In Focus

Child Killing Could Have Been Prevented If Measures Were Taken On Time

By Gajanan Khergamker

They say, nothing can be more painful for a parent than the death of one’s child. As for a newborn infant killed, it's a pain that transgresses to a society that will collectively have to pay the price. A three-month-old's kidnapping and murder, allegedly committed by a transgender irate for being refused bakshish, sent shockwaves across South Mumbai's Colaba-Cuffe Parade areas.

That the offence took place, like a few others in the past, in alarming proximity to the Cuffe Parade Police Station was shocking. The act was an inevitability, according to locals, who claim that the mushrooming of miscreants, drug addicts and felons in the zone must be addressed by the local police. The onus lies on the police who need to act swiftly to prevent crime rather than solve it.

The Events As They Unfurled...Over The Years

Time: Around 1:00 am on 9 July 2021 in a house in a by-lane in Ambedkar Nagar.

The heat here is unbearable. And for good reason too. The sea lies barely a stone's throw away from the Cuffe Parade slum in South Mumbai. The humidity during the monsoons is unbearable for inmates of the slum known to keep the doors of their shanties open for most of the time.

For a diabetic and hypertensive 60-year-old grandmother it was only natural to wake up, several times at night. 

On the night of 8 July 2021, with ventilation impaired, she found it difficult to breathe freely and woke up covered in a sheen of sweat at around one am. Like most others in the slum, she unlatched the door of her house that lay at the end of a passage interlined with others and swung it open. Most households would leave the doors to their homes open during hot days jarring them only to keep stray cats at bay.

She then turned her three-month-old granddaughter, the apple of her eyes, lying on her stomach, to her back, covered her with a sheet and placed pillows on her side so she didn't roll back. Alongside slept six-year-old grandson and husband, dead as a log after a long day's work as a mason. Her son, jobless since the lockdown, and daughter-in-law slept a few feet away. The grandmother soon drifted off to sleep.

A little while later, she woke up startled with the clanging sound of a steel plate falling on the ground on being pushed off a ledge by a stray cat. The others too woke up abruptly. And then, her grandson exclaimed that his sister was missing! Within moments, the entire family was up on their feet and rushed to look for the child who they were certain had been taken away by someone who had managed to access the open door.

Years of political campaigning and social work later, the matriarch had generated immense goodwill in the zone and residents from within the vicinity, even beyond rushed in to help in whatever way possible. 

The father rushed out of the home to look for his daughter, his wife was joined in by immediate neighbours screaming out for the child in the quiet of the night. And, within moments, the entire lane was awake. The local police station at Cuffe Parade was apprised of the situation.

A WhatsApp message with the angelic infant's image in a tiny white frock requesting 'any information' to help 'save a life' to contact the Cuffe Parade police began to make the rounds at night itself. By six am on 9 July 2021, word spread like fire in slums in the vicinity.

And then, while rueing her decision to open the door at night before sleeping, the grandmother suddenly remembered something that would change everything.

Time: Around 9:00 pm on 8 July 2021 at her house

A saree-clad local transgender aka kinnar swayed along the passage leading to a house before being stopped at the doorstep by the activist grandmother. The transgender ducked her head into the house for cover from the heavy rain.

And, as usual, she demanded money and a saree from her because "ladke ko ladki hui." Exasperated with her incessant demands, that had grown by the day, the matriarch scolded her and told her that she would give her a saree but wouldn't give her any money then. She was ready to pay her Rs 200 and even consented to give her Rs 1,100 at a ceremony to be held when her eldest daughter, who had delivered a child four months back, arrived in Diwali. The kinnar refused the offer and left her home angrily. 

Scolding the kinnar came naturally to her. On her getting upset, the matriarch didn't give much thought. The kinnar was like that only.

Dressed in saree with kohl-clad eyes, she would stop by her house, like others, whenever the door was left ajar to ask for money. She lived in the vicinity and was, since birth, known to everyone in the slum.

Time: During a night, twenty years back, in 2000 at Ambedkar Nagar.

Fired with a passion to clean up the entire zone comprising Ambedkar Nagar, a social activist had taken up cudgels to tackle social ills like alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence. She would be called in by elderly parents, sometimes children to stop abusive men from inflicting physical injuries on the women at home. This, often, led her to knock on several doors at night and help save hapless wives and young mothers from the rage of drunken husbands or sons.

