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Serial killings in India slums highlight unequal justice

Nation outraged over sluggish police response

A relative of a missing child was consoled by a mother holding a photo of her missing son near a house on the outskirts of New Delhi, where the bodies of 17 children were recovered. (MUSTAFA QURAISHI/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

NEW DELHI-- When Vandana Sarkar, an impoverished migrant worker, went to the police in October to report that her 20-year-old daughter was missing, she recalled, officers laughed and said, "Why do you people have so many children if you can't look after them?"

Their casual response should not have come as a surprise. At least 30 other sets of parents had reported children missing from the same slum area in Noida , an affluent suburb of New Delhi, over recent months. Some say they were dismissed as "drunken troublemakers." Others say officers refused even to register their complaints.

It was only when 17 chopped-up bodies, most of them children, were found in the sewers behind the home of a wealthy local resident on Dec. 29 that the Noida police were finally stirred into action.

What seems clearly a case of serial killing on the fringes of the capital has become a national scandal, with public horror at the brutal details interwoven with outrage at the police department's failure to investigate.

That India has a two-tier justice system is nothing new. Only widespread protest drove the courts to order a retrial for a rich young man acquitted in February of fatally shooting a model at a party in 1999. Last month, the accused, Manu Sharma , was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

And when the 3-year-old son of an Indian executive disappeared near his Noida home in November, it was instantly national news. The police immediately began a huge hunt, found the abductors, and returned the child to his distraught parents.

But the case of the dead and missing slum children has provided a brutally stark example of how the law does not work for the marginalized, shocking even the most jaundiced observers of the nation's legal processes.

The bags full of dismembered body parts found on Dec. 29 were pulled one by one from an open sewer behind a whitewashed two-story house belonging to Moninder Singh Pandher , a business executive. He and his servant, Surender Kohli, were arrested and charged with kidnapping, raping, and killing the victims, some reported to be as young as 3.

A police spokesman told the news media the next day that Kohli, when confronted with photographs of some of the victims, confessed to having killed 10 women and five children. Kohli said that he and Pandher had lured some of the victims into the house with toffees and chocolates, the police said. The Noida police chief, R.K.S. Rathore, said that other victims were young women who were offered jobs at the house.

The officials said that according to Kohli's confession, the two men sexually abused their victims, then strangled them and chopped up their bodies, concealing the remains in the drains. An autopsy report said the bodies were sliced with "butcherlike" precision, Agence France-Presse said.

Neither suspect has spoken publicly but Pandher's son, Karan Pandher, warned against prejudging his father. "He is just a suspect," Karan Pandher told reporters on Jan. 6 . "He is not a monster."

The police said the body parts included 12 skulls belonging to children and five belonging to adults. Thirteen of the dead were quickly identified. Sarkar's daughter was one.

The sluggish police response to the disappearance of dozens of children has horrified the nation as much as the crime itself. Residents said as many as 38 children have been reported missing over the last two years from the slum, Nithari , but that the police recorded only 19 cases, according to Indian news media. Many parents, the reports said, were told their children must have run away.

Groups like the National Commission for Women were disturbed by reports of women disappearing from the Noida slums as early as August 2005. Nirmala Venkatesh, a commission member, was working with six families missing daughters, none of whom had managed to persuade the police to investigate.

"The police system failed," she said. "They were ignorant; they were careless."

Earlier this month, the national government opened an inquiry into the police failures. The next day, six police officers were dismissed for failure to investigate reports of the missing children, accused by the state government "of dereliction of duty and gross negligence in responding to complaints made by parents of missing children." Four other officers were suspended, and condemnation is widespread and growing.

"There was shocking inaction," Ved Marwah, the former Delhi police chief, said in a television interview.

The Asian Age, an English language daily newspaper, condemned the police for turning away the missing children's parents "with contemptuous disdain for two long years only because they were poor villagers with no influence of any kind, political or otherwise."

Hundreds of angry Nithari residents have been protesting in the street where the bodies were found. They stormed past the officers guarding the house and broke into the premises, pelting neighboring houses with stones.

A woman named Dayawati, also from a nearby slum, came holding a black-and-white passport photo of her son, Vipin, 16, who has been missing for four months. "When I told the police he had disappeared, they told me to look for him myself," she said. "Things would have been different if I'd been rich. Then I could have bribed them to make them investigate."

For Sarkar, as for so many bereft parents, the furor comes too late. She said she had described to police officers the yellow suit her daughter Rupa was wearing when she went out to work early on Oct. 5, 2006.

The clothes, she said in an interview, were found in the sewer, in a bag alongside body parts.

Brandishing a state government check for 500,000 rupees, about $11,300 in compensation. she said: "My child's life is worth more than this. It's as if they want us to keep quiet but I'm not going to remain silent."