Nithari serial killings are a painful reminder of the perplexing violence lurking within us

Death sentence for Moninder Singh Pandher and Surinder Koli does little to further either criminal justice or forensic understanding of such crimes.

 |  Angiography  |   Long-form |   25-07-2017
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The Nithari serial killings unearthed in 2006 would go down in history as one of the most gruesome as well as perplexing cases of murders, of children and young girls at that, which despite conviction in eight of the 16 cases so far, remain shrouded in mystery, psychopathological intrigue as well as social incomprehension.

Ever since they came to light, they have continued to rattle legal and forensic minds, criminal psychologists and commentators, insofar as the extreme brutalities uncovered – rape, murder, abduction, dismemberment, beheadings, perhaps even cannibalism and evidence tampering – did not have any definite crime triggers, no “motive” as such, other than what lies in the unfathomable depths of the human mind, currents, and tendencies that rarely ever reach the surface, and when they do, they instill fear in the hearts of those outside its murky realm of violence and desire.

The two accused in the Nithari serial killings – the businessman Moninder Singh Pandher and his domestic help Surinder Koli – have once again been awarded the death sentence by a CBI court on July 24, for the murder of 20-year-old Pinki Sarkar. This is the sixth time Koli has been sentenced to death, of the eight cases heard so far.

Koli’s “confessions” in custody after the CBI took over the investigation in the case, have, however, been shrouded in allegations of torture. In September 2014, high-profile anti-death penalty advocate, Indira Jaising, saved Koli from the gallows at the nick of time in a midnight intervention. Justice Chandrachud commuted Koli’s death sentence to life citing “inordinate delay” in his mercy petition. Previously, former President Pranab Mukherjee had rejected Koli’s mercy petition. 

The question of serial killings

As many as 50 children and young persons went missing in and around Nithari during the time, but the remains of only 19 have so far been discovered, that too after much prodding from the residents. Yet, the question of serial killing remains one of the most ill-understood aspects of violent crimes that have a pattern, but not enough motive.

Nithari killings are a testimony to the limits of criminal psychology, social anthropology as well as the forensic sciences to adequately comprehend what prompts human beings to resort to such heinous crimes again and again. Evidently, mere sociological explanation, or even establishing “without a doubt” the criminal responsibility of the perpetrators, fail to address the extremeness of the cruelties displayed, again and again. Though on multiple occasions, the Nithari serial killings have been dubbed “barbaric”, the distinction between what’s “civilized” and what’s not is really blurry and actually false. Nithari is in Noida, or the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority’s planned industrial city, in its Sector 31.

It’s barely away from the plush residential and office complexes of Film City in Sector 16A, the highrises in this NCR suburb that’s synonymous with India’s 21st century aspirations. Noida is one of the beating hearts of our many-hearted country that sees its sub-cities as hubs of accelerated development. Pandher, a businessman, could have been the new Indian ideal entrepreneur, but he turned out to be a possible, now convicted, serial killer. Criminal anthropology had come a long way from the late 19th century days of Italian school of criminal positivism, led by Cesare Lombroso, who proposed the now utterly discredited notion of the “born criminal”.

However, the Chicago school’s “environmental criminology” brought in aspects of nurture, as opposed to nature in finding explanations behind criminal behaviour. Of course, late 20th century strides in social anthropology and forensic psychology have done much to disentangle racist, gender and religious prejudices in criminal profiling. Nevertheless, serial killing has remained one of the most confounding aspects of criminology.

In fact, comparisons have been drawn between Nithari killings and the serial murders in Ipswich, a town in the United Kingdom, where sex workers were being targeted and killed. Eventually, the British police arrested Stephen Wright, a driver of trucks and forklifts, in connection with the case. Even the then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair had issued a statement saying the events were “terrible” and the nation should learn a lesson from that. What was that lesson, though?

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Crime and cover-up

In addition to the incomprehensibility as to the motives of the serial murders, the Nithari case is also a major document of police ineptitude, its politicisation, its tendency to cast a blind eye to crimes when they are inconvenient, corruption, nepotism and other such malaises.

It took the residents of Nithari and their dogged pursuit of the missing children to search the municipal water tank and the connected drain in house number D5 to uncover the very first remains – a decomposed hand of a child. The families of the missing children naturally accused the police of negligence, as Noida police denied any criminal angle initially.Eventually, more body parts were found after a wide-scale digging of the area around D5, skulls, bones, skins, viscera in polythene bags, parts of the torso, amputated limbs, hair, and many items that belonged to the children – 11 of them girls.

