Deep within the Delhi Police Headquarters, a narrow corridor on the sixth floor leads to a large hall with an inconspicuous door at the far end. The door opens to a small room. This is the office of Additional Deputy Commissioner LN Rao, who runs the operations of the Special Cell set up in the early 90s to investigate acts of terror. A stout man with a trimmed moustache, Rao belies the typical image of a cop, but he has been in khaki for 33 years and has investigated hundreds of cases of murder, extortion and other violent crimes before he was handed his current assignment. Looking back at all that he has encountered, he says it is very difficult to make generalisations, given the differing motives and personalities of the people involved, but he is certain of one thing: “Even though the motives have remained much the same—money, women and land—the murders have become more macabre. The disfigurement and defiling of dead bodies by murderers is far more common today.”
Consider the case of a 21-year-old shopkeeper who used to run a hardware outlet in South Delhi. One day, a customer in his mid-twenties picked an argument with him over the change to be returned after buying a few items from his shop. The customer questioned his competence at his job. Irritated, the shopkeeper handed back the money he had been paid and asked that the goods be returned. The customer refused. Infuriated, the shopkeeper hit his face hard with a pipe-rod. As the customer began bleeding profusely at his mouth, the shopkeeper took a few moments for his fury to wrestle his fear down, and then battered the fellow to death. When his rage subsided, all he felt was a sense of relief; he still does not regret what he did.
The shopkeeper was among 122 ‘severely violent offenders’ with ages ranging from 18 to 45 who were interviewed at Delhi’s Tihar Jail as part of a study to understand the minds of those who perpetrate ‘extreme violence’. The interviews were carried out by crime psychologist Rajat Mitra and his team from Swanchetan Society for Mental Health, a Delhi-based NGO that provides counselling and support to victims of crime.
The findings of the study are revealing:
» All offenders were in the grip of a violent fantasy when they attacked their target.
» More than half—67 in all—had victims who were either strangers to them or with whom they had no previous relationship. In most cases, the victims were targetted without any provocation, and since the origin of the anger was internal, their unfamiliarity made no material difference.
» More than a quarter—33 to be precise—felt scared during the assault, and overcame their fear by assaulting the victim with still greater brutality.
» Brutality was meted out for four ‘reasons’: 1) to make sure that the victim dies; 2) to erase the victim’s identity by reducing him/her to a ‘non-person’ [several said,“Itna maara ki koi pehchaan bhi nahin paya”—I battered him so badly that no one could recognise him]; 3) to humiliate the victim by disfiguring the body; 4) to experience the ‘high’ of disfiguring the body.
» There were no pangs of regret; only 22 exhibited remorse. The rest felt the act needed to be carried out at that point of time, and were predisposed to repeat the action if such a situation were to arise again.
» They had no role model; they did not know how to deal with violence and thought of it as a legitimate means for finding a solution to various problems.
» Nearly all felt they were victims themselves and blamed their suffering on society at large.
» They felt frustrated and helpless in trying to effect the changes in their lives that they deemed important for themselves.
» They had severely pent up emotions and described in detail their inability to handle life and failure to control how they deal with provocation and other irritants that could drive them to frenzy.
» All of them described Delhi as a “violent city” where everyone needed to be “alert all the time” or in “survival mode” to stay alive. They sensed no rule of law, and displayed no fear of the consequences of committing a crime.
Mitra and his team found that most perpetrators of these acts were well aware of what they were doing, but did not fear the fallout. Some had even handed themselves over to the police after the act. Rarely did they show remorse, often preferring to spew venom during interrogation: “Kutte ki maut maara (gave him a dog’s death)” or “Saale ko chaba gaya (I made mincemeat of him)” or “Maine usey maar kar kuchh galat nahin kiya (Killing him, I did no wrong).”
Rao and Mitra agree on the broad facts, but differ vastly in the explanations they offer for the phenomenon. As a psychologist, Mitra tends to trace it to the changing nature of urban life, which, as it gets increasingly competitive, puts more and more pressure on individuals in both personal and professional spheres. Under such circumstances, everything from a job to a relationship is a source of stress. Many people end up harbouring ‘symbols of hate’, tangible or abstract, on which they blame much that goes wrong in their lives.
In Mitra’s view, assailants tend to identify their victims with their symbols of hate, and unleash violence on them in a perverse fit of elation that they feel gives them momentary control of their troubled lives. Such an explanation might explain why the hardware shopkeeper went over the edge on being insulted by a customer. Frustrated with his life and job, ill-mannered customers could have been his symbols of hate.
Mitra cites the case of an introverted 28-year-old businessman from an upper-middle-class family in West Delhi. As a child, he was bullied and humiliated by his peers. At home, he had problems communicating freely, as his father was a domineering disciplinarian. In his interview with Mitra, he recounted how he would jump off his bed and scamper to answer the door around the time his father returned from office. Once, on doing so, he had a nasty fall and hurt his knee badly, but was so terrified of making his father wait that he ran in great pain to open the door without tending to his knee.
As an adult, married with two children, the businessman seemed to bear that sense of fear and inferiority deep within. One day, a cousin who happened to be visiting sneered at something unrelated to him. The sneer triggered a memory of his father, perhaps, and he ticked off his cousin, who, in response, just brushed him off with a casual, “Tu bhi hansle, tera kya jaata hai (You have a laugh too, what do you lose)?” Livid, he took a blunt object and bludgeoned his cousin lifeless. In his interview, the businessman said he was clueless about what happened that day, about why and how he lost all control. He expects others to believe he was possessed by an evil spirit.
