The Ransom Industry

 

Kidnapping for ransom has become a thriving industry in North India. Take the figures for New Delhi alone. From 32 reported cases in 1992, the number went up to 51 in 1995.

Hello, I'm Anjali. You don't know me, but I'd like to get to know you,' said the feminine vocie coyly on the other side of the phone. For 21-year-old Rishi Sethi, this was a bit unusual. He was not in the habit of receiving calls from girls. In fact, should girls be calling up boys at all? Let alone making such suggestive overtures.

So he slammed the phone down thinking it was a crank cell. But the caller persisted. And soon, Rishi and Anjali became tele-pals.

Finally, Anjali suggested that the two should meet. The rendezvous was fixed at Kalindi Kunj, a scenic locale by the banks of the Yamuna river in Delhi, used for such meetings. Rishi, however, decided to make a picnic of it and took a couple of his friends along for the meeting. But Anjali didn't turn up. And his friends ribbed him for having been stood up.

The next day she called again. (Since she claimed to be living in a hostel at Delhi's Lady Shri Ram College, she had suggested that it would be easier if she made the calls). "I was there at Kalindi," she said. "But you'd brought your friends along, so I didn't show myself. Next time, come alone."

This was why Rishi left his house at 4.30 pm on September 12, 1995, driving his father's Maruti 1000, all alone. He reached the rendezvous -- this time it was behind the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, near the director's bungalow. Suddenly, another car stopped alongside. A man came out walked up to Rishi's car, opened the door and pointed a gun at him. "Saale, tu ladki ko chherta hai (how dare you tease a girl)?" he said, yanking him by the collar. The man claimed to be Anjali's brother.

Another man got out of the car. When Rishi tried to explain, he was hit on the nose. When he screaming for help, he was beaten up even more. Then the two got into his car, and made him crouch under the front passenger seat. 'Let's go and tell your father what you've been doing,' said one of them menacingly. And then they blindfolded him.

Rishi did not get to see his father for the next four days. He was instead taken to a small basement (in a double-storey house in Raj Nagar, Ghaziabad, as it was later discovered). The room was just large enough to accommodate a bed. But Rishi did not get a bed. Instead, he was chained from his neck, hands and feet. The chain was tied to a hook on the door. If he lifted his neck, that hurt. At best he could manage an uncomfortable sitting position. And that is the way he stayed for four whole days. There was no light in the musty, damp room. But Rishi didn't notice that. He was still blindfolded.

In the meantime, Rishi's father, who owned Kalinga Cables, a thriving electronics shop in Delhi's West Patel Nagar, received a call at 11.30 pm that night. The caller demanded Rs 10 million. The amount, said Kulbushan Sethi, was too much to arrange at such a short notice. He was asked to think about the consequences. Half-an-hour later Kulbhushan called the police.

On September 14, the kidnapper called again, Kulbhushan still insisted that he would need time to come up with that kind of money. Some bargaining followed. The sum was brought down to Rs 1 million. The next day, Kulbhushan was told to go to Mayur Hotel in Meerut where there would a room booked in the name of Sandeep Jain. He would get a letter from his son, and he should leave the money there. Kulbushan did just that. And left.

However, when Jain showed up to collect the money, the police were waiting for him. Codenamed 'Devil' they had positioned themselves not only in strategic positions around the hotel, but had even covered all the exits out of Meerut. They let Jain pick up the money and then followed him.

What followed was a hot chase, very much Bollywood style. And the police soon caught up with Jain and his accomplice. The kidnappers -- Amit Yadav and Rahul Rana -- broke down and told the police where to find Rishi. This was there first kidnapping and the duo ran two unsuccessful restaurants, Chakori and Feeder 2000. They decided to make up for their business losses by kidnapping a boy they noticed when they went into Kalinga Cables to buy some electrical appliances.

Once they got the shop's telephone number, the rest was easy. Amit just modulated his voice to make it sound like a girl's, and began wooing Rishi as Anjali.

When the police team lead by Additional Assistant Commissioner of Police (West), Sanjay Singh, stomed into the basement where Rishi was kept, the boy cringed in horror. Even after they took off the blindfold, all that he saw were plainclothesmen with guns in their hands. "Please don't kill me," he whimpered. It was only when one of them showed his identify card that it finally hit him. He was free.

Now, nearly two years later, Rishi is married with a daughter. But is he finally free of that nightmare? 'I still get depressed sometimes'' he admits. Though he goes go out alone, his family knows exactly where he is going. And of course, he doesn't take crank calls any more.

Kidnapping for ransom has become a thriving industry. Take the figures for New Delhi alone. From 32 reported cased in 1992, the number went up to 51 in 1995. One reason for this is that a large number of UP-based gangs such as the Satbir Gujjar, Mahender Fauji and the Tyagi gangs shifted their area of operation to Delhi.

