Urban murders: In India, there's little understanding of the psychology of killers

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series about the rising incidence of urban murders, which looks at the psychological perspective. Read part one here.

Death came at midnight.

A nurse at St Stephen’s Hospital in north Delhi sounded the emergency alarm in the morning after she saw through a half glass door, the bloodied frame of Shashwat Pandey, a third-year Radiology intern. At the same time, the clock in the corridor sounded the 7 am bell. It was 25 August 2017.

Pandey’s throat had been slit with a surgical blade, there were three stab wounds to his heart. Doctors who checked the body agreed death had been instantaneous.

What was horrifying were the slit marks on Pandey's face, as if someone had carefully used a scalpel to make thin wounds to draw blood, an act described by Steven Griffiths in his debut novel, Diary of a Psychopath. The protagonist of the novel, a serial killer called Kevin Mason sliced the faces of his victims and watched them bleed to death.

Pandey’s mother, on a visit to Delhi to meet her son, suffered a cardiac arrest when told about his murder.

 Urban murders: In India, theres little understanding of the psychology of killers

Dr Pandey, the victim; and (inset) Dr Gupta

Investigators found the Griffiths novel mentioned repeatedly on the Facebook profile of Dr Suyash Gupta, the suspected killer, who had been threatening and harassing the victim. Gupta was seen on CCTV camera, entering the CT Scan room where Pandey was on duty and then leaving after an hour in a different set of clothes. He had earlier fought with Pandey, even attacked him with a knife because he felt the latter was 'ignoring' him. Gupta's obsession for Pandey, cops said, hovered towards the homosexual, with one of his numerous text messages to the victim reading: 'I want to be your slave, you my master'.

“Dr Gupta’s Facebook profile had details about the book, and the way the killer attacked and murdered his victims. He stalked Dr Pandey for more than a year-and-a-half; numerous complaints were made and the hospital was on the verge of sacking him. But the murder took place before he could be sacked,” said Dr Shubhra Phillips, Dr Pandey's aunt.

Gupta, a resident of Etah in Uttar Pradesh, is currently absconding. The police have issued look out notices, and also shared them on social media. Gupta’s parents, who run a clinic in Agra, were called for interrogation by the cops and they admitted wiring Rs 5,00,000 into their son’s account days before the crime took place.

“We suspect he knew he had to escape after the murder. He withdrew Rs 4,50,000 from his account hours after the cash was wired by his father,” says Dr Phillips.

Cops investigating the case say they are looking into the psychological state of a man's mind, as he commits a murder. They also agree the murder could have been averted if the hospital authorities had heeded the complaint lodged by the deceased's family, regarding Dr Gupta's threats to Dr Pandey. Worse, the police have now found that hospital authorities had forced Dr Pandey's family to withdraw the complaint against Dr Gupta, saying it would tarnish the name of the institution. “We are probing how Dr Gupta managed to enter the hospital if he was twice suspended from the department,” says Ranbir Singh, SHO of Subzi Mandi Police Station in north Delhi.

In another recent incident, a woman in Kolkata was found hanged to death on the night of her first wedding anniversary. Just hours before, she had been out for dinner with her husband. Cops arrested the husband, Tanmay, after WhatsApp messages from the woman, Nandita, sent to a cousin surfaced. They included a photo of Nandita's bruised face, after she had been beaten by her husband.

And what was the trigger? A washing machine, high-end television, Macbook, and an Apple watch that Tanmay wanted, and which Nandita's parents hadn't provided. He said he was 'stressed out' and 'under pressure' because unlike his colleagues, he didn't have these products.

“In India, we are still in the dark about where this (behaviour) comes from,” said Dr Devlina Chakravarty, referring to the Nandita case.

Psychologist Dr Suparna Sengupta agrees, saying India lags in research into urban murders, even mass or serial killers: “There have been some cases of MRIs and high levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine and plunging levels of serotonin (being recorded). Now research has started into the limbic system, a primitive part of the brain that controls emotions and behaviour. But India, unlike in the West, has not worked on new medications which, in turn, would revolutionise psychiatric care for depression, even psychotics.”

“Rarely is the psychology of such murders analysed and that is not good news,” says Dr Sengupta.

In cases where the killer is also killed, cops and psychologists don't get a chance to analyse their behaviour. In some big cases in Delhi and Mumbai, however, cops — with help from doctors — have been developing the profiles of killers after they have been arrested, tried in the courts, and convicted for their crimes.

