A two-day old baby born to daily wage workers in India’s western state of Gujarat was kidnapped not once but twice. BBC Gujarati’s Bhargava Parikh finds out why.
“I don’t let my son out of my sight anymore,” said Meena Wadi, a poor labourer who lives in Gandhinagar city in Gujarat.
The 25-year-old mother is still reeling from her child being taken from her twice in two months.
Meena’s ordeal began the day after she returned home from the hospital with the baby – 1 April.
She said a woman, claiming to be a nurse at the hospital where she had given birth, visited her home and told her the baby needed to be vaccinated. So, Meena, along with her son, accompanied the woman to the hospital. The woman took the baby and asked Meena to wait while he was being photographed.
Hours passed, but the woman didn’t return. A frantic Meena began looking for her. “Hearing my cries, the security guards asked me what had happened. When I told them, they called the police,” she said.
More than 43,000 children went missing in India last year, according to the Ministry of Women and Child Development. In Gujarat, official data says about 3,500 children disappear every year.
Child rights activists say the numbers could be higher as poor parents rarely register missing reports – but Meena and her husband, Kanu registered a police case immediately.
“Meena didn’t know anything about the woman, not even her name. She couldn’t describe her either,” said police inspector HP Zala, who headed the investigation.
So Mr Zala and his team turned to CCTV footage in the area around the hospital. That’s where they found the first clue – a woman walking towards the main road with a bundle hidden under her sari. Could it be the baby? It was hard to tell.
After questioning nearly 500 rickshaw drivers, they pieced together what happened: the woman in the footage had taken a rickshaw to a neighbouring village. Eyewitnesses said she had a baby with her.
Again, police scanned the CCTV footage from the village and questioned shop owners along the highway, following a trail of clues that led them to another village, where the woman was reportedly last seen.
A search of the area took them to an abandoned farm where they found women’s clothes and an Aadhaar card, a national biometric ID. Puzzled, they went to the address listed on the ID.
They found a woman with a baby, but the baby was not Meena’s.
The woman told the police her husband had eloped with another woman, who allegedly stole her things, including the ID they had found. The baby, she added, was from her second marriage.
“We started looking for her husband and found a couple staying with a child at the address given by the first woman,” Mr Zala said. A DNA test confirmed that this baby was Meena’s.
The couple were arrested but have since been released on bail.
The woman allegedly admitted to kidnapping Meena’s baby and trying to falsely implicate the man’s first wife by dumping her clothes and ID in the farm. But the man reportedly told police he did not know any of this and assumed the baby was his.
The woman said she had delivered a stillborn baby, and was afraid that her husband would leave her if she went home without a son.
Police say her story is not uncommon.
“There is a desire among parents to have sons instead of daughters,” former police officer Deepak Vyas said. “They want sons no matter what. Driven by this craze, people abduct children from poor families.”
A second attempt
Meena and Kanu were elated to have their son back but their happiness was short-lived.
On 9 June, two months after he was returned to them, he went missing again.
Meena was out collecting scrap while the baby slept under a tree, she said. But when she came back, he was not in his cradle.
When she and her husband rushed to the police station, Mr Zala said he was surprised to see the couple again.
Again, surveillance footage in the area led to a suspect – a man with a child who was seen on a bike the day the baby went missing.
But when the police tracked him down, the man told them he was not the one on the bike that day – it was his friend who lived in the neighbouring state of Rajasthan.
Mr Zala’s team contacted police in Rajasthan and together they raided the mason’s house – the baby was with him.
He and his wife, who have since been arrested, told the police they kidnapped Meena’s baby because they did not have a child of their own.
“He used to work at a construction site with Meena’s husband. When he found out about the baby, he hatched a plan to abduct him,” Mr Zala said.
Four days later, Meena was again united with her son.
The police now visit the family regularly to check on the baby – Meena said they bring him gifts and play with him.
“The police love him more than we do,” she added.
Mr Zala doesn’t deny it: “We can’t let the baby out of our sight.”