This article is from Open Magazine.
By Omkar Khandekar
And then one day, he just up and left. There were no warning signs. He left no note; his mobile phone was found on a table in the living room alongside a small stack of currency notes totalling Rs 5,000. This was the morning of 24 May 2015. When he didn't return by the evening, a complaint of his having gone 'missing' was filed in Police Station No 6 at Ludhiana.
Nearly 50 km away from the heart of the city, a man was found lurking in the serpentine lanes of Jagraon town one evening. He had been roaming in the residential area near the octroi post No 5, in search of a house he had known intimately for the first 15 years of his life. It had been more than two decades since he was last sighted in the locality. After half an hour, his movements were too conspicuous to be ignored by the people around. As heads turned, they noticed an uncanny resemblance of this man, in his late thirties, to another man they knew--his younger brother.
Odd pieces of a jigsaw now fell in place. Whispers turned into a chorus, and he was escorted to his ancestral house, to his siblings: Nihaal and Hardeep, his face-sake.
Neither of the two was present there at the time. The women of the house dialled their mobile phones, and on hearing news of the brother's return, the two abandoned their carpentry and rushed back. It wasn't going to be an emotional reunion for the family. The guest had made his absence felt, but there was no poetry in it. After a frosty greeting, a mandatory cup of tea was served on a platter.
"I want to surrender to the police," Baldev Singh told his family. "Please help me."
By the end of the evening, Baldev, accompanied by Hardeep, marched to the Jagraon police station. On hearing the story, the police were incredulous. It took a fair bit of convincing by the Singhs to make them believe there were no strings attached to the surrender. Granted, they couldn't arrest him for the cases they had registered at their thana, Hardeep told them, but their counterparts in the city were scouting for Baldev.
In a couple of days, Jagjit Singh, a worker at an aluminium fabrication unit in the city, received a phone call from the cops, asking him to come to the police station at the earliest. For the 34-year-old, it was a call he had been awaiting for nearly 15 years. As he entered the premises, the officers took him to the custody cell. He sized up the man before him: muscles wasted since the last he saw him, and shivering. Baldev had also clipped his hair short and trimmed his beard, quite unlike the amritdhari Sardar as last seen.
"Do you remember me?" Jagjit asked.
Baldev surveyed him briefly. "No," he replied.
"I remember you," said Jagjit.
He then identified his mother's killer.
This was the first identification parade that the police had conducted on Baldev. In the following weeks, there would be more: Baldev had confessed to being involved in the killings of at least 16 people in the years 2000 and 2001 across three states. In 2012, he was even arrested and jailed for two months by the Ludhiana Police in a drug bust, but they never realised that the opium ferryman had committed three murders in their own backyard a decade earlier. Baldev Singh turned out to be a serial killer with an Aadhaar card, a man who belonged to two families.
"Baldev Singh turned out to be a serial killer with an Aadhaar card, a man who belonged to two families."
Back in Jagraon, life resumed its normal course for Hardeep and the rest of his household. No more would it include visits to the police station to repeatedly state what they had over the years: No, they didn't have the slightest clue where Baldev was. Before his surprise return, the last they had seen of him was back in 2000. After he left, they heard of him only after the Amritsar Police arrived at their doorstep, asking them to come with them to the police station. Baldev, they said, was a suspect in a murder case. In the subsequent years, they heard from Agra and two different units of the Ludhiana Police, both wanting fresh information on Baldev to probe murder cases against him and an accomplice Baljinder.
The family eventually disowned him and published an advertisement to that effect. But the police wouldn't leave them alone. According to an article in a national daily, the duo had killed 105 (Open could not confirm this figure). An exaggeration or not, this murder count was already popular among their neighbours, many of whom had seen Baldev grow up till the age of 15 before he left his house.
It took 15 years for the Singhs to come up with a satisfactory response to the police, and now that he is behind the bars, they have no intention of being associated with him, even tangentially.
"We haven't gone to meet him after the arrest," says Hardeep. "People might talk."
