DR. FATIMA SHAHNAZ, the writer and human rights activist brings out more sordid dimensions in this concluding part of on-the-spot report of the ghastly killings of the innocents in Noida Stories of the strange, the bizarre and by now the expected, have become routine, as are the tears of the villagers no one has heeded for two years. As we stood freezing on that January morning on the road cordoned off from the house at D-5, Sector 31, Nithari, Noida, I met a television anchorwoman who told me she had stood exactly at the same spot at the corner of Moninder Singh’s street two years ago, reporting the disappearances of Noida’s children. Either the public has a short memory, or the police and politicians have terminal amnesia. Nobody listened, nobody heard the screams of the victims inside that house, or their frantic families right under its walls.
I myself stepped out into the chill utterly benumbed by the spectacle before me, disoriented, stunned with shock. I had not expected a tragedy of such Biblical dimensions, people flailing before me in the dust, mothers screaming and wailing, rolling on the ground. I had not anticipated the floods of tears that would shatter all my defences. When a crowd of teary families engulfed me, surrounded by television cameras like a metallic army of locusts clinically photographing their abject misery, I held the poor women in my arms and wept with them. I broke down, unable to hold back or control or rationalize such monumental human grieving. As a human rights activist, I have witnessed wars, refugees, the mass-rapes of Muslim women in Bosnia-Herzegovina by Christian Serbs; but never have I witnessed a cold-blooded crime of such clinical and systematic mass murder of the poor, the defenceless, the marginalized. I find it difficult to write, to document, to testify to such inhumanity as I saw today in our own backyard, not in a faraway country in wartime. These are crimes of the affluent; these are postcards from the edge of insanity, of a culture of political corruption and greed, of police complicity or gross negligence in the mass-destruction of a segment of our own population. The pivotal question in the disappearance of Noida’s children is: At what price does India place human lives? Have we become the laboratories of death for the West, for the consumer nations and their scientific research? Are poor countries providing life-sustaining organs for the consumerists of the West? Does consumerism mean cannibalism? Are the rich cannibalizing the poor? Those slum-dwellers of Sector 31 with missing children were migrant workers with no voting rights. These were human statistics, ‘borderliners,’ gypsy-races, those non-persons who dwell in No Man’s Lands on the edge of civilization. They are like the proverbial ‘mad woman at the crossroads’ in the medieval societies of Europe, who lived at the fringe of the forest. Nithari’s migrants, the hidden secret in the Indian matrix, pick up the crumbs of the consumer societies, shaming middleclass India. If their children are the ‘disappeared,’ they themselves are the forgotten people.
At Nithari, I had entered India’s Ground Zero. I penetrated the belly of the Beast, Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, holding back the vomit mounting to my throat when I pushed my way through police lines into the home of Moninder Singh. The stench of dead bodies was so nauseating I gagged my mouth with my scarf, almost collapsing as I followed the group of BJP leaders who visited the site led by police. I mingled in the crowd. The police themselves looked fairly fed up, maybe even disgusted. Before my eyes, the distressed mother of a victim had assaulted a policeman with her chappal. The crowd of victims’ families in the street cordoned off from D-5, the death-house, yelled streams of curses against the police for ignoring their complaints of missing children for two years, or burying their FIRs under bureaucratic backlog, or chasing the complainants out abusively. Now, after the two-lakhs offered by the government to the identified victims’ families were rejected by these, the U.P. government has come up with an offer of three lakhs to five lakhs. The families have said they do not want money or handouts; they want homes, jobs; they want their children back. Clearly, D-5, Sector 31, Noida will not go away. Now that the secret has exploded in public, it is going to get uglier by the day, perhaps uncovering far deeper secrets than those recovered from the gutter.
The poor have become pawns in the political process. The afflicted are oblivious to the machinations and opportunism of those exploiting their loss for political gain. They are even impervious to financial gain. They merely want their children back. I heard them scream all around me as a human pyramid seemed to fall on top of me, pleading for help. These are their own words. “Will our children come back? We are poor, the police said your daughter ran away with some one. She was cheap. Their children don’t die, our children die! The police let my child die. Police pockets are full. They said your daughter ran away with some one. I hope your daughter runs away with some one! Let them cry as we cry.” The air shivered with howls and tears. Some one screamed in my arms, “If they had heard us, our children wouldn’t have died! The police is corrupt, eats money…” “We will chop you up as you chopped up our little children. We will hack you to pieces.” A swelling crowd of police, media, television crews and stricken families added to the sense of disorientation and speechless incomprehension. How, why, when …? The parents asked me; I stared back mutely, even failing to lie that there was hope … There were no answers.
