12 years, 50 victims: the creation of an abuser
In a corner of the Bundelkhand in eastern Uttar Pradesh is the Chitrakoot pilgrimage center, whose name translates to “the hill of many wonders.” Temples dot the banks of the Mandakini River that flows through Chitrakoot.
Roads in the city of 70,000 people are narrow and automatic rickshaws, sometimes carrying up to a dozen passengers, are the main means of transportation. Men and women line the streets, selling merchandise strewn on tarps. Income is low and monkeys are everywhere.
In a corner of the city is the SDM neighborhood. Walk down a dusty, unpaved road wide enough for a small car and you’ll come to a pair of towering black doors with a faux gold engraving. They attach a two-story house whose first floor is unfinished.
For the past eight years, the house was occupied by Ram Bhavan Singh, who worked as a junior engineer in the UP’s irrigation department and rented the place to a local doctor.
Singh, 40, lived with his wife Durgawati and was known to neighbors as a quiet man who stuck to his schedule: he would leave the office at 8 a.m. in his bolero and return at 2 p.m. for lunch. “His hours were like clockwork,” said a neighbor on condition of anonymity.
They only remember one thing vividly: groups of poor children playing in front of his house and he inviting them inside. “I heard he gave them cell phones to play games and make videos on TikTok,” said a second neighbor.
On November 16 it became clear why. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested Singh for allegedly sexually abusing at least 50 children, most of them children between the ages of five and 16, and filming and selling Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) on the dark web to gangsters around the world. It is by far the largest child abuse scandal to hit UP and one of the largest organized child abuse scandals ever blown up in India.
“Nithari was a case of necrophilia or someone attracted to corpses; here we were about someone who preyed on boys and frankly no one thought about the scale he was on, ”said a senior CBI official, referring to the 2006 serial killings in Noida.
In a conversation with more than 30 friends, teachers, local government, child protection and police officers, HT traced his decades-long journey of impunity, the many times he came close to being caught, and the toxic cocktail of new technology. era and old technology. the school social power he wielded.
Singh was born in 1980 in Naraini, a small town famous for its rock carvings. His father, Chunna Lal, was a highly reputable bricklayer and expert in making columns for temples. He has two older brothers, Ram Kishore and Raja Bhaiyya, who joined his father’s profession. Singh was encouraged to study. “He never failed any subject and continued cleaning classes,” said the family doctor who did not want to be identified. After finishing high school in 1998, Singh moved to Attara, a larger city, to pursue university studies. After graduating, he began tutoring students at the school to earn extra money while preparing for government exams.
The first complaint against Singh came in 2008 from a student he was teaching. The boy told his parents that Singh sexually abused him. Furious, the parents met Singh’s father. “Singh’s father managed to convince the family not to press charges, and he hastened to find a suitable match for his son,” said a close friend of Singh’s family, requesting anonymity. CBI confirmed the incident and said it was seeking to convince the victim to join the investigation.
In 2009, Singh married Durgawati and was appointed to the irrigation department. Singh’s wife stayed home and he moved into a 6,000 rupee two-room apartment near his office. In 2010, there was a second complaint. “I received a complaint from a couple that their son was harassed by him. I asked him to leave and told them to inform the police; they never did, ”said Kakkoo Singh, its then owner.
After this, relations between him and his father were strained. “He forced Singh to stay with his wife in Chitrakoot,” said the aforementioned family doctor.
Lal died in 2014, severing Singh’s ties with the family. His brothers said that he never visited the house after that and that communication was minimal. “We lead our separate lives,” Ram Kishore said.
THE HIDDEN WEB
Shortly after moving into the SDM Colony home in 2012, Singh began dabbling in the dark web, aided by some folks the CBI has yet to collect.
By most accounts, the dark web represents a large subset of the internet like anything else we are familiar with: forums, blogs, stores. But there is a crucial difference: everything is anonymized so that no one can be crawled, and therefore nothing is indexed in search engines that we are familiar with. Accessible through special browsers like Tor, the dark web today is used by people who want to dodge surveillance, such as activists and a host of criminals.
