When the first call came, Anshul Gupta was dead to the world. It was 7.50am on Tuesday 2 February, 2010. Normally, Gupta would have been showered and suited by this time. He was, and is, a wealthy man with a senior position in a multinational coal-mining firm, and he did not ascend India’s corporate ladder by mooching around the house all morning. But on this particular day – his daughter’s sixth birthday, as it happened – he had been struck low by jet lag after a business trip to Chicago, and had decided to give himself a lie-in.
Gupta was woken by the wail of his jaunty ring tone. Having glanced at the caller ID, he answered. His driver, an imposing Sikh man named Jaspal Singh, spoke urgently. “Kidnap,” he said. “Madam and the children have been kidnapped.” Gupta’s jet lag evaporated. With the phone still pressed to his ear, he leapt out of bed and ran downstairs in his pyjamas.
Singh explained that he had been driving Gupta’s wife, Vandana, and their two children – eight-year-old Arush and six-year-old birthday-girl Karishni – to their private school in one of the family’s stable of cars: the stately white Ambassador. They had left the house just after 7.30am. Fifteen minutes into the journey, four saloon cars hemmed in the Ambassador, forcing the driver to brake hard. As he stopped, between nine and a dozen men carrying pistols surrounded the family, and ordered Singh to leave the vehicle. Reluctantly, he did so. The kidnappers then drove Vandana and the children away. Singh immediately phoned his boss to deliver the news.
So began the longest day of Gupta’s life.
At the time of the kidnap, the Gupta family lived in an apartment in Gurgaon, a city on the outskirts of Delhi that seems to encapsulate everything that is bold and thrilling and terrifying about India today.
Indeed, Gurgaon has risen in two decades from a village of fields and cows to a dysfunctional metropolis of garish malls, potholed roads, mirrored-glass office blocks, faulty sewers and one and a half million residents. It is the kind of place where, a local journalist tells me, new-money teenagers, chauffeur-driven past roadside beggars to the nightspotdu jour, have been known to light cigarettes with burning 500 rupee notes.
Despite the trauma he suffered here, Gupta – who is 45 years old, short and fleshy – still lives in Gurgaon. But, since the kidnap, he has moved from his apartment to a larger, more secure house in a quieter part of the city. Gupta was educated expensively in India and New York, but his accent is more Cotswolds country squire than east-coast Brahmin, and he speaks with the magniloquence of a man accustomed to being listened to. The story he tells, meanwhile, is rich in self-aggrandising detail. While there’s no reason to doubt the main planks of the narrative, it’s worth remembering that the account that follows is based largely on Gupta and his driver’s recollections, as well as contemporaneous news reports and the notes of local journalists. The local police – for reasons that will be discussed later – have been uncooperative.
The cops were not always so shy. Indeed, when the kidnapping was first reported, the authorities could not have acted faster. Gupta explains to me, with some pride, that he is a man with political connections. One of his first reactions upon receiving Singh’s phone call, he says, was to call the commissioner of police for Haryana state and every MP he knew. Gupta says the duty officer immediately assigned seven squads to his case, because they knew that their careers depended upon the recovery of his family. Others have suggested that rapid and intense media interest in the case had greater impact on the speed with which the police reacted.
In any event, the detectives caught a break early. Vandana managed to fire a “three-second phone call” to Gupta from within the commandeered car, saying that she had been kidnapped and they were heading in the direction of Bhondsi, a bucolic spot on the outskirts of Gurgaon. By the time the first ransom demand came through, several minutes later, the police were at Gupta’s house. They advised him to agree to all the kidnappers’ demands – however outlandish.
So, when a man he had never spoken to before called his phone on a number he did not recognise and asked for £150,000 in rupees, Gupta said yes. When the police tried to call back this number, the line had been disconnected. Throughout the kidnap, the criminals used telephones for only one call each before discarding them. They also, Gupta later discovered, changed cars regularly. It was, he says, a “professional job”.
Fifteen minutes later, the phone buzzed again. “This fellow told me that the kidnappers had split into groups,” Gupta remembers. “He said, ‘My share is 20 lakhs [2,000,000 rupees, around £26,000]. And the chap I’m going to hand over your children to: his share is 20 lakhs as well. If you want to see your children, give us this money. And if we see anyone except you, your children are gone.'”