I had flashbacks of New York in January 2002, four months after 9/11. I recalled Ground Zero. This was India’s Ground Zero. This was a mass murder almost equal in dimension to the strikes on New York, even if the statistics in lives were not equal. I recognized the same stench of rotting flesh I had experienced walking in New York. The gutters around the cursed house exuded an odour I knew well as I had smelled New York after the plane crashes. Even the slum-dwellers of Noida waving photos of their lost ones in my face reminded me of the thousands of photos scattered all over New York, on streets, in subways and buses. In Noida, the numbers grew alarmingly, far more than the number of 38 families announced on television; I reckoned the truth could number in the hundreds. I was swamped in a forest of hands waving official FIRs with printed stamps on photographs … hundreds of photographs. “Look for mine, and mine, my child may be alive …”
I came home and tore off the clothes I had worn, to wash off the smell that reeked into the very fabric. My shoes, which had walked in that death-house, that industrial factory of death, were thick with dust from the front yard that had been raked up completely. We were not allowed to visit the back of the house where the children had been thrown into ditches. Some sources told me there were three deep well-like pits in the back of the house; others said there weren’t any. The air was rife with rumor. I glimpsed a man-hole in the front driveway which a policeman told me led to the sewer tank; nothing had been found there.
Cover-Up and Complicity
Everything I saw was suspect, and sordid. There was no doubt in my mind that this was a house where horrific crimes had been committed. Contrary to what the mainstream media stated yesterday, that the house reflected a rich home and no signs of gruesome murders, I sensed criminal activity in every twisted passage of the killer’s den. This is why I had been compelled to make a personal investigation. I could not understand why anyone would downplay the grisly horror show by stating a sense of middleclass ‘normalcy’ in that house; or why there has been such a deliberate scheme of cover-up on the part of some officials. The more intensive the cover-up, the more probing the questions on the dubious motivations of officials. Who is implicated? Were there gangs, groups, networks? Was there a criminal nexus involved? Clearly, the murders were no isolated events, and certainly not confined to the Noida village alone. Clearly, people around me – the victims’ families – had come from all parts of the country claiming their children or relatives had vanished in precisely the same time-frame as some of the Noida disappearances. Why, then, were these other victims’ reports not investigated thoroughly by the police? Finally, who (if any) official links were involved?
While a sex-abuse criminal racket was instantly alleged when news of the killings broke out, one can ask on what basis such a hasty conclusion was made? Was this itself a cover-up of shadier ramifications to the crime? How far up did the blame-game go?
A Hitchcock Movie
A woman from a local Noida NGO was with us when I joined the group of BJP politicians with Vinay Katyar, vice president of BJP, and Ashok Pradhan, an MP, to tour Moninder’s house. Another woman from the Noida Authority stood outside in the front yard. When I asked the lady from the NGO if there was a basement under the house, she responded that she had heard rumours there was one; but the Noida Authority representative brushed her off saying there was no basement. The NGO woman told me, “First the police said there was a basement under the house; then they said there was no basement.” The politicians did not seem pleased to have us around either, and seemed to indicate to the police that journalists should leave the premises (although the media had been allowed in yesterday). But I adamantly examined the rooms, shocked that the media had reported the house was the family home of a wealthy businessman. Contrarily, as I said, to me the house looked like a typical ‘halfway house,’ the sort of place where criminals temporarily held captives. Death steeped the very pores of the air, behind the cheap shiny furniture that was the sort that was supposed to look ‘rich’ but was simply a place for ‘business’ meetings between sales ‘reps’ and their ‘clients’. The media correctly reported that it had been ransacked. But this ‘disorder’ seemed staged to me, as if deliberately created to obscure the evidence, any lingering evidence. The most glaring incrimination hung on the walls: The ‘shikar’ hunting photographs of Moninder Singh and others. In one photo, he stood before a slain leopard, and a tiger in another. But one huge portrait seemed absurd, as well as scary: It was the front of a Jeep or truck, completely covered with the dead carcasses of animals, ‘sambar’ and large deer. Their dangling heads were as chilling as entering into the home of Norman Bates’s house with dead game birds in Hitchcock’s movie, “Psycho.” From these clues, I conclude we had, indeed, entered into the home of a psychopath, a deadly killer who wanted to flaunt to his ‘visitors’ that he was a ruthless killer. Of course, shikar and hunting are traditional sports in India; but that seemed to be in a generation of feudals, when poaching was not banned. Moninder Singh is of a generation that graduated from St. Stephen’s in 1973, a younger generation where few share a taste for ‘shikar.’ While hunting may still be a favoured sport in his native Punjab, I have not seen many Indians of the consumer society display their ‘hunts’ in their living rooms. This unusual detail jibed with the times, even the dual personality of a cosmopolitan traveller who, it seems from Moninder’s travel record last year, made trips abroad to four or five countries, from Switzerland and Europe to Abu Dhabi. He reportedly hung out at child-porn clubs in these places. Another picture on the walls, unlike the hunting souvenirs, depicted an Egyptian pharaoh with a slave or subject standing before him. This, too, seemed bizarre in a place like Noida. A drawing room cabinet with shattered glass panes contained sophisticated foreign liquor bottles, such as Drambouie or Cognac. It looked pillaged, as if bottles had suddenly been pulled out. I observed all these items, and others, gagging my mouth to avoid the nauseous stench of death from the ground under this house. The small grisly details heightened the discomfort of the room, that seemed as impersonal as a meeting place, not a warm, lived-in home.
