How the police and CBI failed the victims of the serial killings
BY ARPIT PARASHAR
PHOTOGRAPHS BY SUNIL
COVER AND TITLE PAGE DESIGN BY DEEPAK
D-5 in Sector 31, Noida, is the second last house on the street. The white two-storey structure is abandoned, there’s a police barricade around it, and a small wall at the entrance to keep the curious away. The compound is overrun by bushes and trees; a police Gypsy is around most times. A “stop” sign, the kind found at traffic junctions, lies junked in the hedge.
At the back of the house is another road, the one that began its life as a storm water drain till construction debris, mud, and garbage—uncleared for a long time—turned it into a lane people today use for commuting. All that remains of the drain is a small channel at the side of the road, uncovered in front of D-5 and covered by other residents of the lane.
This drain-turned-road leads to Nithari, an urban village in Noida, around the corner from the house. There are many stories about the house, grotesque stories, ghost stories, gruesome stories—Nithari stars in all. Nineteen people were killed in that house, all but two of them children. All came from Nithari. Two people lived in that house: Moninder Singh Pandher, the owner, a businessman, and Surinder Koli, his domestic help.
Bandana Sarkar can never forget December 29, 2006. She saw a huge gathering of media, police and other people outside D-5, Sector 31.
“At first I ignored it and went home, where my neighbours said the remains of some children who had gone missing over the previous months had been found. I thought my daughter was not a child, she could not have died here. But my son dragged me there.
“Reaching the spot, we saw the bright yellow clothes that Pinky (Bandana’s missing daughter) had been wearing that day. She had got those clothes from one of her employers and worn them on Thursday (the day she disappeared) for the first time.” Bandana fainted.
It was the day Nithari killings came to light, even though the people of the village had been trying for more than a year to register complaints of missing persons with the local police. Nineteen victims were identified from the remains found in the drain outside Pandher’s house—eight by the victims’ families, and 11 after forensic tests by a government lab in Gandhinagar. Sonu Sarkar identified his sister Pinky by her clothes, white bangles and anklet, and green slippers.
That December, when the police finally acted, they were showing body parts—fingers, legs, arms—and asking parents if they could identify their sons and daughters from it. “As if they were broken dolls or lost household items,” says Sonu.
On February 8, four people turned up to mourn the death of 14-year-old Rimpa Haldhar at the hands of Koli eight years ago. They were kin of other victims, and they gathered at the roadside ironing stall of Jhabbu Lal, whose 10-year-old daughter Jyoti was also murdered. A few weeks earlier on December 29, not more than 10 people, victims’ families and activists, turned up at Lal’s shop in an informal memorial for victims of the Nithari serial killings. This was when the country was busy protesting the death of the Delhi gang-rape victim.
The Nithari killings never evoked the mass outrage that the murders of Jessica Lal, Nitish Katara and Priyadarshini Mattoo did. At a candle light vigil organised for Nithari victims on January 19, 2007, the only one ever organised anywhere for them, not more than 100 people turned up.
All the children and other victims of the Nithari killings came from underprivileged families who had migrated to Noida in search for better livelihoods and lived in the urban villages that exist amid the concrete jungles of the cities.
When children first started disappearing in Nithari, the local police chowki just outside the village didn’t register cases; it actively discouraged and even intimidated complainants.
The first of the killings started in 2004. Some records show that while no formal cases were filed, police did receive complaint letters from the parents of victims. The FIR in the case of Jyoti, Jhabbu Lal’s daughter, was registered six months after her disappearance in 2005 because the chowki did not have a Sub-Inspector from February 20, 2005 to May 22, 2005. During this period three children went missing.
The families also approached the police station in Noida’s Sector 20 (the chowki is under its jurisdiction), for filing cases but were not successful.
Records later obtained from the Noida police through Right To Information petitions state that police teams were sent to 34 locations but only after March 2006, a year after the cases of missing children started piling up. They stated that then chowki in-charge K P Singh visited two locations in Delhi in March 2006.
However, in a letter to the National Commission for Women (NCW) Noida police claimed that it sent teams to Meerrut and Bihar to investigate the disappearances on August 30, 2005. A letter from then Superintendent of Police (City) [SP(City)] Saumitra Yadav to then Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) also detailed visits by Noida police to many cities, but these visits find no mention in official record.
There is no record of any police officer claiming expenses for travel, as is the norm, either. Police were aware of the complaints and even claimed to have started investigation, but did nothing for more than a year.
The first reports about the abnormally high number of cases being reported from Nithari came out in August 2006. The first FIR was registered after Nand Lal, whose daughter Payal, 27, went missing, got an order from the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) on October 6, 2006.
