Ryan school murder: One brutal killing, multiple theories and wait for justice
By 5.30 pm on September 8, Mamta, who goes by one name, had started to wonder where her husband was. Her village, Ghamroj, is only a few kilometers off the corporate towers of Gurgaon, but most men here leave home early and return before sunset. Her 42-year-old husband, a bus conductor working at a brand-name school, Ryan International, in the neighbouring village of Bhondsi, had kept a 5 am to 5 pm shift since he got the job eight months ago. The only odd thing about the day was a 4 pm visit from a representative of the school, who had demanded her husband’s identity card. Accustomed to providing endless proof of their legitimate existence like most Indian villagers, she had shrugged it off as usual business.
At 5.45 pm, she made the first call to her husband’s mobile phone to ask him what was holding him up. “I made two calls. No response. Then the phone became unreachable,” the 29-year-old told Hindustan Times while standing in the mud-floor courtyard of her family’s minimally furnished two-room house. She decided to wait. At 8 pm, a group of neighbours stormed into the house and asked her to turn on the news channels. There he was, her husband of 11 years and the father of their two children, surrounded by policemen and cameras, confessing that he had cut open the throat of an eight-year-old boy in the school’s bathroom because the student had resisted his attempt to sodomise him. “I was not in my senses,” said the conductor, a short, slight man with a gaunt face and brooding eyes.
On September 14, when Mamta went to see her husband in Bhondsi’s local jail, he told her he hadn’t killed the boy. He said he had been framed. She believed him. (“How can this man who has never even scolded our children murder a boy?” she told HT after her visit). So did everyone in Ashok Kumar’s village. “He is fond of children. He keeps to himself. He used to say that even looking at blood makes him vomit,” said Om Prakash Chopra, a neighbour. Those who met the conductor in the jail could also see his swollen hands, limping gait and droopy eyelids. “He had looked absolutely fine when he left the house that morning,” Mamta kept telling the reporters in the following days.
The nation was harder to convince.
There was a dead boy. Chubby and cheerful, Pradhyumn Thakur was the “favourite child” of his parents. Residents of a gated colony in the vicinity of the school, his parents had built a comfortable suburban life since they arrived in Gurgaon from Bihar in 2001, just as the city was emerging as a finance and technology hub. The father worked at a well-known export company, the mother looked after the home, and their lives revolved around their two children: an 11-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy.
Pradhyumn was loved by everyone who knew him. He stole sweets from the fridge, cycled around the colony, performed as well at studies as he did on the piano, and wrote mushy lines about his mother. No one can stand the idea of the murder of a boy like that remaining unsolved.
Then there was the reputation of one of India’s biggest education chains. Set up in 1976 by a Mumbai-based entrepreneur, AF Pinto, to “cater to a new middle class which would drive the country’s growth”, the empire of Ryan International is spread over 186 schools across India and West Asia, where nearly 300,000 students pay about Rs 5,000 every month to receive “good-quality English-medium education.” But it was yet to recover from the discovery of a six-year-old student’s body in a water tank in its south Delhi campus in 2016.
And finally, there were thousands of angry parents: parents of the 2,500 students of Ryan International in Bhondsi (on September 8, a group of them had smashed the glass door to the reception and trashed what they could find, including the centre table, a landline phone, and flower pots); parents of every child who goes to school in Delhi-NCR; and parents of school-going children across the country.
What kind of person slits the throat of an innocent boy from a good family? The bus conductor from Ghamroj had been seen leaving the bathroom minutes before the blood-soaked body of Pradhyumn Thakur was found. When the Gurgaon Police arrived on the scene of crime with a dog squad and a team of forensic experts at 1:30 pm, they saw blood on his shirt. By 4 pm, the case was declared solved. Confessing to the murder at a press conference called by the Gurgaon police at 8 pm, Ashok Kumar narrated an account right out of middle-class parents’ nightmares.
Kumar said he had gone to the bathroom on the ground floor of the school’s red-and-white building to clean a knife he had taken out of the toolkit of the bus. That job done, he said, he stood at one of the urinals and begun to masturbate. “I was there, doing something wrong, when the kid suddenly came in. I tried to sexually assault him. He tried to run away. I got scared and pulled him into the toilet. I stabbed him twice in the neck.” Over the next three days, the Gurgaon Police took Ashok Kumar to the crime scene three times to reconstruct the events of September 8. Everything he said matched with their investigation of the murder. “He is an emotionless man, he was blank and seemed as if he had no regret for what he had done,” Ashok Kumar, a senior officer with the Gurgaon Police, told HT.
Parents were horrified, and outraged.“I want to withdraw my son from this school. He has refused to attend classes here and is very scared to visit the school premises,” said Madan Kumar, AGE a software engineer. Children took out candle-lit marches. Lawyers in Gurgaon jointly decided not to take up Kumar’s defence. Union ministers held high-level meetings to develop a protocol of safety in schools. The Ryan International murder had joined the illustrious list of crime stories that rake up Delhi-NCR’s class tensions.
Except the story wasn’t yet over.
