A Son Erased: The Forgotten Habeas Corpus of A Missing Queer Man 

On January 5, 2019, a distressed father filed a complaint at a police station in South Delhi with regard to his missing 24-year-old son after he exhausted every method he could to find him himself.

The father had approached the police with the hope of finding his son, who is gay, alive. But as time went by, hope dwindled even as the trauma remained intact.

Days led to weeks and weeks led to months. Six months after the first complaint, which was followed by several more, the police finally decided to lodge an FIR in the case.

As per the criminal justice system, the lodging of the FIR is the first act that puts the entire system into motion. It is the most primary act of acknowledging the information about a possible crime. It’s fascinating how it took six months for the police to even acknowledge that a father had been looking for his missing son who disappeared under unusual circumstances.

The delayed registration of the FIR resulted in a delayed investigation in a crime which, in all probabilities, may still be continuing as it is an open missing persons case. The facts did not involve a post-facto investigation into a settled crime, where the position of the victim has been amply ascertained.

The present case involves a search for a missing person, whose destiny is far from being ascertained.

The trauma that emanates from such uncertainty has its manifestation in unfathomable and simultaneous outbreaks of fear, anticipation, optimism and defeat.

All of it, loosely held together by dwindling hope.

As and when the investigation began, multiple status reports appeared which showed that the missing 24-year-old was an avid user of Planet Romeo – a dating app for queer individuals. Call data records were looked into to work out that the missing man used to meet multiple men, both in the city and outside, while not informing his family about the same.

When contacted, these men who had met him could not give any plausible leads to his whereabouts. It was then that the investigating agency decided to approach the dating website itself.

As a company registered in the Netherlands, Planet Romeo asked the Indian agency to seek the information through Interpol.

Whether the police asked Planet Romeo to consider the request of assistance as an urgent matter and process information on an emergency basis is not mentioned in the status report. The same was also not inquired into by the trial court. I suppose we’ll never know whether not prioritising assistance in a habeas corpus case was an act of investigative negligence, or an overt act of conscience.

As the investigation was bearing no significant results, the concerned father decided to approach the Delhi high court with a criminal writ petition, which sought that the police find out the current status of his son – who had now been missing for months.

The criminal writ stated:

“The petitioner and his family members are tired of visiting the police station again and again but there seems no ray of hope for the petitioner and his family members.”

Finally, a year later, the court was informed by the police said that it would require at least six months to get the requisite information from Planet Romeo as the International Letter of Request needs to be filed after obtaining an order from the concerned court and permission from the Directorate of Prosecutions, Tis Hazari court.

While recognising the need to have a more serious and dedicated investigation into the case, the court decided to transfer the same to the crime branch.

Moreover, by an order dated March 6, 2020, the Delhi high court directed the Delhi Police to submit status reports – at least one each month – before the trial court.

While recording the order, not a single word was said on the excruciating trauma that is being caused to the family due to the unexplainable delay in the investigation. No conclusions or observations appeared on the petitioner’s argument on the targeting of young men by gangs operating on gay dating apps.

The court neither reprimanded nor penalised the concerned police department/officer for causing such an inordinate delay in filing the FIR. This is concerning as the police had not provided any cogent reason for causing such a delay.

Since March 6, 2020, no communication has been made to either the court or to the concerned family about developments in the case. When contacted, the lawyer appearing for the family could also not provide any information about action taken by the crime branch since the last court order.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the restricted functioning of courts, judicial relief has been restricted to ‘urgent matters’ with no objective information as to who makes the cut for such ‘urgency’.

What doesn’t reach the chambers of the courts through video conferencing seems to appear as ‘not urgent’ even if there were multiple reasons for rendering a case to appear that way – institutional homophobia, negligence, lack of prioritisation, lack of ‘incentives’ or just mere laziness.

Amidst all of this, a young man who hails from an underprivileged family and identifies as a sexual minority is lost in the uncertainty. The family’s trauma and anticipation is not shrouded with the issues of ‘urgent matters’ or ‘justice in a pandemic’.

What could be more ‘urgent’, one might ask, than finding out if a loved one is alive or not?

As the pandemic settles in for what looks like a long haul, and the cause of equitable access to justice takes a back seat, one wonders as to what it would cost to not just seek justice, but also prove the urgency of one’s cause as a prerequisite to qualify for that ‘privilege’.

Until then, the son lost, continues to remain a son forgotten.

Karan is a queer man who works as an Associate Editor with LiveLaw.

Featured image credit: Reuters