Surendra Koli, who has been accused of several murders and of consuming his victims, and has been convicted in five of these cases, will hang in a few weeks. The most incriminating evidence against him is his own confession, which was recorded by machine and by hand in the presence of a magistrate. The man who used to work as a servant in a large house in Nithari, near Delhi, says in his confession that his master used to bring prostitutes home, and that as he watched them come and go, and cooked meals for them, he was taken over by a powerful desire for sex and for cutting up human bodies. The man in his forties had no history of crime before he committed, in his own admission, a series of murders in 2005 and 2006.
He says that he lured his victims, all children except one, into the house, and in every case he knocked the victim unconscious, attempted sex that was unsuccessful every time in his hazy memory, strangulated the victim, dismembered them and disposed them off usually in the drains. At one point in his confession he says that in the purse of one of his victims, he found “30-32 rupees”. He mentions the figures twice.
The magistrate appears to take great pains to ascertain that Koli was confessing on his volition. When Koli is asked at various points why he is confessing, he says: “Because I want to help the law.” “I am a very poor person. I do not have the resources to feed my family or fight this case.” “I want to live with the truth.” “By confessing, I will relieve the burden on my mind.” “I sincerely want to repent and undergo penance for my wrong deeds.” “I am speaking the truth because you are the court and the judge, and you are everything for me. If I walk on the road of truth, I may get some relief.”
In the way of legally substantial evidence, the police have nothing more than what Koli has admitted. A good lawyer would have told him to keep his mouth shut. His confession is disturbing, not only for its content, but also the fact that every crime is identical, the disposals of the victim’s remains, too, are identical. If he were telling the truth, then things had always worked out very conveniently for him several times as he went through the stages of the crimes. If he were lying in his confession, then he had no imagination.
He has said that he was tortured by police to confess. Also, most of his alleged victims were strangers whom he supposedly killed moments after he got them into the house. Yet, he identified them from photographs months after the crimes. In his recorded confession he says that the police had shown him a set of photographs and had asked him to memorise the names of the faces in the pictures.
A committee commissioned by the Ministry of Women and Child Development has found the police version of why and how Koli committed the crimes ambiguous and unconvincing. The committee wonders how a person can dispose off body parts in the drains in a metropolitan area so easily, so many times and without being noticed. Also, the committee is intrigued by the fact that the police had found skulls and bones just months after the crimes while the process of complete decomposition is, in the scientific opinion they have procured, slower. There have been several disappearances in the area, not all attributed to Koli. Human rights activists feel that the police have shoved some unsolved cases on to Koli. In any case, he has been accused of more murders than he himself has admitted. Even so the number of disappearances of children in the locality is much more than what Koli is alleged to have been responsible for. The committee wonders whether a cartel was and is at work, whether the true objective of the murders was to steal vital body parts for medical or ritual purposes. The police has no clear answers, which is not surprising.
All this is not to even remotely suggest that Koli is innocent, but that the police investigation, as it so often is, is so clumsy that the case against him, if he had not confessed, is not solid. Yet, the spiritual bond between the police and the courts, as evident in several cases preceding this, has ensured that the judiciary knows something more than what we can read in the court documents, something clinching, something incriminating enough for the honourable judges to sentence a man to hang.
But does it matter really? That a self-confessed cannibal was denied his fundamental right to competent police investigation? It matters not merely to the abstract notion of justice. It matters in a very practical way. Granting exemplary human rights to a cannibal, or say to a terrorist, ensures that the police are under immense pressure to investigate a crime with intelligence and to build a solid case. If the police is forced to develop the art of investigation instead of removal of finger nails to ensure that a cannibal or a terrorist does not walk free, it would not only empower the idea of justice, which most of us consider vague anyway, but also lead to the general safety of the society, which matters to all of us.
No doubt, we are also protected by the absence of human rights in a typical Indian police station. The brutality of police, its extrajudicial ways in the shadows are effective in intimidating or eliminating criminals. But when criminals are better organized, when they have good lawyers and friends in the media, the police would find it hard to challenge them with mere brutality. As it happened in the case of the Mumbai underworld. The Mumbai police struggled to build cases against the underworld that would hold in court against competent lawyers. Many henchmen got bails. So the Maharashtra government sanctioned its police to murder the underworld.
A system that depends on the violation of human rights and one that compels the police to build a good case cannot co-exist in a police force. It is wiser to choose the latter. When the police know how to investigate rather than how to string a man upside down, they begin to reach the deep ends of a crime.
Where are the other children of Nithari whose disappearances are not attributed to Koli? There are more skeletons that have been recovered than what Koli can account for. How is that?
If the rights of a cannibal had been preserved, the police might have had the answers.
(Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel The Illicit Happiness of Other People.)