Police Ignore Serial Killings in Delhi Slum, Exposing Unequal Justice for India’s Poor
By Amelia Gentleman
New York Times
January 7, 2007

NEW DELHI — When Vandana Sarkar, an impoverished migrant worker, went to the police in October to report that her 20-year-old daughter was missing, she recalled Friday, officers laughed and said, “Why do you people have so many children if you can’t look after them?”

Their casual response should not have come as a surprise. At least 30 other sets of parents had reported children missing from the same slum area in Noida, an affluent suburb of Delhi, over recent months. Some say they were dismissed as “drunken trouble-makers.” Others claim officers refused even to register their complaints.

It was only when 17 chopped-up bodies, most of them belonging to children, were found in the sewers behind the home of a wealthy local resident on Dec. 29 that the Noida police were finally stirred into action.

What seems clearly a case of serial killing on the fringes of the capital has become a national scandal, with public horror at the brutal details interwoven with outrage at the police department’s failure to investigate.

That India has a two-tier justice system is nothing new. Only widespread protest drove the courts to order a retrial for a rich young man acquitted in February of fatally shooting a model at a party in 1999. In December, the accused, Manu Sharma, was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

And when the 3-year-old son of an Indian executive disappeared near his Noida home in November, it was instantly national news. The police immediately began a huge hunt, found the abductors and returned the child to his distraught parents.

But the case of the dead and missing slum children has provided a brutally stark example of how the law does not work for the marginalized, shocking even the most jaundiced observers of the nation’s legal processes.

The bags full of dismembered body parts found on Dec. 29 were pulled one by one from an open sewer behind a whitewashed two-story house belonging to Moninder Singh Pandher, a businessman. He and his servant, Surender Kohli, were arrested and charged with kidnapping, raping and killing the victims, some reported to be as young as three.

A police spokesman told the news media the next day that Mr. Kohli, when confronted with photographs of some of the victims, confessed to having killed 10 women and 5 children. Mr. Kohli said that he and Mr. Pandher had lured some of the victims into the house with toffees and chocolates, the police said. The Noida police chief, R.K.S. Rathore, said that other victims were young women who were offered jobs at the house.

The officials said that according to Mr. Kohli’s confession, the two men sexually abused their victims, then strangled them and chopped up their bodies, concealing the remains in the drains. An autopsy report said the bodies were sliced with “butcher-like” precision, Agence France-Presse reported.

Neither suspect has spoken publicly but Mr. Pandher’s son, Karan Pandher, warned against prejudging his father. “He is just a suspect,” Karan Pandher told reporters on Saturday, Agence France-Presse reported. “He is not a monster.”

The police said the body parts included 12 skulls belonging to children and 5 belonging to adults. Thirteen of the dead were quickly identified. Mrs. Sarkar’s daughter was one.

The sluggish police response to the disappearance of dozens of children has horrified the nation as much as the crime itself. Residents said as many as 38 children have been reported missing over the last two years from the slum, Nithari, but that the police recorded only 19 cases, according to Indian news media. Many parents, the reports said, were told their children must have run away.

Groups like India’s National Commission for Women were disturbed by reports of women disappearing from the Noida slums as early as August 2005. Nirmala Venkatesh, a commission member, was working with six families missing daughters, none of whom had managed to persuade the police to investigate.

“The police system failed,” she said. “They were ignorant, they were careless.”

On Wednesday, the national government opened an inquiry into the police failures. The next day, six policemen were dismissed for failure to investigate reports of the missing children, accused by the state government “of dereliction of duty and gross negligence in responding to complaints made by parents of missing children.” Four other officers were suspended, and widespread condemnation is growing.

“There was shocking inaction,” Ved Marwah, the former Delhi police chief, said in a television interview.

The Asian Age, an English language daily newspaper, condemned the police for turning away the missing children’s parents “with contemptuous disdain for two long years only because they were poor villagers with no influence of any kind, political or otherwise.”

Hundreds of angry Nithari residents have been protesting all week in the street where the bodies were found. On Monday, they stormed past the officers guarding the house and broke into the premises, pelting neighboring houses with stones.

Now, barricades have been erected near the house, and relatives of the dead wait alongside protesters for more news. Parents with missing children also come, trying to establish whether any of the unidentified victims might be their child.

A woman named Dayawati, also from a nearby slum, came holding a black-and-white passport photo of her son, Vipin, 16, who has been missing for four months. “When I told the police he had disappeared, they told me to look for him myself,” she said. “Things would have been different if I’d been rich. Then I could have bribed them to make them investigate.”

For Mrs. Sarkar, as for so many bereft parents, the furor comes too late. She said she had described to police officers the yellow suit her daughter Rupa was wearing when she went out to work early on Oct. 5, 2006. The clothes, she said in an interview, were found in the sewer, in a bag alongside body parts.

Brandishing a state government check for 500,000 rupees — roughly $11,300 — in compensation, she said: “My child’s life is worth more than this. It’s as if they want us to keep quiet — but I’m not going to remain silent.”

The money, she said, could help look after Rupa’s 18-month-old son, Amit. But, she said, as a migrant worker from East Bengal with no identity papers, opening a bank account is nearly impossible and she does not know how to go about cashing the check.

Before her daughter disappeared, Mrs. Sarkar said, she walked with her every morning past the house where the two men charged with the murders lived. The two women worked as maids at nearby houses.

It is just a 30-second walk, but it crosses the divide between the India of the excluded and destitute, and the India of the privileged elite. The extended Sarkar family shares one large wooden bed, which takes up most of a tiny rooftop room in the heart of Nithari. Neighbors live less well: in mud huts, straw houses and shacks made of plastic sheeting and corrugated tin, breathing in the stench from a vast rubbish dump where cows and pigs forage.

Beyond the open sewer, across a makeshift bridge made of discarded metal pipe, is the tree-lined street where Mr. Pandher and Mr. Kohli lived. Here a dozen new houses flaunt their owners’ recent wealth, acquired in India’s booming economy, with displays of extravagant architectural fancy: large, arched windows; verandas with elaborate wrought-iron railings; and marble-fronted buildings. The entrances are blocked from public gaze with high gates, and guarded by watchmen.

“I never saw anyone in that house,” Mrs. Sarkar said. “I only know that rich people live on that street.”

It was only when she watched police removing body parts on her way home from that day in December, and heard about the killings, that she understood what had happened to her daughter.

“Where was the help when I needed it?” she said. “No one would listen to me. The police officers looked at the photograph of my daughter and said: ‘She looks so beautiful. She probably eloped.’ No one ever bothered to come to my house to follow up on the case.”

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