Nand Lal had spent many months begging the police and telecom companies to trace his cell phone, which was with his daughter when she disappeared, and had been pursuing the matter in court for a month.
“No authority came forward to help despite repeated pleas. Are we not part of this country?” asks Suneeta Devi, Jhabbu Lal’s wife. “We came to Noida in 1983 (from a village in Kanpur in UP, almost 500 km from Noida) when none of this development you see today was even imaginable. We were citizens of this city since before all these people in Noida came here.”
Jahbbu Lal remembers “It was a forest back then; nobody from the cities dared to come here even for a piss! Yet no minister or policeman cared for us; they just care for people living in houses like that,” pointing to the high-end flats in Ram Vihar, right across the road from Nithari.
The families sent letters to the Prime Minister’s Office, then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, the local Member of Parliament (MP) and the Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) but received no response.
A month after the CJM’s order, Noida police gave an example of what it could do when orders came from the “top”. Anant Gupta, son of Naresh Gupta, then CEO of software major Adobe, was kidnapped on November 13, 2006. Mulayam Singh issued an unofficial do-or-die order which was passed down the brass along with threats of “punishment postings”, said more than one police officer who didn’t want to be named. This case was solved in a day and Anant Gupta was rescued.
Sub-Inspector Simarjeet Kaur was officer-in-charge of the Nithari police chowki from September 18, 2006 till December 30 that year. She was suspended on December 30, the day skeletons were discovered in and around Pandher’s house. Kaur’s four-month reign caused immense damage to the Nithari case.
She did everything in her power to derail the investigation. She threatened the victims’ families to withdraw their cases. She told them to keep their mouths shut. She promised grave consequences for those who persisted.
She visited Nand Lal’s house several times. She went to his native village Pipalia in Uttaranchal and told his relatives that his daughter Payal had eloped with a man to Mumbai.
(The CBI declared Payal a prostitute on the basis of some confessional statements by Nand Lal’s relatives. She was said to be part of an elaborate racket, and often went to Pandher’s house. The CBI did not explain in court how any of this was relevant in a murder case.)
Pinky Sarkar was 20 when she disappeared from the street where Pandher and Koli lived in August 2006. For two months, her father Jatin and mother Bandana tried to file a case. Finally, one day Kaur asked Jatin to bring a photograph of his daughter.
“After looking at the photograph, she said ‘Your daughter is good-looking, she must’ve run away with someone’,” says Bandana. Pinky had been married to a man in Delhi when she was 18 and had a four-month old son, Amit, when she went missing.
When her parents told Kaur and others at the chowki that Pinky had a four-month-old son, and asked how they could be so insensitive to allege that she had run away with someone, the cops mocked them.
“Officers at the chowki gave examples to her (Kaur) of how daughters of Bengali and Bihari migrants often ran away with men from the local villages or with men from outside Delhi,” says Bandana.
“They said ‘Tum Bengali logon mein yeh sab chalta hai. Hamne sab dekha hai. Chalo bhaago yahaan se’. (Such cases are common among you Bengalis. We have seen it all. Get lost!).
“Had they made even one decent effort that day, it is possible that my daughter could have been saved.”
When the case broke, Noida police reacted in the manner they knew best—suspension of Simarjeet Kaur and subsequently of five other officers posted at Nithari for negligence and for failing to act in time on the reports of disappearing children.
The fact is that Kaur and the officers under her had all along been hand-in-glove with Moninder Singh Pandher.
Investigations by the CBI, after it took over the case on January 9, 2007, revealed that even when the investigation was handed to a senior officer after media reports started coming out in August 2006, Kaur was in constant touch with Pandher.
The CBI also established that at Pandher’s behest Kaur tried to shield Surinder Koli by fabricating eyewitness statements showing that Koli was in Chandigarh from May 5, 2006 till the case broke. Pandher also paid Kaur a bribe of `1 lakh and a bribe of `70,000 to her junior B P Singh. According to the CBI, Kaur tried her best to prevent the victims from pursuing the case.
Pandher was also found to have funded Kaur’s travel to the Allahabad High Court where he had filed a petition to quash the FIR against him. A sting operation by Tehelka magazine revealed that then SSP R. K. S. Rathore and Circle Officer Dinesh Yadav, who had been handed over the investigation, also colluded with Pandher and tried to help him escape. Rathore was transferred and Yadav suspended from duty, only to be reinstated a few months later.
Kaur was dismissed from duty within a week of the unearthing of skeletons at Pandher’s house. She was, however, reinstated in 2009.
The CBI filed the first chargesheet in the Nithari case on January 11, 2007. Within two months of taking over it gave a clean chit to Pandher, blaming his “psychopath” domestic help Surinder Koli for the murder of 16 people.
