Two-year-old Jagriti Patel was sleeping with her parents and brother on a south Mumbai pavement when she was kidnapped on October 20 last year. A police complaint was filed the same day, but for three weeks police couldn’t lay a finger on a shred of evidence. It was as if she had disappeared into thin air.

Then, on November 13, some slum children playing in a cluster of shrubs discovered a body. Jagriti’s body was lying barely 500 metres from where she had been “kidnapped”. There was little to see as the flesh had been scoured by sun and scavengers but a blue t-shirt and a few bangles told the tale.

The discovery sent ripples of fear among residents of South Mumbai’s Shiv Shastri Nagar who, despite homes in the adjoining slum, sleep on the pavement to beat the heat at night.

Kya guarantee hai ki aisa phir nahin hoga hamare koi bachche ke saath (What is the guarantee that something like this won’t happen again with one of our children?),” said Najma Khan, a 35-year-old slum resident and mother of two. The body samples were dispatched for forensic tests to the police lab at Kalina. The cops began to collect DNA samples from people on their suspects list to zero in on the culprit.

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA. As it is inherited, DNA is the best way of establishing parentage. At the same time, it has also become a key tool for the crime fighter, especially in cases of assault. If there is a trace amount of the assailant’s DNA on a victim’s person, police can use it to identify, or confirm the identity, of an assailant. That was what the Mumbai police were doing. They got results.

Within days, they arrested a local delinquent—a taxi driver and drunkard—and made public claims in the local media that they had caught the killer.

Just three months after Jagrit’s murder, on January 17 this year, three-year-old Karishma Chauhan, from South Mumbai’s Sassoon Docks, was kidnapped. Her body was discovered at the same spot as Jagriti’s, squarely contradicting police claims of having arrested the culprit.

The postmortem revealed that Karishma probably died after the first blow to the head, but the killer continued hitting her all over the body, resulting in over 50 fractures. The report said the killer bit off a chunk of flesh from the right arm, too. A sketch prepared on the directions of another girl whom “the killer had attempted to lure away” of a long-haired, bearded man circulated in the media and the residential area.

A group of women, all from the same community to which the child had belonged, approached police demanding justice. The situation looked likely to blow up. Police continued their investigations, without result. Public fear was being replaced by anger.

On April 9, police nabbed a man who was “luring a five-year-old girl with chocolate”. Police believed he was the serial killer even though he claimed he was kidnapping the girl to make her beg, and took fingerprints and blood samples to match against the evidence found on the bodies of the two victims.

On April 19, a case of kidnap was registered by South Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade police at 2 a.m. Septuagenarian Rani Fernandes found her two-and-a-half-year-old great granddaughter Angel missing in the night. She had tucked the child into bed with her at night. When she woke a few hours later Angel was missing. Her raped and mutilated body was discovered near the sea at Maker Towers in Cuffe Parade later the same morning.

This time police acted even more swiftly. Before Angel’s family had finished grieving, they marched in and ordered the males in the family to give DNA samples for testing. The family were outraged, saying this was an open insinuation that they were involved.

Police shrug off the charge.

“We are just doing our job…a DNA test that will lead us to the killer,” says a Cuffe Parade police personnel on grounds of anonymity.

“After the post-mortem, they forced us to bury the body within 15 minutes,” said Rani. After the public showdown following the second murder, police were in no mood to wait. Before things got out of hand, Angel’s body was buried and the family forced to disperse.

Police then began questioning the family about the sequence of events, individually and separately, on several occasions. Everyone was subjected to the grilling, from Rani—on numerous occasions, on the road, in her house and at the police station—her son, Angel’s grandfather James, Angel’s mother Suzan and stepfather Ashok.

Within days the police, capitalising on the mother’s second marriage, dismissed the murder as a family issue that had no relevance to the prior killings. They suggested that Angel’s father had committed the crime to “get even with his wife”. Later, they had to eat a humble pie when he returned from his hometown to contradict all claims.

So, on to the inevitable next step, the collection of DNA samples of all and sundry, both the fathers-biological and stepfather; the grandfather, even the grand-uncle. They detained the grandfather and forced a confession of rape and murder of his granddaughter, a confession that allegedly came out of the police’s strong-arm tactics.

Interestingly, among the suspects was Ravindra Kantrole, also known as the “Beer Man”, picked up and DNA-tested at Nagpada Police Hospital. The tests were negative. Kantrole has threatened to proceed against police for contempt of court for treating him like a suspect like the “Beer Man” he was charged with being for years.

Kantrole was arrested by Mumbai police in connection with a series of murders in 2006-2007, in which the killer left a beer bottle next to his victims, all street dwellers. In the trial that followed, he was acquitted of all charges by the Bombay High Court in 2009. Kantrole feels police continue to hound him and implicate him in some offence or the other, and plans to charge them with contempt of court.

Even after the Honorable Court acquitted me of all charges, how can the police continue to treat me like a serial killer.

