries were fabricated and the ‘victims’ underwent craniotomies―surgical removal of a portion of the skull.
As many as 46 doctors―25 in the private sector and 21 working at government-run institutions―were found to be involved in cases related to fabricated surgeries.
The modus operandi
* A person injured in clashes goes to the police to lodge a complaint.
* He is sent to a government hospital to get a medico-legal report.
* Doctors at the hospital create fake MLRs stating that the person has suffered a grievous injury. Money changes hands.
* The person is referred to the district hospital for treatment. But he ends up going to a private hospital, where specialists inflict an injury to the skull. They then fix the injury by performing craniotomy.
* The whole operation would cost Rs.1.5 lakh to Rs.9 lakh.
* The ‘victim’ can now file a complaint under IPC sections:
* 325―grievous hurt (seven years in prison)
* 326―dangerous hurt with dangerous weapon (10 years in prison)
* 307―attempt to murder (10 years in prison)