“I said, ‘How do I know my children are alive?’ For two seconds they brought my son to the phone. All he said was, ‘I’m with three men who have a gun to my head.’ I said OK.”
The line went dead.
Anshul Gupta’s story is astonishing, but not unique. In the bursting cities of the new India, kidnap for ransom is a growth industry. The Indian National Human Rights Commission estimates that – in a country of more than a billion people – around 60,000 children go missing every year. In Delhi alone, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of kidnapped children. The Delhi police commissioner reported 1,233 cases of kidnapped children in 2008. In 2010, there were 2,975. A representative from Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), a local charity that works on this issue, tells me that 2011 is set to be even worse. He says that more than five or six children go missing from the capital every day.
These figures, one imagines, would shock many educated Indians. Fear of kidnap is not something that gnaws at the collective unconscious of the country’s blossoming middle class. They have always thought of their unruly neighbour Pakistan as a kidnapper’s paradise, and, in many senses, they are right. One is much more likely to be kidnapped, or to have one’s children kidnapped, north of the border. But the signs are that India is not so far behind. Indeed, one British insurer now places India fifth on its international index of “kidnap risk” – ahead of Colombia.
Drill down into the statistics, however, and the real trend emerges. It’s not that India, or Indians, have suddenly discovered kidnapping. In hardscrabble, mostly agrarian pockets of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, criminal gangs have long milked money from the rich – either by kidnap or the threat of it. Meanwhile, a significant number of Indian children have for some time been trafficked into the sex and begging trades. What is interesting about the figures from Delhi is that they show kidnap for ransom is also now flourishing in the cities. And, even more startling, the practice has little to do with criminal gangs. The Delhi commissioner reported that around 90 per cent of those arrested for kidnap in 2009 were first-time offenders. In other words, they were trying their luck.
So, who might have tried their luck with Gupta? It was almost the first thing the police asked him. Did he have any enemies? Was he in debt? Who might have wished him harm?
A memory – or rather, two memories – came to him. The first was from New Year’s Eve, 2009. Gupta had just returned from a business trip. His driver had come to the airport in his Toyota SUV with his wife and children to meet him. On the drive home, Gupta received a call from an unknown number. The man on the other end made his point swiftly.
“He said, ‘Listen: your wife has been in touch with us asking us to assassinate you.'”
How does one respond to that? Gupta laughs. “Well, I said: ‘Who are you? And where are you calling from?’ Then I handed the phone to my wife, and said, ‘Listen, do you mind speaking to this fellow?’ And the minute my wife said hello he just hung up.”
The same man called back some minutes later and made his threat again. This time, Gupta took a note of the number and handed it to the police. They traced the call to a phone booth in Gurgaon. He heard nothing more on the matter.
The second memory came from two weeks later, on 15 January. Gupta recalls that he was packing his bags to travel to Chicago when he received a call from Sachin Bhardwaj – whom Gupta says he knew only passingly. Bhardwaj was a 29-year-old MBA graduate who had worked for some time for the mortgage division of Citibank, where Gupta was a private- banking client. Citibank’s external PR team later denied that Bhardwaj had ever worked for them, but Gupta insists their denials are bogus. The police said later that Bhardwaj had indeed worked at Citibank, where he met Gupta, before leaving to form his own company, which had accrued significant debts.
Gupta says Bhardwaj asked for a meeting that afternoon. Gupta accepted, somewhat puzzled, and asked if they might meet at his apartment building, as he was pressed for time. The young man then drove to the underground car park of Gupta’s apartment block, where the pair conducted a conversation while sitting in the driver and passenger seats of Bhardwaj’s beige Chevrolet Optra.
“This man made some very strange statements,” says Gupta. “First, he said, ‘You know, if you ever need a girlfriend or something, just let me know.’ Well, that just blew me away. And then he said: ‘If you ever need protection, I know a lot of muscle men around. I’ll organise protection for you.'”
Gupta says the first remark went in one ear and came out the other. The second, “stuck on my forehead”. He replied with venom.
“‘One’, I said, ‘I’m a very happily married man. Two, my company looks after me very well. Three, you see all those cars in the drive over there? They’re all mine. If I need anything, if I want anything, all I have to do is ask. Why should I ask you? Why do I need you? Who are you? As far as I know you are working for Citibank.'”
