Gethin Chamberlain for The National, 5 July 2011
It happens all of a sudden. One moment Anil Lakhotia is talking, the next his face is buried in his hands and his shoulders are shaking.
Life goes on around him in a small cafe down a side street in the city across the river from Kolkata: a man wipes food from his mouth, a boy sways past under the weight of a heavy box. Anil takes none of it in. Instead, he is lost in his own world of pain, a world that began when his young son was kidnapped and murdered in January 2009.
The silence grows heavier before Anil tugs at a handkerchief and dabs at his eyes.
“I used to try to scare him, to make him laugh,” he says, struggling to find the words. He looks around, a grown man helpless, and the tears roll down his face. It seems a long time before he speaks again.
“I can’t imagine how scared he was when it happened to him and I was not there for him. Everyone wants to protect their child but we were helpless.”
He looks at the men around the table. “You can’t protect them all the time.” He seems to be appealing to them, seeking reassurance. “You have to let them go out, you have to let them go to school, don’t you?”
Yash Lakhotia was seven and a half years old when he was kidnapped. The last photograph the family has of him was taken on a weekend trip to a shopping mall. He is pictured with his big sister Neha. They are laughing, hugging, two children in western clothes on a night out with their parents, the very essence of India’s new middle class.
And this is what cost Yash his life. As millions make the leap into the ranks of India’s new middle class, there has been a corresponding rise in kidnap for ransom, often carried out by those who feel left behind by the nation’s newly invigorated economic circumstances.
Two days after that picture was taken, Yash walked out of school and climbed into the waiting car of a man he believed had been sent to collect him by his parents. Local people found his body in bushes a few days later. There was dried blood on his nose and a mark on his neck. The police later concluded this was the result of strangulation.
Kidnapping is a flourishing business in India; the country is ranked fifth in the world for kidnapping by insurers and last month India’s National Human Rights Commission estimated that 60,000 children go missing every year in India. Less than a third of the abducted are ever found.
In 2008 there were 1,233 cases in the national capital; by last year that had soared to 2,975 and 802 cases have been registered in the first three months of 2011 alone.
It is 24 years since Anil crossed the river from Kolkata to set up his sweet shop in Howrah. As his shop’s reputation grew; so too did his wealth. And so too did the envy of those who were not quite as successful as him.
School finished at 2pm on the day of the abduction and Yash should have been picked up as normal. Anil remembers he was working from home that afternoon and that Anita, his wife, mentioned that their son had not returned from school.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll come’ and I telephoned the car pool people.” But the firm informed him that when their driver had arrived as planned, there was already a car waiting to pick Yash up.
That’s when Anil started to worry. “I suddenly realised it was a case of kidnapping. I didn’t know what to do. I was just completely shocked. The emotions did not kick in straight away. I thought we would just have to pay the ransom and get him back. Money means a lot to us, but at that point I was ready to sell my house, everything. I didn’t want to negotiate, I just wanted to pay and to get him back.”
Inside the house, everyone was crying. Anita was shouting at Anil to go and get Yash back; Anil’s brother Nandkishore was imploring him to just pay whatever the kidnappers wanted. Yash’s sister Neha, now 12, arrived back from school and walked in to find the place in turmoil. Family members tried to comfort her.
Anil grabbed his car keys and raced to the school. He spoke to anyone he could find and searched the whole place from top to bottom. Finally a watchman remembered seeing a man in a jacket.
Anil rushed to the nearby Balli police station, where his distress was met with indifference. “He was lazy, a typical cop. He was reluctant to lodge a complaint. He said the boy must have wandered off somewhere.”
So Anil called some influential friends and the police swung into action. But night was falling. A relative suggested they pray, so the family headed for the local Hindu temple. Then they went to pray at the mosque. They were taking no chances. Still Anil could not rest. He scoured the streets with his brother, asking anyone they met if they had seen the boy. No one had. Eventually, they admitted defeat.
“We realised we were not going to find him on the street and anyway he had a phone and my number. He would have called if he was lost,” Anil says.
Then he starts to cry. “He was a very cheerful kid. He used to love to dance. He was a good boy.”
He pauses again, wipes his eyes, goes on. “He used to love [shopping] malls. He was a very pampered child. He was the apple of my eye. Whatever he asked for, I was happy for him to have it.”
His voice drifts off. “I have a recording of Yash reading and I listen to it to remember him,” he says quietly. “He was only seven and a half. Every father has a dream that his son will grow up and shoulder the responsibilities and take charge of things. But I am completely lost; my dreams are shattered. I have no more plans to expand my business, because who would it be for?”