Submitting the chargesheet in the first of the 19 cases before the Special CBI Judge in Ghaziabad, the agency named Koli as the main accused, saying Pandher was guilty only of “criminal conspiracy, destruction of evidence and running his home as a brothel”.
The first chargesheet—in Payal’s, Nand Lal’s daughter’scase—charged Koli with kidnap, rape, murder and destruction of evidence. Pandher was charged with criminal conspiracy, destruction of evidence, offering bribes, and under the sections of the Immoral Trafficking Act. The third accused was sub-inspector Simarjeet Kaur, charged with accepting bribes and fudging evidence. The CBI submitted eight boxes full of documents in the court.
In a press conference, then CBI Joint Director (Special Crime Investigation) Arun Kumar said that except “one or two cases” where Pandher’s role was still being probed, he “did not rape or murder” the Nithari victims and was “not even aware” of the killings by Koli till the Noida police started digging up bones at his bungalow. Koli, he said, murdered at least 19 women and children, and each time Pandher was either out of the country or not present in Nithari. Organ trade was ruled out as the CBI recovered 69 bags of “bio-material” from the drain including organs.
Kumar’s history is chequered, his handling of the Rizwanur Rahman murder case in Kolkata and the Arushi Talwar case had at various points come under criticism. He termed both accused “psychopaths” and said Koli’s confession before the Noida Police, later presented in court, did not indict his employer.
Koli’s extra-judicial confession (before the police, not termed a valid confession under the evidence law) indicated that he was single-handedly capable of killing and dismembering the victims.
The chargesheet said Koli was a “psychopath serial-killer with no empathy”. A board of doctors from AIIMS examined him and concluded that he was suffering from necrophilia (sexual attraction towards dead bodies), necrophagia (feeding on bodies), and paraphilia (obsession with unusual sexual practices).
However, his lawyer Subhash Tyagi, who is handling the case at the special CBI court in Ghaziabad, disagrees.
“During the various checks and interviews conducted with his (Koli’s) family and friends it has emerged that he was actually a soft-spoken and well-behaved person. There is no history of him ever indulging in any violent act. It is only the grave charges levelled by the CBI that have prompted the courts to award death sentences.”
After the media reports of the Nithari killings, Koli, a resident of Almora district in Uttaranchal, was disowned by his family. They have since not contacted Tyagi to keep abreast with the developments. “They have accepted that he is guilty, even though I have tried to tell them that he has been vilified so that the case against Pandher can be weakened,” said Tyagi.
Arun Kumar had said in the press conference that Koli strangled most of his victims, then raped and cut the bodies into pieces. He would pack the pieces in polythene bags and throw them in the drain outside the bungalow.
“He took the bodies to a bathroom on the first floor, which was for his exclusive use, allowed them to bleed, then cut them up with a knife when he had time.
“Pandher never went to his servant’s bathroom. In fact, he was hardly at D-5 for more than two days a week and then too just spent nights there,” Kumar had said at the press conference.
His version didn’t find many takers, especially from the victims’ families. They believed that it was highly unlikely that Pandher as the owner of the house didn’t sense that something wrong was going on. The victims’ families said the CBI presented a case that seemed to go out of its way to defend Pandher while indicting the servant severely. This comment was also made by the Supreme Court in one of the Nithari cases last year.
In 2007, however, the CBI had claimed that though in a confessional statement Koli had said Pandher was innocent, he had initially accused Pandher of direct involvement expecting that it would help his defence.
To prove Koli was the killer, Kumar presented evidence of how Koli reconstructed his killings in their presence at AIIMS. “He gave a live demonstration about how he would cut the cadaver, dismember the bodies and dispose of them. We have videographed it and this is good evidence,” Kumar said.
He also said Koli cooked the flesh of his first victim and ate it, steamed the arm of his second victim in a pressure-cooker. In the case of the third, he tried to eat the liver raw and threw up. Koli reportedly said he never ate flesh again.
“But the medical board (felt) he is mentally stable and committed his crimes in full consciousness and hence was fit to face trial,” Kumar had said. According to Kumar, at the time of the first two murders—February 8, 2005, and March 15, 2005—Pandher was on an island in Australia.
“In nine other cases, he was not in Noida on the day the victims went missing. In five other cases when the victims went missing, his cell phone (records) showed he was in Noida but not present in Sector 31 the entire day. In all the cases, Koli has admitted to killing his victims within three-four hours of luring them into the house, implying he carried out his act when Pandher was not home,” he had said.
The CBI also said Pandher had tried to bribe UP police officers because he had been called for questioning over prostitution rackets which he thought would dent his reputation. Police records don’t mention that Pandher was ever called for questioning in connection with a prostitution racket.
