I am sitting in the fashionable Azabu Juban area of Tokyo with a little lady, who speaks to me through an interpreter. Her eyes are vacant, perhaps searching for a sense of closure.
Her son, Kota Shinozaki, a 21-year-old Keio University student, from Saitama in Japan, arrived at the Delhi International Airport from Tokyo on September 3, 2006, at 2 am. On the same day, he purchased a package tour from a travel agent in New Delhi, which would take him to Jaipur and Agra by car, and eventually to Varanasi, Kolkata and, finally, back to Delhi by train. He left Delhi the same day for Jaipur, and reached Agra on September 5 from Jaipur with a driver named Raju.
The same afternoon, he checked into the Chanakya Hotel in Agra. He went to see the Taj Mahal with the driver and one Lalta Prasad Gautam, a Japanese-speaking guide introduced to him by the driver. The trio came back to the hotel around 5 pm. The next morning, when the driver came to the hotel to pick up Kota, there was no sign of him. His bed had not been slept in, and his belongings had disappeared. According to the hotel records, he had checked out. The driver did not report Kota’s disappearance to the police or the Japanese embassy.
Kota never returned to Japan on September 24 as planned, and nobody had heard from him since he had left for India. Kota’s parents contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo and the local police. On October 17, the Japanese embassy in Delhi lodged a complaint with the Delhi airport police, who informed the embassy on November 1 that Kota had gone missing in Agra on September 5. A hotel receptionist had told the police that Kota went out alone around 7 pm on the day that he disappeared.
Kota’s mother and some well-wishers travelled to Agra on November 8, where they were told by the hotel receptionist that the driver had invited Kota for sightseeing at night, and that they had left with another Indian man, probably the guide — a statement denied by the driver. The investigation was handed over to the Agra police the same month, but little happened thereafter. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe handed over a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on December 18 in Tokyo, requesting a thorough investigation.
In January 2007, Kota’s mother re-visited Agra and re-checked police records and photos of unidentified dead bodies, all in vain. The case was handed over to the CBI in March, but the agency sent a confidential report to the Japanese PM within weeks, supposedly stating that the search had yielded no results. In March 2007, a report by a private detective agency in Delhi confirmed the receptionist’s story.
In March 2008, Kota’s parents visited India again and were assured of an expedited narcotic test on suspects by the Agra police, as well as by the UP DGP and Home Secretary. The Agra police took five of the suspects on March 31 for the narcotic test to Bangalore. However, the guide, Lalta Prasad Gautam, disappeared prior to the test, leaving a suicide note with his family.
In April 2008, sources yielded that, in the narcotic test, the driver, Raju, confessed to visiting a restaurant with Kota and the guide on the night of September 5, and saw Kota and Gautam leave the restaurant together. A hotel employee, Sharma, further confessed that he had stolen money from Kota’s bag and signed on the checking-out card, forging Kota’s signature. Six months have passed since then, with no formal word from the authorities. And no trace of the missing guide.
Why must we bother about Kota? After all, there are people dying every day in India because of terrorist strikes and other criminal acts, keeping the police and investigative agencies on their toes. But it is in these fraught times that Kota’s story assumes a salience beyond what meets the eye. Because it reminds us to value every single human life.
Kota’s mother says nothing that can be construed as melodramatic. The Japanese poise is all there, as disconcerting as it is mysterious. She talks about the ‘case’. Nothing else. She wants to know what else can be done.
What do I say to her, or do to help her, given that reassurances at the prime ministerial level have yielded no results? I wonder if we can help a mother, thousands of miles away, achieve a sense of closure and an uneasy reconciliation regarding the fate of her son.
I am sure we can.
Jyotirmaya Sharma is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Hyderabad