Thursday, October 21, 2010

The tacit graveyard of unspeakable horror covered with layers of dust, weeds

One of the things that was on my mind when I was setting out for Noida was D-5 — the house where children and women were raped and murdered reported as Nithari killings in 2006. Reports of cannibalism also surfaced. When all this was reported, I was working in Patna. And to say that I was disturbed big time would be an understatement.

On reaching Noida, other priorities needed redress and getting to the “place” took a backseat. Once settled a bit, I tried finding out where exactly the bungalow lay. I was shocked. The house I have taken on rent in Noida was located not far off. Once there, I found I was mistaken. I was under the impression the area would be deserted with D-5 still haunting the locals.

About four years after Nithari shocked the nation, local people are learning to move on. I found carefree bunches of small schoolchildren walking past the bungalow, in which Pandher’s car continues to rust, covered with layers of dust. Our photographer was disappointed too. He had the typical images of some bhoot bangla in his mind. But everything looked “normal.”

Though weeds have enveloped the sealed entrance of the tacit graveyard of unspeakable horror deserted structure, eateries — Lallan Tea Stall is always crowded — have come up on the roadside (the CBI had dug out skeletons from a drain behind D-5). Cops deputed to protect the case property look bored. Real estate, or at least, rentals are limping back to normal. And, more importantly, locals look to leave the killings behind.

I confronted a middle-aged man standing nearby. “I’m Satyaveer Pandeet. I run a grocery shop,” he said. Okay, but what he said after that was surprising. Asked where he stayed, he said, “I have bought the house opposite D-5.” He said he was sure about the property he intended to buy in sector 31 some three months ago. His family members were not. A regular house alright, but it stood bang in front of D-5.

“I knew exactly what I was doing. The deal was good,” Pandeet told me. “Pandher’s servant Surinder Koli has got three death sentences. Many more may come. Life for others has to move on,” he said while rushing to work. Pandeet runs his shop in Nithari. Pandeet’s wife Babita Sharma said, “We know the area would always be known for all the wrong reasons. But we cannot keep looking back.” For kids, though, reasoning is not that easy. Their 15-year-old son Tarun studies at Model School in sector 11. “My friends ask don’t I fear living in front of D-5. I don’t know what to say,” he said at his A-24 house.

Head constable Krishnawtar Gautam, posted in a makeshift picket in to ensure the bungalow’s security, hurriedly began wearing his uniform on seeing us (blame it on the camera). He has observed Koli. “Koli is paying for his sins. His health has worsened. Even he has a family and children to look after,” he said.

Right next to the “killer house”, there stands D-6. Its security guard Raju Chaudhary (45) joined duty a month ago. Did not he think of avoiding the assignment? “Is ghar se mujhe kya matlab? Iske liye toh police hai. Akhbaar me toh sab nikalta hi rahta hai. Mujhe toh kahin bhi duty karni hai. (I am not bothered about Pandhre’s house. Cops protect it. Newspapers write about it. I have to work somewhere or the other,” he said.

After Nithari become synonymous with murder and horror, people began avoiding the area, rents went down, and people left houses. “Locals chose to address themselves as residents of Sector 31,” said a tea stall vendor, Kishan. In 2006, the land rate in Sector 31 was between Rs 40,000 and Rs 45,000 psqm. Things have not changed much since then. But realty experts sense some restoration. Sahil Khan, a property dealer, said, “Nithari is or should be history now. The rentals in sector 31 are not very less compared to other areas. For 1 BHK accommodation, you have to shell out Rs 10,000. For 2 BHK, the rental is Rs 13-14,000.” “See, the basic problem is that of the three blocls, block B is okay but portions of block A and C are quite rural in character, marked by presence of cattle heads and encroachment. That’s why the stagnation in land prices,” he added.

I also wanted to know how the killings came to know. And here’s how: Before December 2006, children kept going missing and no body had any clue. A girl, Payal, was one of the unfortunate kids. Her mobile was put on surveillance and, after six months, it was traced to a PCO in Mamura. The shop owner had purchased it from a rickshaw-puller. The rickshaw-puller, on spotted, said he had ferried someone in Nithari and the passenger had forgotten the mobile on the seat. The SIM card being used was found to have been obtained by Koli. After his arrest, Koli broke and confessed to the killings.