The victims’ families did not believe this, and they found a lawyer willing to fight till the end with them. Together they would change the course of the case.
While 19 victims were identified, many more from Nithari had gone missing. At every step, police resisted filing cases. They disbelieved parents who had come to lodge complaints of missing children, and even filed cases against them. They did everything to not investigate a crime, which by all accounts, continued to take place with cruel regularity on their watch.
Social activists and parents of missing children repeatedly approached the police to conduct searches along a longer stretch of the Nithari drain. “There were at least 38 instances of missing children from this area. But cases have been registered only in those where some remains could be found or DNA tests confirmed identities. How could police and the Noida authority be so insensitive?” says Usha Thakur, a social activist from Noida’s Sector 31 who has worked with the victims’ kin for almost ten years now.
Police were forced to register more cases only after public outrage. Seven such cases are not part of the Nithari case file anymore because no remains or forensic evidence were ever found.
Suresh Kumar, who works as a security guard in Sector 31, says his 10-year-old son Umesh went missing on December 8, 2005 but the FIR was filed only on July 13, 2007, almost seven months after the skeletons were dug out from the drain.
“First, our reports were not registered and later we were driven away by police because they could not find enough evidence that our children could also be among the victims. Is it not their responsibility to help us find our children if they are not dead?”
Soni, a 22-year-old who works as a domestic help, whose 10-year-old sister Anita has been missing since May 15, 2005, claims that a family friend saw her sister around Pandher’s house that very night but police refused to file a case. Even from among the 19 cases that are part of the Nithari file, one case was dismissed by CBI as the victim Sheikh Raza’s parents left town never to return.
“His father was a poor labourer from Bihar and was fed up with the questions asked by the CBI and the police. He eventually left to find work elsewhere and sustain his family. Nobody knows where he went,” says Jhabbu Lal. It was later revealed by Noida police in response to an RTI that compared to 18 in 2005, there had been 40 cases of disappearance of children aged 3-18 in 2006, but that FIRs in most cases were registered only in 2007.
The Noida police’s response to protests by families and activists was retribution. Satish Chandra Mishra, a resident of Noida’s Sector 31, who helped many victims get cases registered and approached media organisations for help, was, along with Jhabbu Lal, specifically targeted.
Cases of abetment to suicide were filed against Mishra and Jhabbu Lal, and cases for attempt to commit suicide against three other victims’ kin on October 3, 2007. The Allahabad High Court later dismissed the cases and lambasted Noida police for registering an “erroneous kind of charge sheet”.
“Instead of registering the victims’ complaints and helping them, you are making them accused in the case. They have already suffered so much and you are adding to their grief by making them accused,” Justice R. D. Khare had said.
Commodore Lokesh Batra was present outside D-5 the day skeletons were recovered from the drain. A question troubled him: How could they remain undiscovered for so long? Wasn’t the Noida Authority (NA), the civic body, responsible for periodically cleaning it? A war veteran, Batra had a new weapon in the Right to Information law passed by Parliament a year back in 2005.
Armed with RTI, he asked the NA why the skeletons were not discovered by its conservancy crew. The NA replied that drains in Noida were cleaned every 15-30 days. It said the authority last cleaned the drain outside Koli and Pandher’s house between December 23 and 26—days before police found skeletons and “bio materials” from it. “If the cleaning was taking place as usual, then why did not they find anything unusual?” asks Batra.
A committee set up by the Ministry of Women and Child Development to probe the killings also indicted NA. “In the Nithari case, if the administration had cleaned the sewerage system on a regular basis, bodies would have been discovered much earlier and probably some deaths prevented,” the report said.
In fact, the drain behind houses D-1 to D-17 in Sector 31 had filled up over the years with so much filth, mud and construction material that it had become a lane. Some boys playing cricket had found body parts much before police discovered them. The matter was reported. Police officers visiting the spot rejected the material found as animal carcasses.
The first ever cleaning of the drain was done at least a year later, say residents.
In reply to Batra’s RTI, the Authority said waste from the drain was taken to its dumping ground in Sector 54. Neither the Noida Authority, nor Noida police or the CBI ever searched the dumpsite for remains. “If the authority had indeed cleaned the drain just six days before December 29, it made perfect sense to search the dumping ground,” says Batra.
The authority stopped replying to Batra’s RTI applications soon after. When he approached the State Information Commission (SIC) in Lucknow, he got an order in his favour. The NA refused to comply. The case was heard by then Chief Information Commissioner of Uttar Pradesh M A Khan, who in 2008 threw out all cases pertaining to RTI applications filed by Batra since 2007, accusing him “and his agents” of “conniving against the Noida Authority”.
