Decoding India’s Secret Trade of Bone Smuggling

Last week, the news of 50 human skeletons being discovered on a train, running from Ballia in Uttar Pradesh to Siliguri in West Bengal, took the country by surprise and piqued everyone’s curiosity.

After all, it isn’t everyday that one hears of human bones being ‘smuggled’ out of the country. The ‘smuggler’, Sanjay Prasad, told the police that the skeletons were being ‘smuggled’ out of the country – the best bet being Nepal or Bhutan. Prasad also confessed to having carried out this morbid activity in the past. But the question remains: Who wanted so many skeletons and where did they come from?

The Quint reached out to several police officials, medical students, and several other persons with first-hand information on this kind of a case, and we found out that at least up until the early 2000s, bone smuggling, or even corpse smuggling, wasn’t a one-off anomaly. It was more common than you would think.

The History Behind ‘Bone Smuggling’

Bone smuggling had been rampant in India for decades, if not centuries. According to The New York Times best-selling author Scott Carney – in a 2009 investigative report in Wired – India had exported about 60,000 skulls and skeletons in 1984.

"60,000 " - In 1984, India had exported about 60,000 skulls and skeletons!

This number was fairly consistent up until 1985, when the Indian government outlawed the export of human remains, CNN reported . The government’s decision to “outlaw” the export of human parts came after being pressured by human rights groups, which called the trade “unethical” – and also due to a rising number of grave thefts and even murders.

Up until the practice was “outlawed”, it was for the most part considered legal. The article by Carney quoted a former president of the Indian Association of Exporters of Anatomical Specimens, Bimalendu Bhattacharjee, who told the Los Angeles Times in 1991:

"“For years, we ran everything above board. No one advertised, but everyone knew it was going on.”  "

Image used for representation. 

The same article claims that at this point of time, Kolkata's bone factories were the most notorious within the Indian market and took in an estimated $1 million a year.

“But it couldn’t last. The graveyards of West Bengal were being picked clean, and the lure of ready money soon attracted criminal elements. The industry shuddered to a halt in March 1985, when a bone trader was arrested after exporting 1,500 child skeletons,” Carney wrote in his article.  

The Demand & Supply Chain aka 'The Red Market'

Carney's book, The Red Market, explains the highly profitable “markets of flesh”, where the demand for these human cadavers arise from foreign countries, and the supply for it is provided by tradesmen in India itself.

The main party or parties demanding human bones and human flesh, is almost logically, medical colleges that require the “goods” for their students to study, the book said. 

Image of a stethoscope used for representational purposes.

The demand sometimes comes from the medical students themselves, without the involvement of the institutions they are affiliated to.

While there is a legal process to providing medical colleges with cadavers to experiment on for research purposes, sometimes, that route isn’t effective enough, according to a student studying in a Kolkata-based medical college.

THE LEGAL ROUTE

Speaking to The Quint, former IPS Officer P K Jain explained both the legal and illegal ways by which these human cadavers be procured, in the first instance, and smuggled through, in the second.

The legal route is the one that’s been in practice for hundreds of years of Indian medical history. With India having a population of billions, keeping a record of the “unclaimed bodies” is not an easy feat.

Despite the Modi government’s call for a Bill regarding the creation of a database of DNA profiles to locate missing persons across the country and to identify unclaimed bodies, to be passed in the Monsoon session of the Parliament this year, the number of unidentified bodies in the country have remained consistently high.

As per the most recent data, an NCRB report showed that 2015 itself, the number of unclaimed bodies were recorded as follows: 6,185 in Maharashtra, 3,739 in Tamil Nadu, 3,533 in Karnataka, 3,409 in Uttar Pradesh, 3,086 in West Bengal, 3,063 in Delhi and 2,416 in Gujarat, for starters. A 2011 NCRB report, quoted by India Today, reports that an average of 102 unidentified bodies were found in India every day that year.

An article by The Hindu simplifies what happens next. An unidentified body is kept in the mortuary for a span of three weeks, after which if no one come forth to claim it, the necessary paperwork is carried out and the body is given to hospitals.

This, after it receives due approval from a magistrate (a government official who is in charge of these proceedings), to be given to the students to practise on, Jain added.

THE ILLEGAL ROUTE

However, not all unidentified bodies make it to the medical hospitals. Some are stolen and dug up, in order to be smuggled, out of the country especially.

At least up until the early 2000s, bone smuggling or even corpse smuggling, wasn’t a one-off anomaly.

"“Sometimes medical hospitals overseas aren’t receiving enough of these cadavers and hence, they approach a middle-man (who is a known supplier of these cadavers) and ask him for the intact bodies, body-parts or the skeletons.”" - P K Jain to The Quint

Picture of a dug-up grave. Image used for representation.

Carney’s 2009 report backs this up. Following a request or demand, a middle-man then reaches out to people who can dig up the bodies from the graves, use the necessary chemicals to disguise the look and smell of the decaying flesh and then hand them over to the middle-man, who then makes arrangements to deliver them to the individuals or institutions asking for them. Typically, these people form the very base of the trade, are usually from poor families around cremation grounds, trying to earn a buck.

When it comes to the illegal route of procuring these human cadavers, it’s not necessary that the human cadavers being stolen, from the morgues or the graves, are “unclaimed”. As Jain puts it, one of the major reasons for the ban to be put in place, was that middlemen were commissioning the poor people to dig up any graves, which would lead to the family of that deceased person to complain about “hurt religious sentiments”.

