The early onset of winter in October 2006 in Delhi would spell the beginning of a long, dark period that would stretch for years to come. Outside Delhi’s Tihar Jail, one of the largest prison complexes in Asia, cops discovered a basket inside which was a decapitated body tightly wrapped in newspaper and rags, and covered in plastic. The basket included a letter addressed to the cops that was filled with abuse and ended with a challenge from the writer to be caught for their heinous crime.
Why was the killer butchering his victims and placing their mutilated bodies wrapped inside baskets outside one of the most secure prison complexes in Asia? A year after the first killing, another body was discovered outside Tihar Jail – decapitated like the first victim, but this time with the limbs and penis cut off as well. A month after, yet another decapitated body surfaced outside the jail. Two of these bodies were accompanied by handwritten notes in which the writer cockily challenged the cops to find them. Beyond the heinous ways in which the victims’ bodies were treated, there was no conceivable pattern or motive to the killings, at least none that was immediately apparent.
A new three-episode Netflix docu-series Indian Predator: The Butcher of Delhi produced by VICE Studios takes us to the nerve centre of one of India’s most dangerous killers.
“Much like the most notorious serial killers across history, he, too, needed fame,” director Ayesha Sood told VICE. “Only, there was hardly any coverage of his crimes and that greatly troubled the killer. For the research and development team, led by Nandita Gupta, the starting point was the case files. Through them, we gradually contacted everyone connected to him – his friends, acquaintances, and the people of his village.”
For the longest time, cops were unable to even trace the identities of the victims, let alone discover the killer. The fact that most of the bodies were either decapitated or their face horribly disfigured didn’t make things easier. Even if a body was sent for DNA testing, as one of the top cops explained in the first episode, India does not have a national DNA database against which the results can be run, so a victim could not be identified. After butchering his victims, he would also dump their heads in the Yamuna river, considered holy for Hindus, hoping his victims would achieve transcendence.
But as true crime documentaries are bound to make you wonder, why kill in the first place? And what explains placing the bodies outside Tihar Jail? Sood said that the reasons given by the killer to the cops were ambiguous at best. Even to this day, no one can specifically point to the reasons.
“The whole act of killing for him was a power play,” said Sood. “When he ties up his victims and takes their photographs, it’s the moment he feels most in control because he wants to dominate the people around him. Unfortunately, he ended up being a nobody, as we see that for the longest time he was not even noticed by the Delhi police or the press.”
The cops eventually managed to trace the killer when sub-inspector Narendra Pehalwan was reminded of a similar murder in 1998 – in which a union leader was stabbed by a worker following a disagreement over money. With the aid of the police informant network, cops identified the killer as a man named Chandrakant Jha through a roundabout, almost unexpected way.
He told the cops that he would reveal everything under the condition that they do not beat him up. “Through his confessions, we realised that his family unit was not a functional one. We spoke to people from his village and found that there was definitely something imbalanced about him. But all of this is still village gossip and hearsay.”
His acquaintances and neighbours from the village of Ghosai in Bihar state shared how Jha’s mother, a teacher, was not a present, caring person, and how this might have complicated his relationship with the mother figure. The abuses written in the letters that came with the bodies carried elaborate descriptions of how he would molest the mothers of the addressees, and how they were birthed by whores. S.L. Vaya, a clinical forensics scientist, analysed those letters and found a clear dislike towards the mother figure.
“Jha’s case is a story of the intersection of patriarchy, masculinity, and just plain power play,” Sood said. “He had this unbearable urge to kill, even going to the extent of saying that he will go crazy if he doesn’t kill more than two or three people in a year.”
Sood and her team visited Jha’s residence in Delhi for this series. They could even see the exact spot in his house where he had butchered a few of his victims. However, the landlord didn’t allow them to shoot there.
“The experience was quite haunting,” Sood recalled. “Most of the neighbourhood was the same. And the first time we ever saw the photographs that he took of his victims, it hit us in the gut. Everyone from the research team to the shooting crew was disturbed for a few days. Then you get numb to it. It’s quite eerie to know that the pictures he took of the victims were not just lying in the archives; we actually discovered them in his village in Bihar.”
In February 2013, Jha was subsequently found guilty on three counts of murder and received two death sentences and life imprisonment until death. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment without remission, in January 2016. At the time of writing this article, Jha is still in jail; his parole privileges were revoked in January 2020 when he was last out. Sood and the team also ensured that many villagers, including the family of the victims, shared their trauma on camera for the first time.
“One of the biggest takeaways, for me, is not the fact that you’re born with a criminal streak, but how it’s the circumstances that make all the difference,” said Sood. “The criminologist told us that you could be born with the germ, but it’s nature and nurture going together.”
After all, Jha was a low-wage immigrant in a highly stressful city like Delhi. His reasons for killing were flimsy and ranged from his victims lying or stealing from him to eating non-vegetarian food.
“The scale of his terror and dominance is surprising,” said Sood. “A lot of people didn’t end up coming on camera just out of fear. The amount of fear he still commands is terrible.”