On the morning of 15 September 2015, in the town of Badarpur, near the south-east border of Delhi, 12-year-old Swapnesh Gupta walked the short distance from his house to his school for the last time. At dusk later that day, according to a sub-inspector at Badarpur police station, he was on a bus bound for Uttarakhand with two instructors—a boy and a girl, both 17-years-old—from a neighbourhood dance academy. They were known to Swapnesh, however none of them had told their families that they were going away. That evening, when Swapnesh did not return from school, his father, Rajesh Gupta, became worried. He even tried filing a missing persons complaint, but since such a complaint can only be filed after a person has been missing for 24 hours, he was asked to come back the next morning. The police would later find that the trio was headed to Rudrapur, a small town near the border of Uttar Pradesh, in hopes of meeting some of the organisers of Dance India Dance—a popular reality show telecast on the Zee TV network. They never reached their destination. The next day, while stranded around the hills of Ranikhet, the dance instructors strangled Swapnesh to death. His body was thrown into a ditch, to be found by the Uttarakhand police four days later.
In their admission to the police, the dance instructors said that they had never had any intention of killing Swapnesh, and that the situation had spun out of control. Sub-Inspector Rajeev, the investigating officer—who insisted on going by his first name—told me that they had only intended to collect a ransom of Rs 60,000 from Swapnesh’s family. A case against them is now ongoing at the Juvenile Justice Board in Delhi. The exact reasons and motivations for the crime will be determined by the Board at a later date, but I spoke to a constable whose version was that “when Swapnesh learned about the plan, he refused to be a part of it. A short scuffle broke out, and Swapnesh was overpowered. After realising what they had done, the two of them disposed of the body.”
“We didn’t think anything [sic], we just wanted the money to get a chance to audition for Dance India Dance,” the accused told Inspector Rajeev after the arrest. They came back to Badarpur and decided to extract money from the family anyway. “On 18 September, a girl called, and asked us to show up with Rs 60,000 in cash near [the] toll tax booth in exchange for our child,” Madhu Gupta, Swapnesh’s mother, told me when I met her on 26 September. Swapnesh’s father, who had by now filed the missing complaint, intimated the police immediately. “They changed the location a couple of times before settling on the cemetery on Bypass road,” Inspector Rajeev said. “The officers were waiting there in civilian clothes when the couple came on a bike.” The duo was arrested on 19 September. Both the accused are now at juvenile homes; the girl at the Nirmal Chhaya Parisar in Tihar Jail, and the boy at the Bal Sudhar Grah in Mukherjee Nagar.
Badarpur, like many towns situated on the periphery of the capital, is a hamlet that could not keep up with the city’s rapid growth. In a matter of minutes, the story of Delhi's disquieting transformation plays out in reverse from the window of the metro, on the way from Central Secretariat to Badarpur. As the train bolts out of the underground tunnels in Jangpura, a string of glass-fronted buildings that sell bespoke suits and handcrafted home décor furnishings shimmer in the sunlight at Lajpat Nagar. This snapshot fades into the greying commercial complexes of Moolchand, Nehru Place and Govind Puri. Further along the line, the view devolves into structures under-construction and cement puddles; by the time the metro dots Tughlakabad, nothing is left except for clusters of brick-houses. A desolate landscape of rickety colonies broils under the sun when the metro halts at the elevated platform of the Badarpur metro station.
By virtue of being connected to Delhi, first by road and then by the metro, Badarpur has turned into a swarming hub of migrant workers from all over the country, and it has all happened over the last couple of decades. Many of the migrants work as security guards and manual labourers in the city, but cannot afford to live close to it. Land owners in Badarpur began selling their agrarian land to real estate agents at around the same time that Delhi was waking up to the country’s newly reoriented economic policy. “Fifteen years ago none of these buildings were here, nor were the people who live in them,” Rakesh Kumar, a 40-year-old auto-rickshaw driver who has lived in the area all his life, told me. Both the accused as well as the victim were part of the first generation raised in Badarpur.
The imprint of this sudden change is plastered all over the town. The aspirations and desires of this young generation are visible in the coaching centres that have mushroomed among the dusty streets. Learning to speak English “in [an] American” accent remains the primary concern; the lanes are peppered with centres offering “evening classes” and “45 day courses.” Preparation centres for graduate-level examinations that promise secure jobs, such as the State Selection Commission exam, are also prevalent. But remarkably, an inordinate number of banners invite the youth of Badarpur to learn singing and dancing—skills that might not seem relevant, but are in accord with their urgent needs.
I reached Badarpur a day after a film called Kis Kisko Pyaar Karoon debuted at the box office. Even though reviewers said it had little to offer as a movie , the huge image of its lead actor, the comedian Kapil Sharma, was drawing large crowds at the single screen Seble cinema—the only theatre in town. Sharma, a darling of Hindi-speaking households in tier-II cities, first appeared on national television as a contestant in a reality show. From being an unknown middle-class boy to a Forbes-listed celebrity in less than a decade, his is an unlikely success story. But this story has actualised for many singers, dancers and actors from across the country, and has gained credence with every chapter. The ardent ambitions of Swapnesh’s dance instructors were flamed by the same fable.
