For the last five months, Kasturi has been spending most of her time at a temple in Delhi’s Ambedkar Nagar colony. Earlier, the 48-year-old would visit about once or twice a day the Karuppu Swamy temple that was built by Tamilians who had migrated to the national capital six decades ago. But Kasturi’s life changed on January 12 when her two sons, Chiranjeevi and Jagdish, their spouses and two children took off on a boat on an “illegal” journey abroad.
When this reporter met Kasturi on a bright sunny day, she was sitting on the floor of the temple, crying. With a high blood sugar-level, her health has been deteriorating. But she is determined to find out about her family.
On January 12, 2,670 kilometres from Delhi’s Ambedkar Nagar colony, a fishing boat called ‘Deva Matha’ set off from Munambam in Kerala’s Eranakulam district. The Kerala Police investigation team said there were about 243 people on board. Of these, 184 were from Ambedkar Nagar Colony. Kasturi’s family is suspected to have been on the same boat. According to many whose family members are missing, 85 children were on the boat. A birth certificate and CCTV visuals accessed by News18 show that a 12-day-old baby was also on the boat along with the parents.
According to family members of the missing passengers, a total of 85 children were on board.
Dead or Alive?
Back in her house, Kasturi opens a diary she had kept on the top of a shelf in her puja room. One by one, she lays out the photographs of her family members, six of whom disappeared on that fateful night. Pointing to a photograph, she said: “See this small kid? Niyans was only six months old at the time of travel.”
Neither her sons nor their wives had revealed any plans to Kasturi of going abroad.
“My sons told me they were going somewhere in Tamil Nadu and left home in mid-December. It was only after news reports started appearing saying that they left the country illegally that we came to know about the plan,” she said. “It has been five months, where are they?” she asked. Folding her hands, she made an earnest request, “You media persons please help us find out whether they are alive or not”.
Kasturi has been living alone in her house since the departure of her sons and family. The 48-year-old said her husband has “lost his mind” and not come home for weeks. “He has become a drunkard,” she said. Meanwhile, the neighbours have also started asking the same dreaded question: “Are they still alive or dead?”
In the last five months, family members of those missing have come together and knocked on many doors — they have sent a joint memorandum to the home ministry and the external affairs ministry, written to the Delhi Police, chief minister and even the National Human Rights Commission. The memorandum lists the names and addresses of all those who are suspected to have been on that boat. However, there has been no response so far. The next plan is to meet external affairs minister S Jaishankar and they are seeking an appointment with him.
Some family members claimed that they got missed calls from an international number after the disappearance of the boat.
Meanwhile, rumours are floating in plenty in Ambedkar Nagar Colony. Initially, the residents believed the boat was heading to New Zealand but later they were told it was going to Christmas Island in Australia. However, the special investigation team constituted by the Kerala police could not confirm the exact location of the boat.
The residents of the colony whose family members went missing discovered a phone number that was traced back to Algeria. The rumour was that all those on the boat are now in jail. However, deputy superintendent of police MJ Sojan, who is heading the investigation, said the same number has been in circulation for several weeks. “It has been traced to a police station in Annaba, a coastal town in Algeria. We shared the number with our consulate. They verified and found that it has no connection with the present case,” he said.
Kanakalimgam and Ramesh, whose family members were also reported to have been on the boat, said they got missed calls from an international number but when they tried calling back, the number would not connect.
No Headway Even After 150 Days
On January 11, the Kerala police found 50 abandoned bags in Munambam near Kochi. The next day, they found more abandoned bags, identity cards and documents from nearby areas, further deepening the mystery. The police concluded that the passengers were compelled to leave their luggage behind as the boat was crowded. Later, investigation based on these bags led the police to believe that there was a possibility of human trafficking.
Prima facie investigations revealed that Sreekanthan and Selvan were the masterminds of the racket. Ten middlemen have also been identified. According to the police, these middlemen from both Delhi and Tamil Nadu had lured those who left on the boat with a promise of jobs in New Zealand, thereby extracting money from them.
So far, the police have arrested 10 people; two of them — Prabhu Dandapani and Ravi Raja — from Delhi's Ambedkar Nagar. While Dandapani has been released on bail, the rest of them arrested from Chennai are in judicial custody.
Meanwhile, the Kerala High court observed that the allegations in the Munambam human trafficking case could not be viewed lightly as it affected the sovereignty and security of the nation.
On a request from Indian authorities, Interpol has issued a ‘blue corner notice’ against 183 persons mainly from Delhi who are suspected to be a part of the group that sailed off the Munambam coast.
“No information has been received even after five months,” said a police official who is part of the investigation team. “Even after Interpol’s notice, no hints were received from foreign countries. So we are just waiting for confirmation.” Police said central agencies had also been appraised of the details of the case. "Until any solid information is received, it will be difficult to file a charge sheet," they said.
Police said 'Deva Matha', the fishing boat that the middlemen bought and modified, did not have the capacity to accommodate the number of passengers who were on board, hence not ruling out the possibility of the boat sinking. “Until official confirmation, we can’t tell anything. We are keenly waiting for hints from foreign countries. If they already reached somewhere that has the blue corner notice, it will help us trace them,” said another police officer who was part of the special investigation team.
While no one knows what happened to these 243 people and where the boat is, family members are still hoping for a miracle. “They were greedy, expecting more money and a luxurious life... see what happened now. No one even knows whether they are alive or dead,” a family member said.