India: Why are friends kidnapping friends?


New Delhi, India.


Sajjad Hussain

NEW DELHI, India — When 23-year-old Johnny Gupta disappeared last week, his friend Anoop Kumar was quick to offer support to the young civil engineer's parents — perhaps a little too quick.

A college classmate of Gupta's, Kumar was close with the whole family. He had recently stayed with them and attended the wedding of Gupta's older brother.

When the ransom call came in from Gupta's kidnappers, Kumar was there to comfort the family. And when the ransom call was over, it was Kumar who, according to the police, ducked out to call his partners and let them know how their demands had gone over.

Though a striking act of betrayal, Gupta's case is not an anomaly in India these days.

The kidnapping and murder — Gupta had already been killed at the time of the call, according to police — is only the latest in a string of such crimes committed against friends and family members. The spike in these crimes appears to be among middle- and upper-class young people, who many say are motivated to reap the benefits of India's fast-growing economy.

As a result, a debate has begun over whether these crimes can be seen as an unexpected cost of the country's headlong sprint for prosperity.

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“The motive is to get quick money,” Delhi police spokesman Rajan Bhagat told GlobalPost. “The risk to the victim's life is more when family members are involved, because the fear of their identity being revealed. They mostly kill before even making the ransom call.”

At the time of the call, Gupta's body was already buried in a shallow grave in west Delhi, interred with 90 pounds of salt meant to speed its decomposition. Gupta's mistake had been to brag to his so-called friends about a property deal that had netted his father a hefty sum.

"The accused strangled Johnny and then dumped his body in a grave they had dug a week back while planning the killing,” joint commissioner of police R.S. Krishnaiah told the Times of India after Kumar and two other suspects were arrested Friday.

Along with the kidnapping and murder of Gupta, in just the past three months, 16-year-old Shubham Shirke was allegedly abducted and strangled by three friends on March 31 in Pune, Maharashtra, and 18-year-old Ashish Garg was allegedly kidnapped and strangled by four friends in Delhi on March 22.

In addition, two friends kidnapped 28-year-old Rohit Ahlawat from Delhi and shot him in a sugarcane field in November last year.

“It is basically the frustration among the youth that in spite of education, in spite of other things, you are not having an outlet to earn your livelihood,” said Dr. Jayanti Dutta, a criminal psychologist who has studied youth offenders.

According to India's National Crime Records Bureau, overall incidents of kidnapping and abduction increased by nearly 70 percent over the past 10 years — with the crime more than five times likely in Delhi than the national average.

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But it's a certain type of case that makes headlines. Gruesome cases of friends, including schoolboys, kidnapping friends have been splashed across the front pages of Indian newspapers, sparking fears of societal disintegration in some quarters.

“The primary bond, the fundamentals of human relationships are breaking down,” Dutta, the criminal psychologist, said. “There's tremendous pressure to do everything fast. If you can get money, nothing else matters. There's no holding back."

Many say these crimes — along with others involving college girls turned prostitutes and engineers turned armed robbers to support what the newspapers invariably call “a lavish lifestyle” — reveal India's obsession with class and anxiety about the Westernization of today's youth. Others think that's too reductive a position.

“It's true that in Bollywood there have been many songs about making a fast buck over the past few years, and that certainly reflects something,” said Palash Mehrotra, author of "The Butterfly Generation," a book about life in new India.

“But these claims about the decline of morals sound like a kind of golden age argument, that earlier people were good and they paid their taxes and they cared about values. It just seems too simplistic,” he said.

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