A view of the house in Chitrakoot where the crimes allegedly took place.(HT Photo)
A view of the house in Chitrakoot where the crimes allegedly took place.(HT Photo)

12 years, 50 victims: The making of a molester

Biggest child abuse scandal to hit UP: The CBI arrested Singh for allegedly sexually abusing at least 50 children, a majority of them boys between five and 16, and filming and selling child sexual abuse material (CSAM) on the dark web to racketeers across the globe.
By Haidar Naqvi and Dhrubo Jyoti | Hindustan Times, Chitrakoot/New Delhi
UPDATED ON DEC 28, 2020 09:57 PM IST

In one corner of eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand lies the pilgrim hub of Chitrakoot, whose name translates as “the hill of many wonders.” Temples dot the banks of Mandakini river that flows through Chitrakoot, which finds a mention in the Hindu epic Ramayana as the place where Ram, his brother Lakshman and wife Sita lived for much of their 14 years of banishment. .

Roads in the town of 70,000 people are narrow and auto-rickshaws, sometimes carrying as many as a dozen passengers, are the principal means of transport. Men and women line the streets, hawking wares spread on tarpaulin sheets. Incomes are low and monkeys are everywhere.

In a corner of the town lies SDM colony, formerly an enclave of government officers that grew in the past decade as the district headquarters drew workers from the poorer hinterland. A narrow road just ahead of the bridge over Mandakini leads to the colony, home to roughly 100 lower-middle class families.

Walk down a dusty, unpaved lane wide enough for a small car and you reach a pair of imposing black gates with faux gold engraving. They enclose a two-storey house whose first floor is unfinished. Inside, the rooms are separated by a long and dimly lit passage that leads to a courtyard in the back, and a place to house cattle.

For the last eight years, the house was occupied by Ram Bhavan Singh, who worked as a junior engineer in the UP irrigation department and rented the place from a local doctor.

Singh, 40, lived with his wife Durgawati and was known to the neighbours as a quiet man who stuck to his schedule: Leaving for office at 8am in his Bolero and coming back at 2pm for lunch. “His schedule was like clockwork,” said a neighbour on condition of anonymity.

They only remember one thing vividly: Groups of poor children playing in front of his house, and him inviting them in. “I heard he gave them mobiles to play games and make TikTok videos,” said a second neighbour.

On November 16, it became clear why. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested Singh for allegedly sexually abusing at least 50 children, a majority of them boys between five and 16, and filming and selling child sexual abuse material (CSAM) on the dark web to racketeers across the globe. It is by far the biggest child abuse scandal to hit UP and one of the largest organised child abuse rackets ever busted in India.

“Nithari was a case of necrophilia or someone attracted to corpses; here we were onto someone preying on male children, and frankly no one thought of the scale it was on,” said a senior CBI official, referring to the 2006 serial murders in Noida.

In conversation with 30-odd friends, teachers, local government, child protection and police officials, HT traced his decades-long journey of impunity, the many times he came close to getting caught and the toxic cocktail of new-age technology and old-school social power he wielded.

THE BEGINNING

Singh was born in 1980 in Naraini, a small town famous for its rock sculptures. His father, Chunna Lal, was a mason of high repute and an expert in fashioning temple columns. He has two older brothers, Ram Kishore and Raja Bhaiyya, who joined his father’s profession. Singh was encouraged to study. “He never failed in any subject and kept clearing classes,” said the family doctor who didn’t want to be named. After finishing high school in 1998, Singh moved to Attara, a larger town, for college studies. After graduating, he started tutoring school students for extra cash while preparing for government exams. He also enrolled himself in a civil engineering course at a polytechnic in Banda, a much larger town an hour’s bus ride away.

The first complaint against Singh came in 2008 from a student he was tutoring. The boy told his parents that Singh sexually abused him. Furious, the parents met Singh’s father. “Singh’s father managed to convince the family not to press charges, and he went on an overdrive to find a suitable match for his son,” said a close family friend of Singh’s, requesting anonymity. CBI confirmed the incident and said it was looking to convince the victim to join the investigation.

In 2009, Singh married Durgawati and was appointed in the irrigation department. Singh’s wife remained at home, and he moved into a two-room tenement for Rs 6,000 close to his office. In 2010, there was a second complaint. “I got a complaint from a couple that their son was harassed by him. I asked him to leave and told them to inform the police; they never did,” said Kakkoo Singh, his then landlord.

The next year, local officials said, there was another complaint. That, too, was not legally pursued, but pressure from neighbours forced Singh to move house.

After this, relations between him and his father were strained. “He forced Singh to keep his wife with him in Chitrakoot,” said the family doctor cited above.

Lal died in 2014, snapping Singh’s ties with the family. His brothers said he never visited the home after that and communication was minimal. “We led our separate lives,” said Ram Kishore.

In the winter of 2012, Singh and his wife moved to their home in SDM Colony. Throughout his stint, Singh never asked for the government accommodation he was entitled to, said Santosh Kumar, an official at the irrigation department. The office of the executive engineer of Chitrakoot division, Arvind Kumar, confirmed this.

THE HIDDEN WEB

Shortly after moving into the SDM Colony house, Singh began dabbling in the dark web, helped by some people the CBI is yet to charge.

By most accounts, the dark web represents a large subset of the internet just like anything else we are familiar with: forums, blogs, shops. But there is one crucial difference: everything is anonymised so no one can be tracked, and therefore, nothing is indexed on search engines we are familiar with. Accessible through special browsers such as Tor, the dark web today is used by people who want to dodge surveillance.

“The primary value of dark web is its anonymity. Typically you are given a link to a forum or group for your interest and you find more people there to take your business forward,” said Yash Kadakia, founder of ShadowMap, a digital risk management company that tracks the dark web.

