Print edition : January 26, 2007

PARENTS AND RELATIVES of missing children in front of the house of the main accused, Moninder Singh Pandher, in Noida.-

The events leading up to the discovery of skeletal remains of a large number of children in Nithari, Noida, suggest police collusion with the killers.

ON the morning of July 24, 2006, Cynthia Thapa coaxed her 11-year-old daughter Nisha into her favourite blue-and-white-striped singlet, slipped her into a pair of pants and sent her down the road to her step-father James Thapa's shop in Nithari village in Sector 31, Noida, Uttar Pradesh. The next time anyone saw any trace of Nisha was when James spotted the blue-and-white-striped singlet tucked inside a large pile of children's clothes recovered from house number D5, Sector 31 Noida - a stone's throw from his shop and site of one of the grisliest murders in recent memory.

Nisha's slight skeleton was among the mutilated remains of 17 children recovered by the Noida police when they dredged the drain behind D5. Among other remains identified were those of Papoo Lal's daughter Rachna, Jhaboo Lal's 10-year-old daughter Jyoti and Ashok's young son Satendra.

The discovery of skeletal remains and body parts of children and the arrest of Moninder Singh Pandher, a rich and politically well-connected businessman and owner of D5, and his domestic employee Surendra Kohli, has brought a degree of closure to Nithari's residents who witnessed the disappearance of almost 40 children from their neighbourhood in the last two years.

The scale and nature of the murders have raised questions about the possible collusion between police personnel and criminals, the lack of concern shown for victims from working-class homes, and the way in which the police approach complaints about missing persons. Four police officers, including Piyush Mordia, Senior Superintendent of Police for Noida, have been suspended, and six of Sub-Inspector rank have been dismissed. Under pressure from the Opposition and the media, the ruling Samajwadi Party has given Rs.5 lakhs and a plot of land to the family of each victim and, after some hesitation, allowed an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

In Noida's Sector 31, Nithari is a small working-class village adjacent to an up-market residential area. A large number of residents of the village work in the neighbouring houses. With a significant migrant population - the residents are evenly divided between tenants and house owners - Nithari does not have the same close-knit sense of community that is evident in similar settlements. "Most people live here for about three or four years and then move on," says Jhaboo Lal, whose daughter Jyoti went missing eight months ago. "And the fragmentation of urban life means that most people keep to themselves."

Jhaboo Lal speaks of the atmosphere of suspicion that had gripped the settlement for the last two years. "We suspected anyone and everyone of orchestrating the kidnappings," he says. "Anyone who seemed unnecessarily secretive, anyone who seemed to live beyond his means." The trauma of loss slowly transformed into violence against, and hatred of, the supposed outsider, with the police playing an active role.

Who were these outsiders? While the police denied any knowledge of them, and residents were reluctant to speak of them, Frontline found out that in the last few months there were at least two instances of parents accusing recent Bengali immigrants at Nithari of kidnapping. Following this, the immigrants were picked up by the police and released only the next day after interrogation and possibly physical abuse. The person picked up by the police most recently was Parimal, a teashop owner who sold his business and moved out of the area, apparently after he was intimidated and assaulted by the police.

The readiness of the police to interrogate working-class persons like Parimal contrasts sharply with their refusal to treat seriously complaints about Nithari's missing children. Parent after parent spoke of the callous attitude of the police and their refusal to file first information reports (FIRs). Karnveer, a resident of Nithari, recalls that the police refused to give him anything in writing when his 20-year-old daughter, Madhu, went missing on November 12, 2006, nearly two years after the earliest incidents of kidnapping were recorded in 2004. "Had they started investigating the matter sooner, Madhu could have been saved," he says. She was apparently lured into D5 on the promise of a job. Karnveer identified her body by the salwar kameez and slippers she wore on the day she disappeared.

By not recording FIRs the police may not have broken any rule - an FIR is usually filed only for a cognisable offence, which kidnapping is not - but nothing prevents the officer in charge from registering an FIR in a case if he or she suspects foul play. In the case of non-cognisable offences, the police officer is required to register a non-FIR in the station diary.