The master-bedroom on the ground floor was a mess, with bedding thrown off, clothes dropping out of a wooden closet, tables toppled, scattered neckties. I found myself alone in this room with one of the BJP politicians’ entourage. We both glanced at a dresser with piles of visiting cards, creams, envelopes, bills and other items. It was then that I noted the small envelope with passport photographs hanging out. The official was searching through the mess on the table and immediately picked up the envelope, holding it away from me. When I asked to see it, he said something to the effect that I didn’t need to see this. “Why not?” I retorted defiantly. A policeman at the door told us “Don’t touch the evidence.” The official left the room and I opened the envelope, quickly. That was when I first saw the passport photos of children – photos just like those the families outside were waving around, some against a red background. At first I thought they were Moninder Singh’s own children, then remembered his only son was an adult. These were very young children, and one or two young women. Why was this evidence left lying around? Why hadn’t the police or investigators jumped on this evidence to identify the victims? The inconsistencies in this murder mystery were getting murkier by the hour. I was sick to the stomach. But had to go on; there was more.
The Execution Chamber
We were herded upstairs, where I was not allowed onto the roof terrace. Only the politicians were taken there. I was shown a bathroom; it was very ordinary, not high-class, with broken fixtures (taps, toilet seat). Some one, perhaps a cop, whispered to me that this is where the children were killed, cut up, whatever. “It’s so small,” I said. “How much space does it take to kill children?” the person replied. The bathroom was attached to the heavily barred roof-terrace, adjoining the doctor’s house. We were suddenly hurried downstairs, to another messy bedroom. A kitchen door was open but the cops wouldn’t let me in. I wanted to see more of the kitchen. It seemed the most modern well equipped room in the whole house, with steel cooking ranges and clean closets. What I wanted to search for was an incinerator, where bodies may have been burned, but that seemed unlikely. Burning flesh would have alerted the neighbourhood; but the gutter behind the house facing the slums was wide enough for bodies in bags to float away, and of course, for the stench of sewage to drown that of decomposed flesh. Outside the house I met the lady from the local NGO, who told me the cops had thrown her out. She led me to the slums where we sat among some huts while the inhabitants, rickshaw pullers and domestic employees, cooked lunch. A pleasant smell of frying potatoes seemed to defy the other odour reeking of death everywhere. The family here had not lost any relatives. Finally, we drove to a government guest-house in Sector 38 where some families had been taken to negotiate with officials as they had returned their checks of Rs.2 lakhs. The whole street where the guest-house was located was cordoned off by police, and armed guards milled through the house. It seemed ironic that so much police was needed to protect politicians from victims, who were themselves the walking dead after their bereavement. How, I wondered, could anyone stay away from these people whose misery was humbling? And what savage brutality could have shattered their innocent lives by robbing them of the only thing they ever had to cherish, their children?
“Bring Back the Children”
My journey to hell was drawing to an end. I felt nauseated, drained of all life. But the worst was yet to come: What happened next would be worse even than that stinking house at D-5, Sector 31. I had to hear the names of the children all over again, see their faces, the photos that will be eternally haunting. A crowd engulfed me again screaming names, dates, ages, places. It was a Tower of Babel of languages I barely understood, but then, pain needs no language. The victims’ families begged me to do something – as if I had the power to do anything except commiserate with them; as if I could bring back the dead, the disappeared, give them answers, anything. They clutched at my hands, my clothes, riveting me with their eyes. “Will they come back? Will they be found? Please, please, try to find them, maybe some one, somewhere, will see them …Write my child’s name, my wife’s name, my baby’s name … please write the names, maybe some one will read them and bring back our children … ” So I have written these names, ages, dates they went missing. There were so many families clinging to me, their numbers growing into a thundering crowd, waving the ubiquitous photographs of small children, boys, girls, women. My head spun, recording, trying to freeze-frame the photos in my brain, the faces of weeping mothers. Their numbers were staggering, with some parents travelling all the way from Gujarat, Bihar and other parts of the country hoping to find news of their missing children too. I had to memorise, to pass on their message, so that the dead would be vindicated, and these victims might have some sort of relief and peace. I write for them, for the children, for the poor people of Nithari and other victims.