Murder at Cuffe Parade
After three gruesome murders, the Mumbai cops have collected 1000-plus DNA samples, with devastating social consequences for the people caught on ‘suspicion’ without any direct evidence
Gajanan Khergamker Mumbai
In South Mumbai’s poverty-stricken slums, with its share of bootleggers, drug addicts and petty criminals, there’s apparently a child rapist-cum-killer on the loose. Three girls, all below three, were kidnapped and raped by a maniac who smashed the lifeless bodies with rocks before abandoning them. The bestiality happened between October 2011 and April 2012.
Two of the bodies were recovered at the same grassy patch where an erstwhile slum was demolished, both within months, even as the police seem to pin the blame on just about anyone remotely connected. The third, of two-and-half-year-old Angel, was recovered from the sea off Cuffe Parade within hours of her disappearance.
Surprisingly, the police went on a campaign to systematically intimidate the parents, guardians and complainants by forcing them to undertake DNA tests to disprove their complicity in the crimes. In what turned out to be a transparent antithesis of justice, even the scared-to-death guardians of the victims found themselves at the receiving end of police high-handedness.
Angel’s mother, father, grandfather, uncles, a ‘minor’ niece, even a septuagenarian great grandmother, were summoned endlessly by the police who would arrive at their homes, at any hour of the day or night, in plain clothes that swiftly prevented any questioning of their intervention, and ‘interrogated’ the family. They would also be called over to the police station at odd hours.
The males of the entire family, like several others in the locality, were forced to undergo DNA tests to disprove their involvement. The police then went on to flood the state-run Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) in Kalina with samples, and, predictably, blamed the delay in results for the delay in their investigations. Officers probing the murders claimed that investigations were being hampered as DNA results of ‘suspects’ were taking too long.
Surprisingly, the police collected more than 1,000 blood samples of ‘suspects’ dodging serious concerns of consent and contamination that could ultimately thwart legal prosecution. Even before the controversial Human DNA Profiling Bill, 2012, gets passed and turns into a law, the recent acts of a reckless police force offers a peep into a rather scary future for Mumbai’s citizens.
The fears are palpable as people risk being ‘codified’ and ‘tabulated’. The tests being arbitrary are questionable, whose findings are likely to be quashed in court.
The ‘examination’ includes tests of blood, blood stains, semen, swabs in case of sexual offences, sputum and sweat, hair samples and fingernail clippings using modern and scientific techniques, including DNA profiling and other tests, which the registered medical practitioner (RMP) thinks necessary in a particular case. A RMP should possess medical qualification as defined in clause (h) of Section 2 of the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956 and whose name has been entered in a State Medical Register. However, neither are the ‘suspects’ arrested, nor is the use of force justified. The arrest will be considered ultra vires and an instance of police excess.
There is a critical view that the tests tend to ostracise suspects. On the face of it, taking more than 1,000 blood samples for DNA testing to pinpoint a killer is excessive. Albert, Angel’s granduncle, was subjected to a DNA test just because “everyone had to do it”. He found himself facing severe ostracism within the slum and among his own friends for “suspicion of having committed the crime”.
Albert’s brother and Angel’s great grandfather James, who worked with a bank at Nariman Point on a temporary basis as a house-keeping assistant, lost his job. “I had to keep going to the Cuffe Parade police station where they would ask me the same questions again and again, even force me to confess to having committed the offence or get my mother — Angel’s great grandmother - to confess having ‘sold’ the child to the rapist-murderer,” says James. “With the police involved, which employer will keep me? I was told, very politely, that there was no more work for me and they would call me if needed,” he says. “Obviously, who would want to keep a ‘suspect’
Angel’s second granduncle, Dexter, who has a wife and daughter dependent on his income, was made to undergo a DNA test and put through the regular grill of repeated interrogation. Every passing day, he would be either called to the police station or asked his whereabouts on the phone. “I was asked to leave my job in a multinational bank where I worked as office help,” he maintained. “That I lost my job and developed health problems did not matter to the police at all. They still come over to my house to ‘question’ me,” rues Dexter, who is finding it difficult to make ends meet.
Angel’s mother Suzan, after being hounded by the police outside her house, on the road, at work, almost lost her job and is struggling to keep it intact. “If I switch off the phone at work, they have a problem with it,” she rues. “The police insist, you have to come whenever called,” she says, at her wit’s end.
Despite having suffered a personal loss, the family finds itself on the receiving end. Scores of others and their families working as part-timers in the area have lost their jobs and continue to face discrimination owing to the arbitrary DNA testing and constant police badgering.
DNA profiling was first initiated by the United Kingdom which was the first to establish a criminal justice DNA databank. Crucially, there was a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision on the violation of the right to privacy and family life by DNA profile retention in criminal justice databanks. The case was heard on February 27, 2008, and 17 judges delivered a unanimous decision on December 4, 2008.
The court found that the “blanket and indiscriminate nature” of the power of retention of fingerprints, cellular samples and DNA profiles of persons suspected but not convicted of offenses, failed to strike a fair balance between competing public and private interests and ruled that the UK had “overstepped any acceptable margin of appreciation” in this regard. Evidently oblivious, a national DNA databank is being proposed in India on the footsteps of UK. Police excesses, as charged by Mumbai’s rape-murder ‘suspects’ and the ‘indiscriminate almost overwhelming’ DNA testing only vindicates the European Court of Human Rights’ decision.
The contention here is that once a person’s DNA is collected, he is often held under suspicion and presumed ‘guilty’ by neighbours, friends and colleagues. By the time the DNA test’s results are revealed, serious harm is done to the person’s reputation and social/professional life. It almost translates into a presumption of guilt until proved innocent.
Indeed, during investigations, the police reportedly came to South Mumbai’s Sassoon Docks from where one of the girl victims was kidnapped. “They arrived one day after the murder and asked our manager to send all of us to get our DNA tests done, if we haven’t got them done already,” says Sassoon Dock worker Anwar Shaikh. None of the workers got their blood tests done. They took the matter as casually as the police ‘invitation’.
Hotel housekeeping employee ShekharKamble, who lives in ShivShakti Nagar, Cuffe Parade, from where another girl was kidnapped, was called to the police station along with his friends a week after the second murder occurred. They were called several times to different police stations and taken for DNA testing in Nagpada Police Hospital. “I still don’t know the result of my DNA test,” says Shekhar.
Uncannily, many ‘orchestra players’ claim that they have been compelled to undergo DNA tests. GirmalBhansode, who lives in ShivShakti Nagar, was made to undergo a DNA test at Nagpada Police Hospital along with about eight other members of his troupe. Bhansode and his friends are still in the dark over the DNA results. None of them, like the 1,000-odd others, are aware of the fact that they could have legally refused to comply with the police request for DNA testing.
The principle of ‘presumption of innocence’ maintains that even if a thousand guilty persons go free not a single innocent person should be wrongly convicted. However, here, the adverse appears to be true with devastating social consequences. The suspects are ‘presumed guilty’ till the tests prove their innocence.