Such crimes are not peculiar to Delhi. In April this year, a 30-year-old Israeli woman, Tamar Farha Abraham, was murdered in Bangalore by her former boyfriend, a 38-year-old yoga teacher named Lokesh Chandra Das, who stashed her body in a refrigerator for 20 days. Or take the case of Kannada actress Maria Monica Susairaj and her fiancé, ex-naval officer Emile Jerome Mathew, who killed Neeraj Grover after finding him sleeping in Susairaj’s bed early on the morning of 7 May 2008 at her apartment in Dheeraj Solitaire, Malad, a Mumbai suburb. Jerome allegedly stabbed Grover with a kitchen knife, chopped the body into many pieces, stuffed them into suitcases, and later burnt the remains in a secluded spot in the Manor jungles about 100 km from Mumbai.
A fast changing society, says sociologist Patricia Uberoi, experiences what she terms “normlessness”, where old ways of life no longer operate. It renders the middle-class particularly vulnerable. “It is hard to say whether some murders are more gruesome than others,” says Uberoi, “but certainly, the mechanics [of crime] has changed.”
When a new pathology takes hold of urban society, such as the current craze for celebrations, be it over a new flat, car, computer or even mobile phone, there could arise corrosive feelings such as status anxiety. “There is a dark side to it, an underbelly that is not easy to cope with: failure, frustration, dejection and rejection,” says Uberoi. Left unaddressed, these can metastasise into violent urges in some cases.
So much so that even crimes that would otherwise be counted as carefully planned murders committed in cold blood also display signs of uncontrollable rage. In September this year, the killing of 38-year-old Sonu Sachdev of Moti Nagar, Delhi, was masterminded by his wife, Arti, with the help of two others, one of them her lover Sant Saran, the other Mridul Dixit, a contract killer hired for Rs 10 lakh. Sonu was stabbed 35 times with an ice-pick. Multiple stabbing that goes on well after the victim is clearly dead, Mitra says, could be motivated by a need to release an intense hatred. This is seen in cases where the murderer is psychologically trying to break free of a relationship not only by killing but by reducing the victim to the status of a ‘non-person’.
Unlike Mitra and Uberoi, Rao is no theoretician. As a policeman, his explanation is more matter-of-fact, but neither thesis rules out the other. They may even complement each other. For Rao, “The internet is the game changer.” Many perpetrators of such gory murders, in his experience, have confessed under interrogation that they got the germ of their idea while watching a porn video or some other clip online. A Station House Officer at a South Delhi police station, who prefers not to be named, claims that pornographic material—related to bondage, domination, sadism and masochism—has been found often enough in the possession of jilted lovers held for murder. He dubs these videos “anti-social sex movies”—“Jahan khoon kharaba zyada hai, kaam kam (where there is more violence, less sex).” In several cases, murderers have relied on Google for information. They search for such things as ‘most painful way to kill’ or ‘perfect murder’. “The imprint of the internet and movies is clearly visible at many a site of crime in urban areas,” says Rao.
It is not just online access to gore. “There is also much less fear of the law,” Rao says, “People believe that if they have political connections and money, the law will not apply to them.” He makes a pointed reference to the murders of Nitish Katara and Jessica Lal, cases where young men such as Manu Sharma and Vikas Yadav put their victims to death in broad public glare with an air of stunning impunity.
It is part of the same ‘normlessness’ of a society in rapid churn that has young men from nouveau riche families speeding expensive cars with reckless abandon and doing drugs with a sense of bravado that stems from a belief that their wealth shields them from any of the consequences.
And it does not help that the social sanction against violence remains patchy. Mitra, in fact, considers India one of the world’s most violence-prone countries. This, after all, is a land where many locate wisdom in proverbs like ‘lato ke bhoot bato se nahin mantey’ (people who need to be bashed up will never listen to polite persuasion).
The psychologist suggests that people watch out for the following traits in themselves; not that everyone with such traits would necessarily be dangerous, but these are indications of a predisposition towards violent crime: a) If you have angry thoughts that stay for long and reccur frequently; b) If you hear from siblings, partners, children, co-workers and friends that they get scared when you get angry; c) If you believe violence is a legitimate way of solving a problem.
Of course, violence and brutality are symptoms of a much deeper malaise that ails people for multiple reasons. More often than not, these people are purposefully occupied, some of them successfully, and have committed no such crime in the past. It starts with a loss of fear of the law, and draws upon a kind of discontent that is typical of a society in transition, where old social norms are abandoned even though people are not yet ready for the new. Aggravated by work and relationship pressures, all this results in a case of raw nerves and gnawing insecurities. If something snaps, it could suddenly spiral into a fit of murderous rage.
For all the available analysis of brutal crime committed by otherwise ‘ordinary’ people, effective preventives are proving elusive. Even as this article was being researched, there was news of yet another horror in Delhi. A young tech graduate of Jadavpur University, job-hunting in the capital, had gone out late at night with a friend to a roadside food stall in Govindpuri. Four young men—one a computer science graduate from Australia, another a science student from a local college—got into a quarrel with him over who would be served paranthas first. The police intervened and asked the quartet to leave. But, once the police had left, the four returned to attack the tech graduate with sticks and knives. They killed him over a jumped queue for dinner.