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Twice-victimized in India

Slayings of children and women from the slums show there is one system of justice for the rich, another for poor.

January 30, 2007|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

NOIDA, INDIA — A month after police unearthed 17 skulls and other bones in the backyard of a home in this New Delhi suburb, the horror hasn't faded.

Two weeks ago, more than 40 plastic bags were fished out of a drainage ditch near the house, stuffed full of human remains. The grisly find was the latest evidence of one of the worst suspected cases of serial killing in Indian history, a string of brutal crimes that authorities fear may have included dozens of victims.

Police have arrested a businessman and his domestic servant, who stand accused of kidnapping, raping and murdering at least 15 women and children before dismembering their corpses and tossing them out.

Since the first gruesome discovery Dec. 29, India has been transfixed by the case, appalled by the scope and brutality of the slayings. Every new detail, each more shocking than the last, has made national headlines.

But beyond the revulsion lies a mounting sense of outrage, because the killings have offered proof of a commonly held belief here: that when it comes to justice in this land of 1 billion people, there is one system for the rich and another for the poor.

Of the victims who have been identified so far, all were residents of nearby slums where the most basic public services -- electricity and sanitation, for instance -- remain out of reach. That sad litany apparently includes police protection, for it is now clear that the authorities routinely dismissed, belittled or ignored anguished reports of missing loved ones, even as such reports began piling up.

Mothers were told that their daughters must have run away or eloped. Other poverty-stricken parents who tried to report a missing child were chastised for having too many kids and failing to keep track of them.

Under pressure from growing accounts of official indifference, the Noida police have fired six officers and suspended three others for negligence.

Their apathy toward the poor parents' plight contrasts starkly with the rapid action they took two months ago when the 3-year-old son of a wealthy IT executive, Naresh Gupta, the head of Adobe India, was kidnapped, also here in Noida. A massive manhunt was immediately launched, the media breathlessly covered every turn in the case, and the police scrambled to take credit when the boy was rescued a few days later, even though many say that his father did far more than the police in securing the boy's safe return.

"The whole attitude of the police toward the poor is, to say the least, pathetic," said Jimmy Dabhi, executive director of the Indian Social Institute. "I know of cases where the middle class, which have some influence, where their access to police and justice was limited, so you can imagine the problems of the poor and marginalized."

Faced with spiraling public anger over how the disappearances were handled, the central government ordered an inquiry into the police performance. Two weeks ago, a special government commission lambasted authorities for ignoring people simply because they came from marginalized communities.

The official mea culpas have come too late for Ashok Kumar, whose 5-year-old son, Max, went out to buy juice one evening last spring and never came back.

Kumar, a resident of Nithari, a shantytown within a few steps of the home where the bodies were found, tried to get police to look into the disappearance, but received no more than perfunctory assistance.

"My son went missing eight months ago. But children started disappearing two years ago," said Kumar, his jaw clenched to dam his anger and grief. "If the police had taken action, my child would not have vanished."

Like so many other slums across India, Nithari is filled with migrant laborers who have experienced few of the benefits of India's celebrated economic boom. One-third of the country's vast population still lives on less than a dollar a day. In Nithari, this means that entire families squeeze into small, open-air hovels, sleep among wandering cows, breathe in the dust churned up on unpaved roads, pick their way around fetid pools of sewage and endure the presence of swarms of flies.

Just around the corner, however, are the spacious, walled homes of the middle class and elite. In one of them -- D-5, a modest-looking white stucco residence -- lived Moninder Singh Pandher, a moderately well-off businessman, and his servant, Surendra Koli.

Pandher has been described in the Indian press as a loner who seemed to fall apart after separating from his wife a few years ago. Residents say that cars carrying prostitutes would pull up to the house late at night.

Still, few people imagined anything much worse.

"He seemed like a straightforward gentleman," said Kale Khan, 65, a carpenter who supplied Pandher with some wood to make doors. "We couldn't sense he was a person like this."

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