6 years, 9 victims and an unlikely serial killer
On the afternoon of March 31, 21-year-old Iti Haoladar was sitting with her six-month-old son outside her home in Dharmadanga village in Bengal’s Purba Bardhaman district. Her house is two thatched rooms under a tin roof, barely a kilometre from the Hatkalna gram panchayat office.
Unexpectedly, a man on a red motorbike stopped in front of her house. His helmet was red too. The stranger said he had come from the state power department to inspect the electric meter, and asked how many people were home. Haoladar said she was alone, and that the others would not return for a few hours. The man left, and returned around 30 minutes later — this time to “read the meter”.
He took off his helmet, entered the house, asked her how many lamps the family used, followed by another query about power consumption. Haoladar looked away to confirm a detail, only to find a heavy metal chain wound tight around her neck in a flash. “As I gasped for breath, I said to myself that if I pretended to be dead, he might leave me,” she said. The desperate gambit worked; as Haoladar collapsed on the floor, the man loosened the noose and stepped away. Sensing her chance, the housewife started screaming for help.
“He ran out, leaving the chain behind,” said Haoladar, who was admitted to hospital with bruises on her neck.
In India, crimes with no serious injury usually figure low on the police’s priority list. However, in Haoladar’s case, Santanu Choudhury, the sub-divisional police officer of Kalna town, reached her home within the hour. Choudhury suspected the incident may have something to do with two murders and three recent attempted murders in neighbouring Kalna and Memari, and in Balagarh in Hooghly district.
The victims were all women, they were alone at home, and the ones who survived said the attacker posed as a power department employee who tried to strangle them with a metal chain. With three similar, but unsolved, crimes in the same area in 2013, Choudhury suspected the same killer could have resurfaced six years later.
Four more women were murdered before the police stumbled on the alleged murderer at a dusty traffic intersection in Kalna on June 2. The arrest of Kamaruzzaman Sarkar, 37, has revealed an intricate web of alleged robbery, murder and sexual assault that was busted because of his superstitious love for the colour red. The police say his arrest is the key to solving the murders of nine women and attempts to kill another five over a crime spree that lasted six years. His lawyer denies the charges.
The agrarian belt comprising Kalna, Memari, Manteshwar, Nadanghat, Panduah and Balagarh lies in an arc along the Purba Bardhaman and Hooghly districts in southern Bengal. The region is densely populated and crisscrossed by flat fields of paddy cultivated by mostly marginal farmers. With agricultural incomes slowing, many people have moved to daily-wage labour. Most houses in the area are thatched huts.
These sleepy villages caught Bengal Police’s attention after the attempt on Haoladar’s life. Just as police were proceeding with the investigation, the killer struck again. Three days after the attack on Haoladar, two women were bludgeoned to death in Memari. This time, no chains were used — just blunt weapons such as iron rods, police said. Investigators suspected the killer was playing tricks to mislead them because the word had gone out to look for a man carrying metal chains.
There was another problem: The double murder in Memari hit the local news and panic was fast spreading. “Everyone was talking about the ‘chainman’ and ‘meterman’,” said Shubhra Majumdar, pradhan (chief) of the Hatkalna gram panchayat. “There was another cause for concern — the possibility of innocents facing mob fury on suspicion of being the killer,” Bhaskar Mukherjee, Purba Bardhaman’s district superintendent of police, said.
Despite increased surveillance, the killer showed no signs of stopping. On April 7, Saifa Bibi, the wife of a labourer, was weaving cane baskets in her courtyard when someone put a chain around her neck from behind and tried to choke her. “I screamed in pain. My children, who were inside the house, started screaming too. The man fled. I could not see his face,” Saifa Bibi said.
Investigators could sense that time was running out. By the end of May, three more murders had taken place — at Hatkalna’s Goara Mallickpara (Kalna) on May 22, Shyam Nabagram (Manteswar) on May 27 and Singerkon’s Doltala (Kalna) on May 31 – and no substantial leads were found. But what worried the police more was that these three victims had been sexually assaulted — post-mortem investigations suggested they were brutalised with foreign objects. Chains weren’t used in any of these cases either.
