In one corner of eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand lies the pilgrim hub of Chitrakoot, whose name translates as “the hill of many wonders.” Temples dot the banks of Mandakini river that flows through Chitrakoot, which finds a mention in the Hindu epic Ramayana as the place where Ram, his brother Lakshman and wife Sita lived for much of their 14 years of banishment. .
Roads in the town of 70,000 people are narrow and auto-rickshaws, sometimes carrying as many as a dozen passengers, are the principal means of transport. Men and women line the streets, hawking wares spread on tarpaulin sheets. Incomes are low and monkeys are everywhere.
In a corner of the town lies SDM colony, formerly an enclave of government officers that grew in the past decade as the district headquarters drew workers from the poorer hinterland. A narrow road just ahead of the bridge over Mandakini leads to the colony, home to roughly 100 lower-middle class families.
Walk down a dusty, unpaved lane wide enough for a small car and you reach a pair of imposing black gates with faux gold engraving. They enclose a two-storey house whose first floor is unfinished. Inside, the rooms are separated by a long and dimly lit passage that leads to a courtyard in the back, and a place to house cattle.
For the last eight years, the house was occupied by Ram Bhavan Singh, who worked as a junior engineer in the UP irrigation department and rented the place from a local doctor.
Singh, 40, lived with his wife Durgawati and was known to the neighbours as a quiet man who stuck to his schedule: Leaving for office at 8am in his Bolero and coming back at 2pm for lunch. “His schedule was like clockwork,” said a neighbour on condition of anonymity.
They only remember one thing vividly: Groups of poor children playing in front of his house, and him inviting them in. “I heard he gave them mobiles to play games and make TikTok videos,” said a second neighbour.
On November 16, it became clear why. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested Singh for allegedly sexually abusing at least 50 children, a majority of them boys between five and 16, and filming and selling child sexual abuse material (CSAM) on the dark web to racketeers across the globe. It is by far the biggest child abuse scandal to hit UP and one of the largest organised child abuse rackets ever busted in India.
“Nithari was a case of necrophilia or someone attracted to corpses; here we were onto someone preying on male children, and frankly no one thought of the scale it was on,” said a senior CBI official, referring to the 2006 serial murders in Noida.
In conversation with 30-odd friends, teachers, local government, child protection and police officials, HT traced his decades-long journey of impunity, the many times he came close to getting caught and the toxic cocktail of new-age technology and old-school social power he wielded.
Singh was born in 1980 in Naraini, a small town famous for its rock sculptures. His father, Chunna Lal, was a mason of high repute and an expert in fashioning temple columns. He has two older brothers, Ram Kishore and Raja Bhaiyya, who joined his father’s profession. Singh was encouraged to study. “He never failed in any subject and kept clearing classes,” said the family doctor who didn’t want to be named. After finishing high school in 1998, Singh moved to Attara, a larger town, for college studies. After graduating, he started tutoring school students for extra cash while preparing for government exams. He also enrolled himself in a civil engineering course at a polytechnic in Banda, a much larger town an hour’s bus ride away.