"They did not start with kidnapping for ransom,'' explains Nikhil Kumar, Delhi's police commissioner. "Most graduated to kidnapping from being petty extortionists. From a local dada taking money for hafta to gang leaders specialising in kidnapping." Criminals like Om Prakash Srivastava, aka Babloo, who have perfected kidnapping to a fine art come into a different category.

The victims are easy to identify, especially in a city like Delhi where those who have cash, flash it. The kidnappers usually identify the victim -- usually the son and heir of the family business. And the child is intercepted at gunpoint while driving out somewhere. "Most businessmen put in all kinds of security gadgets in their houses, but neglect to safeguard themselves when they are out on the road,' says S N Srivastava, deputy commissioner of police (southwest Delhi). And the reason whey they prefer to take the sons rather than the wives? "The women act as the catalyst to make sure the ransom is paid soon," says Srivastava.

In most cases, the ransom is paid and the boy returns home. When the police try to question him, they are told that 'it was a mistake. The kidnappers had picked up the wrong boy. So They let him free.' And the ransom? There is usually outraged indignation and a hot denial.

There are two reasons for this. One is, the families have no faith in the police. They would rather pay the money than risk losing the child. And they feel that the police would rather catch criminals than save the victim. "This is totally incorrect," asserts Maxwell Pereira, additional commissioner of police, (south Delhi). "Our first priority is the safety of the victim. That is why we even let the families pay the ransom money. We don't move in until the kidnapped person has been returned."

This is something that is reiterated by Deepak Mishra, DCP, west Delhi. He handled the Rishi Sethi and also the Arpan Paliwal case. "Not for once did we doubt that Rishi's safety would not be his first priority." says Kulbhushan Sethi.

The second reason for not bringing in the police is the black money angle. Once the police get involved, the case is publicised and so is the ransom amount. "Even if the child is not home, there is one person who will be knocking at your door for sure -- and that is the income tax authorities," says Inspector Raman Lamba. "Take the S L Pawa case,' he adds. (Pawa, a Greater Kailash-based hotelier, was kidnapped by the Babloo Srivastava gang and returned after a ransom of Rs 10 million had been paid).

Pawa had made a statement to the police that he paid a ransom. But every time his case comes up for hearing, revenue officials also land up in court. "In such a situation, why should he admit to having paid ransom?' asks Lamba.

And this is the catch. Though the Supreme Court amended Section 364(A) of the Indian Penal Code in 1993 and made kidnapping for ransom punishable by death, this has brought little relief. "It has not been awarded to anyone yet,' says Mohan Gupta, a businessman whose son was kidnapped in 1995.

These days, with kidnappers having realised that they are most vulnerable even when they go to pick up the ransom money from remote parking lots or even dense jungles in UP, most now opt for the hawala route. As a result, no one is ready to admit to having paid ransom. Or having been kidnapped for that matter.

Another problem faced by the police is a new ruling which makes it essential for the police to get permission both from the Supreme Court and the home ministry before they can tap the telephone at the house of the victim. Moreover, after the Babloo Srivastava casse, kidnappers are also aware of the fact that even cellular phones can be tapped and so they have become all the more cautious.

''Things have improved since 1995,'' asserts Nikhil Kumar. The reason for this is that over 16 of the UP-based gang-leaders have been either wiped out in encounters with the Delhi police or are now behind bars. Such as the Gujjar gang. ''Gujjar's name was enough to make people pay up," says Dharmender Kumar.''All he had to do was call up and make a threat. He did not even have to kidnap the victims."

But that does not explain the recent spate of kidnappings in the capital. "At least give us credit that we have solved all the cases that were reported to us and brought the victim back safely," says Nikhil Kumar

Sometimes even when the kidnappers are caught, they go scot-free. As in the case of Narender Shingla, the owner of Alisha Shoes. Shingla was kidnapped and tortured a couple of years ago. He reportedly paid up Rs 200, 000 for his release. But when the time came for him to identify his kidnappers in the test identification parade, he just refused to do so. ''If you insist, I will jump off the roof,'' he told the police.

Although the anti-kidnapping cell has a library of sound recordings where they can match voices of 'known kidnappers' and other such data, they still need the co-operation of the victim's family. "Often the family does not tell us when they receive a call to pay ransom, or whatever renegotiations are going on'' says Mishra. The reason for this is, of course, a lack of trust in the police.

''I trusted the police and I have no regrets,'' says Mohan Gupta, and added that his perception of the police was very different from what he found. Gupta had initially paid off the ransom, but when his son did not return he got desperate and only then called in the police. "The minute Dharmender Kumar heard the kidnappers voice, he asked me if I knew someone in Meerut as the voice sounded as if the person came from that area,'' says Gupta. "The name I took turned out to be the kidnapper's brother."

Gupta's son was one of the lucky ones. He was not mistreated by his captors. Rishi Sethi was not so lucky. But at least he returned home alive.

For a price, of course.

 

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