For more sensitive and illegal transactions, one needs three things: a personal introduction, a financial commitment and a strategy to win the trust of other criminals or consumers.

“You have to do a lot of social engineering and win their trust by buying or selling something. This process often takes weeks and months,” said Ritesh Bhatia, a Mumbai-based cyber crime investigator.

Investigators assume someone introduced Singh to the dark web, and he used his cache of CSAM to gain followers and entry into a more exclusive crime forum. “In many cases, we have seen these criminal activities starting on Facebook, telegram groups where CSAM is exchanged, and then someone suggesting a dark web forum,” said Ritesh Bhatia, a Mumbai-based cyber crime investigator.

What further helped Singh, investigators think, was the lowered barrier to access the dark web. “In India, dark web has become incredibly easy to access. Adding someone on Telegram or any other chat app is about as easy as how to get on the dark web today. It’s as easy as installing any app on your phone,” explained Kadakia.

LURING THE CHILDREN

Singh developed a two-pronged modus operandi.

The first was to target low-income families, luring children with gadgets and electronics, and paying off or pressurising their parents not to file a police complaint. A member of the government-appointed Child Welfare Committee (CWC) who spoke to the victims and their parents on behalf of CBI investigators said Singh first began preying on the children of a friend. He then moved on to young boys who played outside his house. “Those children visiting his house told that he had an expensive gaming console at his house. He would encourage the children from his locality to play games on this console, which he had in his room with a double bed,” said the CWC member, requesting anonymity. “He would often pay the children’s school fee and gave the parents money to keep a lid on his activities.”

Singh made sure to rent houses near low-income neighbourhoods, said the investigating officer quoted above.

HT spoke to two of Singh’s alleged victims, aged six and eight – one loves to play PUB-G and the other is a pro at making TikTok videos. They said they visited the house almost daily, and Singh’s wife showered kindness on them. “We always get the mobile he used to keep in the house for us; everyone of us played at least an hour a day,” said the older child.

Their aunt, who takes care of them after their father died in a freak accident in 2017, said Singh would often visit their shack and watch the children bathing. Durgawati was with Singh whenever the children were in the house, she said.

The second step was to leverage his position as a government official in a small town where a government car, and a permanent job are signs of power.

Singh chose two sites he was overseeing as project manager to prey on the children of poor labourers engaged in construction work. At one of these spots, CBI identified two boys, 8 and 12, who live with their parents in a makeshift hut.

The older brother said he recognised Singh as the one who brought a laptop with him and taught them to play video games and gave them a mobile phone, before inviting them to his house. He insisted they call him sahib, the boy added. Both irrigation projects assigned to Singh are running years behind schedule.

ZEROING IN

In September, a small, five-member unit of CBI was alerted about some CSAM of Indian origin floating on the dark web. An anonymous source directed the 13-month-old Online Child Sex Abuse Exploitation, Prevention and Investigation (OCSAE) to the videos – many of which were paywalled.

In a month, the team found embedded geo-location on the videos and photos that helped them track the CSAM to Chitrakoot. Some other transactions listed a phone number registered to Singh and an address in Banda district. In a few of the videos, Singh’s face was partially visible.

In the second week of October, the team reached Chitrakoot. They used cell phone numbers and IP addresses to triangulate Singh’s location, and identified him through the partial grabs from videos. “We didn’t know we were on the cusp of busting such an enormous case; we thought it was limited to 2-3 children,” said a second CBI official.

With the help of local officials, CBI began reaching out to local children and identifying which of them appeared in the videos. Midnight knocks on the doors of many of Singh’s colleagues, and multiple interviews of his driver Abhay helped them gain more evidence. By then, the team had 100 videos, 679 pictures and testimonies of 25 alleged victims.

On November 16, Singh was arrested under the Indian Penal Code, Information Technology Act and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. Investigators found Rs 8.27 lakh in cash, 10 mobile phones, two laptops, six pen drives, six memory cards, one digital video recorder, a spy cam and sex toys. “The real scale emerged only when we reached out to the children,” said a third CBI official.

CBI found 10 empty boxes of mobile phones in the house and is certain these were used to lure children. Singh drew a salary of around Rs 60,000 and also leased his car to the department for another Rs 22,000 – most of this income appears to have been used to buy gadgets and phones, said investigators.

Legal experts say the proceedings in the case can set a precedent for child abuse cases in a country where a crime against a child is committed every four minutes, according to 2019 statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau. Singh also mirrors a trend seen among 90% of child sexual abuse perpetrators, according to the NCRB report – they are known to their victims.

“We know that there is a problem in POCSO cases, that parents don’t like to reveal such complaints from children, for fear of a bad name. There is little reporting,” said Karnika Seth, a Supreme Court advocate and expert on cybersecurity and children.

She pointed out that social media and rising internet penetration, along with poor digital literacy, had made it more easy for young children to be exploited. “This is problem especially in rural areas where communication and knowledge may be much less,” she added, pitching for training of the police and judiciary, secure and confidential dealing with children and counselling to mitigate harm.

What investigators are still unclear on is the role of Durgawati – children confirmed she was present in the house when they visited but also describe her as a warm person. A local official said it was unlikely that over seven years, she wouldn’t have known what was going on. She has refused to leave the house in SDM Colony, but hasn’t stepped out since November. “I will speak about the case at the time and place of choosing,” she said.

Singh’s lawyer Anurag Singh Patel said CBI’S charges were trumped up. “I ask what is his crime, where are the children he abused, where are their statements indicting him?” he said. “We will fight tooth and nail.”

But CBI is confident. “CBI is searching his victims and the list is getting longer each day. They will all come to the court if need be,” said a member of the agency’s legal team.

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