Retired defence officer and currently an RTI activist Lokesh Batra has used RTI to expose government indifference and failure in handling Nithari massacre. I had met him during the recent HT Conclave to announce our launch in Noida. When I was planning to write on Nithari, I called him up for assistance. For him, the killings were not just about the master-servant duo, currently lodged in Ghaziabad’s Dasna jail.

“It was a systematic failure. Had they paid attention to these cases earlier, these serial killings would have been prevented,” he said. He was convinced that if the drains around the bungalow were cleaned regularly, the bodies could have been discovered much earlier. In response to his RTI application, the Noida authority informed him that the drains in Noida were cleaned after a gap of every 15 to 30 days. The last time the authority cleaned the drain outside D-5 was between December 20 and 23, 2006- just six days before the Nithari killings became public.

“If the cleaning of the drains was taking place as usual, then why did not they find anything unusual?” asked Batra. He filed RTI application in the Noida police asking what it did to trace the missing children. According to the information, the Noida police went to 34 locations to investigate the Nithari killings. However, the first visit was made only in march 2006 (nine months before the expose) when Nithari post in -charge K.P. Singh went to seelampur and brahampuri in North East Delhi. Noida Police’s reply to the RTI application came on February 19, 2007 and till then no police official had claimed any expenditure for these trips. “On whose cost they travelled then?”

When a special CBI court late last month sentenced to death Surinder Koli — servant of businessman Moninder Singh Pandher — for rape and murder of a nine-year -old girl, Rachna Lal, one of the many victims in the sensational Nithari killings in 2006, the deceased’s family was only partly satisfied. This was the third case related to killing of young children and women in which Koli has been awarded capital punishment. But members of the family lament the fact the Pandher — who they believe was also involved in the gory acts — was not chargesheeted in the case. Koli is accused of rape and murder in all 19 cases. Pandher has been co-accused in six of them.

The girl’s father Pappu Lal told me, “Pandher has been let off the hook because of his wealth and its consequent political connections. A servant alone cannot resort to such barbaric acts. I am pained. We will move the High Court.” Mother Laxmi said, “The judgment is out. Now the hanging should take place immediately.” Her parents on the basis her belongings and a DNA test report identified Rachna.

The killings came to light when the remains of the victims were found dumped in a drain behind Pandher's house in Noida’s sector 31 in December 2006. A total of 19 FIRs had been lodged in connection with the Nithari killings. Chargesheets were filed in 16 cases. Though Koli has been sentenced to death in Rimpa Haldhar and Aarti murder cases too, the angst is widespread and not limited to the Lals alone.

Durga Prasad, father of Aarti (a Nithari victim), said, “I cannot rest easy till Pandher is hanged. He must have been farmed for being part of the conspiracy.” Rimpa’s father Anil Haldhar, said, “The High Cort acquitted Pandher, but we will move the Supreme Court. We want justice.”

On February 13, 2009, Pandher and Koli were sentenced to death in the Rimpa Haldar case in the first verdict in the Nithari killings. However, Pandher was acquitted by the Allahabad High Court in September 2009. Pandher is still lodged in Dasna district jail in Ghaziabad.

Parents of other Nithari victims such as Payal, Jyoti, Madhu, Max and Harsh echo similar sentiments and seek a fresh probe or constitution of an inquiry commission. The CBI has already said it will not submit chargesheet in the rest of the cases as they were found to have no links with the Nithari killings.

The last four years have seen the families of victims run from pillar to post, trying to get justice and reliving the horror of 2006 again and again. The victims mostly belonged to families of migrant workers from Bihar and West Bengal living in shanties or slums in Nithari village of Noida’s sector 31. Parents had filed several complaints with the local police about missing children between 2005 and 2006. The police allegedly refused to help them. The families alleged since they were poor, the police shooed them away.

Early this year, three girls, students of Government Inter College in Noida’s sector 12, went missing. The parents made rounds of the Sector-24 Kotwali and the SSP’s office daily for a month. No one gave them a hearing. Aged 13, 15 and 16 years, the girls are yet to be traced. The helpless parents have moved the High Court for justice.

