Guwahati has of late witnessed a spate of random, macabre and presumably motiveless murders. A suspected psychotic serial killer, dubbed as the infamous ‘stoneman’ from yesteryears, had hitherto, brutally murdered seven hapless pavement dwellers with impunity, critically injuring a few others in the process. What’s even worse is that this ‘stoneman’ could possibly be on the prowl for his next victim. Ever since the recovery of the body of 55-year-old mendicant, Kasem Ali, from the city’s Lakhtokia area on January 14, this suspecting maniac has been giving sleepless nights, not only to those hapless pavement dwellers, but even to the city police and concerned citizens as well.
The first Indian ‘stoneman’
Before delving deeper into this mysterious ‘stoneman’ of Guwahati, a brief peep into the history of the first Indian ‘stoneman’ and other such similar incidents becomes all the more necessary. The first ever incident of a ‘stoneman’ to have been officially recorded in police files, was about four and a half decades back. Raman Raghav, a mill worker turned petty thief, who gradually transformed himself into a grizzly psychopathic serial killer operating in the city of Mumbai, had bludgeoned to death nine pavement dwellers in the eastern suburbs of the city between 1965 and 1966. He struck again in August 1968, this time in the outskirts of Mumbai, where he committed a series of twelve brutal murders of poor beggars, by smashing their heads with a big boulder, while they slept. He was finally arrested by a team of Mumbai police, led by the then DCP (Crime), Ramakant Kulkarni. After spending several years in different jails, he finally died of kidney failure at the Sassoon General Hospital in Pune in 1987.
Again in the mid-1980s, another serial killer emerged in Mumbai, terrorizing the people of Sion, King’s Circle and Matunga. These killings, which started in 1983 gradually started to decline, and by the middle of 1987, totally stopped. Given the nickname ‘stoneman,’ he was not captured despite intensive efforts of the police.
The ‘stoneman’ struck again in the summer of 1989, this time in Kolkata. The first victim died from fatal injuries to the head in June 1989. Twelve more were killed from similar head injuries, either from a stone or a concrete slab, in the next six months as panic gripped the city. All the victims were pavement dwellers who slept alone in dimly lit areas of the city. To date, the crimes remain unsolved.
The Guwahati ‘stoneman’
The modus operandi of the spiraling ghoulish murders on the pavements of Guwahati, at least at face value, seems to be woven around a typically repetitive ‘hit, slash, smash and run’ pattern. This suspected marauding ‘stoneman’ would attack his sleeping victims, mostly mendicants dwelling on the city’s pavements at Sukreshwar Temple, Fancy Bazar and Panbazar, either in the dead of night or just before dawn. The criminal investigation department (CID) of the city police, investigating the case, has claimed to have cornered four suspects, out of which two have been arrested, although, they are yet to zero in on the actual ‘psychic serial killer’. Dilip Borah, IGP (CID), had already confirmed sometime back that, “the man behind the serial pavement killings was a psychopath.”
These serial murders, although seem to be presumably motiveless, yet a few implausible make-believe theories have been woven around them. One such theory doing the rounds is the prospect of human skeleton smuggling. But, if this theory is to be believed, then why didn’t the serial killer take away the body, soon after committing the heinous crime. It must, however, be mentioned here that eastern India, especially places like Siliguri, Jaigaon bordering Bhutan in Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district and Chhapra in Bihar, was once flourishing centres for the export of human skeletons. In 1985, the Indian government banned the export of human bones after human rights groups raised questions about how the bones were being collected, particularly in Northeast India, forcing the trade underground.
Another speculative theory puts the needle of suspicion on some fanatically obsessive tantric, who could have been easily lured to carry out human sacrifices to propitiate the gods and goddesses. But this theory too, doesn’t seem to hold any water, as none of the victims was neither beheaded nor were any of their body parts amputated. Then there is this theory that a group of goons with criminal proclivity may have been involved in the serial killing while forcibly collecting occupation tax or a type of hafta from these pavement dwellers. But this theory also seems unlikely, as such brand of nocturnal organized gangs openly pillaging and despoiling in the streets of Guwahati appears to be a bit far-fetched. The other theory of possible looting for valuables seems to be utterly absurd and mockingly outlandish, as these victims are very poor, living in abject poverty, who hardly can manage themselves even two square meals a day.
The pavement in the city’s Sukreshwar area seems to have the largest concentration of beggars, destitutes, rag pickers, senile sadhus and vagabonds, who have been residing here since decades. “When I first arrived here in 1980 as a supervisor, there was only a solitary lame beggar named Narayan, who incidentally died just last year, and a couple of old widows. But after 1987, their numbers gradually began to multiply,” said Robin Senapati, the present manager of the Janardan Devalaya, which is the main temple located at Sukreshwar. Joy Chandra Sarma, the present secretary of the same temple opined, “Although officially we have around 45-50 beggars on our rolls here at Sukreshwar, yet, owing to their floating nature, the numbers are actually around 75-80.”
The beggars of Sukreshwar not only had to bear the inexorable biting cold of the chilly winter nights of January and February under the open sky, but also had to spend them in constant fear, owing to the murderous misdemeanours of the psychic ‘stoneman’. But paradoxically, a close one-to-one with these homeless destitutes reveal a totally contrasting, yet heartbreaking tale. Sailen Das, a 52-year-old destitute had a very pathetic tale to narrate: “I was initially working as a cook in a hotel at Dimapur. But unfortunately, I got affected with tuberculosis and lost my job. I didn’t have the money for my medical treatment. So I decided to spend my life’s final days here and have been counting them since the last five years. This ‘stoneman’, is on the contrary, like a blessing for me. The sooner he kills me, the better.”
But there were others who were more realistic vis-à-vis their apprehensions. Kanak Kalita, a young 38-year-old paralytic and a former mason, who has been sleeping on the pavement at Sukreshwar for the last two years, said, “I am really petrified and not able to sleep at all. Ever since the attacks on us began to escalate, two police constables guard us every night. We also on our part, take turns to remain awake every night to protect ourselves.” Ali, a 60-year-old former rickshaw-puller said, “I have been here for the last ten years and never ever had we faced such a frightening reality. Even thunderstorms, rains, floods and bomb blasts were not able to dent our morale. But this ‘stoneman’ has really sent shivers down our spine. We don’t want to die.”
The palpable fears of these hapless beggars are quite obvious. The city police needs to quickly crack the case to prevent any further killings of innocent beggars. “The police should try to zero in on the suspect with the help of forensic experts. They should also get in touch with the police of states like Maharashtra and West Bengal, where such crimes took place earlier,” suggested Dr Jayanta Das, well-known psychiatrist. Whether or not, this serial killer is really the ‘psychopathic stoneman’ or someone else, only time will tell, once this case reaches its logical conclusion. The Guwahati ‘stoneman’ hitherto remains elusive, and his saga, an enigma. Whether or not, the CID of the city police is able to successfully take up this ‘serial challenge’ posed by the ‘serial killer’ remains to be seen.
Shaikh Md Sabah Al Ahmed