In describing the male accused, Inspector Rajeev said, “Ladka dance ka deewana hai,”—the boy is crazy about dance. “He has been learning dance since he was six years old,” the inspector continued, before adding, “He idolises Dharmesh sir, and told me he wanted to follow in his footsteps.” Dharmesh Yelande, popularly known as Dharmesh sir, was also an unlikely contender on Dance India Dance whose image transmuted into that of a vaunted celebrity right in front of everyone’s eyes—on a television screen. Yelande, too, features on several TV shows and movies, and is now a storied success. The boy, Inspector Rajeev told me, had come teasingly close to realising his dream when he reached the third round of the same dance reality show two years ago. “But then the organisers demanded Rs 40,000 in order for him to continue,” Inspector Rajeev recounted the boy telling him, and added, “but he didn’t have the money. So he came back to Badarpur and started his dance academy.”
The girl’s family of four lives in a two-room house, which gloomily stood in an uneven, unpaved street. “We don’t want to attract any attention,” the girl’s mother told me as I walked in, closing the door behind me. I sat in the living room on a divan that left little space for anything else, facing a wall from which the dull green paint was coming off in flakes. The girl’s mother pulled up a chair. We talked over the dim babble of the television playing inside.
The girl’s mother, along with her family, came to Badarpur from Bihar seven or eight years ago. “It was difficult for me to work there, because we are of Kayasth caste,” she told me. “In the village, Kayasth women are not supposed to leave their homes.” Despite holding a bachelors degree in education, the girl’s mother never worked outside her house even after moving to Delhi. “My husband never really liked the idea,” she said.
She told me that she was never particularly strict with her daughter. “I saw my own image in her,” the girl’s mother said, “she wanted to be an independent, out-going girl.” But her daughter’s idea of being independent differed from that of her mother’s. “She started working as a nurse in the nearby clinic but was not particularly enthusiastic about it. Around the end of the last year, she started talking a lot about dance,” she told me. “When I’d ask her to go to the clinic, she’d say, ‘Ma, D se Doctor hi nahi, Dancer bhi to hota hai’”—“D” stands for “Dancer” as much as “Doctor.”
The girl, according to her mother, met the boy in either January or February of this year. “She started watching all the dance shows on TV. She talked a lot about [famous choreographer] Saroj Khan and Shakti,” the mother recalled. Shakti Mohan, whom the girl’s mother referred to by only her first name, won the second season of Dance India Dance and followed a trajectory similar to Yelande’s. Hers, too, is a household name. “She started staying out late. She joined that boy’s dance academy as a teacher. She also went on roaming [indicating that she travelled out of town] for auditions,” her mother continued. “Over the past few months, she also started calling me ‘mama’ or ‘mom.’”
According to the police, Swapnesh’s dance instructors were running the dance studio in order to make enough money to pay off the organisers of any dance reality show, should the need arise. But their plan was not working. The dance academy was apparently not doing very well; after all, there is a similar academy—and sometimes more than one—in every neighbourhood competing for the same aspirants. “They tried to reach out to some schools that would let them teach dance to students, but no one was interested,” said Inspector Rajeev. A realtor whose home which doubles up as an office, is near the boy’s house told me that “The boy used to ask for money often. Sometimes Rs 5,000, sometimes Rs 2,000 and sometimes just a request to pay the rent for a room he was renting to run the academy.” The realtor, who asked not to be named, did not give the boy any money. “He had nothing to put down as security and nobody to vouch for him,” he explained.
If the realtor is to be believed, the boy’s family thought that he was wasting his time. The girl’s family did not approve of her chosen path either. “I made it clear that I would never give her a single penny for this dancing business,” her mother, who didn’t like this “line of career,” told me.
Swapnesh’s parents had moved to Badarpur in the early noughties from the Gaya district of Bihar. His father, Rajesh, works as a security guard at Jor Bagh market in Delhi for Rs 8,000 per month; his mother stays at home. The family lives in a stifling one-room house near the snarling border area of the town. Rajesh, who believes that “English is necessary these days,” had enrolled Swapnesh in Stanford Convent School—a private school that charges Rs 950 every month as fees.
Swapnesh’s mother, Madhu, told me that he was a bright student, and had passed the seventh standard with first division. In the back of his notebook, his mother showed me, 12-year-old Swapnesh was practicing his signature. We were sitting in the living room, which doubles up as kitchen; a colour television was displayed prominently in a corner, perched atop which was a Tata Sky set top box. “He liked watching cartoons—Bheem, Doraemon and such,” she said, adding, “and was particularly fond of Dance+”—another reality show.
“He wanted to learn dance. So in the summer holidays this year, he started going to that dance academy with his friends from school,” Madhu told me. That was when he first met the dance instructors. “He was a quick learner. He had already learned some nice steps,” she added.
On the morning of 15 September, the two accused met at the dance academy. They went to Swapnesh’s house, but he had already left for school. On their way to Stanford Convent, they met Madhu, who was walking back home after having dropped off Swapnesh’s younger brother, Sahitya. According to their admission, as recounted by Inspector Rajeev, the teachers of the school did not let them meet Swapnesh right away. So, the boy and the girl loitered around until afternoon, until school was over for the day. They met Swapnesh as he was stepping out of the school, and told him about the opportunity: that the organisers of Dance India Dance were coming to Rudrapur for a show, and “it might be helpful for future auditions to go and meet them.”
In the evening as I was leaving Badarpur, I saw teenagers heading to these dance academies in droves, dressed in bright clothes and brighter shoes, all seemingly chasing the same dream. In front of a two-storey building near Gyasi Kothi, close to the academy of the accused, I spoke to a bunch of kids who had come for that evening’s dance practice. “We are here for only a few days, we will form our own group after that,” they told me. In the background, popular Bollywood songs blared from the speakers inside the studio.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.