This time around, the screams that drew her attention were from her next-door home where she would have to regularly intervene to stop a man who physically abused his wife. The family, lived in a room that stood adjacent to the matriarch's own home and any cacophony that emanated from their room would swiftly reach her ears. 

They were her tenants and she, prompt as ever to intervene, would rush off to the wife's aid even as her mother, and children - a four-year-old boy and his sister stood watching the drama unfold. 

The regular occurrence had become an integral part of her social work life for the five years this family stayed as tenants.

Over the two decades, the four-year-old boy who had grown up watching the violence day after day at home, went on to become a kinnar.

Time: Around 9:00 am on 9 July 2021 at Cuffe Parade Police Station.

Following the grandmother's statement about the kinnar having 'fought' with her over the bakshish, she was demanding, along with corroborating versions from locals in the slum, the Cuffe Parade Police sleuths took the transgender into custody and started questioning him. Reportedly, after a while of interrogation, the kinnar 'broke down' and confessed that angered at the refusal to pay him the 'blessing' money he 'kidnapped' the infant after entering the house when the door was ajar while all were asleep in the home at night. 

With the help of an accomplice, the kinnar reportedly took the infant to a swamp nearby and drowned her in the dark of the night. He reportedly confessed before the police station at 11.00 am. 

A surging crowd of slum residents grew steadily even as the Cuffe Parade Police say they interrogated the two accused separately before 'taking' them to the 'site' of crime and 'rushed them back to the safety of the police station.’

The anger among the people, mostly young mothers incensed with the gruesome nature of the murder, was palpable. It was a matter of time before the situation spiralled out of control and the mob turn barbarous and lynch the accused to death.

Time: Around 1:30 pm on 9 July 2021 at the mangroves off Cuffe Parade.

A specialised crew of crime detection personnel, fire brigade authorities and a few others made their way into the slum's by-lanes and moved into the mangrove-filled waters off the coastline lining the slums. A stench of human faeces and sewage emanated through the air even as the sleuths stepped into the waist-deep waters at the spot identified by the accused in a combing operation. A few locals followed the team at a distance.

In a little while, a ‘diver’ came across a sludge-covered body of a child lodged in the muddy marshland. The infant girl had been found. Albeit lifeless!

Her lifeless, muddy body was swiftly covered with a cloth and carried out by a policeman with others in tow to keep the public at bay and rushed off to J.J. Hospital at Byculla for a post-mortem. The infant's distraught parents rushed to the Hospital to see their child, one last time, before the post-mortem was conducted as a matter of procedure to the crimes committed and pinpoint the cause of death.

The worst fear of a child's parents remains the prospect of sexual assault and the physical pain that may be inflicted on their tender one. And then, there's the hearsay that follows any incident of this nature. That spreads like wildfire, even among the ‘educated’ and ‘informed,’ and causes more damage than the actual incident, is sadly lost here. 

So, where the infant was concerned, the same fears surfaced. While a few residents ‘vouched’ for a ‘fact’ that the child’s body had bled constantly from her private parts indicating ‘definite rape’, others said that the body had been coated with vermillion and ashes as she was a victim of a 'human sacrifice' conducted on Ashadha Amavasya that coincided with the date of the offence - 9 July 2021.

Videos shot on mobile phones by a few locals of the combing crew emerging from the marshy waters with the infant's lifeless body made the viral rounds as usual. And, conjectures flew about widely, as usual.

Time: Around 7 pm on 9 July 2021.

A stream of incensed family members, residents, neighbours and friends of the family continued to flow steadily into the matriarch's small house. Her married daughter who lives at nearby Machchimar Nagar sat speechless in a corner. The turn of events had stunned her into silence.

The grandmother sat against a wall unable to stop her tears. Deafening wails of grief, anger and consternation filled the air as a group of women - mostly Banjara fish-cleaners, domestic workers and house cooks - sat on the floor in support of the matriarch in the time of her grief.

