|Image: Narendra Bisht|
It’s a village surrounded by villas. Nithari. A “well-concealed eyesore”, according to one newspaper account. It is inhabited by migrant labourers, some employed as domestic servants in the surrounding bungalows and some as drivers and fruit vendors. About two years ago, the children of the village began to go missing. Family members reported to the police but received no response. The parents of one of the missing girls were told that she must have eloped. Despite the number of complaints, the police did not register even one case. Newspaper reports now suggest that the villagers knew that something was amiss in D-5 of Sector 31, Noida. They suspected the cook who stayed in that house – Surinder Kohli, also known as Satish – of having designs on their children. Homeowner Moninder Singh Pandher was rarely seen and neighbours had always been discouraged from entering his house. When 20-year-old Payal went missing, investigations led the police to Surinder. And then, unexpectedly, out tumbled confessions of sexual assault and the murder of six of the village’s missing children.
As the media picked up the story, it emerged that Moninder had studied at the elite institutions of Bishop Cotton School, Shimla and St Stephen’s College, Delhi. He drank a lot, said one of his relatives during a television interview; he was absolutely fine, said a friend from school on NDTV channel’s We the People programme. He was employed in Joseph Cyril Bamford, a construction and agricultural equipment manufacturing company, was married but separated from his wife, and was a loving father – who could not have done such a thing, said his son. Television programmes described the incident with the headlines ‘Children of a lesser God’ and ‘Noida Killings: India’s Shame’. Upon finding the remains of their children, the aggrieved and outraged parents attempted to destroy the house. “There was blood in the bathroom inside the house,” said one of the parents; “The police don’t want us to go in.” In the midst of all this, the younger brother of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, Shivpal Yadav, who visited Nithari to offer condolences, said, “Such incidents keep on happening.” Such a blasé statement does seem fitting after the neglect with which the children’s disappearances were treated for so long.
The news regarding Nithari has changed. Nithari has entered the imagination: it is now a landscape of the mind. It has subsumed the accused. The case is no longer about Surinder and Moninder Singh. Could Nithari have happened without them?
A question dogs the mind: Why didn’t the police do anything? According to some reports, the residents of the village even hired a private investigator when their children went missing. He too pointed at Surinder and Moninder. Even then, the local police thana was not bothered. On the episode of We the People devoted to the Nithari killings, Director General of the Bureau of Police Research and Development Kiran Bedi lamented glaring oversights such as this, and suggested that they occur because the police are not trained. Another panelist was Rajat Mitra, a psychologist heading Swanchetan, an NGO that works with the Delhi Police in the area of crisis intervention. He said that when children go missing in many other countries, the police are immediately on the lookout for paedophiles. Mitra felt that people like Moninder are diabolical in nature, irrespective of their socio-economic backgrounds. Was background important here?
By saying that the Nithari atrocities are ‘India’s shame’ and that the missing were ‘Children of a lesser God’, are we giving the victims and their families their due? Is such media portrayal of the incidents the only way we have of trying to understand the lives of the residents of Nithari? Moninder lived in a villa while his victims came from what could be called a slum. What if there had not been a class divide? Would the media’s representation of the case be the same? As reflected in the coverage that we consume, is it our desire to do away with the shame highlighted by the press, and then to move on? Or is there some way that we can become neighbours to the residents of Nithari?
Some of the families of the Noida victims have received compensation, the amount of which was raised from two to five lakh INR. The Congress Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party have criticised Mulayam Singh Yadav’s UP government on various fronts and demanded that the chief minister step aside and hand the case over to the Central Bureau of Investigation. People who have been through trauma related to violence on their children, such as Naresh Gupta, CEO of Adobe India, whose toddler son was kidnapped and then found last year, and Neelam Katara, who is fighting a legal battle to punish the murderers of her son Nitish Katara, have also visited Nithari.
What do the residents of Nithari feel? What is their sense of rage, impotence, anger, and despair? How does it feel to be part of a group of people who knew that something was happening around them, that their missing children might have been through unspeakable suffering, that others were probably in danger? Who tried to do something about it, but could not? Some have identified their children, others are hopeful of finding theirs. What sort of trauma does a separation like this create? What sort of mourning can there be after such horrific deaths?
Why is it that, till the time of writing, there has been no effort to extend any mental health services such as counselling or therapy to these people? What compensation is money for their loss? How long are people going to continue to visit the victim families at Nithari, or to want to visit them? When the visitors stop coming, what good will their visits have done? What does one say to parents who have seen the severed limbs of their child, who are left with the knowledge that their child was sexually abused and then slaughtered? The media has reported experiences of auditory hallucinations by the residents of Nithari, as a symptom, as an aftermath. What do the villagers hear? And will they be heard? Or will the discovery of their lives and their tragedy be an accident – something happened upon by chance, a small anomaly that might have been overlooked – like the finding of Payal’s cell phone?
