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And Justice For All?

4 minute read
Aryn Baker | Noida

As 17 dismembered bodies were pulled out of a storm drain in Noida, an affluent suburb of New Delhi, beginning Dec. 29, residents of the nearby Nithari slum looked on in horror. But their revulsion quickly turned to grief and anger when it emerged that the dead—six boys and 11 girls and young women—hailed from Nithari and were victims of a serial killer. Residents of the slum had repeatedly warned the police that a murderer appeared to be operating in the area, and distraught parents say they had implored the authorities to help search for their missing children—only to be rebuffed. Vandana Sarkar, whose 20-year-old daughter Pinky disappeared on Oct. 5, says she was told by police that Pinky had “probably just taken up with a man,” despite the fact that she had a baby at home. When Aloki Halder’s 13-year-old child Bina went missing in March 2005, the police chided: “If you can’t keep track of your children, don’t have so many.” The uncle of Aladi Halder, 25, another victim, says police looked at the missing woman’s photo and told him she was so beautiful that “she must have eloped. Why do you keep coming to us with your problems?” The bodies of Pinky, Bina and Aladi were among the first to be identified.

It’s not just the gruesomeness of the Noida murders that has captured India’s attention, but the fact that they spotlight glaring inequalities in Indian society—and raise questions about whom public officials truly serve. Police have detained Moninder Singh Pandher, a businessman who lives in Noida, and his servant Surender Kohli, and charged them with kidnapping, rape and murder. While Kohli has confessed to the killings, Pandher’s lawyer denies the charges against his client. But it’s what the police did not do that has sparked outrage. Thirty-eight women and children had been reported missing from the slum over the past two years, with little response from the authorities. “The most important aspect of these murders is not why the victims were killed or by whom, but the failure of the police to protect the powerless,” says Swati Mehta, a consultant for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an NGO in New Delhi. “This case is indicative of how the police function in India, and how the system needs to be changed.”

With seven officers dismissed over the case in recent days for dereliction of duty, the Noida scandal has reignited a national debate on police reform. Indians typically regard the police as corrupt and inefficient, and this case lends credence to the widespread perception that they focus primarily on assisting the rich and powerful. When the 3-year-old son of a wealthy resident of Noida was kidnapped in November, police launched a massive manhunt and recovered the boy within days. Indian media were quick to compare the two cases. “In a suburb in which the police swung into action so expeditiously upon the kidnapping of a prominent CEO’s son, how was it that dozens of children were being reported missing, but no action was taken?” editorialized the Indian Express.

In the frantic struggle to make it to the top, few higher-income Indians—journalists included—concern themselves with the plight of the poor. Nowhere is that more evident than in Noida, where servants in the extravagant new suburban mansions commute from the squalor of the shantytown next door. When the CEO’s son was kidnapped, it dominated the national news, whereas the disappearance of slum children was ignored by the press until their bodies started to be recovered.

The police argue that it’s not a class bias that determines their actions, but an outdated police code established in 1861, which promotes the enforcement of law and order over investigative work. “It is not a crime to go missing,” says Prakash Singh, the former chief of police of Uttar Pradesh, the state in which Noida is located. “But kidnapping is against the penal code.” Holding a CEO’s son for ransom is a criminal act that the police must pursue. There is no motivation to investigate a case of missing children. This is just one of the issues Singh hopes will change when a sweeping police-reform proposal he pushed through India’s Supreme Court last September takes root.

But for the grieving families of Nithari, these reforms will come too late. “What if the police investigated when Bina first went missing?” asks Arun Sarkar, the uncle of one of the first victims. “Maybe then all of our children would still be here.”

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