In the end, Gupta says he told Bhardwaj he would miss his flight if they talked any more, and tried to forget about the incident. He dismissed the episode as “nonsense”. But, two weeks later, with his wife and children kidnapped, and no other suspects on the horizon, this conversation suddenly seemed rather more significant. Gupta told the police about his strange dealings with Bhardwaj. They put the banker down as “suspect No.1”.
If Gupta was surprised that the prime suspect in his family’s kidnapping was a white-collar professional from broadly the same social class as him, he shouldn’t have been. One of the remarkable things about the rise in kidnappings, in Delhi at least, has been how respectable the perpetrators seem to be.
Take the case of Ram Arora, a five-year-old boy who was kidnapped from outside his private school earlier this year. He comes from Punjabi Bagh, a solid, middle-class area in the western suburbs of the city. His father, Shiv, is a good-looking, devout man with an imitation-jewellery business in Old Delhi.
Ram was stolen for a simple reason. He was the last child off the school bus, and he looked like easy pickings. Having lured the little boy to his car, the kidnapper scoured Ram’s schoolbooks to find his father’s mobile number. He then made two rather clumsy ransom calls, which Shiv dismissed as one of his friends playing a sick practical joke. It was only on the third call, when Ram was put on the phone, that Shiv understood the kidnapping was serious.
Ram was recovered later the same day, after Shiv agreed to pay the ransom money in exchange for his child. The police had been informed about the handover, and were poised to arrest the kidnapper as the transaction took place. But their target somehow caught wind of the ambush and took off, with Ram in the back of the car. He was only apprehended after a two-hour chase.
The police were astonished when they made the arrest. The culprit was a 26-year-old man named Milind Godi, who came from a wealthy family, had studied hotel management in London, and owned a car-parts factory in Rohtak, about an hour’s drive from Delhi. During his police interview, Godi said that kidnapping Ram was a means to make some quick cash to settle gambling debts – and was, he admitted shamefully, inspired by the plot of a Bollywood film.
In truth, Godi did not have the stomach for such a high-stakes game. In the hours following the kidnap, he had treated Ram to a day at the mall, where he bought him sandwiches and his favourite sweets. He also allowed Ram’s father to negotiate the ransom down from his opening demand of 25 lakhs to six lakhs in the space of a few hours. When he was arrested, later that evening, it was no great loss to Delhi’s underworld.
Godi, though, is far from the only part-timer trying his luck at kidnap. In Chirag Dilli, a village overtaken by the raw sprawl of South Delhi, I meet a scruffy, amiable 12-year-old boy named Ashish Sherawat, who had been kidnapped only ten days previously. On the evening of 2 August, he had been sent by his father to buy sweets from the local market. When he did not return within the hour, his family began looking for him. After two hours, they called the police. And after three, they received a ransom call.
Ashish’s family is a model of aspirational middle-class India. His father, Shravan, works in a low-paid clerical job. His uncle, Ravi, owns a small timber business. They have high hopes for the next generation. Ashish tells me that he is studying hard so that he can become the first doctor in his family.
Shravan says that when the ransom call came through – for 20 lakhs [about £26,000; nearly four times what he earns in a year] – he went into a “blackout” of distress. Nobody in the family slept that night. The police, meanwhile, had tracked the mobile used to make the ransom call to a village outside Delhi.
Some hours later, on the morning of 3 August, the kidnappers panicked. Believing the police were on their trail, they decided to kill the child by pushing him into a well. It was a callous, but common decision. A significant number of children are murdered by their captors in similar circumstances.
Luckily for Ashish, it was monsoon season, and his fall was cushioned by several feet of water and sludge. When a villager eventually found and rescued him, he was distressed, bruised, but essentially unharmed. And, when the same villager called the police to tell them that Ashish was safe, his father cried tears of joy.
Shravan’s mood darkened, however, when Ashish told him who had kidnapped him. One of the men was their neighbour, Sachin Kumar, from two doors down – a family friend whom Ashish knew well enough to call “Uncle”. Later, it would transpire that Kumar had conspired with a friend named Mohit. The kidnappers were hardly desperate. Kumar owned a small electrical business that was running with some debts. Mohit wanted some fast cash to build himself a new house.