As for the market value of this trade, an officer investigating the case of the 50 smuggled skeletons, our starting point for this article, told Hindustan Times that a skull could reportedly be bought from a graveyard for Rs 1,000 to Rs 2000 and a bone for Rs 500 to Rs 800.

"“They are sold to smugglers for Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000 and carried into Siliguri and other cities and finally across international borders. Once there, the prices range between Rs 40,000 and Rs 50,000.”" - The officer to Hindustan Times

Also Read: Man Living With Skeletons of Sister and Pet Dogs in Kolkata

Which leads us to our next question- are most of the demands coming from overseas?

When asked along these lines, Jain confirmed that these incidents naturally related to an instance of illegal trading, where the money all exchanged hands beneath the table and off the records.

But, there’s a catch here. According to the medical student, for students within the country, it isn’t very difficult to purchase these cadavers through the legal route mentioned above, as there are enough unclaimed dead bodies being offered to these colleges, on a standard basis.

Which leads us to our next question – are most of the demands coming from overseas?

Also Read: 3, Robinson Street: Kolkata’s House of Skeletons and Delusions

India: A Human Bones Factory For Foreign Nations

Up until the export of human bones and other body parts was banned in 1985, and even after, India has been infamously considered the hotspot for black markets or illegal factories for human bone collection, Carney’s report states.

"“For 150 years, India’s bone trade has followed a route from remote Indian villages to the world’s most distinguished medical schools...Skeletons aren’t easy to get. In the US, for instance, most corpses receive a prompt burial, and bodies donated to science usually end up on the dissection table, their bones sawed to pieces and destined for cremation. So, most skeletons used for medical study come from overseas. Often, they arrive without the informed consent of their former owners and in violation of the laws of their country of origin.”" - Steve Carney’s article on The Wired

The bones being exported from India to foreign countries, are specimens which have been scrubbed to a pristine white patina and fitted with high-quality connecting hardware.

Explaining this further, Carney states that the bones being exported from India to foreign countries are specimens which have been scrubbed to a pristine white patina and fitted with high-quality connecting hardware.

While bone smuggling is not unheard of in China and Eastern Europe as well, they fail to produce the display-quality specimens and are considered significantly inferior, his report added.

Also Read: QCrime: Mumbai Flesh Trade Racket Busted; Couple Fired At in Delhi

What Do These Foreign Countries Require the Exported Bones For?

  • For Medical Students: Firstly, they need it for practical experimentation and examination purposes for its medical students. Speaking anonymously, a Kolkata-based doctor said that even back in the 80s and 90s, there would be a heavy overseas demand for human skeletons – whether from North America, Nepal, Bhutan or even China, where the medical colleges are not given the kind of access that its Indian counterparts have. According to a Reuters article, some of these human bones from India have travelled as far as Japan and Thailand as well!
  • For Monasteries & Miscellaneous Purposes: As strange as it sounds, human bones from India have, in the past, been exported to countries like Nepal and Bhutan, to be used as props in their monasteries and for other such miscellaneous purposes. An incident from 2007 points to this, when a gang was caught in Kolkata, with hundreds of human skulls and thigh bones, to be sent to Bhutan, for use in Buddhist monasteries, as human thigh bones were used as blow-horns, and the skulls were used as vessels to drink from at religious ceremonies, a Reuters report from 2007, claimed.
  • For Aphrodisiac Drugs: It gets stranger. A report by The National in 2009, refers to an incident where a man, much like Prasad who was arrested last week, was caught by fellow passengers on a train, which incidentally, was also travelling from Ballia in Uttar Pradesh to Siliguri. The man, Kamal Sah, had later confessed to the police that revealed that the bones were to be smuggled to China to be used in the “production of aphrodisiac drugs”, which could then be exported to Europe and the US. The report claims that the concerned hospital agent, to whom the bones were being delivered, had made the full payment of US $75, even before receiving the package.
  • In Traditional Medicine: As far fetched as it goes, human bones and other body parts have historically been used the recipes to create traditional medicines. The practice goes as far back as the 17th century, when many Europeans, including the royalty, would make remedies containing human bones, blood and fat as medicine for all kinds of ailments – from headaches to epilepsy.

India’s Bone Factories Continue to Run Silently

Thirty-three years since the ban and several crackdowns later, India’s bone factories still function – albeit a lot more secretly than before.

Even though the export of human bones and other human parts was banned in 1985, several cases of bone-smuggling – big enough to make it to the news – have been recorded. Carney’s article mentioned a Kolkata-based medical supply company named ‘Younger Brothers’, which till 2001 at least, was a hotspot for bone collection. It was only when a police force led by Kolkata Health Department chief Javed Ahmed Khan raided the building, on the basis of the neighbours complaining of it “smelling like death”, that they saw that two of the rooms were just filled with human skeletons.

"“It took five trucks to haul them away. (We) seized thousands of documents, including invoices to companies all around the world. They were sending shipments to Thailand, Brazil, Europe, and the United States.”" - Khan to Carney, published in The Wired

The Quint reached out to Vinesh Aron, the owner of Younger Brothers, which now claims to sell medical products “legally”, to ask about this crackdown and who their main suppliers, back in the day, were.

An agitated Aron defensively claimed that the organisation had never been called out for bone smuggling, and they had stopped the export business the “minute” the ban was announced, going against records, which claimed that he had even been in jail for two days following the crackdown.

While India has seen a rampant clampdown on instances of bone smuggling as compared to say even the early 2000’s, small-time traders are still managing to carry out its export to foreign countries. As the police launch their probe into why 50 skeletons were making their way across the border, it seems that even now, India’s trade in bone smuggling, has its roots still buried deep under the ground.

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