The infant's grandfather stood outside the house and refused to enter. Each time he even looked at the house, he would burst into tears. It reminded him of the cherubic infant. He had looked for his favourite granddaughter all over the slum, all night long, from the time she was found missing at two am till her lifeless body was recovered at noon, he was optimistic of finding her.
His voice had gone hoarse from screaming out her name over and over, in the dark of the night, calling out to friends and neighbours to look out for a wailing infant who could have been left abandoned in the open by the kidnapper.
And then, he entered the house unable to stop the tears from flowing. Incoherent in his anger, the grandfather would suddenly break into a string of abuses. His wife sat distraught even as the women who had gathered raised their calls for justice. "Humein de do...hum iska insaaf karenge," they said in unison, baying for his blood.

And then, the mother arrived from J.J. Hospital where the child's post-mortem had taken place and was led by a few to a corner. Just as she sat down, she banged her head on a wall in abject despair and let out an ear-splitting wail as she cried out for her daughter. Her sister-in-law, who had sat quietly till then simply couldn't stop herself watching her cry. She broke down inconsolably on her part. The infant's six-year-old brother too burst out into tears watching his mother cry. An entire family had been destroyed. For no fault of theirs. What’s worse is it was avoidable.

"I demand that the police first check if he is a kinnar or not," said a septuagenarian relative Usha Waghmare enraged at the occurrence. "A lot of boys and girls in the area now fake their identity as kinnar to get money from people. There are many addicts here ," she says. "Some 10-12 people who are not kinnar are known to harass the locals here. Ghar mein ghuskar maarte hai. Hum log morcha nikalenge…chodenge nahin," she quips, insisting that the police are complicit in their inaction.

Time 2:00 pm at Chandanwadi, Marine Lines, Mumbai.

A motley crowd of residents had begun to trickle in to witness the cremation of the three-month-old infant. The local police had prevented the family from getting her body home at the slum before the cremation leaving them with no option but to conduct it directly at the crematorium. 

Meanwhile, WhatsApp groups of residents in the zone allege private hospitals harbour a nexus with eunuchs and transgenders to 'tip them off' whenever a child is born so that money can be extracted and then, shared. And then, amplifying the allegation to ‘it is a commonplace occurrence in India.’

This, among several conspiracy theories, presupposes everything but the obvious. The threat posed by drunkards, drug addicts and miscreants in Colaba's slums is formidable. The role played by the police, the Cuffe Parade Police in this case, includes prevention of crime and that remains unfulfilled.

The transgender, for now, with an accomplice has been taken into police custody and booked under Section 302 (Punishment for Murder), Section 201 (Tampering with Evidence), Section 363 (Kidnapping) and Section 34 (Common Intent) of the Indian Penal Code.

The lives of thousands of residents in the most crowded zones of Mumbai, her slums, remain at risk. And, at a higher risk are their young who remain vulnerable to attacks by felons and potential troublemakers who blend in with the rest.

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Neighbours, Residents In A State Of Shock

Ganesh Murti Nagar's Suman Mane, a close friend of the matriarch and a local BJP worker said, "Today, she's completely distraught. The culprit must be hanged. Sadly, the police is hand in glove with the miscreants most of the time and do not support the locals at all. If there's no sunwai, how can there be justice?"

For 58-year-old Anulata Mohite, born in Colaba Market, who has spent the larger part of her life in the vicinity of the crime, the child's death came as a shock. She said the accused was born in the neighbourhood itself and was known to everyone. She said, "We would see him dance and beg for a living here. Who would have thought that he could do something like this?"

Ranidevi Valmiki selling bhutta on a cart in the slum rued that there were a lot of drug addicts in the area and that it was "scary to live" there. And for good reason too. She has five grandchildren from two sons and remains "constantly worried" for them. She says, "After this incident, I am really worried for my grandchildren. We all have been living here for so many years. It's sad to see a day like this."

Sunita Yadav who visited the family to convey her condolences insists, “Children are not safe here at all," and asks, "If they are not safe in their homes, then where else can their safety be guaranteed? There are so many crimes that take place here all the time… theft, assault, etc. I even heard about a girl being robbed recently of 
cash and jewellery from her own house."

Muskan Yadav, a mother of four, who works as house-help says she leaves her four children – Varun, Sonu and nine-year-old twin girls Palak and Prachi – at home when she goes to work. Scarred by the incident, Muskan stood speechless in the middle of the wailing. Tears welled up in her eyes as she watched the infant's mother sob, relating to her pain. "The culprit should be locked up for life lest he commits another crime on an innocent child."

