Is “true crime” really “true”? INDIAN PREDATOR: DIARY OF A SERIAL KILLER (Netflix, September 2022)

The world is so full of misinformation, disinformation and straight-out lies that it is not surprising that audiences crave some truth, and podcasts and documentaries investigating “true crimes” have become enormously popular.

The first series of Indian Predator, “The Butcher of Delhi” was screened earlier this year, and this new one, “Diary of a Serial Killer” involves a confessed cannibal, so of course The Cannibal Guy had to take a look. But did he kill all those people, and even if he did, did he also eat their brains? Truth is often the first victim of cannibalism.

Raja Kolander, real name Ram Niranjan, the husband of a local politician, was suspected of murdering a journalist in Allahabad in 2000. Dhirendra Singh was a reporter with a Hindi daily newspaper called Aaj, and his body was mutilated and discarded in a river and a jungle. His head and genitals had been removed.

Police tracked the journalist’s phone records and found a call to the suspect, Raja Kolander. Kolander and his brother-in-law were arrested, beaten up, and finally confessed to the murder of the journalist. The police claimed that the murder was to stop Singh reporting on their car-theft business. But during the subsequent investigation, officers found Kolander’s diary, which listed some fourteen victims in total, including that journalist.

Although he was arrested in 2001, Kolander was not charged with the murder for a decade. During his trial in 2012, the police testified that he had admitted to cannibalism, and to burying fourteen skulls in his home. Kolander, his brother-in-law and his wife were all given life sentences for three murders, although he has appealed those convictions. Claims of cannibalism were never proven, nor were the other eleven murders, and some of those interviewed say that a few of those so-called “victims” are still wandering around. There is also mention made that the “mining mafia” had it in for Dhirendra Singh for exposing some of their corrupt practices, but this is not really explored further in the documentary. We are told, however, that Uttar Pradesh is ranked top in number of murders in all of India.

The first episode interviews the police and family of the journalist, and presents fairly damning evidence of murder. But then, some of it is just silly, such as the chief investigator saying that criminals “stutter when faced with the police.”

The evidence against Kolander is presented as it was laid out by the police, and the events shown in the documentary are just recreations of the official version, with actors playing the main characters. How legit those are is a good question, as there are several mentions of duress during the police interrogation.

The police claim that Kolander was motivated by power, and sought to acquire it by cannibalism. One victim was from the Lala sub-caste. They are considered smart, even cunning, and often accused of taking advantage of the poor. The police claim that Kolander believed he could imbibe this cleverness through cannibalism, and so this victim was killed and Kolander then removed his brain:

Then drank it as a stew. Another victim claimed to be a hypnotist, and so his brain was consumed in the hope of gaining that skill. As the investigator asks

A question to which I, for one, urgently need an answer.

Kolander then allegedly cut open a Brahmin, a member of a caste known to eat well, to see if they have larger intestines than other people. He then had to cut open a lower caste person to compare. The results were apparently disappointing. We are all equal, at least in the width of our intestines.

The second and third episodes interview Kolander in jail, another decade after the trial. He maintains that he is innocent of the murders that took place some twenty years before. He insists that he is a victim of trial by media.

The question of why his supposed thirteen other crimes went without investigation until a respected journalist was killed sheds some interesting light on the social and caste divisions in Indian society. Like Albert Fish, who in 1920s New York preferred to kill and eat black children since he knew the police would not work too hard to look for them, the racist attitudes in India to other classes, religions, and communities seem to have resulted in not much work being done on finding the earlier victims.

But Kolander himself comes from a caste which is largely impoverished, and the times were ripe for revolt by the subaltern castes – there were dacoits (bandits) roaming the countryside, and lower castes were fighting to be represented in government of all levels. It is clear that Kolander’s caste, the Kol, were considered by the upper castes to be primitive savages, recently driven from the jungles by deforestation into the life of subsistence farming, but retaining their savage traditions. It was inconceivable to them that a person from this background could own two cars, as the police claimed.

Kolander insists that he is a highly spiritual Hindu, not concerned with worldly power, and even claims to be a vegetarian, which would make eating brains tricky, although others (including his daughter) cast doubt on that. But it is certainly true that the colonial story has embraced accusations of cannibalism since Columbus – those who are poor and deprived must be savages, eaters of human flesh. Nothing they do is therefore surprising, and anything they are accused of is probably true.

Is this “true crime” documentary true? It’s impossible to know. But there are lot of holes in the story, including the fact that police brutality seems to be a standard interrogation technique, the fact that it took a decade to bring him to trial and, after another decade, his conviction (for three murders, not fourteen) is still to be decided. Also, the charges of cannibalism, which kind of make this newsworthy, were never proven in a court of law. Kolander, with some justification, says that his case was tried not in court but in the media, which published pretty much any sensational story they could dream up.

Cannibalism is perhaps the perfect exemplar of the uncanny – Freud wrote that we are most disquieted by the familiar suddenly becoming strange (remember Jeffrey Dahmer’s step-mother Shari saying he was “a nice, kind boy”) and things that should be hidden instead being revealed (e.g. the Brahmin’s intestines). But the impossibility of determining the truth is in itself uncanny, even more disquieting because our certainties about truth and lies are torn apart. A few cannibals sit down and tell their stories (Dahmer did, and so did Meiwes and Sagawa), but often the cannibal either disappears into the night like Jack the Ripper or suicides like Chase or is executed like Chikatilo. Seeing the bodies, or what’s left of them, but never knowing what or who happened to them is uncanny, and even more so when, like Kolander, the apparent cannibal denies all culpability.

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