The victims’ identities were established in many cases with DNA analysis, and samples were sent to Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, an autonomous organisation funded by the Department of Biotechnology under the Ministry of Science and Technology.What made the police so uncooperative in the beginning? Why was it that aggrieved families and bewildered residents of Nithari had to pelt stones at the cops in frustration? Why were a number of cops suspended on December 31, 2006 for dereliction of duty? Why was the Mulayam Singh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh caught napping when the residents kept alleging that children were going missing for over a year in the Nithari region?

It was only when the case was handed over to the CBI after a formal request that it saw arrests and more evidence to suggest the brutalities. People’s faith in the police machinery had dwindled, but the UP government was more interested in keeping the crime rates low and not registering cases than actually helping the denizens of Nithari. But the entanglement of the irrepressible serial crimes and the procedural lapses that are otherwise routine made the intersection a headline-hogging story of cruelty, sensationalism, “barbarity” and other media.

Victims of inequality

Yet, we still need to ask why and how Moninder Singh Pandher and Surinder Koli chose their alleged victims, who were mostly children, and that too girls. In his “confessions”, which were extracted in CBI custody and after brain mappings, narco analysis and other forensic and neuropsychological examinations that claim to paint the unpaintable human mind and its triggers.

Koli had allegedly said that he’d have an irrepressible urge to have sex when he’d cook for his employer Pandher, who’d be engaging the services of sex workers on most days and evenings when his wife and son were not around. In his confessions, he said that he’d lure the young girls in tempting them with chocolate, or the few adult women, such as Pinki, on the pretext of offering them housework and good pay.

The Hindustan Times report on the latest sentencing of Koli and Pandher says:“But this time, the CBI found that he was in Noida’s Sector 2 till about 1.30pm on October 5, 2006, and then left for Dehradun. That day Koli lured Pinky Sarkar, a 20-year-old domestic help, to Pandher’s home. The charge sheet states that Pinky worked at a house in Sector 30, where she watched a serial on television from 1pm.

She left afterwards and disappeared. Her clothes were found at Pandher’s backyard. The location and time were crucial to nail Pandher as investigators said he was in Noida when Pinky vanished. He returned to Noida on October 14.”It’s clear who become the victims of such psychopathology overlapping with the criminal and the convicted. The unattended children out in the open, whether enjoying public space, or engaged in illegal child labour, are bitterly unsafe, whether from pedophile murderers or traffickers.

Moreover, vulnerable women, looking for domestic work in an upscale residential complex, the real “urban poor” in a fast developing and jostling conglomeration such as Noida, the female migrant labourer, the poor woman, the gendered itinerant – become the chosen sacrifices at the altar of development, part of the black hole of crime and punishment. 

Against death penalty

After luring them in, subsequently, Surinder Koli indicated that he’d rape them – in his words, he’d “try having sex with them”. He has said in his confessions: “After that, without realising in my mind, bad feelings started coming… to kill and hack someone, blood, that kind of bad feelings started coming in my mind… It used to control my mind absolutely.”

There’s hardly any remorse in Koli’s “confessions”, or even empathy, an understanding of what he and his employer Pandher have done. In addition, most of the allegations, the tabloid stories and headlines, and even the death sentences, have involved Koli, while leaving out Pandher. The July 24 2017 CBI court sentence, however, pronounces death penalty for both.Was Koli really fit to be tried so? In the motiveless malignity that Koli displayed, it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t need the hangman’s noose but a clinical psychologist. Koli needs medical help because the killings were hardly done in a state of sanity.

In both the United States and the United Kingdom, “competence” to stand trial and face execution is an important component of the criminal justice system. Is Koli competent enough to face the gallows?Was it once again about the “collective conscience” of the nation, in which a “servant” was pronounced guilty even though his mental health is under the scanner?

The death penalty is hardly a deterrent to any crime, particularly crimes that have subterranean impulses and desires as their origin, connected to unrequited social and sexual proclivities, and violence that’s perhaps lurking in all of us deep within.Koli and Pandher mustn’t be case studies in India sending its criminally insane to the gallows, but perhaps as test cases to assess patterns, desires, motives etc. in matters where forensic and criminal psychology run into a wall.

While we debate the horizons of what’s normal and what’s not, hanging two men committing acts they couldn’t later explain, overcome by urges that couldn’t be defined, would neither ensure justice for the victims, nor would further human understanding of what’s the limit of being human.

Also read: Malayalam actor's assault case: Why I feel the entire film industry is complicit

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Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Opinionator at DailyO. Because criticism is the opium of the classes.

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