They were barely making enough money to make ends meet. Every day was a struggle for Vinod and Mamta (names changed) trying to hold together their family of three.
On the morning of 15 May, the homeless couple woke up to a shock. Their four-year-old boy, who was sleeping next to them, was missing. The hapless couple went around looking for their son for two days before the police finally took cognisance. A First Information Report (FIR) under section 363 (kidnapping) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was registered at Bhelupur police station in Varanasi on 16 May.
A purported CCTV footage of the incident also surfaced on social media. The incident allegedly took place near Ramchandra Shukla crossing in the Bhelupur area in Varanasi on 14 May. In the poor resolution, 23-second-long purported CCTV footage, a man can be seen sneaking up to a couple sleeping with their child on a pavement along the road. He can then be seen lifting the child and decamping in a car.
This was the third case of child-lifting in the past two months which put the Varanasi Commissionerate police on its toes. Several police teams working round the clock finally landed on a breakthrough, busting a child-lifting gang with links to similar modules in Rajasthan and Jharkhand. Nine people, including two couples from Jharkhand who had bought the stolen children, have been arrested.
Abducted Children Sold For Rs 1.5 lakh - 5 lakh Each
Elaborating on the modus operandi, police claimed the gang would target poor families -- beggars and homeless forced to spend nights along the road or at other public places.
Investigating sleuths alleged that the abducted children, mostly up to the age of five years, were sold to childless couples for Rs 1.5-5 lakh each.
"A young, fair child would draw more money than older children with darker skin tone," Anand Chaurasia, a sub-inspector and investigating officer in one of three recent abduction cases in Varanasi, told The Quint.
CCTV Analysis Lands First Breakthrough
The disturbing incidents of child-lifting in Varanasi brought together 24 cops from three police stations -- Lanka, Bhelupur and Cantonment. Two separate teams of surveillance and crime branch were also pressed into action. Police teams raided several locations in Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Bihar in search of suspects linked to case.
As the probe gathered steam, police landed on its first breakthrough while analysing the footage from other CCTVs installed in the area.
"As we traced the movement of the car through other CCTVs, we managed to ascertain its registration number. Based on it, we located the driver Santosh Gupta and his aide Vinay Mishra who used to lift children," Santosh Kumar Singh, Additional Commissioner of Police (HQ and Crime), Varanasi commissionerate told The Quint.
Varanasi-Based Family Masterminded Interstate Operations
Following the arrest and subsequent interrogation of Santosh and Vinay, more skeletons tumbled out of the closet.
The larger operation of child-lifting and their alleged sale was being run by a Varanasi-based couple Shikha Modanwal (40) and Sanjay Modanwal, relatives of Santosh, who had links to similar child-lifting gangs in Rajasthan and Jharkhand. Santosh, Shikha and her husband Sanjay are residents of Shivdaspur area under Manduadih police station in Varanasi.
"Shikha's daughter is married to a family in Jaipur, Rajasthan. During her trips to Rajasthan, Shikha came in touch with a Jaipur-based child-lifting gang which had links with another gang in Jharkhand that used to facilitate trade of stolen children to childless couples for a hefty sum," Addl CP Santosh Kumar Singh said.
Senior police officers claim Shikha is the mastermind of the gang.
"From kidnapping the children to their trade to childless couples, she (Shikha) was the brain behind the operation. The gang is behind at least seven cases of child abduction in UP -- two in Prayagraj, two in Mirzapur and three in Varanasi. We will seek the police custody of the arrested accused to gather information on other children who were possibly abducted and sold by the gang," Addl CP Santosh Kumar Singh said.
Two couples -- Mukesh Pandit and Yashoda Pandit, residents of Hazaribagh in Jharkhand and Mahesh Rana and Sunita Devi, residents of Giridih in Jharkhand -- were arrested by the police for allegedly buying abducted children from the gang.
The children rescued from them have been reunited with their respective parents in Varanasi and Mirzapur, police said.