By the following morning, police had a suspect, Santosh Singh, a well-known local criminal. They believed that Singh had bought sweets from Anil’s shop to trick the boy into thinking he had been sent by the family: they also suspected the sweets had been drugged. But instead of trying to locate Singh themselves, they passed on his details to the media. This proved to be a terrible mistake.
The kidnappers never asked for the ransom; they knew their chance had gone once the police had shown their hand. All that was left was to dispose of the boy and flee. There was no question of leaving him alive, he had seen all of them.
Neighbours found the body at about 6am on the third day, lying in bushes near the waterfront. Nandkishore ran to the spot. Even then, Anil was not ready to give up hope. “We thought it couldn’t be our Yash. We were not ready to believe. I still thought I could bring him back by giving ransom.”
His brother leans in. “Before I saw the body I was not ready to believe it was Yash either, but then I saw the face and I just felt so helpless.”
Back in the house, Anil and Anita waited. “I felt sick, the entire family was crying. Afterwards I couldn’t sleep,” Anil says, and there are tears again in his eyes.
“The memory haunts me, it haunts me still. I remember everything about what he used to do. Everything is worth remembering.”
Anil blames the police for his son’s killing. “The police system is rotten … the body was found one kilometre from the police station. But they couldn’t trace him.
“We relied on the police and their investigation was a total failure. All they did was make false statements. The police were saying just to wait for the ransom call and to pay the money and after that they would deal with it.
“We’ve lost faith in the system. We won’t get justice now and what happened to us should not happen to anyone.”
But it does, with distressing regularity. What is so awful about the Lakhotia’s story is not that it happened to one little boy; it is that it happens with such depressing regularity.
And often, the kidnappers kill the child, even when the parents have met their demands, in the hope that the absence of a witness combined with the indifference of the average police response will enable them to escape.
This has become so common that cases have to be particularly ghastly to gain much national attention, although the kidnap and murder of a young brother and sister, Muskaan and Hrithik Jain, last October in the comparatively genteel southern city of Coimbatore certainly fitted that bill.
Muskaan, an 11-year-old girl, was found first, her seven-year-old brother a little later. The kidnappers had panicked when they started crying and drowned them in a canal. They were the only children of Ranjith Kumar Jain, a textile merchant, and his wife Sangeetha.
C Sylendra Babu sits behind a vast desk in his office on the first floor of Coimbatore’s police headquarters. A slight man with a thin moustache, the police commissioner recounts the story carefully, pausing for long periods as if trying to get it straight in his own mind.
The children were snatched on October 29 last year by the family’s former driver, 29-year-old Mohan Raj, who had quit a couple of weeks earlier. Now he turned up at the school with a story about the new driver having called in sick. By the time the real driver arrived, Mohan Raj was gone, and with him the children.
Mohan Raj was no criminal mastermind: he was hoping to make some easy money, but his plan quickly unravelled. He wanted to ask for Rs2 million (Dh165,210), but could not even work out how to make a ransom call without giving himself away. At some point, the policeman says, Mohan Raj and his accomplice took it upon themselves to sexually assault the little girl. Then they panicked.
The children were hungry and crying, Mohan Raj would tell the police who interrogated him. He did not know what to do. So he sat the children down for a picnic. Hrithik, confused by everything, offered to share his food with his captors. Afterwards, Mohan Raj told the children to wash their hands in the nearby canal. While they were bending down, he pushed them in.
News of the deaths shocked the city. There were public displays of anger and despair. Mourning posters were pasted to walls in the streets around the family home, featuring pictures of the children and the traditional symbol of a teardrop falling from an eye.
It did not take the police long to catch up with Mohan Raj. They questioned him, and then, it is alleged, they did what the police in India often do when faced with a public outcry: they killed him. A so-called fake encounter was staged. Mohan was driven out into the countryside before dawn. Around 5.30am, according to the police account, he snatched a pistol from one of the accompanying police officers and opened fire. He was promptly shot dead.
As news of the killing spread, people poured onto the streets to celebrate, letting firecrackers loose and handing out sweets. The police commissioner was feted by taxi drivers, who brought him chocolates.
Only the children’s headmaster seemed unmoved: “Why should I feel happy?” he asked. “Loss is loss, we’re not going to get the children back.”
The Jain family lives in a large house tucked down a lane off a busy road in the heart of Coimbatore. Outside, there are a few tattered remains of the posters bearing their children’s faces.
