Priest held for abducting Indian kids

2011-03-17 16:00

New Delhi - The priest's dream, police say, was a chain of Hindu worship centres across India, where boys in saffron robes would attract throngs of devotees.

They were also supposed to attract donations - lots of donations.

So the priest, Prem Dass, kidnapped boys as young as 10 years old, most of them from impoverished families living in Hindu pilgrimage towns, and brought them to New Delhi where he was training them to be preachers, according to police.

"He went after the vulnerable," said Deputy Commissioner of Police HGS Dhaliwal.

"He thought that if he had child 'godmen', then followers would flock to him and he'd be rich."

The 50-year-old priest, who insists he is innocent, was arrested earlier this month after one of the boys managed to telephone for help. Five boys were freed.

1000s children missing in India

It's a religious spin on a problem across India, where children - most often the children of the poor - disappear at alarming rates, with their cases rarely investigated by police.

Activists say as many as 60 000 children went missing in India in 2009, the last year for which estimates are available. As many as 6 500 disappeared that year just in New Delhi.

No one knows for sure where they go, or even precisely how many there are. Police in most Indian states are not required to track statistics on missing children unless there is proof that a crime has occurred. Activists say only middle-class families are normally able to press authorities into launching investigations.

Police say many of the disappeared are runaways fleeing abusive parents or brutal poverty. But some are kidnapped to be used as labourers, prostitutes - or preachers. And some are killed.

Every day, Indian newspapers publish photos of children who have disappeared, with appeals for help from their parents or the police.

There is normally a black-and-white photo, a basic description - "Age: 4 years; Height: 3 feet; Complexion: Fair" - and a phone number.

Most often, though, the calls never come.

Lax law enforcement

Activists say official police complaints are only registered in about 10% of missing children cases, and investigations are even rarer.

"There is a laxity in terms of law enforcement," said Bhuvan Ribhu of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or the Save the Childhood Movement, an aid group seeking more government focus on missing children.

"If the law is not enforced to create a deterrent, it is nothing but a piece of paper."

"Law enforcement, as well as the policy-makers, have not woken up to the urgency of the missing children," he said.

Every few years, the authorities pledge to take the problem more seriously, though such promises seldom result in much change.

Reform demands after bodies found

The most recent demands for reform came in 2006, when the New Delhi suburb of Noida was shaken by the grisly discovery of the bodies of 17 children, the victims of a sexual predator.

The case, which ended with the conviction of a local man and one of his household staff, did not attract police attention until the bodies were discovered - despite widespread knowledge among the neighbourhood's poor and working class that up to 38 children had disappeared over the past few years.

Families of many of those children said they had been turned away when they sought police help, often by police officers who insisted the children were simply runaways.

In the Dass case, the system appears to have worked, at least to a degree.

Authorities say they were tipped off after Dass allegedly kidnapped a 13-year-old boy in early March in Varanasi, a well-known Hindu pilgrimage town, and brought him back to his small New Delhi ashram.

The boy managed to call his family on a cellphone and police were quickly alerted.

At the ashram, a small compound of Hindu shrines on the outer edge of the city, police found four more boys. All, Dhaliwal said, were being trained to be preachers.

Indoctrination of the young

He said Dass began dreaming of wealth after he moved to New Delhi in the late 1980s. He built his compound in a neighbourhood that was then mostly rural, where cattle grazed and farmers still tilled the soil.

But as the Indian economy began to grow in the 1990s, the farm fields began giving way to walled estates.

Today, some of the country's wealthiest residents have homes in the area.

Dhaliwal said Dass carefully targeted young people and not just because he believed they could help bring in donations.

"He can't indoctrinate a 24-year-old guy," the police official said.

"And if he does indoctrinate someone that old the guy will go off on his own eventually. But a young kid will stay with him, and will do whatever he says."

Claims he is innocent

In an interview, he said three of the boys that police found stayed at the ashram while they studied in New Delhi, and one worked for him.

He said the boy from Varanasi had approached him at a train station asking for work.

"The train was just about to leave the station, and he got on with me," said Dass, a potbellied man with a long, greying beard and a greasy T-shirt. "He said 'I'm helpless. I want to go with you."'

Dass could not explain why he would allow a young boy to travel with him, but repeatedly insisted he was the victim.

"These are false accusations," he said. "It could just be a plot by some policemen who want to get promotions."

It's an easy accusation to make in a country where police corruption is common.

Or it could be smug bluster from a man who knows that the wheels of Indian justice grind with numbing slowness - it takes decades for some cases to even come to court. It will almost certainly be months if not years before Dass faces a trial.

Meanwhile, Dass is out on bail - released after four nights in custody.