And they are not alone. The police have no clues about more than two dozen kids who went missing in Noida Post-Nithari, leaving the parents distraught. Only on September 29, a 12-year-old girl was reported missing from Sector 31 in Nithari area.
The Nithari killings had prompted the Supreme Court to issue a detailed list of dos and don’ts on missing children. A hue and cry soon led to “constitution” of special cells in each district and a centralised database in Lukcnow. Each police station was supposed to keep the district crime record bureau updated on missing kids, so that the figures can be sent to Lucknow for further follow-up.

But hardly anything is happening on this front in Noida. Post-Nithari there was a clear instruction from the police headquarters in Lucknow to all police stations across the state to lodge kidnapping cases if missing kids are not traced within three days. But parents continue to run from pillar to post for justice.

The parents who are generally shooed away by the police are those who are migrant workers from living slums. In the case of Nithari, parents had filed several complaints with the local police about missing children between 2005 and 2006.

That did not interest the police. The police still take details but do nothing. They often blame parents for being uncaring or even say the children had left on their own.. And it’s not only the fear of another Nithari, but there are chances of these missing kids working as cheap labour, prostitutes, porn actors or beggars, he added.
More than a hundred minors, both girls and boys, went missing from Gautam Budhha Nagar district this year. The data available, of case registered by the Noida police alone, puts the figure at 45. Some kids have been restored to their families but police sources estimate post-Nithari, more than two dozen unfortunate ones are still missing.
When I asked SP City H.N. Singh what all was being done to set things right, he had an answer ready, “The special missing cell was set up after in the aftermath of Nithari killings. Right now, the system is slightly decentralized — cases are being registered, investigated and worked out at the level of police stations.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Aap toh patrakar hain, aap bataaiye…

“Aap toh Bihar se hain, aap bataaiye…,” goes the routine line. If you are from Bihar, and also a journalist you are expected to put things into “perspective.” Who will win is what people want to know.

But do reporters really have the ability to predict things? Let’s not talk about exit polls and pre-poll surveys. Political reporters do have the advantage of being in touch with the netas and observing their activity. They also interact with the electorate. But does that actually help gauge the mood? I don’t think so. Maybe to some extent. Maybe the exercises empower one to be part of political discussions on TV shows or write the so-called analytical pieces.

A month and a half ago, when I was going through the process of hiring a house in Noida, the landlord, Ajay Devan, a retired Army colonel, sought to know: “How do you see things unfold in Bihar?” While going for a dinner with travel writer Shalini Mitra, the lady looked curious too. “Will Lalu manage to get back to power? I mean, I would not like him to, but who stands a better chance?”

There are a whole lot of people who catch hold of you with: “Aap toh patrakar hain, aap bataaiye…” And I am always clueless.

I think burdened by reports and capsules of allegations and counter-allegations and bhashanbaaji, people look fatigued and want some clarity or at least freshness. I certainly do. What is written is often routinely boring. Delhi accuses Bihar of misusing central funds. Bihar hits back, blames Centre for state’s mess. Some are distributing cycles. Others pick goats!

Last year, I was in Agra for a launch. During the same time, the Samajwadi Party was holding its national convention in the city of Taj. A dear friend was there to cover the event for his paper. He had been put up in a very good hotel. He made it a point to let me know how he was enjoying costly – he never made any mention of the taste of it -- food and beverages. There was a whole lot of activity – big leaders, an army of reporters from across the state, banners, hoardings. The city was packed. And I was a sufferer. Despite efforts, I could not get any space in any of the hotels.

They were full with party delegates and journalists. I had by the way high expectations from my friend. His report the next day began with “Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav said Mayawati was responsible for Uttar Pradesh’s backwardness and urged the people to bring SP back to power…”

Coming back to Mitra and Devan, elections in Bihar are peculiar. The watchers say it’s a battle between Lalu (who ruined the state during his 15-year rule) and Nitish (who at least began the process of checking the rot before the actual rebuilding can take place). So it’s the development card. Till 2005, I lived all my life in that state. And after Nitish came to power (I was then at IIMC and I still remember the ToI headline – WATERLALOO), I have been there quite often. I can sense the improved law and order situation, the improvement in infrastructure. I’m not sure about the employment claims though.

What has not changed though is the caste factor – a major cause for the backwardness of Bihar. And this could spoil hopes of Nitish trying to translate his claims of good governance into political success. In 1990, when Lalu became CM, he virtually created a separate electorate referred to as MY: Muslims and Yadavs. Development took a backseat. Crime went up. And it happened on purpose.

