Where kidnapping is a way of life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 September, 2007, 12:00am

Akash Pandey, 12, was cycling along a busy lane to school one hot, bright morning early last month when a group of men knocked him from his bicycle and bundled him into the back of a green utility vehicle. Hours later, his father received a call on his mobile phone informing him of the abduction.

Although his family was not especially wealthy - Mr Pandey is a laboratory assistant in a public health department - the case was less shocking than it might have been, for the simple reason that it took place in the city of Patna. The capital of India's northeastern state of Bihar, Patna has fast become known as the kidnap capital of the country.

In the past 12 months, a staggering 5,000 people have been kidnapped in Bihar, 2,217 of them in the first half of 2007.

Although there is nothing new about kidnappings in the state that has long had the unhappy distinction of being India's most lawless and crime-plagued, the figure shows an alarming rise in abductions. Between 1992 and 2004, about 30,000 people here were abducted for ransom.

The latest figure was compiled by the Patna High Court, from reports submitted by district judges, but the real number is probably higher: kidnappers often threaten to return and take another family member if the authorities are alerted.

Today, kidnappings in Bihar are among the few regional crime stories that make it into India's national English-language newspapers, publications that tend to report on issues close to the hearts of the middle classes in the booming cities, of which Patna is certainly not one.

But the nation is gripped by the fact that practically every day, and certainly every week, someone in Bihar is picked off the streets by armed thugs seeking ransom payments that range from 10,000 rupees (HK$1,900) to several million.

Take the day that Akash was kidnapped. That morning, seven-year-old Saurah Kumar, son of a businessman, was abducted from a park by a man on a bicycle. The following day, it was the turn of Narayan Kumar, 10. The day before, the daughter of a judge in Patna disappeared from a train on the way home from her honeymoon.

They have not been seen since.

Bihar, a state on India's fertile Ganges plain, which shares a border with Nepal, should be famous as the home of Buddhism, a religion synonymous with peace. It was here that prince-turned-spiritual-leader Gautama Siddartha attained enlightenment 2,500 years ago and became known as the Buddha.

It is also the birthplace of Jainism, a small but influential religion in India that was established by Mahavira, a contemporary of Buddha, near Patna in the sixth century BC.

Instead, Bihar is notorious for being India's most dangerous state. Few tourists or pilgrims - who would otherwise travel in droves to visit its many pilgrimage sites - venture into Patna.

Many cite corruption as the cause. Police sources say almost all political parties in Bihar make use of criminals and thugs to win elections and that the nexus between them - and the police - has virtually eradicated the rule of law.

The problem is not peculiar to Bihar. After the Supreme Court ordered all politicians to declare their 'criminal antecedents' in 2003, it emerged that at least 100 of India's 545 members of Parliament had 'criminal backgrounds'.

But in Bihar, where corruption permeates every aspect of life, its effects have been especially grim.

Though the state is the third-largest in India, it has attracted little of the investment or industry that has fuelled the country's economic boom. Unemployment rates are high.

Outside Patna, most Biharis still survive on subsistence agriculture, although many fail even at that. More than half of the state's under-fives are malnourished, compared with 47 per cent nationally. It is said that much of the subsidised food meant to feed them is stolen and sold by officials. Illiteracy rates run at more than 50 per cent and per capita incomes are half of India's national average.

Shaibal Gupta, director of the Asian Development Research Institute in Patna, say that Bihar's poverty is also a historical legacy - rural Bihar remains a feudal society where caste barriers are rigidly enforced and landowners live in huge houses while their workers live nearby in mud huts.

'Agriculture has not developed here at all,' he says. 'Elsewhere, the rates of return are too low to encourage investment.'

Into this opportunity vacuum, kidnapping has emerged as one of Bihar's few growth industries.

Unsurprisingly, it has also become the focus of much political discourse.

When Nitish Kumar, an engineer-turned-politician, was sworn in as chief minister of Bihar in November 2005, ending the 15-year rule of the maverick lower-caste ruler Lalu Prasad Yadav, he said that good governance was his 'first, second and third priority'.

His coalition, including Hindu nationalists, had come to power on voter anger over kidnappings and murders as well as slow economic development in the state. Last weekend, Mr Lalu - who is now the national railways minister, a job he has excelled at - launched a scathing attack on Mr Kumar's government and its failure to stem the rising tide of violent crime.

'During my regime, too, children were kidnapped,' he said, in an unlikely boast. 'But now, the kidnapped children are being killed.'

In May, an MP from Mr Lalu's party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, was found guilty by a Bihar court of the 1999 abduction of one of his rivals, the communist politician Chhote Lal Gupta.

The MP, Mohammad Shahabuddin, is also being tried in dozens of other cases, including murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, stealing vehicles and electricity, possession of illegal firearms, and violating the wildlife act.

The corruption that has fuelled Bihar's kidnapping industry also means that for the families of kidnap victims, the law offers little comfort.

The police force in India is seen as being a law unto itself, with some of its members quick to resort to corruption and brutality, especially when dealing with poor or low-caste people.

Bihar, again, suffers from this more than any other state. Earlier this month, a drunk, upper-caste policeman killed two low-caste girls by throwing them into a river for stealing firewood from his orchard.

Meanwhile, footage of another policeman who punished a suspected thief by beating him, tying him to a motorcycle and dragging him along until he fell unconscious was flashed across India's television news channels recently.

In the absence of effective police protection, people are taking drastic measures to protect their families from the kidnapping gangs.

Hundreds of prosperous families have moved from the state, or sent their children to boarding schools outside it. The result is that schools are emptied of teachers, hospitals of medical staff and fields and building sites of labourers.

Many of the wealthy families that remain have begun to take out insurance against kidnapping, a financial service more commonly associated with countries like Colombia - where more people are kidnapped than anywhere else in the world - or exceptionally high net worth individuals.

In Bihar, the middle classes are buying ransom and kidnap policies that cover expenses from hiring special negotiators and paying ransoms to trauma counsellors.

Insurance cannot, of course, cover every eventuality.

Although the vast majority of kidnappings are undertaken to extract large sums of money from the well-off, in a state where kidnapping is becoming a fact of life, permutations on the classical model are emerging.

Bihar's kidnap gangs, for example, no longer prey on only the rich. There have been reports that men earning as little as 100 rupees a day have been presented with a nasty choice: death or crippling lifetime instalments of cash.

Few cases like this are likely to be reported to the police, say human rights groups. And nor is kidnapping done only for money these days.

In the recent floods that marooned millions across south Asia, the already unfortunate sufferings in Bihar were particularly acute: 6,000 villages were submerged, 2 million made homeless and more than 500 died.

In one district, frustrations were taken out in what was becoming a depressingly familiar manner in Bihar: a mob kidnapped a senior official and the local police chief and released them only after they promised to set up an aid distribution centre.

Akash Pandey, meanwhile, is still missing. 'We have little faith of the police finding him,' a relative told a local newspaper. 'Only God can help us.'