Batra’s RTIs were also successful in nailing the lies of Noida police who were very prompt in replying. The information revealed helped nab the six officers suspended after the killings were unearthed—including Sub-Inspector Simarjeet Kaur.
Six girls had disappeared from Nithari by July 2005 but police refused to register an FIR. The families of the victims approached the NCW, which set up a one-member committee of Nirmala Venkatesh. In reply to the November 9, 2005 letter written by the NCW on action taken in the matter Noida police said teams were sent to various places like Muzaffarnagar, Faridabad and Gurgaon, but no search had been carried out since no officer ever claimed reimbursements.
In a letter dated January 10, 2007, by Inspector-General of Meerut Zone Jagmohan Yadav to the Additional Director-General of Police (Human Rights), Lucknow, the IG says the NCW letter of November 9, 2005 was never received at the office of Noida SSP Piyush Mordia. But in a letter to the Deputy Inspector-General, Meerut Zone, dated December 12, 2005, Mordia mentions attaching a copy of the action taken report (ATR) on the NCW letter, a copy of which he appended in this communication.
“Clearly, high ranking officers were trying to save each other when questioned by the NCW and even resorted to blatant lying and denial in the effort,” said Batra.
In a letter, dated September 9, 2005, to the Noida SSP by then Additional SP Saumitra Yadav, Jhabbu Lal’s complaint that, “We suspect that the person responsible for children going missing is from the Nithari village” was quoted.
In a letter to the PMO in September 2006, Shailendra Pratap Singh, then DIG Meerut Zone, said Noida police were taking all necessary action.
“Had he been right the reality would have been different,” says Batra.
Moninder Singh Pandher lived alone in D-5 after separation from his wife and family. He was close to his son, who visited him often. The St Stephen’s College graduate had inherited a successful family business, and was living the good life. A well-travelled man, he was fond of golf and drink. His family, based in Punjab, is known to be well connected.
Officers at Dasna Jail in Ghaziabad, where he and Koli are lodged, describe him as a quiet man who keeps to himself; he has barely spoken in the courtroom during hearings. The CBI had charged Koli with murder and Pandher for lesser crimes. The families of victims were not convinced. Six of them—Sunil Biswas, Karambir, Jhabbu Lal, Nand Lal, Jatin and Bandana Sarkar, and Anil Haldhar—decided to get legal help. They wanted Pandher charged for murder, and needed a lawyer resolute enough to do that.
Khalid Khan is a soft-spoken man who conveys a quiet aggression in his demeanour. Sometimes he can be forceful too, and easily raise his voice as many in the Ghaziabad courts can testify. In his 40s, Khan looks like a young lawyer going through the paces—confident, and eager to make a name, to “establish” his practice.
The victims’ parents met him in 2007, a few years after he had returned to India. He had quit his practice to work as a Chartered Accountant in the Gulf, and after he made enough money, and was bored, he returned to start lawyering again in India. He was willing to fight for the Nithari victims, but on one condition: he would fight till the end, and he wanted them to do so too.
“I told them that I would fight with them till I got Pandher convicted but that I would not spare them (legally) if they backtracked or changed their statements in the court mid-way,” Khan says. “They all signed the copies of statements and swore that they would fight till the end,” says Khan with a smile on his face inside his chamber in the Ghaziabad court complex.
By the time he became an additional prosecution lawyer appearing for six families, the case had progressed unfavourably for his clients. For reasons known best to CBI officers, carefully edited video recordings of Pandher’s narco-analysis test at Forensic Sciences Laboratory, Gandhinagar, had been leaked to a select number of Hindi news channels.
The leak came at a time when CBI was under fire from the media—many had reported that Pandher had confessed to being an accomplice in most of the crimes but had been paying off the Noida police and the CBI to save himself. It was also alleged that he had used his family’s political contacts in Punjab to build pressure on the CBI.
After all, it was strange for the owner of a house to go out of his way to protect his domestic help even though he knew gruesome murders were being committed by him on a regular basis, as the CBI claimed in its first chargesheet.
The narco analysis videos showed carefully curated parts of Pandher’s statements. In one, he is saying: “I am not a half-woman to poke my nose in the kitchen and other rooms of my house to find out what is going on… That is why I have landed in so much trouble.” He was also shown talking about Koli’s habits and seen claiming innocence.
“It was nothing but a specific leak aimed at building public sentiment in favour of the murderer,” says Khan.
Within months of taking charge, Khan received a rude jolt. Nand Lal, whose daughter Payal’s case was the first to be filed in court, turned hostile. He had been threatened and troubled so much that he allegedly accepted hefty bribes from lawyers working for Pandher to make statements against the other five families and against his own lawyer.
