Bengaluru: On 11 October, the Bengaluru police filed a 2,189-page charge sheet in a murder case.
The volume of the charge sheet is unusual, so is the case — it relates to the brutal, daylight murder of Joseph Babli, an infamous ‘rowdy-sheeter’ of Bengaluru. Babli was hacked to death inside a bank on 19 July this year, in full public view, by machete-wielding goons as his wife and five-year-old child watched in horror. Within 75 days of the murder, the Bengaluru police filed a charge sheet, naming 12 accused persons and 113 witnesses.
Babli, like most rowdies in Bengaluru, had deemed himself a “reformed” man, but his past rivalry caught up with him, the police claim. “A rowdy never retires,” Kamal Pant, Bengaluru city’s Commissioner of Police, told ThePrint.
Barely a few weeks after Babli’s murder, another rowdy-sheeter, Aravind alias Lee, was hacked to death by rival gang members inside a football stadium, yet again in full public view. The 12 September murder reportedly marked the 10th rowdy-related murder in Bengaluru this year alone, including that of a former BBMP corporator Rekha Kadiresh on 24 June.
The numbers might seem alarming, but the Bengaluru police insist that the trend is no different from previous years.
Rowdies of Bengaluru today
The ‘rowdies’ of Bengaluru today are very different from the notorious underworld of the 1980s and 1990s, and the large gangs and gang leader-driven crimes of the 2000s. They now operate in small, localised groups.
Between the 1960s and 1980s, the rowdies used to gain resources from prostitution, hooch and illicit liquor, marijuana and furnace oil. Then, from the 1980s to the 2000s, the model changed to real estate deals, extortion, dance bars, gambling and ‘mafia’ — which refers to control of criminal activity using a chain of command, such as in tourism, autorickshaws and arrack/hooch.
Now, they’ve changed again, earning commission from property disputes, litigation and money lending, when they aren’t carrying out hired and contractual crimes, or mobilising funds through their legitimate front businesses.
Police sources say the rowdies that exist in Bengaluru today are splinter groups made up of foot soldiers who charge money ‘per deal’. The concept of loyalty to a gang doesn’t exist.
“To become a don, one must kill a don. Such figures don’t exist anymore,” said Daniel George, former media officer at the Embassy of India in Abu Dhabi, who played a pivotal role in bringing underworld don Muthappa Rai back from the UAE.
“A rough estimate of rowdy-sheeters in Bengaluru is about 3,000,” Sandeep Patil, Joint Commissioner (crime), Bengaluru, told ThePrint. He put estimated the number of active goon gangs in Bengaluru at 25.
Some of the prominent names that pop up during “rowdy roll call” — a parade of rowdy-sheeters in each police station held frequently by crime branch officials in Bengaluru — are ‘Silent’ Sunil, ‘Onte’ Rohit, Ajith ‘Malayali’, Ishtiaq Ahmed ‘Pehalwan’. A video of a face-off between then-additional commissioner of police (crime) Alok Kumar and Silent Sunil during one such ‘rowdy parade’ had gone viral in 2019.
Veterans of crime-tracking in Bengaluru say they are English-speaking, well-living, “publicity hungry” rowdies.
For example, Ishtiaq ‘Pehalwan’, husband of former Shivajinagar corporator Farida Ahmed, had drones capturing his every move for telecast on his social media pages. He was an accused in the multi-crore IMA scam that is currently being investigated by the CBI.
‘Silent’ Sunil — who is infamous for carrying out his operations silently, without the knowledge of even his own aides — had even released a trailer for a film on his life, starring him in the lead role, in 2017.
“The Crime Branch had decided to eliminate ‘Silent’ Sunil. He had several cases against him, including murder, Arms Act, assault etc, and had even served jail time. It was only after his family promised to keep him away from Bengaluru that the operation was called off. The day senior officials of Crime Branch were transferred, he returned to the city with a big bang announcement of his film,” said a serving officer who has discharged duties in the city Crime Branch.
The movie, titled Silent Sunila, was shelved. But the lead role in a recent Kannada movie Salaga is based on him. Sunil is also known for being a pigeon breeder.
Rohit’s prefix ‘Onte’ (camel) is a reference to his height — he is the tallest man in all parades. Ajith is from Kerala and hence the prefix ‘Malayali’, a senior police officer said.
Other rowdies add prefixes to their names based on the locality they operate in, unique features they possess, the business they do etc.
What do they do?
Infamous rowdy-sheeters are known to have many fronts — some are aspiring movie stars or politicians, thriving businessmen, and even influential BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) contractors.
“Most of the rowdies who sold spurious liquor, marijuana and ran illegal businesses are either ministers, MLAs, corporators, contractors or businessmen today,” said B.K. Shivaram, former ACP and a decorated member of Bengaluru’s famous anti-rowdy squad of the 1990s.
“In the 1980s, there was a huge black market in Bengaluru for illicit liquor, prostitution, clubs, gambling, oil, ‘hafta’ etc. Those running the illegal businesses wanted protection and that’s how gangs came to be,” Shivaram said.
The difference, he added, was that rowdies can no longer carry out their businesses as boldly, and need legal fronts.
“In the 1990s, rowdy-sheeters had a monopoly over autos — plying, hiring, ferrying contrabands. As the city expanded and police cracked down on criminal activities, the monopoly ended,” Commissioner Pant added.
A serving ACP-rank officer illustrated these legal fronts to ThePrint.
“’Silent’ Sunil has undertaken garbage management tender from the BBMP, ‘Onte’ Rohit too has contracts with BBMP. It is legal business. Nobody can stop him from undertaking tenders from the BBMP since there is no rule that stops rowdy-sheeters from taking up work. Goons often tie up with a partner and begin private finance institutions, money lending, invest in clubs etc,” the officer said.