Shravan seems like a placid, quiet man. But when he discovered Kumar’s involvement, he was overtaken by primal urges. “At that moment,” he says, “I could have killed him.”
Gupta did not want to rely on luck, or the gods, or the weather to save his family. He had spoken to his son, and his son had a gun to his head. He wanted to pay the ransom. Worried that the police would try to intercept the kidnappers and botch the job, he decided to make a cash exchange for his family without telling them his plan. Quietly, he made his excuses and left the building.
Having borrowed his neighbour’s black Honda (believing, possibly correctly, that his cars were being monitored), he went to his local bank branch and asked the manager to empty the tills. He put the cash in a scruffy holdall in the boot of the car. Almost immediately after he had done so, Gupta says he received a call from the kidnappers.
“They said, ‘So, you’ve gone to the bank. Have you taken the cash?’ Obviously someone was informing them of my movements. Then, they gave me the location. It was in the middle of nowhere, in the agricultural area outside Gurgaon. They said, ‘You better make sure you are driving alone. And you are carrying the bag alone.’ I said, ‘Will you hand the children to me?’ They said yes.”
Once Gupta had found the address, he left the car, and trudged across muddy fields to the rendezvous. A short, dark-skinned man came out of “a kind of straw hut”. Gupta assumed his children were inside. He handed over the money to the dark-skinned man, and asked him to count it. The man said he didn’t need to bother. “I know you’ve been to the bank,” he said.
Gupta asked where his children were. The kidnapper said he did not have them. He said Gupta’s payment had guaranteed their temporary safety. Indeed, this man told Gupta that his 40 lakhs had only ensured that the children had been passed to the next team “without us putting a bullet in their heads”.
“I almost fell down in shock when I heard that,” says Gupta. “I was not concerned about the money. At that point it was my children. I didn’t ask about my wife, nothing. I just said, ‘How do I get my children?’ He just said, ‘The next man will deal with you.'”
Gupta trudged back to his neighbour’s car and threw away his ruined shoes. He returned to his apartment, desolate and sock-footed. The police were angry that Gupta had left without informing them of his whereabouts. He decided not to tell the police about the abortive ransom payment, for fear they would drop his case.
Meanwhile, there was some good news: his wife Vandana had been found. Shortly after the kidnappers had made off with the family, she had been pushed from a moving car. The reasons they did so are still unclear, but they may have wanted her to communicate the terms of the ransom. When a local man found her by the side of the road in rural Haryana, she was bruised, cut and shaken. The same man took her to his nearest police station, whose officers drove her home. By the time Vandana was reunited with Gupta at the apartment, she was crying for her children.
Gupta made his wife a promise: whatever happened, he would recover the kids.
But how? Hours passed. Gupta received neither news nor fresh demands. Eventually, the police decided to take him and Vandana into the station to inspect mug shots of known local criminals, to see if they recognised anyone. On the way, Gupta says an officer asked again if he could think of anyone else other than this “Citibank fellow” who might have orchestrated the kidnapping. He said he was sure Bhardwaj was their man.
It was, by now, the afternoon. By then, says Gupta, plain-clothes officers were outside Bhardwaj’s apartment. Gupta says he asked one of them to enter, to see who was inside. This officer – an assistant commissioner of police – found Bhardwaj’s wife, Neha, and his one-year-old son in the apartment. (This differs from the official police account, which states that officers had conducted negotiations with Bhardwaj’s wife since 9am.)
According to Gupta, an extraordinary exchange followed. He says that the officer, acting on instructions that Gupta passed on by mobile phone, started to question Neha. She denied that her husband had anything to do with a kidnapping. He was, she said, “at work”. Gupta says this claim was rebutted immediately. The police had been working with Citibank security in order to locate Bhardwaj (another reason, says Gupta, to believe that he was working at the bank at the time). After negotiating with Neha for some time, Bhardwaj’s mother-in-law also came back to the flat. The officer asked her to stay.
Gupta was desperate, and in a dark mood. He says he told the officer to do exactly as he said. He asked him to take Neha’s son from her arms, and to put a gun to the child’s head. After some hesitation, the officer agreed. Gupta then asked him to threaten Neha. He told the policeman to tell the terrified woman that unless her husband returned the children he had kidnapped, he would shoot her dead – along with her child and mother. Apparently, Neha called her husband and related this message.
