Looking for Tarun Gupta. Chapter 2

Updated: 04 October, 2020 08:19 IST | Gaurav Sarkar | Mumbai

A year ago, a 17-year-old autistic child from Colaba got lost in a crowd and never returned. With investigating agencies passing the buck, his father has spent 12 months on the road, across four states, even during the pandemic, hoping every phone ca

Bablu Sheikh and Vinod Gupta, Tarun's father, travelled through various states during the lockdown, often sleeping without a proper meal. They hope, a search on the Mumbai-Goa route yields results. Pic /Suresh Karkera
Bablu Sheikh and Vinod Gupta, Tarun's father, travelled through various states during the lockdown, often sleeping without a proper meal. They hope, a search on the Mumbai-Goa route yields results. Pic /Suresh Karkera

It's been a year, but Asha Gupta remembers the events of October 1, 2019, more clearly than perhaps what happened yesterday. Asha, who has three children—Anuj, 18, Tarun, 17, and Kusum, six—was getting her daughter ready for school. It was around 11 am. Tarun, says the homemaker, left the house to go and play. The family lives on the ground floor of a four-storeyed building on SB Singh Road, Colaba. Stepping out by himself was not unusual for Tarun, says father Vinod, 44, who runs an office stationery business at Nariman Point.

The building, says Vinod, has a compound and the main gate is a little ahead of the compound. A balloon shop on the left outside the gate, was a daily stop for Tarun. "Usko balloons ka badaa shauk tha," says Vinod. "He used to take R20 from his mother, buy balloons for R10 and give R10 to a beggar sitting near the gate."

Outside the gate on the left, is an office of the Indian National Congress party.

"People there recognise Tarun. Since he couldn't pump the balloons, he'd often go to the Congress office and ask for help to fill air. The day he went missing was the election nomination day [for the 2019 Assembly elections], and the party workers had called for a band. Tarun, who enjoyed dancing, joined in and the party workers put a Congress scarf and flag in his hand," says Vinod. Footage from videos of the day, and accounts from others in the crowd and local shopkeepers, tell the parents that Tarun, who will turn 18 years old on October 13, joined the crowd of political workers and started walking to CST. On the way, he left the crowd and began asking for a lift back home. He took a wrong turn on the main road, and hasn't returned home since.

Tarun, say his parents, liked playing with balloons and would buy one daily
Tarun, say his parents, liked playing with balloons and would buy one daily

Tarun would always return home within an hour," says Asha of her son who is autistic. So, by 2 pm that day, when he didn't return, she started to worry. When a quick search in the neighbourhood yielded no result, she came back home. "I had to cook food for the family, and thought I would look for him once I was done," she says, adding that she thought that Tarun had gone to a neighbour's home and lost track of time.

Vinod says there is a chawl nearby. "The people there like Tarun." "He would go there and the residents would give him snacks. This was quite common. They used to treat him well. Everyone treated him well, because he never troubled anyone."

When they realised that Tarun—who is able to only vocalise "mummy" and "papa", but can explain through gestures what he wants—was not in the neighbourhood, Asha and Vinod asked a few friends and relatives for help to search for him. That night, they filed a missing persons FIR at Mata Ramabai Ambedkar (MRA) Police Station.

The next day, on receiving reports that Tarun had been spotted at CST, Vinod enquired with the railway police and together they began the process of perusing through CCTV footage from cameras at various railway stations. Footage from Panvel station showed Tarun drinking water from a public water cooler.

map/Uday Mohite
Map/ Uday Mohite

Railway cops at the station also confirmed seeing him there between October 1 and 2, 2019. Then, reports came in that a RPF constable, Monu Singh Tomar, irritated with Tarun's constant demand for water, forced him to board the luggage compartment of the Goa-bound Tuthari Express at around 1.30 am. An internal RPF inquiry later held constable Tomar and constable Kalu Meena guilty of negligence in the case. A third railway police official, ASI Laxman Singh, was held guilty of lack of supervision in the case and were punished with single-digit salary and increment cuts.

"Had the authorities not shirked their responsibility, my son would have been found within a matter of days and would be home now, safe and sound," says Vinod.

On December 3, 2019, the issue was taken up by MP Supriya Sule in the Lok Sabha, requesting a "high priority search". In a letter written from the office of Minister of State for Home Affairs to SK Jaiswal (DGP, Maharashtra Police) the very next day, it was requested that "all possible efforts be made to trace the missing person."