What can explain the uptick in murders in India despite data on homicides that says they are on the decline? Image for representation only; via sxc.hu

In India, experts say we're still in the dark about the psychological processes that lead to violent crimes like murders. Image for representation only; via sxc.hu

In the United States, research has shown about 95 percent of serial killers were men, loners and people who always felt that they were alienated from others. Interestingly, they looked normal on the outside but when probed, they revealed their inner motivations, and professed to feeling very angry.

“But this is not exactly an Asian trend, or a South Asian trend. India does not have a gun culture where you can buy arms and bullets off the shelves,” says Dr YM Upadhyay, a senior official of the Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Science.

But, claims Dr Upadhyay, there are lessons to be learned from urban murders happening across the world, and India, being a growing economy, could soon be a part of this poisoned psychology of hatred.

“Motivations of mass murders are strangely common where the killers often struggle with their own sexuality. In some cases, it has been conclusively proved that hate of other people is displaced hate of oneself,” says Dr Upadhyay.

Experts say the reasons, especially in a country like India, are many. In some cases, it's about the loss of a sense of significance that can happen due to personal failure or being part of a discriminated minority. In some cases, murders happen if people are bullied. Actually, there are multiple reasons why people are increasingly feeling insignificant in society. Interestingly, scientists say taking action to ameliorate a perceived injustice has a neural benefit because the action of revenge triggers the same pleasure centres in the brain as happiness.

Dr Sengupta says emotions are difficult to study in a laboratory but now scientists know when a person feels aggression, and in turn, that person assesses whether another person standing nearby is a friend or foe. “Feelings of self-hate push people to commit murders, and once the crime has been committed, people feel their sense of significance has been restored,”she adds.

An example of murder restoring the killer's sense of significance, can be seen in a homicide tat took place in Delhi this August. Vinod, 34, was arrested on 2 August 2017, for the murder of his wife Santosh, 40. Vinod susected Santosh of having an affair, so he purchased a knife from a cutlery shop, took Santosh to a bar (where they both consumed alcohol) and then fatally stabbed her. Vinod told the police he couldn't onceive of his wife seeing another man, and that his friend circle too had told him to kill Santosh.

Such crimes, claim cops, are a way of showing one's power over another human being. There are other issues as well. Cops say the more people are socially connected to a group, they generally believe others outside the group are less intelligent, even less human.

Veteran actor Ashish Vidyarthi, now an HR expert, says when such crimes are committed, no one knows what’s really going in the mind of the killer. A film actor may know because he has a script but the cops don't get one in real life. “And it would be very wrong for anyone to place the blame — like in the West — either on guns or a complex/ideology. In India, where aspiration levels of both the rich and poor are increasing by the day, it is difficult to prevent people from experiencing failure or feeling 'dishonoured',” says Vidyarthi.

Murder inquiries, claim some cops, are often hampered in India because the practice of offender profiling is deeply unscientific. In most cases, it is meaningless and has little impact on murder investigations. “On many occasions, they risk misleading investigators and waste police time,” says a senior cop, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The police officer said he had strong arguments against behavioural profiling because it has never led to the direct apprehension of a murderer or a serial killer; it has no real-world value. “These are serious issues that psychologists and behavioural scientists need to address in India,” says the cop.

Behavioural profiling was routine in the US in the 1970s when the FBI used questionnaires to interview serial killers and used their responses as a basis for drawing up profiles of future murderers. But then, it was found that such serial killers were unreliable interviewees and by the mid '90s the process drew a lot of flak. Then came the evolving science of brain imaging, which was used to study violent criminality. The colour images, which showed metabolic activity in different parts of the brain, provided striking contrasts when those of violent criminals were compared with non-offenders. For example, the murderers' brains had a significant reduction in the development of the prefrontal cortex, 'the executive function' of the brain, when compared with the control group.

“Eventually, it all depends on how fast you track the crisis. The person who harassed my nephew should have been tracked and treated. But he was let loose. And then he committed the murder. A precious life is lost and even if Dr Gupta is arrested, justice will be a long way,” says Dr Phillips, of Dr Shashwat Pandey's murder.

The post mortem report, almost a week after the murder, is still not out. Like all murders in the cities, this one also appears to be in for a long, long wait.

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Updated Date: Sep 05, 2017 14:05:06 IST