This section of Gupta’s narrative is, frankly, hard to swallow. But the businessman insists it is accurate. Why would this policeman have taken such wild instructions from a civilian? “Because he knew his job was over if he did not,” says Gupta.
The police, naturally, have not conceded Gupta’s version of events. When SS Deswal, the commissioner of Haryana police, was asked whether one of his men held a gun to a child’s head in order to force a conclusion to the kidnapping, he said he could not comment on Gupta’s account. Foreign journalists, he added, often tried to “malign” India with such stories. Gupta’s children, he said, “were recovered after thorough investigations”.
But Bhardwaj’s wife appears to substantiate Gupta’s claims. She told a respected Gurgaon journalist, Sanjeev Ahuja, that the police put “mounting pressure” on her to persuade her husband to return the Gupta children. Although the pressure to which she refers was the threat of prison, rather than death, it shows the risky position the police were willing to take on behalf of a desperate, rich and powerful man.
Whatever was actually said, it had an electrifying and catalytic effect on the kidnap negotiations.
Not everyone has the luxury of calling in such favours when disaster strikes. In the seething back streets of Old Delhi, where electricity cables droop perilously from makeshift pylons and the smell of fried butter hangs in the air, I meet a family whose little girl was snatched at a wedding in 2009. She has never been found.
Teyba Nadeem Khan was three years old when she went missing. In the cool, spacious living room of her old home, a picture of her is stuck to a cabinet. It shows her in a pretty dress, staring directly at the camera, with her hand under her chin. Her grandmother, Sultana, tells me that Teyba had accompanied the family to a photography studio about one month before her kidnap. The adults were planning a pilgrimage to Mecca, and they needed new passport photographs. Teyba was not going on the trip, but did not want to miss out on the fun. She demanded to have her own portrait taken.
“She was lovable,” says Sultana who, throughout our interview, speaks for the whole family. “She liked people, even strangers. We used to be angry with her. We used to tell her she was too trusting.”
Although Sultana insists that the family has not given up hope, it is telling that she uses the past tense to describe her granddaughter. There have been few leads in the case. The police, she says, have been worse than useless. In the days immediately following the kidnap, Sultana says that armed officers would not check areas of the city known to be frequented by traffickers because they were “too scared”. The family were forced to hunt for the girl themselves. Unsurprisingly, they were unsuccessful.
The police have long since given up the case. But, earlier this year, through sheer doggedness, Sultana secured a meeting with the head of the local Delhi government, who has ordered the national Central Bureau of Investigation to restart the inquiry.
It may now be too late. The first hours after a kidnap are crucial to the outcome. When I ask Sultana what she thinks about her treatment, compared with that of wealthier victims, it is the only time in our lengthy conversation that she weeps. “It’s sheer injustice,” she says. “These people have money and influence, so they get their kid back.”
Despite such stories, India is not consumed by the rise in kidnappings. The disease has not yet become an epidemic, and, in any event, its journalists and politicians have bigger fish to fry: the corruption of public officials, the terror threat, and, most importantly, the management of the economy. But to an outsider, the growth in this area of crime provides an insight into a country that will soon become – if it is not already – one of the most significant players on the world stage.
It is tempting to think that the causes of this disquieting trend are obvious. India is a wildly unequal country undergoing transformative changes. On the one hand, its economy is growing at a rate of around eight per cent a year. Last year, the nation reported a record 55 billionaires, and it has its own space programme. On the other hand, it suffers levels of poverty that would shock the nations of sub-Saharan Africa. According to a recent report by India’s National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), around 77 per cent of Indians, or 836 million people, live on less than 50 cents a day. Meanwhile, the Indian government estimates that 37 per cent live below the poverty line. It all depends on how you define poverty. Either way, in a country where food inflation is racing at 10-20 per cent, hundreds of millions of people are locked in a daily struggle for survival.
Given these statistics, it would be easy to draw obvious conclusions about kidnap. India is unequal, therefore poor people kidnap rich people for profit. The stories of families who have recently suffered at the hands of kidnappers, however, do not ratify that analysis. Many children seem to be kidnapped not as a last resort by the desperately impoverished, but as a stopgap by the moderately well-off.
