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25 kids, underground bunker, 150 crude bombs — What led to the Farrukhabad hostage crisis

On 30 January, Batham locked 25 children after luring them home on the pretext of a birthday party. The motive behind the crisis was steeped in his troubled past.

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Farrukhabad: When 37-year-old Subhash Batham walked out of jail early December after spending a month behind bars for an alleged jewellery theft, he had only one goal in mind: building a new house.

Over the next few weeks, neighbours saw Batham and his wife, Ruby, toiling round-the-clock to construct a brick house consisting of a 8×10-feet bedroom without any windows, a slightly larger store room, and a mud backyard covered by an asbestos sheet. No mason or labourer was hired. What no one knew was that the couple also constructed an underground bunker with an iron trapdoor, accessible only by a makeshift ladder, and no staircase. The neighbours also didn’t note Batham meticulously laying an elaborate mesh of wires through slits in the brick structure connecting the bunker, the bedroom, and the entrance. A social boycott enforced in the village because Ruby was from a “lower caste” and the couple married without community sanction, ensured Batham’s actions went unnoticed.

This would prove deadly on January 30, when Batham locked 25 local children in the bunker after luring them home on the pretext of a birthday party, triggering an 11-hour hostage crisis that culminated in the death of the couple – Batham shot dead by the police and Ruby lynched by the villagers.

Despite the house stacked with 150 crude bombs, and Batham wielding a rifle and a pistol, all 25 children escaped unscathed, thanks largely to the presence of mind of two teenagers who managed to stall Batham, snap the bomb-connecting wires, and lock the hostage-taker out of the bunker.

The party invite

It was afternoon last Thursday when loud Punjabi songs blared from speakers at Batham’s house in Karthia village in Farrukhabad, about 200km from Lucknow. Soon, Batham was out on the mud road outside to invite the village children for the “birthday” celebration of his daughter, who turned one six months earlier.

Over the next hour, 25 children between eight months and 15 years trooped into his house, dancing to the music either in his cramped bedroom or outside the house. “When I told Subhash his daughter’s birthday was celebrated just months ago, he laughed and said that it was actually his house-warming ceremony,” said 13-year-old Vineet Kateria.

Batham then hurried the children downstairs, asked them to blow balloons and decorate the bunker. The older children were asked to hold the toddlers in their arms as they awkwardly descended into the dark lair using a rickety bamboo ladder. “The moment all of us climbed down, he bolted the lid from above and stopped the music. He screamed to say that he wanted revenge for being framed in the theft,” said Akash Kateria, also 13.

Along with the children were Ruby and her daughter. Till nearly the end of the drama, either Ruby or Batham stayed with the children, ensuring no one could climb out of the bunker.

As the children cried, Batham threatened to kill them all. “He said he would spare us if we kept the wailing children silent. He then opened the bunker lid to show us a rifle hanging from his shoulder and a pistol in his hand,” said Akash.

Any chance of escape seemed impossible, not only because of the closed lid, but also because explosives had been placed in all four corners of the bunker. “The explosives were connected by wires that were controlled by Subhash in the bedroom,” said Akash.

Around 2.30pm, Babli Devi walked to the house to call her three kids home. “I found the red iron door locked from inside and Subhash screaming. He asked me to gather all the villagers and call the police. He said the children would be blown up if I didn’t listen to him,” said Babli.

To make his intent clear, Batham allegedly fired a round through a tiny shaft under the main door but didn’t hit anyone.

Shiv Bahadur Singh, a local head constable who was among the first to the spot around 3pm, said when he initially offered to solve Batham’s problems, the man fired a round and said he wouldn’t talk to lower-rung officers. “I felt helpless and said that he was sinning. Subhash’s wife abused me in response,” said the head constable. Anil Mishra, superintendent of police (Farrukhabad), said the first call to the police control room was made at 4.20pm, upon which a group of policemen surrounded the house and took positions atop surrounding buildings. “The problem was that no one knew the layout of the house. We didn’t even know what the bunker looked like until a local man who had once cast a glimpse inside gave us a rough idea,” said Mishra.

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Motive Unclear

Batham’s motives remain unclear. Vineet said he heard Batham name five villagers — including a local policeman – and asked them to be brought before him. “He said that these men had framed him in the recent theft case and that the policeman had beaten him up,” said Vineet.

Rajani Kashyap, another woman whose three children were held hostage, said she stood next to a wall and spoke to Batham for almost an hour before the police took over. “He said he held no grudge against my children. All he wanted was to punish those who had allegedly framed him. He asked for the local MLA to be called to the spot,” said Rajani, indicating that Batham may have some grudge with him.

It was unclear what Batham wanted from the local Bhojpur MLA — Bharatiya Janata Party’s Nagendra Singh – who told HT that he did not know the family.

Local residents and police confirmed that Batham sent a list of demands on a piece of paper. That paper was never made public.

Mishra and Farrukhabad district magistrate Manvendra Singh said that, in it, Batham asked that the theft charges be dropped, assistance for housing and a toilet and Rs 1 crore each for the release of the children. “He also handed over some documents in which he had applied for housing and toilet assistance, but he didn’t qualify for the scheme,” Manvendra Singh told reporters.

Both Mishra and Manvendra Singh, however, declined to show a copy of the note.

Troubled past and social boycott 

Batham was born in a potter caste family and had four siblings – including a half-brother. His first brush with crime was in 1998 when he was booked under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The next year, he was named in a second caste-based atrocity case. “Two years later, he was arrested for burglary and jailed,” said Mishra.

Soon after he was released from jail in that theft case, Subhash stabbed his distant uncle in 2001.