On May 7 this year the Ministry of Women and Child Development sent its second reminder to the Commissioner of Police (Railways), stating that it had not "not received any report" in the case, requesting them "to look into the matter urgently and take immediate action on the complaint."

Tarun dancing with Congress Party workers;
Tarun dancing with Congress Party workers

The last confirmed and verifiable sighting of Tarun was on CCTV footage at Sawantwadi station on October 3, 2019, where he is seen boarding the Dadar-bound Janshatabdi Express Train No. 12052. Senior Divisional Security Commissioner (Mumbai), Central Railway, KK Ashraf, says that while he "doesn't wish to blame the local police," the initial inquiry was being done by MRA Police Station where the FIR had been registered.

"Had the information about Tarun being missing come on to us in time, we would have circulated it to everyone. Since this was not done and the search was conducted by us after almost a week, there was no information about his current whereabouts at the time," he adds. "We sent out a national level alert for Tarun, and even deployed a special team. But since the search is at an all-India level, I have been frank about the fact that we cannot go and search everywhere. Whenever information comes to us about someone spotting Tarun, we take action accordingly. We have informed all the concerned divisions at a national level about Tarun's case. Our effort is to help the father and to find out whether Tarun is still somewhere in the railway system." Ashraf adds that after Tarun's disappearance, they had approached various district child welfare committees, requesting them to set up more child welfare centres at major railway stations. On whether the search for Tarun was still active, he says: "Until the boy is found, the search for him will be ongoing."

India's missing persons statistics—National Crime Records Bureau's statistics put missing children numbers in Maharashtra at 1,711 in 2018, and missing persons in the country in 2018 at 3,47,542—are alarming. To ensure that his son is not lost in a pile of numbers, Vinod wrote to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, Home Minister Anil Deshmukh, Maharashtra Director General of Police, Commissioner of Police (Mumbai City), and DCP Zone-1, on October 1, this year, requesting that the search for Tarun be handed over to the Mumbai Crime Branch and to the anti-human trafficking unit. "After all my efforts went in vain, I am now convinced that either my child has been kidnapped by child trafficking gangs or is still wandering in trains from one place to another," Vinod wrote to the CM. "Since almost six months I have not received any information from the general public, though my contact number has been printed on missing posters across various cities and districts."

Tarun’s picture in an album
Tarun's picture in an album

When the efforts of the Mumbai Police and RPF didn't yield results, Vinod and two of his friends formed a search team, travelling more than 15,000 km by road, across Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Over the past year, Vinod says he has spent lakhs and much time printing thousands of missing persons posters and sticking them on every railway platform across the four states, as well as hiring private detectives to search for his son. He has announced a R2 lakh reward for Tarun's safe return, or for confirmed reports of his whereabouts. While there was a slew of reports initially—at Virar, between Virar and Ahmedabad, and Varanasi in April—the lockdown put a stop to that. Vinod has now turned to a godman based in the forests of Madhya Pradesh, who has assured him that Tarun is safe and sound and is in a 200 km radius of Mumbai. Vinod's search for his son—which he is undertaking along with two friends—will be chalked out keeping this information in mind.

Bablu Sheikh, a 40-year-old taxi driver, and a friend of Vinod's, who would accompany him during the search through the lockdown, says, "The toughest part was that even if we managed to find a hotel, there was no provision for food. There were many a night when we'd go hungry, and breakfast was the only meal that we ate. But despite travelling almost 15,000 km, we haven't got any tangible leads. Now, we intend to search for him on the Mumbai-Goa route."

While Tarun did step out of the house alone, the places he'd stop at were limited. "There is a Shiv mandir close to our house where he would go regularly and pray, play the dhol and do the aarti. Even at home, he would put on the aarti on TV and, although he couldn't sing, he would hum along," says Asha.

While she doesn't have much faith in godmen, she has been praying for her son's safe return. She speaks of the bond he shared with Vinod. "At home, when his father was around, he would behave normally and you sometimes wouldn't be able to tell that he suffered from autism. With me, he would throw the occasional tantrum, but never with his father. It's only his father [Vinod] who continues to do the job of searching—not the investigating agencies. They say that the RPF has Tarun's picture.

Then why is there no trace of him? Can't so many agencies find one missing child?"

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First Published: 04 October, 2020 06:55 IST

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