“Even after the Honorable Court acquitted me of all charges, how can the police continue to treat me like a serial killer?” asks Kantrole. “They tell me that ‘Court ne chod diya na? Hamari nazron mein toh tu hi gunehgar hai’.” (The court may have left you, but in our eyes you are the culprit,)

The police collection spree has resulted in a haul of over 1,000 blood samples of “suspects” in the three cases for DNA profiling. The suspects include orchestra players, cooks, drivers and fishermen. What made this extremely diverse pool of individuals suspect in the first place? Police can’t, or won’t, say, but the selection seems to have been random, based on whoever may have been near the scene at the projected time.

“We have been working very hard on these cases and collected over 1,000 samples for DNA tests,” says Senior Inspector Janardhan Kharat, Cuffe Parade in-charge, refusing to divulge any more details. Local police, asked about the issue, are swift to boast of the thousand, treating it as a sort of achievement. Now they’re busy trying to find a match for the two separate foreign DNA samples on two of the three victims.

It’s a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Chances of the killer being nabbed through random DNA tests seem remote but police seem quite happy at the prospect. In fact, Mumbai Police have written to the state home department that the state-run Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Kalina be provided with sufficient chemicals required to conduct the tests. This happened after the officers probing the murders told superiors investigations were affected as DNA tests were taking too long.

“Numerous reminders to expedite results of suspects have proved futile. We are always told chemicals used to identify DNA are in shortage. So we have sent a letter to the Home Department,” said a police officer who does not want to be named.

So far so good, but when the DNA test results are produced as evidence in court, there will be problems. The defence could raise issues of consent and coercion that will affect the prosecution.

In their frenzied enthusiasm to “take DNA samples” city police missed the implications of Section 53 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.  The section relates to the examination of accused by a medical practitioner on the request of a police officer.

It clearly maintains that: “When a person is arrested on a charge of committing an offence of such a nature and alleged to have committed under such circumstances that there are reasonable grounds for believing that an examination of his person will afford evidence as to the commission of an offence, it shall be lawful for a registered medical practitioner, acting at the request of a police officer not below the rank of sub-inspector, and for any person acting in good faith in his aid and under his direction, to make such an examination of the person arrested as is reasonably necessary in order to ascertain the facts which may afford such evidence, and to use such force as is reasonably necessary for that purpose.

“Whenever the person of a female is to be examined under this section, the examination shall be made only by, or under the supervision of, a female registered medical practitioner.

(a) “Examination” shall include the examination of blood, blood stains, semen, swabs in case of sexual offences, sputum and sweat, hair samples and finger nail clippings by the use of modern and scientific techniques including DNA profiling and such other tests which the registered medical practitioner thinks necessary in a particular case.”

It also explains that “registered medical practitioner” means a medical practitioner who possess any medical qualification as defined in clause (h) of section 2 of the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956 and whose name has been entered in a State Medical Register.

Here, in this case, the “suspect” is not arrested and the use of force is absolutely ultra vires and in direct excess.

The defence will, when the opportunity arises, surely tackle the issue of “consent arrest” and “good faith” which, in their predictable absence, will weaken the case.

Ravindra Kantrole aka Beer Man was again exposed to DNA tests by the city police following the recent child crimes.jpg

Ravindra Kantrole, once arrested and acquitted for the ‘Beer man’ murders, was again asked to undergo DNA tests following the Cuffe Parade murders.

Taking more than 1,000 blood samples of a population for DNA testing to pinpoint a killer seems a bit excessive, on the face of it. Nor was consent sought in even one case. Beyond this, however, what happens to the person whose blood is taken testing? How is his life affected?

Let us take the case of Angel’s family. Consider Albert, Angel’s grand-uncle. He had to give a blood sample for a DNA test because “everyone had to do it”.  He has since found himself facing ostracism within the residential colony and among his own friends for “suspicion of having committed the crime”. There’s no other reason to believe he committed the crime, but people are suspicious simply because he’s been tested.

Angel’s grandfather James had a temporary job at a bank in Nariman Point as a house-keeping assistant. He lost it. “I had to keep going to the Cuffe Parade police station where they would ask me the same questions again and again, even force me to confess to having committed the offence or get my mother—Angel’s great grandmother—to confess having ‘sold’ the child to the rapist-murderer,” says James.

“Which place will keep a police suspect in the murder and rape of a child? I was told very politely that there was no more work for me and that they would call me if needed,” James sighs. “Obviously, who would want to keep a ‘suspect’ at work?”

Angel’s other grand-uncle Dexter, who has a wife and daughter dependent on his income, also had to take a DNA test and put through the regular grilling over and over again. Every passing day, he would be either called to the police station or asked for his whereabouts on the phone as if he were guilty.

“I had to leave my job in a multinational bank where I worked as office help,” Dexter says.

“Police would keep calling me over to the station and ask for my version of the event…even if I suspected anyone…over and over and over. That I lost my job and developed health problems doesn’t matter to them at all… they still come to my house to ‘question’ me,”’ says Dexter who is finding it difficult to make ends meet.