Pandher’s lawyer Devraj Singh denies the allegations. “It is untrue,” said Singh.
It is a well known fact that by the time Nand Lal turned hostile, his family was settled at an undisclosed location. Nand Lal’s sudden change of heart was ironical: he had played a pivotal part in getting the cases of many of the victims registered in the first place.
Khan says there’s a reason behind what Nand Lal did. It is, according to him: “the death of Jatin Sarkar”.
On the day that the Noida police team led by Circle Officer Dinesh Yadav raided Pandher’s house and interrogated him and Koli, Jatin Sarkar was present with the police, says his wife Bandana. “He had been called by one of the constables (name not revealed on request) whom he knew since he visited the Sector 20 police station often with his employer (at the time) to help trace Pandher and his servant’s misdeeds,” says Bandana.
What he saw inside never found mention in police records till his death. “Pandher had confessed to his crime with folded hands and begged for help and forgiveness before Dinesh Yadav in the presence of my husband. He had also accompanied the police team to the first floor where Pandher handed them the weapon that he and Koli used to murder our children,” says Bandana.
Khan agrees: “He was eyewitness to the confessions and told me as much. But I was late getting his statements recorded on paper before the court and making them public thereafter.”
Jatin Sarkar had been a lot smarter than the Noida police or CBI could have imagined. The Sector 20 police station’s case diary, an important document where day-to-day proceedings are recorded, would prove crucial in determining Pandher’s and Koli’s guilt before the court.
Dinesh Yadav had recorded the confessional statements of both Pandher and Koli in the diary. “His friend (the constable) had told him that he should keep a copy of the page in which those statements had been recorded and even helped him get a photocopy of it,” says Bandana.
“He looked disturbed and scared when he came back to the house late that night. He handed over the copy of the document to me and said to keep it safe as it was an important piece of evidence that would help us when the time came.”
While neither the police nor CBI knew Sarkar had a copy of the case diary, they were aware he was an eyewitness to Pandher’s confessional statement.
“This led to his death. He had to be eliminated to save Pandher,” says Khan.
Anil Haldhar, father of Rimpa Haldhar, the first known victim of Pandher and Koli, was a close friend and neighbour of the Sarkars at the time. He says Jatin was visited by various kinds of people claiming to be CBI and police officers.
“The problem was that none wore any uniform or badge and so one could never identify who they really were. It was traumatic,” he says. “Two-three visited early in the morning, then another 3-4 people around noon, then another set of people within two hours… it went on like that for months. They threatened him and his family with death all the time. At one point he stopped working and stayed at home to keep his family safe.”
“On two occasions,” says Bandana, “those people came with bags full of money in cash and said ‘apne gaaon chale jaao aur aish ki zindagi jiyo’ (go back to your village and live a happy life). But we did not accept it.
“We could not—how would we show our face to our daughter after death? Wouldn’t she ask us why we sold her to her killers to lead a happy life ourselves? Wouldn’t her real killers then be us?”
This was when the beatings started. The Sarkars were visited by “scary men”, according to Banadana, between midnight and 2 a.m., and Jatin was thrashed.
He was told to keep his mouth shut, accept money and withdraw the case or face death. On many occasions Anil Haldhar too was dragged into Sarkar’s house and they were both beaten up. “Sometimes they used to tie us up together and hit us with sticks on our backs and buttocks,” says Anil.
Jatin and Anil approached activist Usha Thakur and narrated their plight. She came and stayed at their house at night on a few occasions. “Strangely, nobody turned up. Obviously somebody was keeping those people informed of all the movements in our houses,” says Anil.
“I told them not to leave the village (Nithari) at any cost, no matter how much they were harassed or troubled,” says Thakur. It was not to be. Before the Durga Puja that year, Jatin decided to visit his native village in Murshidabad district of West Bengal with his family.
At the village, Jatin’s son Sonu used to receive threatening calls from men claiming to be CBI officers, who said Jatin was wanted back in Noida immediately. “We tried to trace the numbers but found that they were all from public telephone booths and not from anybody’s home or mobile phone,” says Bandana.
Jatin was found dead on September 1, 2007, in a pond next to his village. A regular swimmer who often participated in village competitions, Sarkar was declared to have drowned by Murshidabad police on basis of the postmortem report. It termed the death an accident.
“A person fishing in the pond saw him barely an hour before he was found. How could he have died by just drowning? There was a red mark on the forehead which showed he had been hit with a hard object. His body was swollen at many places too. How could it all have happened within one hour of leaving the house?” questions Bandana.