“The main value of the dark web is its anonymity. Typically, you are provided a link to a forum or group of interest and find more people there to advance your business, ”said Yash Kadakia, founder of ShadowMap, a digital risk management company that tracks the dark web.
Investigators assume someone introduced Singh to the dark web and used his CSAM cache to gain a following and enter a more exclusive crime forum. “In many cases, we have seen these criminal activities start on Facebook, telegram groups where CSAM is exchanged and then someone suggests a dark web forum,” said Ritesh Bhatia, a Mumbai-based cybercrime investigator.
What helped Singh the most, the researchers think, was lowering the barrier to accessing the dark web. “In India, the dark web has become incredibly easy to access. Adding someone on Telegram or any other chat app is as easy as entering the dark web today. It’s as easy as installing any application on your phone, ”Kadakia explained.
Singh developed a two-pronged modus operandi.
The first was targeting low-income families, luring children with gadgets and electronic gadgets, and paying or pressuring their parents not to file a police report. A member of the government-appointed Child Welfare Committee (CWC) said Singh started attacking a friend’s children. Then he passed on to young children playing outside his home. “The children who visited his home said that he had an expensive game console in his home. I would encourage local children to play on this console, which he had in his room with a double bed, ”said the CWC member, requesting anonymity. “He often paid the children’s school tuition and gave parents money to monitor their activities.”
Singh made sure to rent houses near low-income neighborhoods, the investigating officer quoted above said.
HT spoke to two of Singh’s alleged victims, ages six and eight: One loves to play PUB-G and the other is a professional TikTok video maker. They said they visited the house almost daily, and Singh’s wife was kind to them. “We always get the cell phone that he used to have at home for us; we all play at least an hour a day, ”said the older boy.
The second step was to take advantage of his position as a government official in a small town where a government car and a permanent job are signs of power.
Singh chose two sites that he was supervising as a project manager to take advantage of the children of poor construction workers. In one of these locations, CBI identified two boys, ages 8 and 12, living with their parents in a makeshift hut.
The older brother said he recognized Singh as the one who brought a laptop with him and taught them to play video games and gave them a mobile phone, before inviting them to his home. He insisted on being called a sahib, the boy added. Both irrigation projects assigned to Singh are being delayed for years.
In September, a small five-member CBI unit was alerted to some CSAMs of Indian origin floating on the dark web.
Within a month, the team found a geographic location embedded in the videos and photos that helped them track CSAM to Chitrakoot. Some other transactions included a phone number registered in Singh’s name and an address in the Banda district. In some of the videos, Singh’s face was partially visible.
In the second week of October, the team reached Chitrakoot. They used cell phone numbers and IP addresses to triangulate Singh’s location and identified him through partial video shots. “We didn’t know we were about to break such a huge case; we thought it was limited to 2-3 children, ”said a second CBI official.
On November 16, Singh was arrested under the Indian Penal Code, the Information Technology Act and the Child Protection from Sexual Offenses Act. Investigators found Rs 8.27 lakh in cash, 10 mobile phones, two laptops, six pen drives, six memory cards, a digital video recorder, a spy camera, and sex toys. “The real scale emerged only when we approached the children,” said a third CBI official.
What the researchers are still unclear about is Durgawati’s role: The children confirmed that she was present in the house when they visited, but they also describe her as a warm person. A local official said it was unlikely that in seven years he would not have found out what was happening. She has refused to leave the house at SDM Colony, but has not been out since November. “I will speak about the case at a time and place of my choosing,” he said.
Singh’s lawyer, Anurag Singh Patel, said the CBI charges were false. “I ask him what his crime is, where are the children he abused, where are his statements that accuse him.” he said. “We will fight tooth and nail.”
But CBI is confident. “CBI is looking for its victims and the list is getting longer every day. Everyone will come to court if necessary, ”said a member of the agency’s legal team.