Wednesday, Aug 10, 2022

The Many Mobs Of Nithari

Responsible conduct by the police, media, politicians, 'experts' and public would bring inexorable pressure on the guilty, but would spare the innocent and their families from the trauma of unfounded demonisation.

The discovery of the horrific Noida or Nithari killings, followed by the recovery of the bodies of four children from an abandoned mill in Mukhtsar in Punjab in an unrelated case, have dramatically exposed the horror and insecurity that afflicts the children of the poor. These two cases also illustrate the gross distortions in police, public and media reactions to the discovery of such crimes.

It is useful to take the lesser case first. At Mukhtsar, there was no hysteria, no collection of large crowds, no descent, en masse, of attention seeking 'leaders'. The media was there, but briefings by the local Superintendent of Police were competent and created no scope for sensationalism and the whipping up of passions. The area was cordoned off till the arrival of experts from forensic laboratories, who carried out their technical search for clues. At least one TV channel did try to make an issue of the fact that the bodies were not removed immediately, but common sense suggests that a crime scene is best left untouched till all forensic evidence has been lifted, and bodies at the crime scene reveal evidence of the nature and perpetrator of the crime to a forensic examiner. Through all this, the SP clearly explained what the police was doing. The investigation was evidently carried out quietly and professionally; within days, a 'breakthrough' occurred.

The Noida case, by contrast, is a signal example of the worst of possible responses. Five different mobs descended on Nithari: the first was the actual mob of ruffians of both sexes who wanted to appear on TV to secure their 15 seconds of 'fame'. The second was the mob of reporters and electronic media teams, full of conjecture, unfounded theorising and outright invention -- in sum, totally unprofessional, irresponsible and, on occasion, provocative reportage. At one stage, a journalist from a leading newspaper wrote that 'pieces of human flesh' were removed from a tandoor in the house -- a claim that remained un-contradicted for a number of days thereafter. It is impossible to comprehend how pieces of flesh could be identified as human even before any tests were carried out. Once tested, these were found to be fish and meat.

The third was the mob of politicians. A large number descended on Nithari, accompanied by their armies of toadies and security personnel, shedding little light, but adding to the problems of security management in a situation already fraught with tension.

The fourth mob was of various 'experts', including retired police officers, psychologists, and random others, totally unafraid of venturing their opinions on a matter still under investigation, basing their sweeping judgements on media reports which were themselves prejudiced and derived from hearsay and speculation.

The fifth and most unforgivable mob was the rabble of totally unprofessional policemen. Some of them appeared on TV, not to disclose details of the case or the status of the investigation, but simply to give vent to their extreme prejudices. One police officer went to the extent of informing the media that "the Sardarji" had also been arrested, a gratuitous reference to the fact that one of the suspects, Moninder Singh Pandher, was a Sikh, a fact utterly extraneous to the crime or the investigation, and the more unwarranted in view of the consideration that Pandher wears his hair short and is not immediately identifiable as a Sikh. One cannot imagine a comparable situation where a responsible police officer would say that 'the Hindu' or 'the Muslim' or 'the Christian' had been arrested. This display of communal prejudice shows the degree to which police training is deficient, and reveals a deeply bigoted mind, something that would mark a very large number of police officers and men, right across the country. Far from bringing clarity and authority to the investigations, a stream of statements and unsubstantiated leaks from police 'sources' fed the prejudices of the multiple mobs at Nithari.

Worse, the police failed to effectively seal the crime scene and to protect crucial evidence, often leading media groups in trampling over the location. Despite the slow build-up of tensions and crowds, the police was unable to make adequate arrangements to protect the location, and it was disgraceful to see the supposedly 'frenzied' mob pelting stones and breaking into the house, visibly egged on by the presence of the media, destroying a substantial portion of evidence that may prove crucial in court.

The horror of the incidents at Nithari cannot be underplayed, and the media has a definite role in communicating this horror and in ensuring that investigations are not undermined by corrupt officers and possibly high connections of the accused. But it cannot be the role of the media to prejudge and sensationalise the issue. In the present case, the accused were subjected to a frantic 'trial by media', declared guilty and demonised. I am confident that, had either Pandher or Surinder Koli fallen into the hands of the 'public' in the early days after the discovery of the crimes, they would have been lynched. Published transcripts of the narco-analysis of the accused now suggest that Pandher may have been ignorant of the murders. The media must not become an extension of Bollywood.

Had the many mobs of Nithari not intervened to such effect, the investigations would have been more balanced, quicker and more effective, yielding a rock solid case against the perpetrator(s) of this outrage. More importantly, responsible conduct by the police, media, politicians, 'experts' and public would bring inexorable pressure on the guilty, but would spare the innocent and their families from the trauma of unfounded demonisation.

KPS Gill is former Director General of Police, Punjab and currently president, Institute for Conflict Management. This piece first appeared in the Indian Express.