Few clues were offered by the victims’ families. The May 31 victim, a Class 10 student, lived in a mud hut with her mother, a widow who works as a cook. The attacker left with whatever cash and jewellery he found inside the hut. Haoladar’s husband, Samir, is a marginal farmer. Rita Roy’s husband, Bolai, sells utensils at village fairs. Shyamapada, Mamata Kisku’s husband, is a marginal farmer.
On June 1, the Kalna police called a meeting to address civic volunteers, who assist them in traffic management , from panchayats and villages in the area. They shared with the volunteers the few clues they had from survivors’ descriptions and the security camera footage of a rider seen close to the crime scene in Hooghly’s Balagarh on February 15 where Bibha Chorui, 45, was killed and cash and jewellery stolen from her house.
Seen in the footage were a red motorbike, a red helmet, a man in a tucked-in shirt, and a bag swinging from the vehicle.
The next day, civic volunteers Anirban Ghosh, 28, and Khokon Santra, 30, were manning traffic in Kalna’s Sadhupukur area when they saw a man riding towards them on a red motorbike. They flagged down the rider, took down the vehicle’s registration number and phone number of the owner, and were about to let him go, when another man on another red motorbike tried to speed past the barricade, lost his balance, and fell.
Ghosh and Santra overpowered him and snatched the ignition key. The man had a red helmet on, his shirt was neatly tucked in, his shoes were polished, and a nylon bag was hanging from the bike handle. In the bag were a crowbar and a metal chain — and the rider couldn’t explain why he was carrying them. And so Sarkar was arrested. “It feels great to have played a part in his arrest,” Ghosh said.
Interrogation suggested that the downfall of the alleged 37-year-old killer was brought on by his superstition. Police said his astrologer had told him that red was his lucky colour, so he had stuck to the red motorbike and helmet even after some of his targets escaped alive.
Born in a lower middle-class family in Bengal’s Murshidabad district in 1982 as the fourth of nine siblings, Sarkar lost his mother at the age of 13. His father married soon after, and following a few months of trouble, Sarkar dropped out of the local madrasa and left home.
“He visited us once in two-three years. He never told us where he lived and what he did for a living,” said Anwarul Islam, Sarkar’s older brother who still lives in Murshidabad district.
Little is known about his daily activities. His neighbours in Purba Bardhaman’s Samudragarh, where he lived with his three children, wife and mother-in-law for 17 years, say he used to deal in scrap metal, but his wife, Jahanara Bibi, is not sure how her husband earned an income.
Every morning, he would drop his children — a 14-year-old daughter and two sons, aged seven and five — at school. Before leaving home, he would give Jahanara ~200 on most days for daily expenses. He would return around 3pm for lunch. By all accounts, he was soft-spoken and rarely picked a fight. “When we came across each other on the streets he used to smile,” said Soma Rajbangshi, a neighbour.
The family is shocked at the charges levelled against Sarkar, no one more than Jahanara. “I cannot believe he killed all those women. In these 15 years, he did not even slap me although we had arguments. He loved spending time with his children,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks.
The police claim they have an airtight case. They have charged Sarkar under Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder) and 376 (rape) for the sexual assault and murder of a 45-year-old on May 22. “Sarkar is currently booked in one case but will be charged in each of the 13 remaining cases,” Mukherjee said. He has admitted to all the crimes including the sexual assault. Police say that in none of the sexual assault cases did he try to have intercourse with the victim. “He targeted poor families because their homes are not secured,” said Mukherjee. “Loot was the primary objective. He killed to remove the eyewitnesses,” the police chief added.
In the lock-up at Kalna police station, he interacted with other inmates and asked them what charges they were facing. When produced before the court on June 3, Sarkar wore a nonchalant look before the judge. “We raided Sarkar’s home and seized papers related to mortgaging of gold jewellery at five different shops,” an officer at Kalna police station said on condition of anonymity.
His wife and her mother, Shakila Bibi, claim that Sarkar is innocent. They have fought a boycott by the rest of Sarkar’s family and hired a lawyer. They also claim that the jewellery recovered by police at their house belonged to them. “My client suffers from a mental ailment. The police are trying to frame him to suppress their failure in solving so many murders,” said Subhra Roy, Sarkar’s counsel.