Inside, the house is dark with marble floors and wood-panelled walls. There is a small bedroom off the main hall, with walls painted pink, a framed picture of the children in the corner and a statuette of a boy and a girl. Ranjith is away on business, a relative explains.
Sangeetha is home, but she cannot talk about what happened any more: she is mad with grief. She stands in the doorway, smiling blankly, nodding as the conversation flows around her. Then, head bowed, she drifts back out of the room and is gone. Muskaan and Hrithik were their only children, the relatives explain. They were the couple’s life and now they are gone. There is nothing more they can say.
It is happening all over the country. Last December, Delhi businessman Dharam Singh went to a police station in New Delhi to report his only son, Vikas, 14, missing.
The family were kept waiting for eight days. The kidnappers demanded Rs1.5 million (Dh123,900). By the time police caught up with them, Vikas was dead. His half-burnt body was found near his home. He had been killed a matter of hours after he was kidnapped.
The same month, and also in Delhi, the body of seven-year-old Tilak Raj was found in a drain after his parents received a ransom demand for Rs100,000 (Dh8,250). A few weeks later, nine-year-old Chetan Lal was kidnapped as he played in the streets of the capital. The kidnappers demanded Rs40,000 (Dh3,300). The boy’s father, Banwari Lal, refused. Chetan was killed the day he was taken.
Even those who pay up have no guarantee of seeing their children again. In December, five-year-old Khushpreet Singh Khushi was kidnapped near Chandigarh. His parents paid Rs400,000 (Dh33,040) ransom but to no avail: his body was recovered on January 5. His furious parents accused the police of incompetence and indifference.
The parents of 16-year-old Ribhu Chawla were equally enraged by the police failure to save their son after he was kidnapped in Delhi in 2009. The boy was snatched from the street on his way home from school and strangled by his kidnappers even though his family had paid the Rs2 million ransom and police had been given the number plate of the car into which he was bundled.
Sometimes there is a happy ending. In April, Delhi let out a collective sigh of relief when 18-month-old Ishaan Singh was rescued from a gang demanding a Rs20 million (Dh1.65m) ransom from his businessman father.
The gang of low-paid domestic workers included one of the family’s own maids: they planned to wait 15 days before making their ransom demand, convinced that by then the boy’s father Vikram Singh, a prominent jeweller, would be desperate to settle.
It helped that the police knew who they were looking for and a Rs50,000 (Dh4,130) reward loosened a few tongues. Three days after he disappeared, the boy was back unharmed and in his mother’s arms. The sheer relief, the joy, was impossible to mistake on the face of the two young parents: they knew they had been lucky.
There have been other successes. Last October Delhi police broke up a gang that had been kidnapping and selling children to childless couples, recovering in the process three girls aged four, seven and eight. Buyers were paying between Rs50,000 and Rs60,000 for the children.
In the same month, police in Chennai rescued an eight-year-old boy, S Krish Anand, who had been duped into getting into a car by two men who offered him sweets. The pair had demanded Rs500,000 (Dh41,300), but for once the police were up to the challenge. As the kidnappers called in their ransom demands, the police were logging the locations of the nearest mobile phone towers. It did not take them long to locate the men: Anand was with them, alive. The men had chosen him at random because they thought they could make a quick buck, explained police commissioner T Rajendran.
For too many parents, though, all that is left of their children are memories. Where there was once a child, now there is a hole in their lives. Santosh Singh, the man who kidnapped Yash Lakhotia, was picked up in the neighbouring state of Bihar. He is awaiting trial. Police suspect he runs a kidnapping ring operating across state boundaries. Six other people were arrested in connection with the case, but have not been charged due to lack of evidence.
Anita Lakhotia doubts she will ever get real justice. Yash’s death nearly destroyed her. The 35-year-old was pregnant: by the time she gave birth a few months later, she had convinced herself that the infant would be Yash reborn. When she realised she had given birth to a girl, she collapsed. It was weeks before she left hospital, depression gnawing away at her.
Slowly she recovered, but she is still fragile. She sits on a small stool in front of the picture of Yash that hangs alone on the wall next to the shrine in the corner of the living room of the smart flat into which the Lakhotia family moved a few months ago.
She spends most of her time looking after their little girl, Palak, now 18 months old.
“I don’t want to recall it any more, she says,” eyes down. “My younger daughter resembles him and to me, it is a bit like having Yash back. But still I can’t forget the memories of him.”
She is searching for the words to describe what she would say to the kidnappers if she could.
“Why have you done this? Yash was just a kid and you have spoiled our entire life and ended his. What has anyone gained from it?”