Monday, January 22, 2007

without a trace

A gruesome serial-killing case raises furious questions about whether the police are doing enough to find the 45,000 kids reported missing each year in India.

By Jason Overdorf

(Newsweek Web Exclusive Jan. 20, 2007) - Half an hour from the heart of New Delhi, in the mushrooming grid of houses, cottage industries and tech companies that make up Noida, one of India's fastest-growing cities, a small crowd of protesters are calling for the head of their state's chief minister. "Mulayam Singh," the leader chants. "Murdabad!" the crowd shouts in response. "Noida police," the leader calls. "Hai! Hai!" the crowd echoes.

Their chanting means: "Death to Mulayam Singh!" and "Noida police, shame! shame!" Many of the lower-middle-class demonstrators hold aloft handmade flyers emblazoned with the photographs of schoolchildren, some in uniforms, some in poorly knotted neckties, others in colorful salwar kameez. The kids on the flyers have one thing in common. They have all disappeared without a trace, some of the approximately 45,000 children reported missing each year in India. And now, behind a block-long screen hastily erected to thwart rubberneckers, a backhoe and a team of forensic investigators are digging up their small bodies.

In a case that came to light on Dec. 29, police have detained businessman Monander Singh Pandher and his servant Surindra Koli for interrogation about the abduction and murder of at least 20 women and children. No charges have been filed, the suspects are under judicial remand while the police conduct their investigation. According to reports, the servant has confessed and implicated his boss, but the boss hasn't admitted any crime. Body parts and skulls, mostly from the kids, were found hidden in municipal storm drains attached to Pandher's house. The protesters are furious because the police discovered the alleged murderers and the grisly evidence of their crimes by accident, after ignoring as many as 40 missing- persons reports in the area over the last two years. And their anger has tapped into a deep and growing well of resentment in India, where the gap between rich and poor grows wider every day.

According to summaries of interrogations and other stage-whispering that has been leaked to the press, the alleged murderers were said to be sexual predators who operated as a team, with Pandher supplying his house and veneer of respectability to protect them from suspicious eyes and Koli acting as procurer. Police say they found 17 skulls and a large number of bones in the drain outside Pandher's house and surgical knives, gloves, a butcher's knife, and blood-stained clothes inside the home. Last week, the Uttar Pradesh police turned over the case to India's Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI—a national policing unit similar to America's Federal Bureau of Investigation—after several weeks of bumbling that allowed journalists and curious neighbors to trample all over the crime scene. Dr. Rajat Mitra, a criminal psychologist who has worked closely with the police, admits frankly that the authorities (even perhaps the CBI) are out of their depth. "The understanding of serial killers is virtually nonexistent here. They could not understand what kind of crime it is. It involved pedophilia, gory rituals ... The diabolic nature of the crime was not something they believed happened here."

But the victims and their activists remain convinced that the police failures amount to more than simple incompetence. "This is a failure of our democracy," says Kailash Satyarthi, the leader of a group fighting the trafficking of children, "because it shows that the poor, and especially the children of the poor, are totally neglected." As long ago as September, Satyarthi's group, the Bachpan Bachao Andolan or Save the Childhood Movement, approached the Noida police on behalf of parents who alleged that their missing-persons reports had been ignored. At that point, 31 neighborhood kids had disappeared. One local TV channel picked up the story. The police, apparently, did nothing. Only after the apparently unrelated kidnapping of the 3-year-old son of a rich businessman made stop-the-presses headlines, and the entire police and government apparatus mobilized to secure his safe return, did Noida's other missing kids draw notice. Even then, they were soon forgotten. Not until neighbors who'd earlier been dismissed once again complained of a rotting stench coming from the storm drain outside Pandher's home, was the first body discovered.

Noida is not the first Indian city to suffer a serial killing. Last year, for instance, a gang of nine taxi drivers based in Gurgaon (another booming satellite town) confessed to robbing and murdering at least 35 passengers. In 2004, a 57-year-old merchant named Sadashiv Sahu was nabbed for murdering 22 elderly and middle-aged men in the small Uttar Pradesh town of Fursatganj. And in 1995, a rickshaw driver nicknamed "Auto" Shankar was executed for kidnapping, raping and murdering six young girls throughout the late 1980s. Although these documented cases are far fewer in number than the cases of serial murders in the United States and other developed countries, Mitra says that police ignorance of profiling and other relevant investigative techniques, the lack of coordination among law enforcement in different regions of the country, and problems as simple as poor record-keeping, make it likely that there are many more serial murders that have never been linked to one killer.

But more than any previous case, the horror of the Noida murders has drawn attention to an unpleasant truth about the safety of children in this intensely family-oriented society. The 45,000 children reported missing each year doesn't include those whose families are turned away or are afraid to go to the police. Eleven thousand youngsters, presumably trafficked for prostitution, pornography or slave labor, are never found. Yet, in large part, the official apparatus continues to treat these cases as though they are a necessary condition of poverty—children running away from starvation—rather than as undiscovered crimes. "Missing children masks a lot of more heinous crimes [like pedophilia]," says Mitra. "That notion needs to get into the police psyche."

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