Neighbour Banjara Kamli Rathod, who works as an office help, said she was scared to "even go to the toilet at night" because of the increased presence of addicts and miscreants in the area. "The police refuse to listen to our concerns. Where should we keep our children if not at home?" she says. She would see the infant every day in the morning when her grandfather would bring her out and, again in the evening, when the grandmother would sit with the baby in the passage outside the house. "It’s the police’s job to control these crimes," she says.

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About Ambedkar Nagar

South Mumbai's oldest precinct Colaba, the richest zone of the nation's financial capital, also houses eight slums. Ambedkar Nagar that lies adjacent to a BEST bus depot and close to the military cantonment was carved out of sea and mangroves. Developed primarily by slum mafia involved in land filling and selling pitches marked with bamboos to poor migrants, the slum emerged in the '90s when shanties were raised on bamboo stilts installed 'in' the sea. 

By 2000, Cuffe Parade's mangroves had been relentlessly hacked as 1,000 huts had sprung up in Ambedkar Nagar and neighbouring Ganesh Murti Nagar. From 1990 to 2000, there was a reportedly 25 percent increase in slums in Colaba, and the population of Ambedkar Nagar increased from 1,248 to 4,991. Residents included drivers, domestic help, gardeners, vegetable vendors, security guards serving in the nearby residential and government buildings within the zone.

On Child Killings In the Past

A two-year-old was sleeping with her parents and brother on a pavement opposite Shiv Shastri Nagar when she was kidnapped on 20 October 2011. 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.

INVESTIGATION: Cuffe Parade police personnel 'investigating' the spot where the child was kidnapped
while sleeping with her parents in 2011 (File Picture)

Then, on 13 November 2011, some slum children playing in a cluster of shrubs discovered a body. The child'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 for a blue t-shirt and a few bangles. The discovery then sent ripples of fear among residents of the South Mumbai slum who, despite having homes in the adjoining slum, slept on the pavement to beat the heat at night.

Within two months of two-year-old child's body discovered mutilated and battered at an abandoned dump yard that was earlier Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, another three-year-old's body was found at the same place. 

Mocking the police who had claimed to have ‘got the killer’ by arresting another local who was later discharged by court, the killer went on to use the same modus operandi and dumped the second body in the same spot once again...leaving the police twiddling their thumbs and losing face.

The Cuffe Parade Police was then charged with attempts to ‘solve the case and detect’ as there was immense public pressure to do so. 

And then, on 19 April 2012, a case of kidnapping was registered by South Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade Police at two am when a septuagenarian found her two-and-a-half-year-old great-granddaughter missing in the night. She had tucked the child into bed with her at night. When she woke a few hours later, the infant was missing. Her raped and mutilated body was discovered near the sea at Maker Towers in Cuffe Parade later the same morning.

Reportedly, since 2012, it has become a routine for detectives pursuing the case to travel to any police station across the city and sometimes within the state, whenever any sexual assault case of minors is detected. Apparently, the sleuths look for DNA samples of the accused in those cases and match those with the ones in the Cuffe Parade killings.

The cases continue to remain undetected till date though efforts to catch the killer remain underway.

Need To Prevent Crime, Deter Criminals

As for the infant's murder case, the Cuffe Parade Police will need to present a water-tight investigation to court to be able to solve it and prove the complicity of the two accused in the matter. The motive for the killing, as a well-planned reaction to the refusal to pay bakshish must pass the test of evidence in court.

To further investigation and reach of the law, the authorities must swiftly place CCTV cameras in slum by-lanes and, particularly, along pathways leading to the marshy zones that must also be lit up to help document evidence for crimes of this nature that occur with alacrity over the years.

HIGH RISK: Slum-dwellers leave their children alone and unattended at home to go to work

Slum-dwellers in Colaba exercise little caution when it comes to securing their homes with locked doors particularly so as they leave their children unattended and indoors. 

They are at high risk of such crimes especially when their parents are away at work. Securing the zones by increased police presence, camera coverage and initiating preventive action by nabbing drunkards, drug peddlers and local miscreants must be immediately undertaken. It makes best sense to deter a crime rather than solve it...however swiftly!

The three-month-old infant's journey from her birth on 19 March 2021 could easily have lasted longer. 

It should have lasted longer!

(With inputs from Anushka Singh, Ruchi Verma and Manu Shrivastava)

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