Two years and 38 missing children later, it is surprising that the police refused to see a pattern that was staring them in the face. In fact, the sequence of events leading up to the discovery of the bodies suggests that some sections of the police force colluded with the killers.

THE DRAIN behind Pandher's house from where the skeletal remains of children were recovered.-MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP

Moninder Singh Pandher and Surender Kohli first came under the scanner when Nandlal, a resident of Pipalai village in Uttaranchal, complained to the police against them for kidnapping his daughter Payal. Nandlal alleged that Surender Kohli invited Payal for an interview to Moninder Pandher's house in Noida and that she subsequently went missing. Nandlal urged the police to investigate the matter, but they refused. The Chief Judicial Magistrate's Court of Gautam Budh Nagar had to intervene to make the police register an FIR. But the police forced him to report that his daughter was missing. After seven months of investigation, the police traced Payal's mobile to Pandher's house through its unique 15-digit International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number.

Subsequent investigations revealed decomposed bodies in the drain behind Pandher's house. However, Nandlal claims that the police obstructed the investigation at every step. An allegation that is borne out by the fact that Sub-inspector Simranjeet Kaur, the Chowki in charge at Nithari, visited Nandlal's village in Uttaranchal and convinced the residents that he was guilty of blackmailing Pandher.

Sub-inspector Kaur has been dismissed from service and might face criminal charges once the investigation is complete. The fact that six police officials have been dismissed only adds strength to the theory of collusion. For now, house number D5 has been sealed and barricaded and the investigation has been handed over to the CBI.

The barricades outside Moninder Singh Pandher's house have become the stage for a deeply disturbing phenomenon that some have labelled the "Nithari effect". Every day, desperate parents from across north India arrive at Nithari in the hope of finding information about children who have been missing for several weeks, months or years.

Zaheer Khan jostles his way to the front of the crowd gathered around a clutch of television cameras, holding up a poster of his missing child, hoping against hope that someone will recognise his son's photograph on the television screen and report to the nearest police station. "Wasim Khan. Aged: 12 Years. Complexion: Wheatish. This boy has been missing from Ghaziabad since 19 May 2004," says the poster.

Osha Devi stands next to Zaheer Khan. Her children, Babita, 4, and Manoj, 2, have been missing from Shivpuri since January last year. Vir Singh, next to her, is in search of his three-year-old daughter Nitu who went missing in January 2002. Beside him are Maya Devi, Radha Haldar, Prem Bahadur and hundreds of other parents, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, providing each other with solace and support, comparing now-faded studio photographs of their children.

MONINDER SINGH PANDHER, right, and his servant, Surender Kohli, at a forensic laboratory in Gandhinagar near Ahmedabad.-

Some, like Zaheer Khan, have spent the past few years travelling the length and breadth of the country - unable to return to their lives after their children disappeared. Khan gave up his job as a car mechanic two and a half years ago when his son disappeared on a train from Ghaziabad to Muzzafarnagar. Since then he has wandered between Delhi, Kolkata, Ghaziabad and cities in Bihar with a paper bag full of "missing" posters and a slender diary full of contact numbers.

"While there are few comprehensive statistics on missing children in India, police records show that an average of 44,000 children go missing every year, of whom 11,000 are never traced," says P.M. Nair, Project Coordinator for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Nair is the author of "Trafficking Women and Children in India", one of the few comprehensive studies on missing children, published in 2005 by Orient Longman. Nair cautions that the figure in the study is a tentative estimate based on police records. Given that a significant number of cases go unreported or unrecorded by the police, "the actual number of missing children would be at least double the recorded numbers".

Nair says that tracing missing children is a very low priority for most police outfits, something that is borne out by the fact that few are even aware of the existence of the Missing Persons' Bureau.

The Noida bureau does not even have basic statistics on the number of children reported missing in the past year, neither does it have a record of the number of cases solved. When contacted by Frontline, the bureau claimed to be in the process of compiling the statistics and said the information would be available "shortly". However, repeated enquiries yielded no results.

The horrifying killings at Nithari exist in a realm that language can only hint at. It might never be clear what the motives of the killers were - theories put forward by the press range from organ trade to cannibalism. But what is clear is that a vigilant, non-partisan police force could have prevented many of the brutal murders.

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