CURSE of CULTS
Escaping paradigms of rationality, the mysterious death of 11 family members in New Delhi’s Burari has shaken the country. Nevertheless, the trend of mass deaths, cult suicides and a delusioned belief in the supernatural is pervasive through modern society with cases being reported from across continents.
Against all winds of expectation, on July 1 at 7 am, India woke up to the horrific news of 11 deaths, reported from one family residing at the same house in New Delhi's Burari. Ten persons were found hanging from an iron-mesh on the ceiling, which otherwise served purposes of ventilation, while the body of a 77-year-old woman was found lying on the floor of another room.
The probe conducted by Delhi Police gathered mysterious handwritten notes at the spot of the incident, indicating that the deaths were tainted by a "religious or spiritual angle". "We have found handwritten notes detailing how the hands and legs are to be tied. The manner in which the bodies of the ten persons were found reflected what was written in the notes. They are exhaustive notes and we are still studying them," the police assured. The investigation further claimed that a religious practice had taken an unfortunate turn resulting in the death of all family members.
The belief in a parallel world of existence – whether religious, spiritual or etched in scientific fantasy – has been a trend pervasive through human civilisation. In India too, superstitions have killed several persons, including children. Recently, a 25-year-old youth killed a middle-aged homemaker at Jaykhut village in Bhagalpur district of Bihar, suspecting her to be a witch, practising black magic. In the year 2017, an 11-year-old girl was allegedly suffocated to death after her mother tried to cure her of a digestive disorder using black magic in Virar (East), Mumbai. However, the nation has never encountered mass suicide, to this extent, emanating from spiritual beliefs, as has been witnessed this time in Burari (as reports so far suggest).
Order of mass deaths
Though such an instance of cult mass suicide has unfolded for the first time in India, the world has witnessed several such incidents of massacre where misled cult worship has led to the death of several thousand people. In 1978, the Jonestown massacre in Guyana resulted in the death of more than 900 people, including children, when believers were persuaded to "drink the Kool-Aid" – a poisonous substance – by their cult leader. Reports claimed that the deceased, including some 300 aged 17 and under, made the incident one of the largest mass deaths in American history. Temple leader Jim Jones instructed all members living in Jonestown, Guyana compound to commit an act of "revolutionary suicide" and his followers did the same.
Another was "The Order of the Solar Temple" which saw the murder-suicide of more than 50 persons from the year 1994–97. The temple had a firm belief that the Earth would face a sudden attack. Reportedly, the group wanted to reestablish the notions of authority and power that they thought the world needed. More than 50 members of the cult in Switzerland, Canada and France were found dead. The various deaths were results of suffocation, gunshot and poisoning.
In March 1997, America was shaken by the Heaven's Gate cult. It was a case of suspected mass suicide in which 39 bodies were found inside a rented mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California. All bodies were recovered, identically dressed, with neat purple fabric squares covering their faces and chests. The members of Heaven's Gate, which had existed since the 1970s, believed they were exiting their earthly bodies to board a UFO that was hiding behind the comet as it made its closest approach to the Earth.
In the year 2013, a family in Rajasthan consumed cyanide laced laddoos as they reportedly wanted to meet God. Reports further claimed that more than four persons had died. The entire matter came to light after the police examined a video. Before committing suicide, Kanchan Singh, head of the family, had made a video recording each member of the family, where he asked them why they wanted to die and also discussed their feelings.
Mystery of 11 registers
Coming back to Delhi's tryst with cult suicide, the investigation into the case where 11 persons were found dead in Burari, revealed that the family did not want to die. Instead, their superstitious practice did not bear the desired results. The police claimed that they have questioned more than 60 persons excluding the family members. They further said that the two registers recovered from the temple in the house had notes elaborately discussing 'salvation', 'badh tapasya', 'shunya'.
"During the investigation, it was found that Lalit (deceased) was suffering from delusions and would speak like his father who had died several years ago. The family members would then write on the registers whatever he spoke during his period of delusion," said the investigators.
The first entry in the registers was as early as 2007 and the last entry was made on June 30, the day they allegedly conducted the ritual. "The earliest entries are more on philosophical musings and religious beliefs. Every entry in the register would begin with 'Shree'. There have been months on end when no entries have been registered," he said. They have written in detail how by following the rituals, one would not actually die "but would be saved by God and attain something great". The investigator further claimed that the family believed that during the practice they will be saved by Lalit – but the theory went wrong leading to their untimely death.
The police suspect that six persons had written in the nine registers along with several more loose sheets (which added to 11 registers) between 2007 and 2018. Call records of the past six months have been scanned, with prime focus on the phone calls that were made in the last three days preceding the incident. According to the police, initially, in 2007, the content had been mostly philosophical; such as how to live in the family and that one should take care of the mother. Investigators found that contents on 'badh tapasya' begun appearing in the register only since this year.
To unravel the mystery behind the simultaneous death of 11 members of a family in north Delhi's Burari, Delhi Police will conduct a 'psychological autopsy'. Experts said a 'psychological autopsy' involves interacting with the relatives, friends and acquaintances of the victim(s) to find out if there was any pattern in their behaviour – for instance, whether they were reading the same book or similarly-themed books, or were a part of a cult or were influenced by any occultist.
CCTV captures final moments
Delhi Police recovered CCTV footage which captured the last moments of the family members, where they are seen taking stools and wire inside the house, which they later used for hanging themselves. Investigators said they have found three main points from the CCTV footage, captured from a camera in the adjacent house. "Around 10 pm on Saturday, deceased Neetu has seen taking a stool inside the house, with another relative, which was later found near the spot. Two children were playing outside. One of them went to the furniture shop and bought a wire, which was later used for hanging, and then went back to the house. Around 11 pm, another relative went inside the house with the dog and no movement was seen afterwards," the police officer reported. He further said that around 7 am on Sunday, one man wearing a turban was found entering the house, who eventually informed another person of the incident. Relatives of the deceased, however, have emphasised that they do not believe in the theory of superstitions and want a fair probe into the case. The family of the deceased had moved a complaint to Delhi Police alleging that it was murder, not the result of any self-inflicted harm emanating from spiritual practices.
Trend of mass murders
Delhi Police had also not completely ruled out the possibility of murder. There have been cases in the past where there have been mass murders within families. Starting from the year 2013, all seven members of a family in Ghaziabad were murdered after their throats were slit with a sharp weapon. The victims included three generations of the family, a senior citizen and his wife, their son and daughter-in-law, and three minor grandchildren.
Another similar incident was reported from Delhi's Burari area in the year 2017, when the North Delhi Police arrested a person who claimed that he had killed the family of his business partner. The accused, Sahib Khan alias Bunty (27), had killed Hassan, his wife and four children, in order to take over the latter's property worth over several crores. Bunty revealed to the police that he had already killed Hassan's wife and children the previous month and had buried their bodies at different places in Meerut in Uttar Pradesh and Burari in north Delhi. One of the most high-profile murder mysteries of 2017 was solved in the year 2018 after the Crime Branch of Delhi Police arrested five persons involved in the murder of four women and a security guard at their residence in Mansarovar Park area of Shahdara district.
Another case which had rocked the Capital was the suicide of the Bansal family members in East Delhi. On September 27, Bal Kishan Bansal was found dead with his son at his apartment in Madhu Vihar in East Delhi. The deaths came two months after Bansal's wife Satyabala, 58, and daughter Neha, 28, had ended their lives in a similar manner.