Pornographic CDs have been recovered which contain footage of Moninder. The torsos of the bodies are missing. Have they been eaten? The bodies had been dismembered in an identical manner and the vertebral columns split. These are some of the bits of information and fantasy that have made the rounds. A section of the media wants to ‘enter’ Moninder. After announcing, “And now we will enter the mind of Moninder Singh,” the anchor of We the People turned to Moninder’s childhood friend, who told the audience that the man was absolutely normal. A sociologist on the same programme said that Moninder was just one of many, a part of the system of organ trade. The organ-trade theory is suspect because it requires more specialisation, for instance in storage equipment, than what the findings suggest.
More questions: Were the duo born to do this or did they make a choice? Can we make sense of the lives they have led? Is it enough that they be convicted and sentenced? As a society, where are we left after that? What was the reality they inhabited and how did they construct a reality that involved not only having sex with children but mutilating and killing them? And if the Noida killings were connected to the organ trade, what are the social conditions that sanction this?
In his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm, a psychologist with a psychoanalytic orientation, writes about sexual and non-sexual necrophilia, the desire to be close to corpses and to dismember them. Some of the questions that he deals with pertain to the manner in and the degree to which specific conditions of human existence are responsible for the quality and intensity of a person’s lust for killing and torturing. According to Fromm, the passion for transforming something from alive into ‘unalive’ is something that surfaces only in humans. What quality do people possess for whom this becomes an active interest? In Fromm’s words, it is the manifestation of a feeling of nothingness within. This form of love with the dead is a wish to do away with life. To end all. To have to kill. To return to where one started, by destroying – repeatedly. The necrophilious desire is not the same as the sadistic desire, for which control over the object of desire is imperative. For a sadist, the victim needs to remain living, whereas for a necrophiliac, the person needs to be destroyed and dismembered. What perversion compels a person to indulge in such intimacy as the sexual act and then to dismember the body? Is this an attempt to ‘do away with’ both the crime and the compulsion? What creates such an urge? What sort of a life does such a person live?
The media now reports of dead bodies being found elsewhere. The terror of the serial killer has spread. What will become of Nithari, what legacy it will leave, is difficult to say. If something has happened at the margins of society, near the capital of the country and in a culture that predominantly sees it as shameful, it is imperative to understand what is being said about it. Is Nithari an isolated incident or is it reflective of a deeper malaise? Does the periphery reflect how the centre functions?
The Noida Bar Associates has refused to defend Moninder Singh Pandher and Surinder Kohli. A recent newsreport suggested that the two might be sent to a psychoanalyst. Their existence is difficult to comprehend. People have necrophilous fantasies but seldom act them out. And yet the presence of these fantasies cannot be denied. Is there a tendency in humans and society to transform life into a commodity?
Dostoevsky said, “It is not by confining one’s neighbour that one is convinced of one’s own sanity.” Does Nithari force us to see aspects of ourselves that we would otherwise not want to address? Not to recognise the shame would mean to ignore a lot. Processing the shame is not easy. What about the trauma of the residents of Nithari? How does it feel when people come and poke at your sense of loss to get something out of it? Will this happen again? If it does, will it be hushed up? Will we be more cautious? How will people assimilate this experience, especially those of us who have been brought closer but who have the luxury of distancing ourselves? Are we fascinated with dead things? In our expressions of horror, shock, despair and indifference, we are all participating in the drama of the events. But that is the extent of our participation. Ours is not a serious engagement with Nithari’s tragedy and the trauma it has caused.
And what about Surinder? I seem to have forgotten him. The media obsesses over Moninder Singh, but wasn’t Surinder the one who confessed to assaulting the children? What assumptions do we make about him? How is it that his family has hardly been talked about? What about the choice he made? But he is not one of ‘us’. He is not that close: he is not threatening. Moninder is. Threatening not only to our security but more so to the image that we nurture of ourselves and the likes of us. Between the accused, we choose Moninder; and from the victims, the word Nithari suffices – concealing both our ignorance and our indifference. It’s true: Nithari, at best, is a well-concealed eyesore.
Nithari is not independent of Moninder, Surinder, or any of us. Events like these evoke in us the need for a sense of closure. Socio-political conditions, however, are complex, and to insist on closure is often to simplify and falsify them. The final picture is yet to be seen as far as Nithari is concerned. The effort here is not to try to escape the complexities, but to elucidate them. We have a tendency to create ‘others’ in such a way as to maintain a positive view of ourselves. Is there a way that we can avoid doing this?
And yet, isn’t only intellectualising the issue tantamount to killing it? To seek to know without seeking to understand? To truly experience understanding, we would have to experience a fragmentation of our selves. We would have to listen to both – the self and the other – even as we try to locate, in Nithari, ‘Moninder, Surinder and I’.
~ Ashis Roy is a student at the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Delhi.