She claims a person who identified himself as “Vijay Shankar,” CBI ka maalik (owner of the CBI) called on the phone a few days before her husband’s death and threatened her with dire consequences if he did not withdraw the case he had filed on April 28, 2007 requesting reinvestigation by the CBI.
Having lost her husband and scared for the life of her grandson (son of Pinky) and her son Sonu, Bandana returned to Nithari in a few days. With the help of Khalid Khan and Supreme Court advocate Shakti Singh Dhakray she filed a case against then CBI chief Vijay Shankar in the Supreme Court, alleging that he was involved in the death of her husband, and had him killed to shield Pandher.
Two others, including Anil Haldhar, also filed cases alleging a threat to their lives. While the SC directed the other two to approach the Ghaziabad court for protection, in the case of Bandana Sarkar it demanded explanations from Noida police, which just said no complaint had ever been registered with them on any threat to the life of Jatin Sarkar. The case is still in the Supreme Court.
“It was probably Sarkar’s death that scared Nand Lal and he turned hostile,” says Khalid Khan.
On November 15, 2007, Nand Lal changed his statements in the special CBI court in Ghaziabad. He refuted the earlier charge by Khan that Jatin Sarkar had been witness to the confessional statements of Pandher and Koli. He told the court Pandher had never made any confessional statement, no murder weapon had ever been recovered and that Dinesh Yadav, suspended for taking a bribe from Pandher, never took any bribe but had instead been helpful to the victims’ kin.
True to his word, Khan filed a case of perjury against Nand Lal in the court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Ghaziabad. “Either he lied earlier or he was lying then. Either way, he lied to the court.”
The then special CBI judge Rama Jain, who had been extremely strict with the CBI counsel, appeared before the CJM as a witness in the case. He was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment in a few months but went absconding.
“His lawyer has now secured a stay on that judgment and approached the Allahabad HC; and so he is back here and not absconding,” says Khan with a wry smile.
“It is strange how the CBI and police have shielded him after he turned hostile whereas he was beaten up and harassed earlier.”
Jatin Sarkar’s death did not go in vain. His wife, Bandana, had the copy of the case diary in her safekeeping. “It was the most important document in the case,” says Khan. By the time Nand Lal turned hostile, CBI had filed chargesheets in six of the 18 cases. The original case diary entry which had details of statements by Pandher and Koli were not part of the evidence. Instead, the CBI told the court that Noida police CO Dinesh Yadav had made the case diary entry on a plain sheet of paper that day and presented it as evidence.
“This page had the exact information that the CBI had mentioned in its chargesheets. Pandher was given a clean chit,” says Khan. To nail CBI’s and Yadav’s lies, Khan first got the case diary page submitted by CBI seized for court records, and in the next hearing presented the copy of the original case diary Jatin Sarkar had given him.
“The original had neatly written details and the exact page number, missing from the diary, could also be seen.” This turned the case. The CBI court accepted Sarkar’s photocopy as part of the original record and directed local courts to take action against Dinesh Yadav.
Bandana Sarkar’s statements—details about what her husband told her, and how they were harassed—were also subsequently accepted as important evidences. “She made all revelations that Jatin had made to her in detail before the court. There was no way out for the people who colluded with Pandher after that,” says Khan.
Anil Haldhar also registered a case at the Kavi Nagar police station in Ghaziabad against Yadav for threatening him. There were at least ten cases of threatening witnesses registered against him and he was also named by Bandana Sarkar in the alleged murder of Jatin Sarkar.
In a big blow to both the Noida police and CBI, Dinesh Yadav, once chief investigator in the Nithari killings, was prosecuted under the Gangster Act for rioting and threatening witnesses in July 2008. However, the UP police never initiated any action against him.
“Probably he had good political links,” says Khan. “No power can save him; he will surely be in jail one day”. Yadav got a stay order in the case, and is still a serving officer.
The CBI’s conduct during the hearing was perplexing. At hearings before the special CBI court, Khan and CBI’s lawyers never stand together, even though they are on the same side. The state through the CBI is the chief prosecutor (since all crimes are against the state) and Khan is technically assisting them on behalf of some victims’ families.
The CBI’s lawyers stand with Pandher’s lawyers—eight to 15, depending on the gravity of the hearing. To a lay observer it would appear that Khan is the prosecutor and the CBI and Pandher’s group of lawyers together are the defence. Koli’s lawyer Subhash Tyagi finds himself rarely heard—his arguments are submitted in writing most of the time.
Finally, in what Khan says was “a slap on the face of the CBI”, special CBI judge Rama Jain pronounced both Pandher and Koli guilty of the rape, abduction and murder of Rimpa Haldhar, daughter of Anil Haldhar, on February 14, 2009. Rimpa, the first Nithari victims, was killed on February 8, 2005.