Now, things are improving but people, especially in not-so-urban pockets, still look conscious of who they are going to choose. No wonder, Nitish too has been playing his caste card. I fear a sizeable chunk of backward Bihar may get back to being more backward, swayed by caste considerations. I’m equally intrigued by the fact that Congress had RJD as its ally at the centre for so long and now Manmohan and Sonia are citing the “20-year” misrule to woo the electorate.

My first encounter with elections took place in 2005. I was in Govindganj (East Champaran) to cover Bihar assembly polls. Bhojpuri artist Manoj Tiwari had by then became a famous TV face. He, while appearing on various poll-related shows, appealed to the people of the state to desist from voting for aspirants having criminal background. But he also campaigned for the then incarcerated MLA and LJP nominee from Govindganj seat, Rajan Tiwari.

Rajan was seeking reelection from the Beur jail. Suresh Sahni, the RJD candidate who was defeated by him (Rajan) in the 2000 assembly polls, left Govindganj and contested Motihari seat this year on LJP ticket! Locals said Suresh was terrorized into contesting the Motihari seat to damage the poll prospect of RJD nominee Rama Devi, as Sahnis constituted a vast chunk of voters there.

I happened to talk to Manoj. He said, “Rajanji is not a criminal.” However, he also added: “I do not say Rajanji has a clean image either. But then who does have a clean image in today’s politics? “Help Ramvilasji become the next CM of Bihar and rid the state of the RJD misrule.” Rajan lost the elections and today the “promising” party and the “bad” party are together to fight a force which was not in the reckoning then. Locals said Manoj was campaigning owing to the terror tactics employed by the sitting legislature. Manoj said he agreed to seek votes for Rajan due to the ‘very special relationship’ he had with him, while refusing to explain the same.

Closer home, the reality was even bitter. A college student then, I was working for Hindustan Times as its Buxar correspondent. I mostly operated from my hometown Dumraon. The results were shocking for me. In Dumraon assembly segment, then state Samajwadi Party president Dadan Yadav defeated independent candidate Anuradha Devi by a substantial margin of over 9,000 votes. Anuradha, incidentally, is the wife of heavyweight leader Munna Tiwary. But what really shocked me was the fact that the CPI fared badly with veteran communist leader Nagendra Nath Ojha, known as ‘Vikash Purush’ among locals for the kind of development work he did as Rajya Sabha MP, suffering a humiliating defeat. Ojha, contrary to all expectations, was relegated to fourth position.

Somewhere deep down in my heart, I was terribly sad. Though I, while borrowing from contemporary election coverage, had written a report (campaign trail) that it remained to be seen if the work done by the communist leader, who led an astonishingly simple life, would actually translate into electoral success!

Ojha had actually done a lot of work for Dumraon. And people generally respected him a lot. But that’s how elections work.
I vividly remember interviewing Dadan, who rose to the stature of a state politician from being a wrestler and a school teacher employing all kinds of tactics, at the Buxar collectorate soon after the results were announced. He said he was always assured of a massive win and termed his victory a slap on the faces of those trying to divide the society on caste lines. “I won despite the fact that I could do just a little bit of campaigning in my constituency as the police implicated me in false cases on the eve of elections at the behest of Lalu Yadav. He was earlier with Lalu. Later he parted ways with Mulayam.


During my stint at Lucknow HT, I covered the Lok Sabha elections. It was a very enriching experience. But the first real elections assignment happened in 2007. My editor in Patna asked me to go and cover the UP assembly elections. I noticed politics in Bhadohi contributed more to crime and corruption than the words famous carpet industry it was known for. No wonder, the industry, in which lakhs of people are involved, was in a shambles.

The moment I entered the Ghazipur belt, I began thinking about Mukhtar Ansari and Brijesh Singh. I had been hearing about these two ganglords since my childhood. In the twin cities of Ghazipur and Mau, only ‘power’ ensured power. And absolute power did it absolutely! The town received power 22 hours a day ever since mafia don-turned politician Mokhtar Ansari’s elder brother Afjal Ansari won the Ghazipur Lok Sabha seat in 2004.