In custody, as their colleagues were busy blowing the dust off the yellowing documents and reading through the smudged ink of the FIRs, the detectives in charge of the case asked Baldev why he went on a killing spree. He offered a pithy explanation: "Times were hard."
In 2000, after unsuccessfully searching for him for months, the Ludhiana Police had started putting up posters across the city. 'Wanted', read the block letters, 'Baldev Singh @ Harbhajan Singh @ Kadhi'. Then a 26-year-old, he was identified as a man of medium build, fair complexion with a cut above the upper lip. Three photographs on the the poster showed him in two different avatars: with and without a turban and beard, or, in popular parlance, as a Sardar and a mona. When he was arrested, the cops realised that for nearly 14 years, he had been living within a 10 km radius of the police station that was looking for him.
Baldev's foster family in Shimlapuri, Ludhiana (Photos: Omkar Omkar Khandekar)
Second oldest among four siblings, Baldev was born to a subedaar in the Indian Army and his homemaker wife. According to his confession to the Ludhiana Police, his father often used to be violent with him, a claim that Baldev's siblings contest. In any case, there wasn't an emphasis on studies in his house and while he did go to school till class VII, his inclination lay towards leading a work-life. At the age of 15, Baldev left for Ludhiana to learn iron welding. With the help of an aunt, he managed to rent a room of a house in its Shimlapuri area. It was then that he met his landlord Jagjit Singh, who was around 10 years old at the time.
On a visit there in the third week of July, I am received in the same room that Baldev had used for one-and-a- half years after he left his own folks. Karamjeet Singh, 65, head of the household and husband of the late Harbans Kaur, tells me that during the stay, the tenant had almost become part of their family. Pointing at the window overlooking the streets, he says, "He didn't pay us rent, and instead, made us that grille."
"When he arrived, all he had with him was a stove and a storage container, the one you use to keep aata (ground wheat). He was a bachelor, so my wife used to share the food that she cooked for us," recalls Karamjeet. "He used to wash my kids' hair, even take them out for a stroll."
One day, Baldev abruptly abandoned his routine and went back to his family in Jagraon. Upon his request, the family set up a shop for him to run. But he got into a fight with its employees and went off to Manikaran Sahib gurdwara in Himachal Pradesh, a popular Sikh shrine.
"At Manikaran, Baldev met Baljinder and a handicapped person they called 'Langda'. The three used to tend to cattle at the gurdwara," says inspector Kanvarjeet Singh from Police Station No 6. They decided to stay together and rent a room near Guru ka Tal gurdwara in Agra.
Based on Baldev's confession to the police, on 24 April 2000, a breathless sequence of events took place within a span of four hours. The tenant trio killed their landlords, a middle-aged couple, and escaped with cash and jewellery. They hired a taxi from Agra, and en route at Mathura, killed the taxi driver. But within a few minutes of driving the stolen car, they had an accident with a tractor. They didn't sustain any injuries but abandoned the car, hailed another taxi, and again murdered the driver. This car, too, had a mishap. Finally, they hitched a ride on a truck that was taking some Sikh pilgrims to Amritsar.
"For all their victims, they used what was available around them: a chunni or rope. If not, one of them held their legs and the other strangled the victim with bare hands," says Inspector Kanvarjeet. In none of the three cases was there any witness.
In Amritsar, the three spent some time in the Golden Temple, doing seva (voluntary service). They were reunited with Ladi, a person they had been introduced to at Manikaran. He introduced them to his brother who ran a paint shop in the city. In order to steal his scooter, the trio killed him on 26 May and sold the vehicle for some ready cash.
Baldev's brother Hardeep at their Jagraon residence
According to his brother, Baldev returned home in 2000 as a devout Sikh and a follower of a godman. Without giving any inkling of the murders he had committed, he stayed with his family for a month. During this time, he asked them to arrange a match for him. Insistence was met with resistance. "My parents wanted him to get stable employment first," says Hardeep, "After that, they would look for someone suitable for him." Once, recalls the brother, Baljinder came to visit them.