“He held some Thakur villagers responsible for framing him, but blamed his uncle the most,” said a local police officer on condition of anonymity. Subhash was arrested for murder, awarded a life sentence, and stayed in jail until 2011, when the high court lessened the sentence to 10 years. His mother Surja Devi, too, was arrested for the conspiracy, but was let off earlier.

When Batham returned home, he withdrew from the village’s social life, occasionally picking fights with locals. For other residents of Karthia village, Batham was an unemployed man who committed petty theft. “For a brief while, he built a tiny underground bunker in his agricultural field and stayed there all alone,” said Harveer Singh, a local resident. Batham’s half-brother, Rakesh, said he used to fly into a rage at the mention of sharing the family property or land, and threatened to shoot him on two occasions.

Relations further deteriorated four years ago, when his relations with Ruby became public and the couple married without community sanction. In response, the villagers began boycotting him. “Ruby belonged to a different caste. That marriage was unacceptable in our village. We totally stopped visiting their house since then,” said Sudha Srivastav, a local resident. Surja Devi, who suffers from poor sight and can barely walk, moved in with her sister in another village after Batham hit her. But she repeated the charge that Thakur men had framed her son in the theft case.

No blank threats

By 5pm last Thursday, when villagers and policemen surrounded the home, among Batham’s first demands was to summon legislator Nagendra Singh. The MLA was at the spot in no time, but was cautious not to approach the door. “I stood next to the wall and asked Anupam Dubey to speak to Subhash,” said the MLA.

Dubey was among those few people who interacted with Batham as a friend. “Dubey seemed unafraid, marched to the door, and scolded Subhash for keeping children as hostages. Moments later, a bullet came flying out and hit Dubey in his right leg,” said Rajababu Omer, a policeman. Batham would go on to fire at least 11 rounds in all, added Mishra. Minutes later, Batham used a crude bomb to trigger an explosion outside the house. The bomb was triggered by a wire connected to a battery placed in the bedroom, Mishra said. It was hidden under a pile of bricks, which flew in the air and hit people in vicinity. Three policemen and a villager were hurt in the explosion, forcing the police to call the National Security Guard (NSG), who were eventually not required.

Horror and relief in the bunker

Each gunshot outside triggered loud cries from the children inside. “It was a congested bunker and the gunshots would make us collapse on each other,” said Anjali Kashyap, a 15-year-old girl later hailed for her bravery. Vineet said that when the blast happened, he was sitting with his back rested against the wall. “My body shivered for an hour after that.” Moments later, Batham opened the bunker’s lid and shouted “swaha” (a reference to throwing offerings into a fire during a ritual havan ceremony). Whenever the cries disturbed Batham, he would allegedly lift the lid, point the rifle inside, and threaten to shoot them all. “I would shout that if he killed any of us, him and his daughter would die too,” said Anjali.

Earlier in the afternoon, Ruby had handed over a packet of toffees to the children. “Initially, we threw away the packet. But when hunger set in, we began eating them,” said Anjali.

A darkness set in, and the little ones began dozing off, Anjali requested for bedsheets. “He gave us plastic sheets that we spread on the floor and put the children to sleep. When we told him we were hungry, he arranged about 25 packets of biscuits and also some glasses of water,” said Anjali. When the biscuits were exhausted, the children got chapatis. “Ruby made chapatis and gave us pickle,” said Vineet.

A ray of hope

As the night dragged on, the authorities kept Batham engaged. “If one topic got over, we would initiate another. Our aim was to tire him out,” said Singh. At one point, Batham allegedly fired two rounds inside and announced he had killed two children. The police had no way of knowing the truth, said the collector. The first ray of hope came around midnight when the youngest of the captives – an eight-month-old girl – began wailing. “She wanted her mother’s milk. I urged them to release the little one. When he refused, I asked him to kill us all, but let the toddler go,” said Anjali.

Batham agreed and said he would free the toddler. “Initially he tried to pass the child through a narrow shaft through the front door. When the child wouldn’t fit, he called Ruby and asked her to briefly open the rear door to let the child out,” said Shiv Bahadur.

As Ruby opened the rear door, Subhash threw the toddler on a chair in the backyard. A policeman scaled the wall and took away the child.

But in that brief moment, Anjali saw an opportunity. “As soon as I felt that the child was rescued, I closed the bunker’s lid and bolted it from inside,” she said. An incensed Batham threatened to blow up a 15kg LPG cylinder, but the children wouldn’t open the lid. The threat drove a wedge between the husband and wife, said the children. “Ruby begged Subhash not to trigger a blast as it would kill their daughter as well. She cried and pleaded with him,” said Anjali.

With the husband and wife busy, Vineet thought he would try to remove the wires placed in the bunker. “I wasn’t sure, but I remembered that some wires in the bedroom earlier weren’t connected to anything. So, I pulled out all wires from the bunker and hoped that no blast would occur,” said Vineet. Vineet’s hunch was right. There was no blast.

Over the next 90 minutes, one police team kept the couple engrossed while another team planned to break open the rear door. “Around 1.30am, when the couple was tired and hopeless, we brought down the rear door. The couple tried to escape from the front door, but we captured Ruby. Subhash then hurled bombs and began firing at us while running back into the bedroom,” said Mishra.

One of the policemen shot Batham in response, killing him on the spot. As Ruby was being escorted out by the police, the villagers moved to attack her. “The police told us that she was strapped with explosives, but the people wouldn’t listen. They beat her with stones and bricks. The police joined in the lynching,” said Rajani Kashyap.

Mishra denied the charge. It remained unclear, however, how the police was unable to stop her being beaten to death. As police bundled an injured Ruby into an ambulance – she would die on the way – another team walked into the room, and sounded assurances to the children locked underground. Minutes later, the children were climbing into the room. It was 1.30am.

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