(This is the first part of a series on Kerala police officers, who are on the hunt for criminals. Watch this space for more.)
The special squad officer in the Kerala police was watching a Tamil crime thriller when his mobile phone buzzed. His superior was on line and he had a brief that would send the officer on a cross-country chase that rival the adventure on screen.
Karthi-starrer ‘Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru’ created headlines for its candid depiction of a real-life interstate gang of dacoits who terrorized Tamil Nadu until its kingpins were hunted down to a village in Uttar Pradesh in 2005.
The officer who had to walk out of the movie hall midway was asked to go to Bengal to track down a criminal. Such untimely mobilization has become a norm for the elite squads in Kerala police who are put on the trail of criminals to the remote corners of the country.
Most of the time they would only have the suspect’s name, or a photograph if they are lucky, to work with. The odds are stacked against the team in an alien land where people spoke a different language and viewed any outsiders with suspicion.
Corrupt officers in the local police and villagers sworn to protect the suspects make their jobs risky. There have been instances of villagers shooting at the cops and even sparking a riot to save the culprits. A police team from Alappuzha was nearly trampled by a herd of buffaloes set off by angry villagers in a north Indian district.
The crack squads swing into action as soon as they are called in, traveling in local trains without reservations for hours, hitchhiking on non-existent roads and sometimes bribing their counterparts in the other states for any information leading to their targets.
We take you through the real-life adventures of the squads formed under sub inspectors in charge of law and order. These officers’ heroics ensure that seasoned criminals pay for their crimes in Kerala.
Case # 1: The invisible thieves of Shrirampur
November 22, 2009
The personnel manning the Petta police station in Thiruvananthapuram knew it was going to be a hard day. A theft had been reported from a residential area at Kannammoola. A palatial house in the area had been broken into the previous night. The dacoits tied up the residents before scooting with the valuables and the Benz car parked in the porch.
The local police were clueless. The house had all the security system in place yet the dacoits somehow found their way into it without much effort. They chanced upon a vital clue from the porch. Amid the floor mats of the stolen car was a gift coupon issued by a jeweler in the city.
The owner of the coupon was Swapnil Gaekwad and he had written down his Pune address. The surveillance footage from the jeweler showed a group of people buying gold the previous day.
Medical college circle inspector V Suresh Kumar and a team of four cops left for Pune in search of the suspects. Their first destination was the police fingerprint bureau in Pune. They had collected fingerprints from the scene of crime. They were to learn that a similar break-in was reported from a house at Thambaram on the suburbs of Chennai a day after the break-in in Thiruvananthapuram.
The gang consisted of eight dacoits who spoke Hindi and broken English. They had fled in the car stolen from the family. The modus operandi matched with loots reported from Kannur and Mangaluru in the next few days.
The Kerala police team started searching for Swapnil Gaekwad. There were 600 people by that name in Pune! None of them, however, had a criminal record. The team extended their search to the shady villages on the outskirts of the city, but in vain.
They were still fishing in the unknown when the Tambaram police got back with a vital piece of information. They had identified one of the suspects from his fingerprint. The team had a new target: Raju from Ashok Nagar in Ahmednagar district.
Raju proved to be a difficult target though. The seasoned criminal had his sources in the police. He ensured their loyalty with handsome cuts from every loot. The payment was nothing for Raju, who targeted nothing less than Rs 50 lakh from a single operation.
Raju’s friends in the local police had promptly passed on the information about the cops from Kerala. There was no breakthrough, until a few young cops from nearby Shrirampur offered to help. They got the Kerala police team in touch with some of the informants. The informants led the police team to Raju’s house for a payment of Rs 10,000.
Raju’s village was ensconced in acres of sugarcane plantations. The policemen hired a van and two motorcycles and set off to the remote village. They waited in front of the house for the suspects. The first one to land in the trap was Vikas, Raju’s younger brother and main sidekick. A team of cops bundled him into the van and left for the local police station, while the others waited for the kingpin.
Raju appeared two hours later but he sensed danger and fled the scene immediately. The policemen chased him but he dropped his motorcycle and scurried into the thick plantation. He was lost in the sea of sugarcane.
At the police station, the Kerala police team had a difficult time. The local police would not help them in their search. They said that they feared that Raju’s villagers might attack the police station if they knew that Vikas was locked up. They rejected the request to search the village and forced the Kerala team to leave at once with their catch.
Vikas was produced in a local court before he was taken to Kerala, where he was convicted and sentenced to seven years of imprisonment for dacoity. His accomplices were never caught.
The Shrirampur operation was a morale booster for the Kerala police even though it had to be abandoned midway. Vikas offered invaluable insights into the way the dacoit gangs worked.
Dacoity was a family affair in several villages in the area. The gangs mostly comprised family members and neighbors. They acted with precise planning including a detailed cost analysis of the operation. They were interested only in big targets. They divided the loot equally among themselves, after paying the village chief and the temple priest their dues.
They were so systematic that they even did a puja before setting off to rob the house at Kannammoola.
The police still had a question for Vikas. How did they enter the high-security house? “We just pried open the window frame with a crowbar,” Vikas replied with a sly smile. The gang broke off the welded joint of the window and created a gap big enough for the leanest member to pass through. He slipped in and opened the door for the others.
After they had tied up the occupants and cleared out the house, the lean man bolted the door from the inside and slipped out through the same window. They left no signs of a break-in.
The occupants of the house were lucky. The gang had never left their targets alive until 2002, Vikas said. They were forced to drop their evil habit after the villagers took a collective decision against murder, an offense that left the cops with no choice but to clamp down on the villagers.
(to be continued)