Big fish, small fish
Unlike in Mumbai, where rowdy elements thrive on real estate, Bengaluru’s goons don’t have that opportunity, multiple police officers said.
“In Bengaluru, land and real estate are owned by white-collar criminals. The local goons are the small fish who do the dirty work of the big fish — the white-collar land mafia,” a senior police source said.
Another source said a lot of their revenue comes from small-time litigation. “They are masters of backdating papers, settling family disputes over property out of court via threats and intimidation with full cooperation of people involved, police, lawyers and even the media,” this source said.
The recent daylight murders of rowdies, officers from the police department said, were because of personal rivalry and not ‘gang wars’. But even though the city police suggest that data does not show an unusual trend in rowdy gangs and activities, incumbent and retired officers have flagged concerns.
“When a rowdy is killed, it isn’t like other murders. Almost all rowdies are murdered by a gang of other rowdies. There is a detailed plan, monitoring of his/her movements and routine, conspiracy to gather assailants, arrange for arms, lay in waiting and execute the crime without fear,” said a serving police officer who has earlier been with the crime branch.
“All of this is done when police are supposed to be keeping a close watch on the intended victim as well as the perpetrators. When a rowdy is murdered with such preparation, it points to an intelligence failure,” the officer said.
An IG-rank officer serving in Bengaluru added: “Crimes too are divided into categories. Local goons indulge in petty crimes, assaults, extortion, petty land encroachments and use benamis to start businesses while foreigners are involved in narcotics. Local goons haven’t explored narcotics yet.”
A piece of history
Between the 1980s and the 2000s, Bengaluru saw some very public underworld dons in Kotwal Ramachandra, MP Jayaraj, Muthappa Rai etc. But now, organised crime has reduced to small gangs at local levels, said former cop Shivaram.
“Kotwal controlled north and south Bengaluru, Jayaraj had sway over central Bengaluru. All ‘kala dhanda’ flourished. Gang wars, fight for supremacy was a daily affair in the 1980s and 1990s,” he said.
Shivaram recounted how Muthappa Rai introduced gun culture to the Bengaluru crime world with Jayaraj’s murder, and that Koli Faiyaz and Tanvir were the prominent names from the Muslim underworld that controlled Shivajinagar, Tannery Road, Tilak Nagar and other Muslim-dominated localities in the city.
Woman rowdy-sheeters like Marimuthu, Rani and Pushpa held great influence in peddling contrabands and prostitution, Shivaram added.
By the 2000s, the likes of Muthappa Rai and Agni Sridhar claimed to have withdrawn from the life crime and called themselves “reformed”. But many of their gang members went on to establish their own gangs in their jurisdiction. Others, like Marimuthu, went on to become corporators.
“Since then, there have been extortion attempts by names like Ravi Pujari, who was operating while living abroad, but with his arrest, that ended too,” JCP (Crime) Patil said.
Commissioner Pant added: “Bengaluru’s rapid growth, thanks to the IT boom, makes it impossible for any one gang or gang leader to control another part of the city, leave alone the entire city. What we have today are local gangs with a few thugs that operate within their locality, indulging in small-time extortion, illegal land encroachment and grabbing, running bars or pubs or gambling dens etc.”
Small gangs still a big concern
The frequent transfers of police officers is not helping in solving the problem of rowdies.
In 2012, the then-BJP government passed an ordinance to amend the Karnataka Police Act. The amendment mandated a minimum one-year tenure for all police officers in-charge of stations, circles and sub-divisions. The Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in 2013 passed a bill replacing this ordinance.
Police officials allege that this Act, whose intent was to ensure officers do not get transferred before at least one year, is being misused to transfer officials immediately after one year.
“The Supreme Court mandated a minimum of two years, but they reduced it to one year. Irrespective of which party is in power, politicians divide tenure of police station postings among themselves. Huge amounts of money ranging from Rs 50 lakh to Rs 1 crore are paid in bribes to get posting in certain police stations. You can imagine how much money is being made with these frequent transfers every year,” Shivaram alleged.
Even the serving ACP-rank officer quoted above said these frequent transfers are contributing to the menace. “Fear factor around a cop is very important to keep goons in check. The transfers not just interfere in on-going investigations, but also eliminate that fear factor.”
The IG-rank officer added: “An officer is a repository of knowledge. It takes time to understand the challenges of your jurisdiction, study the anti-social elements in your station limits, develop sources, and create ground-level intelligence on personal strength. When an officer is transferred within a year, the officer who comes after him has to start from scratch and his time is up by the time he gets a grip. The rowdy-sheeter is no longer scared because he knows the local inspector will be transferred in a year.”
What police are doing
Police officers with the rank of deputy commissioner and above in Bengaluru have executive magisterial powers and this, Commissioner Pant said, has been used extensively to control anti-social elements.
“Conventional policing is primary for surveillance. We have filed more than 30 cases against goons under Goonda Act in the last one year. More than 120 cases under Arms Act have been booked since last October,” JCP Patil further said.
While goons in Bengaluru largely depend on machetes and swords for their assaults, country-made pistols have been found in their possession too. “They seem to source it from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh,” Patil said.
Patil insisted that rowdy-sheets are being opened and maintained to keep a check on their activities.
However, retired police officers such as former commissioner M.N. Reddi have insisted on better monitoring.
“Most often, local police officers practice a culture of ‘go-by’ when someone is apprehended for petty crime like chain-snatching, pickpockets etc. But these are the guys who become emboldened and join gangs,” he said.
“In the race to show lower crime rates, police choose to not register petty cases and potential gang members slip out of our radar.”
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)