On September 13, Ashok Kumar appeared in a district court in Haryana and withdrew his earlier confession. His lawyer, a Rohtak-based practitioner hired with a fund contributed by the residents of Ghamroj, told the court that the Gurgaon Police had “drugged and tortured” his client into confessing. In his bail application, the lawyer, Mohit Verma, argued that Ashok Kumar had blood stains on his shirt because he had picked up the bleeding child at the instruction of a teacher and carried him over to a car. The teacher, Anju Dudeja, made a statement to the media confirming the account.
A gardener, Harpal, who was present at the scene, said Kumar’s clothes and slippers didn’t have any blood stains before he picked up the boy. The driver of the bus, Saurabh Raghav, said there was no knife in the toolkit to begin with. The post-mortem report of Pradhyumn Thakur’s body ruled out any attempt at sexual abuse. The investigation of Gurgaon Police started falling apart.
So who killed Pradhyumn Thakur? On September 22, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) took the case over from the Gurgaon Police.
On September 24, the CBI called a Class 11 student of Ryan International, Bhondsi, to its Delhi headquarters for questioning. On September 28, the agency searched his house in Sohna. On November 8, the CBI pronounced the 16-year-old as the killer of Pradhyumn. The teenager had killed the boy to force the school to put off an examination and a parent-teacher meeting, the CBI said. Over the following days, a number of details about the teenager emerged: he was bad at studies, he was good on the piano, he was from a well-to-do family, his parents constantly fought, he was troubled by the fights, he watched porn, and displayed “rude behaviour” in school.
The agency said it did not find any evidence against the bus conductor. On the night of November 7, the juvenile accused was picked up from his house. The CBI also collected his laptop, hard disk and mobile phone. The next day, the agency sought a three-day custodial remand for further interrogations. The teen had searched the Internet for types of poison and how to use them, CBI sources later told HT. He had also looked up methods to remove fingerprints from a knife, the sources added. On November 11, the agency told a juvenile court in Haryana that the accused had confessed to the crime. Later that day, the juvenile court sent him to an observation home in Faridabad until November 22.
This, according to the CBI sources, is what the 16-year-old told the interrogators.
His first instinct was to drop poison into the school’s water tank. He later changed his mind. On September 7, he bought a knife from a shop near his house. He took it to school in his pocket the next day. In school, he saw Pradhyumn, whom he knew from the music classes, in a corridor, and asked the boy to follow him to the bathroom to help him with something. “Haan bhaiya,” the boy said to him as he allowed himself to be led into the bathroom and onward to a cubicle at the end of the aisle. Then, all of a sudden, the 16-year-old felt restless. He left the boy standing outside the cubicle and rushed to the music room on the first floor to talk to his music teacher about the voices in his head.
But the room was closed, so the teenager came back to the toilet. “He found the victim still waiting for him. He then decided to go ahead with the plan,” said a CBI source. So he took the boy inside the cubicle, his back facing him, wrapped his left arm around his shoulders, took out the knife from his pocket with his right hand, and ran it over the back of his neck -- twice. Then he threw the knife in the commode, ran out of the bathroom, spotted the gardener, and told him that a child was vomiting blood in the bathroom.
It was a powerful story once again: a teenage boy, a troubled family, a high-pressure environment, an instinct for destruction. If a 16-year-old boy from a good family had to kill an eight-year-old boy from a good family to avoid a parent-teacher meeting, then not all was well with the suburban Indian life.
Except the story was still not over.
On November 14, in a meeting with an officer from the district child protection unit, the juvenile accused took back his confession. He said the CBI had forced him into it. His father told the reporters that “my son was tortured, beaten, hung upside down and his head submerged into the water by CBI investigators to obtain a confession”.
The story was back to where it started: with a dead boy in a school toilet.
This is what we do know: At 7.55am on September 8, Pradhyumn Thakur arrived at Ryan International; at 8 am, he was seen going into the bathroom bearing his backpack; between 8 am and 8:10 am, the bus conductor and his music class senior visited the bathroom; and at 8:12 am, he was lying at the bathroom’s door bleeding from his throat. When HT visited the scene of crime two hours after the boy was taken to the hospital, there was plenty of blood in and around the bathroom: streaks across the floor, splotches on the wall of the last cubicle on the left, stains around the door. There was also a knife floating in a commode in which the water had turned red.
Yet, all of this adds up to nothing. If the bus conductor didn’t kill the child, why does he have blood on his shirt? Because he picked up the bleeding child, says the gardener. If the teenager killed the child, why isn’t there a drop of blood on his shirt? Because of the school bag on the back of the kid, says the CBI. The more we know, the more we wonder.
In the meantime, those most affected by the death of Pradhyumn, fight for justice and survival.
On November 15, Barun Chandra Thakur, his father, filed a petition to the juvenile justice board requesting that the 16-year-old be tried as an adult. He said the crime the teenager committed was “chilling, horrific, monstrous and serious in nature”.
In Ghamroj, Mamta lost her cleaning job at a village school because her employer didn’t want any police trouble. Her children’s school fee is due for two months now. Her husband had Rs 8,000 in his bank account at the time of the arrest. “We are getting by. My husband’s four sisters have been pitching in with kitchen supplies,” she said. If her husband comes out of jail, she won’t allow him to work for Ryan International even if he does get the job back. “This happened to him because he is poor. It’s easy to frame poor people because they can’t fight back.”