On a surprisingly cool evening on 23 June, passions were running high at a home near Vyasarpadi's Sathyamurthy Nagar. Over a hundred mourners had gathered to condole the passing away of advocate T Ravi, hacked to death in full public view the previous morning.
A five-member gang had followed him on bikes and done him in at the main Sathyamurthy Nagar square in Vyasarpadi. One of the mourners, armed with a knife, like many in the crowd, was overheard telling his friend that Ravi's murder would be avenged. "I will not leave them alone," he vowed, emotional over the untimely death of his advocate friend.
The mood among the mourners was dark; only the previous day, a large crowd had protested against alleged police inaction, with Ravi's relatives refusing to take the body back home. Ravi was known locally to get involved with settling disputes, running kangaroo courts and was a small-time thug who recently started his own political outfit called the Democratic Revolutionary Front (DRF), according to his confidantes.
Ravi's is the third such hacking in one week in Vyasarpadi, an area in North Chennai home to gangs and gangsters. On 20 June, a 19-year-old youth was attacked and hacked to death in full public view by an armed gang on motorbikes. On 18 June, a cycle mechanic was hacked with sickles, leaving him with injuries on the head and face. A number of arrests have been made in connection with all three cases.
The Chennai city police have once again tightened the strings on the gangsters of North Chennai. These revenge killings or gang wars are called "rowdy murders" in police parlance. After a surge in such attacks in early 2013 — 27 murders took place in the first half of that year — the city police swung into action.
The anti-gangster squad, created in 2002, was revived and given more men and resources, and was told to round up the gang leaders. This elite squad, working with the local police, rounded up a number of the key gang leaders operating in North Chennai, along with a large number of the small fry. Rowdy murders came down to zero in 2014, although other types of murders did take place. Only one rowdy murder was reported in 2015.
"Many people and the press calls these 'coolie' (hired killers) murders," said a senior police official in the Chennai city police, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "These are not coolie murders; they are revenge murders. Men who were once friends and partners suddenly turn on each other due to business or personal rivalries, which turn deadly due to revenge," he explained.
The official pointed out that such killings run in cycles. "Since it is happening consecutively of late, it seems big," explained the officer. "But these things happen in cycles. No major rowdy involvements have been there in any of these hackings. These are done by young boys who are high on ganja (marijuana). The murders will come down because police is cracking down," he assured.
But what is astounding is that the bosses of all of these gangs operating in North Chennai are lodged in various jails. Police sources themselves admit that these gangsters continue to wield their power even while sitting inside prison.
Nagendran is currently said to be the biggest operator in North Chennai, with a firm hold over goods' godowns and the trucking businesses in Vyasarpadi. Gangsters in these areas extort money for loading and unloading of goods, entry and exit of trucks and even steal some of the consignment. Sale of drugs like ganja and Ecstasy pills, prostitution and land grabbing form the other aspects of income for these gangs.
Police sources say Nagendran is around 45-years-old and has been lodged in jail since 1998, when he was arrested for a murder. He is said to be a specialist among the rowdies of North Chennai. "His speciality is that he will not slice more than three times with a knife," said an insider of a Vyasarpadi gang. "Within three strokes, his victim is dead."
In 1998, Nagendran, along with a few other gang members, hacked All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) MLA Stanley Shanmugam to death as the victim was sitting outside his house in the company of his pet dog. A lower court awarded him 10 years' rigorous imprisonment.
Upon appeal, a two-judge bench of the Madras High Court, despite witnesses turning hostile, increased the sentence to a life term in 2003. Yet, Nagendran's shadow falls long over North Chennai.
Nagendran's beginnings were in the gang of Vellai (white) Ravi, a notorious gangster of the 1980s, who was finally killed in a police encounter in 2007.
An associate of Nagendran, 'Body' Saravanan is now a gang leader in his own right. Saravanan, aged 42, is also in jail since 2014, following his arrest in the daring revenge murder of yet another gangster Bokkai (toothless) Ravi inside the Royapetta Government Hospital.
This story begins with the murder of a young 20-something hoodlum called Kamesh in Vyasarpadi. A close confidante of the late Kamesh recounted how Bokkai Ravi wanted to eliminate the young upstart, who was threatening to take control over his area. "Bokkai Ravi's gang used Kamesh's girlfriend, forcing her to call him and ask him to come," said the confidante. "It was a beautiful operation. There were 3-4 fellows at his house, 3-4 waiting at a park nearby and a few more waiting on bikes on the road. He had no chance. They hacked him in the face. The knife was still in his face when we found Kamesh," he said.
Kamesh and Body Saravanan were thick, explains the confidante. Saravanan simply had to avenge the murder of his young friend. Bokkai Ravi knew revenge was coming, so he set about trying to eliminate Saravanan in a pre-emptive strike.