Pandher was also sentenced to death in the murder of Nand Lal’s daughter Payal while he was still absconding after being sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for perjury. The case of Bandana Sarkar is up next in Ghaziabad while those of Sunil Biswas, Karambir and Jhabbu Lal will come up later.
Pandher has been acquitted in the murder of Rimpa Haldhar by the Allahabad High Court but the Supreme Court has taken a strong stand in the matter. It has reserved hearing in the case till the trial is complete before the CBI court in other Nithari cases.
“Let the appeal be kept pending and wait for the outcome of other (Nithari) cases. It is a composite case and all are related to each other. It would have effect one way or other on other pending cases. It is not an isolated case and is about a series of murders.
“You have been charged with serial killings,” a bench comprising Justices Markandey Katju and Gyansudha Misra told Pandher’s counsel R. S. Sodhi during the hearing. “How could he be unaware of the serial crimes taking place inside and near his (Pandher’s) house?” the bench said.
“If he is acquitted by this court when other cases are for trial, the entire evidence in those cases will go,” the bench said. “What about other cases going against you? You were in Australia only for 15 days out of two years during which murders and rapes were going on in your building. It is difficult to believe you were not aware of them. It is not a case of one murder but 18 and it might have been done with your approval,” the court said. It also added, “You are living in the house and saying that that you were not aware of what was going on inside your house.”
The last six years have been tumultuous for the people of Nithari. They had to come to terms not only with the murders but also the callous police reaction. During former chief minister Mayawati’s reign Nithari was declared an Ambdekar Village under the Bhimrao Ambedkar Rural Integrated Development Programme in 2007. It was meant to benefit the village immensely as funds were to be diverted from every state and Central government programme for its development.
“But nothing has taken place in the past six years. Only the politicians have benefited from the funds diverted for development. Not one government officer has visited us since the announcement,” says Bimlesh Sharma, the village Pradhan, elected last year.
The victims’ families have spent most of their savings and earnings on court expenses. Jhabbu Lal, whose sons Rajesh and Rakesh quit their studies to make sure they earned for the family while their father was protesting and fighting in the courts, helped fund the payments of two more people – Karambir and Sunil Biswas, who do not live in Nithari anymore.
“All my savings and most of what I now earn goes into making sure I can travel to Allahabad for the important hearings and procure documents related to our case from there and from Ghaziabad.”
Anil Haldhar, in whose case the first judgment came, says he has spent close to `6 lakh in the past six years. “Our lawyers (Khalid Khan and Shakti Singh Dhakray) have been good to us and never asked for any money except for some token amount when the cases were first filed. But there are various other expenditures.
“I am illiterate but have to make sure every document is photocopied and stored with me and that whenever the lawyer needs them I can supply him with the relevant document. At times the photocopying bills run into `20,000-`30,000.”
Bandana Sarkar has left Nithari and has found employment as a domestic help at a house in Noida’s Sector 29. She lives with her son Sonu, his wife and son in the small two-room servants’ quarters provided by her employer. Pinky’s son—her grandson—Amit, now 6 years, also stays with them. Amit suffers from seizures and sometimes all the money Bandana earns goes into his treatment.
Usha Thakur and Satish Chandra Mishra have also distanced themselves. While Thakur is old and unable to move much, Mishra has not taken interest ever since the Noida police filed the case of abetment to suicide against him. An old man, he has to travel to Allahabad once every couple of months to attend the hearings in the case against him.
Apart from appearing for the victims, Khan is also fighting two cases filed by Nand Lal on the behest of Noida police “and the CBI”.
Lokesh Batra, on the other hand, is a well-known RTI activist and often holds workshops on how to use the RTI Act for senior state and Central government officials across Delhi. He too is growing old but says he is willing to fight on. But there is despair in his voice.
“People’s memory is short. They are no more interested in this case. I might have highlighted lapses on the part of the authorities but they have not changed anything.” The Pandher family still owns the property but their attempts to sell it have failed. Gaje Singh Chauhan, a realtor who owns Utsav Associates and Developers, based in Nithari village, says no buyer has shown interest in the property in the past seven years.
“Why would someone buy a property where so many murders have taken place? Villagers too have spread all kinds of rumours—there are ghosts in the house, and they roam the street at the back of the house.”
(Arpit Parashar is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.
Sunil is a photographer based in New Delhi.)
The empire on which once “the sun never sets” is agonising over whether it should stay inside the European Union or exit to breathe the free air outside. The day of decision ...
As Russian airstrikes continue, the Syrian refugee tide ...
Number of issues 12 nos | Yearly cover price INR 360 | Yearly offer price INR 300