MUMBAI – As Mumbai reels over the gang-rape of a young photographer in the heart of the city last week, angry neighbours of the arrested suspects describe a gang of jobless youths known for petty theft and drinking.
The five men are accused of repeatedly raping the 22-year-old woman and attacking her male colleague in an abandoned mill compound in central Mumbai, which was known as a haven for drink and drug addicts.
While smart neighbourhoods of luxury apartments, office blocks and malls are close to the scene of the crime, most of the accused gang members hailed from nearby slums where they earned themselves an unfavourable reputation. "They were local criminals," said Ajit Pevekar, a 32-year-old neighbour and community worker.
The eldest suspect, 27-year-old Mohammed Salim Ansari, was the last to be arrested on Sunday in New Delhi after fleeing from his home in eastern Mumbai.
His four alleged accomplices, aged between 18 and 24 according to police, were from nearer the mill in slums surrounding Dhobi Ghat, a site famed as the world's largest outdoor laundry.
The men have not yet been formally charged and have not commented on the allegations against them. Unlike the industrious washermen of Dhobi Ghat, three of the suspects known to Pevekar "had no regular work, were playing cards all the time, and all of them drank," he said, adding that the men would regularly snatch people's chains or purses.
Some neighbours denied knowledge of the men, while others said they wanted them hanged.
One of the accused, 18-year-old Vijay Mohan Jadhav, went for tea near the police station just hours after the alleged offence on Thursday, and next day went to see a Bollywood movie with Ansari, the DNA newspaper reported. "The people feel they should be handed over to us, and we will beat them," Pevekar said.
The attack shocked Mumbai, long-considered safer for women than the capital New Delhi where the fatal gang-rape of a student in December sparked nationwide protests and led to a tougher anti-rape law.
Last week's attack had eerie parallels with that case – both happened in megacities, and both victims were in their early 20s, one a student and one reportedly a journalism intern. Both were attacked while they were out in public with a man, who in each case was beaten up.
The 23-year-old New Delhi victim, who later died from her injuries, was attacked with an iron rod.
Mumbai's victim was threatened with a broken beer bottle and is now in hospital, but is said to be stable and recovering.
The two gangs, whose alleged crimes ignited national outrage, were alike in size and were made up of mostly young slum-dwellers.
Mumbai's chief of police, Satyapal Singh, said the suspects in last week's case were all unemployed school drop-outs, three with criminal records for theft.
He said the attack in the early evening did not appear to be pre-planned and the suspects did not seem to have been under the influence of alcohol. Mohammed Kasim Hafeez Shaikh, known locally as Kasim Bangali, had four criminal cases to his name and was, according to Indian media, the suspected gang-leader.
Sitting quietly in a one-roomed slum next to a busy road and overflowing rubbish bins, Bangali's mother said he was only 17, although police remand documents said he was 21.
"I don't believe it, but the police say yes, they have done it," she said.
Women in a crowd gathered outside the shanty loudly expressed their fears that the neighbourhood was getting a bad name.
The grandmother of another suspect, Chand Sattar Shaikh, has also insisted to local media that her relative is a juvenile – a claim again dismissed by the police, who say he is 19.
"Whatever happened, don't trouble me," the elderly woman, a lime-seller in a dark blue sari said.
Perched on a wooden-cart under a plastic sheet to keep off monsoon rains, neighbours said Shaikh's mother had died, while he himself would go out at odd hours with "bad company."
"These guys use to all go around together, but we didn't realise they were involved in this kind of heinous thing," said vegetable seller Sunita Paswan, 45.
"Tomorrow this could happen to my daughter. It's a shock to all women." AFP