According to the confidante, Saravanan had gone to an area called Moolakadai to buy bamboo sticks used to clear blocked drains. "As he was bending down to examine the sticks, he saw, out of the corner of his eye, some fellows moving in towards him. Saravanan reacted like lightning and escaped death, but sustained a cut on his arm. The attackers fled," he said.
A few months later, Saravanan got wind of the fact that Bokkai Ravi was hospitalised under a different name, undergoing treatment for a broken leg. Two wives of Ravi were waiting at the corridor. "Anna-na paarkka vandhom Akka (We have come to see elder brother)," said Saravanan, according to the confidante. The unsuspecting wives pointed out Ravi's bed to the killers. Ravi was hacked to death in his hospital bed. Although Saravanan and the others fled, they were subsequently arrested and booked for murder.
On the 'Most Wanted' list of the central crime branch of Chennai police, 'Kakkathoppu' Balaji was finally arrested by the anti-gangster squad in 2013 and is lodged at Chennai's Puzhal jail. He is accused of a number of murders and attempts to murder, apart from extortion. He is named after the area he comes from: Kakkathoppu is a small locality near Broadway in central Chennai. The term literally means "grove of crows".
Balaji, at 37, continues to hold sway over the Tondiarpet area of North Chennai, according to police sources. He began his criminal career in the 1990s, rising quickly to notoriety after a series of murders committed in the area. "Gangsters like Kakkathoppu Balaji do not drink hard liquor, they only consume beer," explained an insider belonging to a gang in Vyasarpadi. "They want to remain in their senses as they could be attacked at any time. Since beer has less alcohol content, they drink only that and very little too," he said.
Kakkathoppu Balaji is also said to have control over the public toilets in the areas under his control. "Income from this is at least Rs 1,500 a day," said a police source. "Most homes in the area do not have toilets, so the public toilets are much in demand here."
Balaji's main rival in the Tondiarpet, Kasimedu and Royapuram area of North Chennai is Kalvettu (stone culvert) Ravi, another gangster serving time in jail since 2013's purge by the anti-gangster squad. Ravi's main income comes from extortion of lorry sheds, demanding bribes for every sack of iron ore or other goods which enters or leaves the area.
"Inga theru theruvukku rowdy (there is a rowdy for every street here)," lamented a resident of Kasimedu who did not wish to be named for fear of being attacked. "We have been living here for the past 25 years, but we are afraid to move around after dark. There are all these young boys high on drugs, roaming around with knives and sickles, thinking of themselves as big gangsters. If you say 'dei' (a term of familiarity for youngsters) to them, they get angry and attack," he said.
'Kathu Kuthu' Ravi:
Once notorious but now with his hold on the wane, 50-something 'Kathu Kuthu' (pierced ear) Ravi is also in jail, having surrendered in connection with the murder of rival gangster Kathiravan in 2013.
Kathiravan was one of the prime accused in the Sankararaman murder case, in which religious head Sankaracharya was a key accused and subsequently acquitted of the charges. 'Kathu Kuthu' Ravi is said to have murdered Kathiravan over rivalry in the illegal red sanders smuggling business in North Chennai. Ravi faces other cases of extortion and land grabbing as well, apart from more murder charges.
In February this year, the Enforcement Directorate attached eight properties worth Rs 11.68 crores belonging to Ravi in Chennai's posh Sholinganallur and Neelangarai areas. "This is just a drop in the ocean as far as this criminal is concerned," said a senior police officer. "Ravi is worth well more than Rs 100 crores." Ravi's sons are said to travel only in the latest BMW cars and live a luxurious lifestyle.
An up and coming gangster, 26-year-old Babloo is said to be fair, of medium height and of hefty build. Babloo (also known as Prabhu) is also in jail, following his arrest in the kidnapping of a timber merchant for ransom in 2013. He too is a resident of Sathymurthy Nagar in Vyasarpadi and has worked alongside senior gang leaders such as Nagendran. Babloo is also said to be involved in a number of murder cases.
Social activists say that this concentration of crime in areas like North Chennai is an inevitable outcome of economic distress. "Most of these gangs arise in extremely economically impoverished areas like Vyasarpadi," said V Suresh of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). "Police pad up numbers by arresting a lot of people whenever there is a spurt in crime. These youth are thrown in jail with hardened criminals and they invariably get into crime. There is anyway already a certain sense of hopelessness and stigmatisation among the youth in these areas. They are unable to get regular jobs because they come from areas which are seen as crime-prone. It is a vicious cycle," he said.
Gang insiders though say that it is the lure of money and power that lure boys as young as 13 and 14 into a life of crime. "Daulathhu, getthu (wealth and power)," said one insider when asked why youngsters become rowdies. "These fellows know they will die horrible deaths. Most of them will not live to see their 30s. It is all very tragic but there is no way out," he said.
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Updated Date: Jul 26, 2016 18:09:42 IST