Indeed, when you ask the families of those who have been kidnapped what they believe is behind the trend, they answer almost as one. “It’s easy money,” says Sultana. “Everyone wants short-cut cash,” says Shravan.
“People want to earn money fast,” says Shiv. “Our ancestors worked hard. These days people want easy money.”
Inspect the profiles of the culprits in the kidnap-for-ransom cases, and you can see their point. Professionals are kidnapping the children of other professionals. Lower middle class is kidnapping lower middle class. The trend seems to be fuelled more by jealousy and acquisitiveness than it is by desperation – a weird by-product of the affluenza currently gripping India as its economy swells.
“Children,” says Sultana, “have become commodities. Money has become more relevant in life, and children have become a way of making money.”
Pankaj Mishra, an author and essayist who writes incisively about the new India, broadly agrees. “The type of people who are doing this now in the big cities… it would have been an utterly taboo thing for them to do, just ten years back,” he says. “It would have been mostly hardened criminals or people working for criminal gangs who’d be doing this sort of thing. But the fact that people who are fairly well-off in the context of India are resorting to [kidnap] really points to a kind of desperation: about not being able to make it, about losing out, being left behind, about finding too many things that are desirable around you and not having the means to acquire them.
“They are thinking this is the soft option: kidnapping somebody and getting some money out of them. With the police being incompetent and corrupt, the chances of them being caught are fairly low. So you can think out that kind of a risk in a way that you wouldn’t have done ten years ago.”
Whatever happened between the police officer and Neha Bhardwaj, it had the desired effect. A few minutes after the final call was made between Sachin Bhardwaj and his wife, a rickshaw driver rang Gupta to tell him that he had his two unaccompanied children in his vehicle, and that they had asked him to call his number. Gupta says he asked to speak to one of the children. The rickshaw driver put his son on the line.
Eight-year-old Arush told his father what had happened. The kidnappers had let them out of the car they had been driving in – a beige Chevrolet Optra, the same car in which Gupta had sat and listened to Bhardwaj’s veiled threats two weeks previously – and had been handed over to a rickshaw driver who happened to be passing. This rickshaw driver had been told by the kidnappers to drive to the state border, where the children would be picked up by a “family member” – who was, presumably, another member of the kidnap gang. Later, Gupta deduced that Bhardwaj had been spooked by his wife’s call, and had decided that he needed to get the children out of his vehicle.
In any event, the kids were safe. Gupta arranged a rendezvous with the rickshaw driver, and drove as fast as he could through heavy traffic to reach his children. He found them, hugged them and hurried them to safety. They were struck dumb by their ordeal. The police took them into the station, but realised it would be useless to ask them too many questions in their catatonic state.
Bhardwaj was arrested later that night. His car was apparently laden with evidence of his involvement in the plot. For one, Gupta’s daughter Karishni had thrown up in the back of the Optra. Moreover, both the Gupta children’s school identification tags had fallen off and lodged between the back-seat cushions.
Since the kidnap, Vandana and the children no longer live in Gurgaon. Gupta says his children never want to come to Delhi again. But for Gupta himself, leaving makes no sense – he is close to the airport, and close to the capital. The family, then, have come to an unsatisfactory arrangement: Vandana lives with her sister and the children in a rural house “about 1,000km away from Delhi” (Gupta will not tell me where), while her husband continues his peripatetic business life. He sees the family every four to six weeks.
Gupta’s ordeal, he tells me, is not over. It has since emerged that Bhardwaj may have worked with a few known criminals to carry out his plot. Gupta says that, with the court case pending, he still receives offers of money and threats from the families of those who have been charged with the offence. Why? “To drop the case or to change my story,” he says. Now he lives in a large, stark, empty house, which he has fortified with metal cages, with huge padlocks on every door and cupboard.
On the evening of the day that changed his life, Gupta was looking forward to some rest. His family were safe, and the police had finished their questioning. They drove home to their apartment block. It was by now around 8pm. He returned to find a few of Karishni’s friends were waiting with their parents in their cars outside the building. At that moment, a thought hit him like a hammer blow. It was, he remembered for the first time since his driver had first called him with the news of the kidnap, his daughter’s birthday. There was meant to be a party.