Meanwhile, Baldev started reusing his room at Karamjeet's house. This time, he turned it into a godown for all the goods he bought from Ludhiana and sold at the shop. The family recalls having seen Langda help Baldev with the storage. The latter, however, had told the police that Langda had got off at Fatehgarh, much before they even reached Amritsar.
Karamjeet Singh with a picture of his wife Harbans Kaur
On 29 June, it was Karamjeet's niece's wedding in the neighbourhood. By 8.30 am, everyone but his wife Harbans had left either for work or to attend the ceremonies. Their son Jagjeet returned around 2.30 pm for lunch, slipped his footwear under the bed in a room across the verandah, and called out to his mother. There was no response. He searched for her all over the two-storied house and went across the neighbourhood to look for her at the wedding, only to draw a blank.
As he returned home and bent to draw his shoes out from under the bed, to his horror, he saw his mother's body. It was stowed underneath. The jewellery she wore was gone, as was some cash, a watch and a music system. Harbans had been strangled with her own chunni. There were no witnesses, but Karamjeet was certain who it was. "The day before the incident, he had come and banged shut the door," he says, "I knew it then only."
In the next few days, their suspicions were confirmed. Baldev was nowhere to be found. The next they heard of him was when a case of a double murder rocked the city. Davinder Kaur, a relative of Baldev's, and her 16-year-old son had been robbed and killed allegedly by Baldev and Baljinder on the afternoon of 13 July.
"On his part, Baldev denies any role in the rest of the cases that have taken the toll to 105."
After he was arrested, Baldev confessed to his involvement in all the murders mentioned above. The Ludhiana Police are in the process of procuring FIRs from police stations across the two states. Based on a newspaper report that cited a criminals' gallery compiled by a certain World Centre of Crime Investigation, identifying Baldev and Baljinder as responsible for 105 deaths, they alerted police control rooms across the country to contact them if any of their own cases had the two listed as the accused. Till the third week of July, they hadn't received any notification.
On his part, Baldev denies any role in the rest of the cases that have taken the toll to 105. Instead, he told the police about another series of murders he did participate in, those that took place in Mumbai in 2001.
"After the double murder, the duo went to Nanded [in Maharashtra], where they stayed for some time at Hazur Sahib gurdwara. They met Gulzar Singh here who eventually travelled with them to Mumbai and managed to get all of them a job at a bangle factory in Goregaon," says Inspector Kanvarjeet.
It was a case that MN Singh, then police commissioner of Mumbai, would call "a strange story of human behaviour". Six months after they got the job, on 9 August 2001, they managed to convince a few of their colleagues and plotted the slaughter of eight persons: the factory shop owner, two of his relatives and five labourers, all in the course of a single night. Strangulation, as before, was the chosen method. The owner, however, was made to sign blank cheques before he was killed.
Within two days, the six were arrested. In 2005, five of the six killers were sentenced to life imprisonment. But the FIR registered with the police in Goregaon is telling. While Gulzar Singh is listed among the six accused, Baldev and Baljinder's names are nowhere to be found.
"When we asked Baldev about the inconsistency, he said that he fled on the night of the incident. He told us that the records would mean that Baljinder had changed his name to Amarjeet Singh, the name mentioned in the FIR," says Inspector Kanvarjeet. "All this while, he has maintained that Baljinder was the mind behind all the murders." Baldev is further said to have told the investigators that Baljinder had killed as many as 60 people in the past.
If Baldev's word and newspaper reports are to be believed, it is Amarjeet Singh alias Baljinder Singh whose portrait emerges even more chilling as a serial killer. According to a report in a newspaper published a few days after the incident, JY Patil, then senior inspector of Goregaon police, said, "[Amarjeet] does not regret his act. He and his friend Gulzar, a co-accused in the case, merely laugh when we question them." Another report, on the day of his sentencing, quotes Amarjeet as saying, "Ho gaya toh ho gaya. Ab nikalenge 14 saal... (What's done is done. Now we'll serve 14 years)."
