Revisiting the unforgettable day of my journalistic career 23 year ago
How Katia’s kidnapping became breaking news in 1994?
It was a calm afternoon on September I, 1994. I was writing news sitting in Chandigarh’s Sector-22 office of The Ajit. A friend called from Mohali. He asked whether I knew about kidnapping of a white foreign girl. I expressed ignorance. The girl had come to the night coffee shop of Aroma hotel in a three-wheeler along with a male friend. About 5-6 boys there first talked with her and then forcibly took her away in a car sporting a red becon. The boys had gunmen with them and the matter was also reported to the police, he explained.
“Ok, will try to find out,” I responded. Let me recall those were the days of landline phones.
Since Aroma hotel was located exactly opposite our office, I walked down, enquired and was successful in getting a clue that the said girl had dined previous night at the hotel along with an African boy and a girl. I could also gather that outside on the road some boys had an altercation with the white girl and his male friend. And that was all.
That day I was down with bad cold and mild fever. I called some sources over phone but could not lay hands on any more information than I already had. By now, my colleague Ajaib Aujla also reached the office. I shared the incident with him. Since I was unwell and not in a position to drive scooter comfortably, Aujla offered to accompany me on his bike and we both set out to investigate the matter further.
It was around 6 pm that we first reached the police station at Phase-8. All we could learn was that a white foreign girl had indeed visited the police station and recorded her statement. Nobody was willing to share any bit of more information. As we were about to start back, a police constable whispered to us that the said girl was staying in some house in Phase-9. He didn’t share number of the house.
Those days Mohali was not as thickly populated as it’s now. The Phase-9 area was under development but still locating the house there was no less challenging than finding needle in a haystack. But we didn’t give up and finally succeeded in locating the house. It was house number 1247.
We learnt that the said girl was staying with her African friend James and his wife who were tenants in this house.
We rang the doorbell. A female voice responded without opening the door. She was wife of James. She sounded so frightened that she couldn't even muster courage to switch on the light inside. But we convinced her to share the incident though briefly. From there we learnt the kidnapping had taken place at this house.
We also learnt the girl’s nationality and that her name was Katia though in our media reports it was misspelled as Ketia.
As told by James’ wife, some boys accompanied by armed gunmen had forcibly taken away Katia in a Gypsy. It happened sometime between 2 am and 3 am the previous night. While resisting this criminal act, they were hit with rifle butts and threatened. Katia had returned alone at 9 am the next morning. After this, the police took her to identify the spot and the accused.
She also shared that Katia had, in the police complaint, alleged molestation by the accused and that she somehow managed to escape from their custody.
Darkness started descending as she was sharing these details. We realized it would become difficult to meet the deadline for filing the news report if we stayed there any longer seeking more details. Those days, reporters used to write their news by hand and sent to newspaper head offices either by fax or teleprinter unlike Internet mode these days.
Who were the kidnappers? Probably, she had no idea till then. We too were clueless about their identity. They might be some VIP brats since they had a government vehicle, we supposed.
We returned to office and dispatched the report.
I remember that next morning it was the front page news in The Ajit published in two vertical columns. Gobind Thukral was the first journalist to call after reading the news. It became a hot topic of discussion in media, government and political circles. The crime reporters of other newspapers also became active. Some were even pulled up by their editors for missing the story.
The first report mentioned it as a case of kidnapping and rape but the rape charge was not subsequently confirmed. We then reported it to be a case of kidnapping and molestation. Anyways, it started transpiring by the afternoon that the Gypsy used in the incident and gunmen were attached with the Punjab Chief Minister’s office.
This made us more determined to get at the bottom of the case. I and my photographer colleague TS Bedi visited Katia early next morning. She agreed to talk after a great deal of persuasion saying she was fed up after narrating her tale already to the police about ten times.
The next day her photograph was also published in The Ajit along with her version. At that time, there was no legal restriction on publishing the name and photograph of any victim of molestation or rape.
The investigative instinct made us restless and the next day, we managed to locate the building in Mohali’s Industrial Area where Katia was kept in illegal custody by the kidnappers. For several days, the case hogged media headlines the world over. It turned out to be a big embarrassment for the then Chief Minister Beant Singh, his government and the Congress Party.
The accused were arrested and bailed out. Finally, Chandigarh’s district court acquitted them in 1999 for want of " proof and witnesses". Katia herself did not appear even as a victim . Why she did not appear , remained a mystery.Even there is no mention about this issue in her letter claimed to be sent by her to The Tribune ( published on the front page on August 14, 2017 ). Anyways, the Katia Case as it, infamously, became known got registered as an unforgettable piece of reportage in my career as a journalist.
I have preserved, till date, all my reports published in The Daily Ajit about this case that caused political storm in Punjab.
August 14, 2017
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