As one enters Gangauli, a nondescript hamlet, situated on Kasimabad-Mohammadabad road, some 25 km from Ghazipur, and roams about, there is hardly anything that would suggest that the village is the birthplace of Dr Rahi Masoom Reza, one of the finest writers the country has ever produced. About half the population in the village is muslim (mostly Sunnis) and almost all of them are weavers. Reza’s house in the ‘dakkhin patti’ of the village collapsed long time back and it has now lost its existence. Both his Mardana and Janana imambadas, which is under the care of his distant relative, Saiyad Abdur Hussain, are also on the verge of collapse and being used for community purposes. The ‘nimbars’ in his house on which clerics would recite religious books during the ‘mazlis’, is lying abandoned. The ‘palki’, then used by women for visiting the ‘uttar patti’ and supposed to be the ‘aakhri nishani’ of his family has been left to the mercy of weather.

To woo the electorate, contestants were employing novel methods. While some were trying to satiate their taste buds by organising ‘bati-chhokha’ party with ‘noorie-laila’ (country liquor) flowing in abundance, others were offering some music to their ears by holding ‘birha’ and ‘chaita’ shows. Hard pressed for time a sizeable number of desperate aspirants could be seen going all out to satisfy voters’ prurience. For the purpose, they were roping in bar girls, ‘nauch’ girls. Even male dancers were a hit!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Fighting the fights

Today, one of my friends called me up. A young and successful businessman in a Bihar town, he calls only to share extreme states of happiness and sorrow. I felt jittery when his number flashed on my cellphone. He did not begin with the customary endearing abuses. I knew I had to hear him out.

“What’s the matter?,” I began.
“Wife is expecting. Want to bring Bhaiya-Bhabhi over,” he said.
“What’s the problem then?,” I continued.
“Their fights have not stopped. They wont come together. Now wife does not want to deal with that when we have the baby. I think I will manage without them,” he sighed.

After some useless advices, I promised to call him later and hear him out. The call brought back the memories of childhood. My friend was always timid, while his Bhaiya a fist-happy and vocal guy. I often wondered why siblings behaved differently. When we grew up, we had numerous instances of one being the bully of his friends’ circles, while the other looking totally unassertive. While some fought at all times, others gave in easily. “Keeping the peace” meant everything to the latter.

I wondered despite having the same set of parents and a similar surrounding, what caused the difference. During schooldays, I did notice the difference. But I did not know then that both approaches meant taking extreme positions. That both were wrong. During street fights, we banked upon the bullies for that edge. The “pappus” would never join but play the typical “maugada” by reporting the matter to the family.

When mohalla women whispered, during the afternoon gossip in the courtyard, about some neighbour being hit by his or her son or a bully “giving it back” to his parents, the listeners looked worried and derived some kind of sadistic pleasure at the same time. The women would also speak of the “good kid” in the same family, who would never speak up, always keeping to himself.

It was only during college did I see some kind of a connect. I began to understand the contrasting siblings were affected by a common factor. For various reasons, such as sheer madness, financial crisis, lack of values and discipline, some parents in our mohalla often fought. When parents fight, children get affected. Efforts to keep the conflict away from children seldom bear fruits. Children often sense the tensions and hostility.

Studies are the first casualty. Health — both physical and mental — is the second. Children often think they are in some way responsible for the fights and feel guilty. They suffer from low self-esteem. In order to get close to the warring parties at different times, the children get away from both. We also had the instances where the atmosphere at home was very peaceful. In those cases, parents got respect from children. Children did well in their life too.

Disagreement is one thing. Fights are scary. They drain you emotionally. Harsh words, yelling and physical assaults impact children badly. Memories of fights can stay forever. And when instances of suicide bid take place, children seek isolation. Because “it is like living in a war zone” with children being pulled in two directions amid an atmosphere of violence and disrespect.

Fighting is a habit. And it transcends generations. Parents fight. Then siblings fight with each other and friends. Finally, fights take place within the family with several members being involved. Irrespective of its effects, those used to it (yes, it happens) will find ways of fighting while not being very conscious about it.

Those, like my friend, who don’t fight feel sad. Ashamed, when friends and in-laws are around. Even being angry is quite natural. And it becomes a vicious cycle. Finding the courage to express concerns about the behavior is often the hardest part of it all. No wonder, he keeps giving in.