On 18 July this year, Mumbai Police Commissioner Rakesh Maria reportedly declared that the cops will be seeking the remand of Baldev Singh to tie up all the loose ends. However, not much progress has been made to ascertain the real identity of Amarjeet. When I contact the Goregaon police, Senior Inspector Sunil Wadke tells me that as per the records available with them, the last known movement of the accused was at Arthur Road prison in Mumbai for under-trials.
The story of Baldev gets even more bizarre when you consider that he was in fact adopted by another family after he left his earlier home and went on his murder spree. Under their love and care, he seemed to have decided to give up killing until finally deciding to give himself up to the police.
On 30 June, 2001, Inderjeet Singh, a 20- year-old resident of Ludhiana's Shimlapuri locality, went missing. He had told his mother that he was on his way to his sister's place across town. The next day, the police found an Activa that he was driving when he left his place near his sister's residence. Inderjeet's mother was distraught and spent the next two years hunting for him wherever she thought he was likely to be found. In 2002, on a visit to Sis Ganj Sahib gurdwara in New Delhi, she came across Baldev.
"While his foster mother stood her ground, Baldev decided to earn his adoptive father's favour by nursing him throughout his ailment."
"In their meeting, he had started crying and told her that he had no parents and that he had left his house on the behest of his domineering bhabhi," says Kulwant, a close relative of the Singhs. She decided to adopt him and give him a fresh lease of life. Baldev Singh was now to be known as Inder Singh, after her missing son. He would go on to get an Aadhaar card with that name.
By now, or so it seems, Baldev had decided to turn over a new leaf. His induction into the family was challenged by the father there, a cancer patient. While his foster mother stood her ground, Baldev decided to earn his adoptive father's favour by nursing him throughout his ailment. Over time, the old man lost his animosity for the new family member and gave in to his wife's decision. Soon, Baldev had started working as a mechanic at the family-owned cycle shop in the vicinity.
Kulwant tells me that he tried getting Baldev to loosen up about his past, sometimes over drinking sessions. But the latter, while quite talkative otherwise, would stonewall him. The only deviation from his otherwise "flawless behaviour" was in 2012 when he was caught ferrying 1 kg of fukki, a psychotropic substance popular in Punjab, and was jailed for nearly two months. His foster mother had to gather money for his bail, after which he promised never to indulge in drugs again.
It was around then that Baldev's physical health began to deteriorate. He started losing weight and was given to shivers and trembles. After a medical examination, the doctors told him what was ailing him: Huntington's disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that affects muscle coordination and results in gradual mental decline as well. It was a disease that had claimed his mother.
"After a medical examination, the doctors told him what was ailing him: Huntington's disease."
In the last week of May, Baldev left his house. He left no note; his mobile phone was found on a table in the living room alongside a small stack of currency notes totalling Rs 5,000. When he didn't return by the evening, Jatinder, one of the three Singh 'siblings', registered a complaint of his having gone 'missing' at Police Station No 6 in Ludhiana.
Later that day, when he landed at his ancestral house in Jagraon, Hardeep claims that his brother confided in him about the disease. "He said, 'If I stayed there, there won't be anyone to take care of me. If I stayed here, there's no one to take care of me. So after I meet you, I will surrender. It is why I have come here. I can't run anymore.'"
It has been more than eight weeks since Baldev Singh was arrested. For the first three weeks, he was in police custody, after which he was transferred to judicial custody. In his days in the lock-up at the police station, his foster family regularly came to visit him. At his own insistence, Baldev will move on alone from now on. His instructions to the family are clear: "Don't come after me."
"I think he does have regrets," says Kulwant. "He told us, 'God has punished me for my misdeeds.'"
"Do you think he should be punished?"
Kulwant hesitates. I persist. "All we can say is, 'Humara dil nahin manta' (Our heart doesn't accept it)."
All images have been provided by Open Magazine.