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The silence of our lambs

Most of us treat the serial killer as a peculiarly Western phenomenon, writes Vir Sanghvi in Counterpoint. Do you agree with the author's contention?

india Updated: Jan 28, 2007 03:06 IST

Was I the only person to think as I read The Silence of the Lambs: could it ever happen here? Or is it just that Americans are a strange and bizarre people while Indians are quite normal? Could it be that we have no Hannibals and no cannibals; no deranged psychotic kidnappers; and no serial killers?

I suspect that I may have been. Most of us treat the serial killer as a peculiarly Western phenomenon. We’ve all heard of the Boston Strangler, the Yorkshire Ripper, Son of Sam and even, the grand-daddy of them all, Jack the Ripper.

But as far as we are concerned, these maniacs are not part of the Indian experience. Of course we have contract killers. And we have our fair share of crimes of passion. But psychos? People who kill only because they enjoy it? Twisted sexual predators who get off on murdering their partners? That’s not something that ever happens in India.

Or does it?

In the 1980s, when I edited Sunday magazine out of Calcutta, I followed the story of the mysterious Stone Man who emerged out of nowhere and killed hapless pavement dwellers by crushing their heads with a rock. Growing up in Bombay, I had read about Raman Raghav, the psychopath who had committed serial murders till the police finally trapped him.

As I researched the Stone Man case, I came to the obvious conclusion: he too was a serial killer. And yet, the police seemed leery of this explanation. The psychologists we consulted conceded that this was a possibility, but did not attach much importance to it. As far as they were concerned, serial killers were too far removed from our experience.

God alone knows what happened to the Stone Man. One fine day, he stopped killing people. The police waited for a month and then heaved a sigh of relief. They made no real attempt to find him or to hold him accountable for his crimes; they were just glad that he had stopped killing. Besides, his victims had been pavement dwellers — not people whose relatives demanded any kind of justice or accountability.

But I couldn’t help wondering: is it possible that there are no serial killers in India?

I was never very convinced by the explanations provided by some psychologists. My view was that there had to be serial killers in our society. A country of over a billion people must have its own Hannibal the Cannibal, its own Ripper and a home-grown Strangler. The law of averages made this a statistical certainty.

The problem was that the police never appeared to report any serial killings. Such cases as Raman Raghav and the Stone Man seemed few and far between. I can’t remember a single hunt for a serial killer in the last decade. Then, over Christmas, as news of the Nithari killings came in, I finally had my answer. I knew now why the police never seemed to worry about serial killers.

Serials killers don’t fall into any one stereotype but many of them tend to pick on people at the margins of society. Many Western serial killers focus on prostitutes. Partly this is because there is a sexual component to their blood lust. But it is also because prostitutes — by virtue of their jobs — put themselves at risk, and are the flotsam and jetsam of society, the least likely to be missed when they disappear.

The more I read about the Nithari killings, the more the murderers seemed to me to fit the classic profile of serial killers: there was a sexual element to the murders, there were suggestions of utterly deviant behaviour (Necrophilia? Cannibalism?), and — this is the important bit — the victims were all people on the very fringes of our society. But unlike the prostitutes whom Jack the Ripper preyed on, these victims were very much missed. Unfortunately, those who missed them were people of no consequence in the eyes of the police. And so, no case was ever registered, no charges were ever filed and no hunts for missing persons ever launched.

That, I suspect, is the key to why the police never seem too concerned about serial killers. As long as the victims are poor, and as long as the crimes take place far from public view (the Stone Man’s murders took place on main roads so the cops had to care), the police are quite happy to treat the murders as mere additions to the list of unsolved crimes. Often, they don’t even bother to identify the victims, let alone find the murderers.

If you think I am being too harsh on the police, then here are some facts and figures. By now, we have all come to grips with the horrifying reality of Nithari: the UP police would not bother to look for the scores of children who were missing and only when the parents of one victim went to court was any sort of investigation launched.

But those murders may not be an isolated instance. In yesterday’s HT, my colleague Jatin Gandhi listed the statistics for Gautam Budh Nagar, the district where Nithari is located. In 2006, there were 84 murders in that one district. In other words, even the police are prepared to admit that they registered a case of murder every four and a half days or so. Many of those crimes remain unsolved (and never mind the cases they did not register).

There’s more. Since March 2005, 169 people have gone missing in that single district. The police have no idea what has happened to them. And, judging by their behaviour over Nithari, they couldn’t be bothered.

What we do know is this: those 169 missing persons are not among the 105 unidentified bodies that were also found in Gautam Budh Nagar in the same period of time. Add up the figures and you come up with 274 people — 169 of them still not found, and 105 of them left to die anonymous deaths on the streets of Noida.

After Nithari, we know that these figures represent only the tip of the iceberg: the police are not willing to register missing person cases. So imagine what the real figure is. Every week, according to official figures, five residents of Gautam Budh Nagar go missing or turn up dead and unidentified. But if Nithari tells us anything, it is that the real figure is at least double that.

Now, extrapolate from the Gautam Budh Nagar experience. There are 604 districts in India. Multiply the 274 figure for missing people or unidentified bodies from Gautam Budh Nagar by the number of districts in our country. That gives us 1,65,496 people either reported missing or turning up dead and unidentified.

Do we really know what happened to these people? Can we be sure how and if they died? Are we certain they were not killed by psychopaths?

And more to the point, do we really care?

I am prepared to accept that Uttar Pradesh is a particularly bad example in terms of lawlessness and terrible policing. It is possible that the figures for Gautam Budh Nagar are far higher than the figures for the other 603 districts of India. But even if we were to scale down my figure by a third to take into account that objection, that still leaves us with over 1 lakh Indians who are reported missing or dead and unidentified.

Isn’t that shameful? What does it say about us as a nation?

The sad reality of today’s India is that the law only exists for those with money or influence. For those on the margins of our society, life is tough, unpleasant and dangerous. The police treat them with contempt. Their daughters are raped by the rich. And their children are kidnapped by the powerful.

Secure in our smug middle class existences, we imagine that we live in a perfect Shining India where there are no serial killers and where new malls open every week. Abducted children of rich and influential executives are recovered by the police. The murders of middle class victims are avenged once we launch SMS campaigns and hold candlelight vigils.

But for millions of Indians, there is no justice, there is no security, and when their children go missing, there is nobody who will even listen to them. And yes, of course, there are serial killers in India. Of course, there are child molesters. Of course, there are cannibals and necrophiliacs.

Fortunately for us, they do not prey on our children or touch our families. And so, to our eternal shame, we turn a blind eye to their victims, a deaf ear to the complaints of those who have lost their daughters. Even when a case like Nithari should serve as a wake-up call, we make no attempt to change the system so that it delivers justice to all Indians, no matter what their income is.

Say this for the West: they may appear to have more serial killers. But that’s because they care about all victims. In India, we sit tight, hold our children close and look the other way as other people’s children get raped and murdered.

Mail your responses to:counterpoint@hindustantimes.com