Past midnight on January 3, a police station in Kanchipuram, the temple town southwest of Chennai, received a phone call. When the caller identified himself, the inspector was shaken. It was Sridhar Dhanapalan or Don Sridhar, as Tamil Nadu police refer to their “most wanted man” facing 43 cases, including seven of murder.
Over the next 15 minutes, said a police officer, Dhanapalan warned in the call from Dubai that “he would blow up all police stations in the area if we arrest any more persons from his group”. At the time, the police station was holding at least seven suspected associates, including Dhanapalan’s brother, under the Goonda Act — they were remanded to Vellore jail the next day.
Following the call — he wanted police to convey his message to DGP Ashok Kumar too — another case was slapped against Dhanapalan. That was yet another footnote in the story of the illegal arrack seller who became a Dubai-based real estate “don” and self-confessed casino regular who police estimate is worth at least Rs 500 crore.
DGP Kumar was not available for comment while IGP (north zone) P Thamarai Kannan, whose jurisdiction includes Kanchipuram, sought more time before commenting on record. But The Indian Express spoke to Dhanapalan — his first interview to a mainstream publication — as well as police officers who requested anonymity and former associates of the “don” to piece together the story of how a small-time operator in Kanchipuram became the dreaded “Sridhar Anna”.
In the video interview conducted online, Dhanapalan denied all charges against him. Referring to the threat call, he said, “I came to know my people were being abused by that inspector… saying I had spent money for a wedding at an IG’s home and bought him property. The truth is that he (the IG) was the person who put me behind bars for two years under the Goonda Act.”
According to police records, Dhanapalan has been jailed a number of times. He last completed a six-month term in early 2013 and left India immediately after that.
Dhanapalan alleged the inspector who had arrested his “people” was corrupt. “I told him the SP can speak, he is an honest person. The ASP can speak, he is not corrupt either. I spent money, around Rs 75,000, for laying tiles in the (police) station more than a year ago. And now he is talking about corruption,” alleged Dhanapalan.
The inspector was not available for comment but a senior officer said the claim of Dhanpalan having laid tiles “may be true”. “We also suspect he has bribed people across various arms of the administration from the constable level,” said the officer.
A close associate of Dhanapalan said he was “good at heart”. The associate described Dhanapalan as a man who once sold illicit liquor in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. “He has life membership in Singapore casinos, spends time in luxury yachts, owns a luxury apartment, a luxury taxi service and oil businesses in Dubai. But he also employs youth from Kanchipuram as drivers in Dubai, invites them home, offers them food. He invites his old friends from Kanchipuram to Dubai during shopping festivals. He is a kind man who helps us whenever we are in need. In Kanchipuram, we gather to celebrate his birthday every year.”
According to police records, Dhanapalan was born on June 12, 1972, and hails from Thiruparuthikundram in Kanchipuram. “My father was a agriculture worker, mother was disabled. As my father was a drunkard, my mother had to leave his house when I was two. I studied till Std VII. Later, I joined a silk weaving firm in Kanchipuram,” he said.
He added his mother took her three children back to her house, where he was adopted by his mother’s elder sister who had no children.
According to his aides, he dropped out of school around 1984 and worked with silk weavers for the next eight years. Dhanapalan said “all my fortunes and troubles” started in 1992 when he started the “illegal business” of selling arrack “which I continued till 2008”.
Quoting from the Thirukkural, which ranks high in Tamil Sangam literature, Dhanapalan recalled the days when he started his first illegal business. “Decorum should men guard than life,” he quoted, referring to the disciplined manner in which he ran his business. He said he started reading religious texts, such as Vyasa’s Mahabharata, Kamba Ramayanam and Valmiki Ramayana, from a young age. “If you have any doubt on these texts, you may ask me questions,” he said.
He admitted his “craze for casinos”. “I like gambling,” he said, adding he could not travel to Singapore now because of the Interpol lookout notice in his name.
“I left India in 2013. Last year, my Indian passport got cancelled. Luckily, my Dubai business visa lasts till 2017,” he said.
About his business, Dhanapalan said he was involved in “oil” from which he claimed to earn a monthly income of Rs 1.2 crore. “Unlike in India, we need generators at building sites here; public electricity cannot be used. So I supply diesel for generators at construction sites,” he said, claiming that he supplies around 20 lakh litres a month.
Dhanapalan, however, denied reports that he ran a luxury taxi service in Dubai. “I have only two cars, an Audi and a (Toyota) Camry. The Camry is enough for me but I bought the Audi for my son. I was never a person who lived in luxury. I always led a simple life,” he said.
Then, with a smile, he picked up a handheld camera for a virtual tour of his two-bedroom apartment in Dubai. The images were of a sparse apartment, with no visible signs of luxury.
Despite his claims of modesty and innocence, police records on Dhanapalan make for gruesome reading — seven cases of murder and 14 of “attempt to murder” in a list of 43, including the latest threat call.
Most of the cases are related to real-estate deals. Out of 32 cases listed since 1999, excluding cases registered in connection with the illicit liquor business, Dhanapalan was acquitted in eight, including two of murder and two of attempts to murder. While 18 cases are awaiting trial, including one of murder and six of attempts to murder, the rest are still being investigated.
Dhanapalan claimed “people will laugh to death” if they read those FIRs. He also levelled a series of allegations against three inspectors from Kanchipuram for foisting false cases on him after he refused to accede to their “demands”, including for an apartment. When contacted, senior police officers refused to comment on the allegations.
Police officers, meanwhile, list a number of incidents to show how they believe Dhanapalan bends the law. One officer said the movement of at least 50 of Dhanapalan’s associates in Kanchipuram is being investigated. “In December, he called up a movie theatre owner in Kanchipuram and asked him to sell his property to him. When he refused, he gave an ultimatum — meet him in Colombo. But the owner refused to file a formal complaint,” said the officer.
A source close to the owner confirmed he had travelled to Colombo on December 29. “I cannot talk about other issues. Dhanapalan already has a property next to the theatre,” he said.
Dhanapalan, however, dismissed this allegation: “How will I go to Colombo without a passport? This owner is an influential political leader in Kanchipuram. Do you think I will threaten him foolishly from Dubai?”
Among the other such incidents, the officer described a call to a property owner in which “Dhanapalan threatened him with his knowledge of personal details such as the school where his daughter studies and the beauty parlour his wife usually visits”. “He sold the property and refused to file a formal complaint,” said the officer.
Fans and foes
Dhanapalan denied the charge, and described his shift from the liquor business to real estate in 2008 as “the only mistake I have done as it had earned me so many enemies”.
Police officers and associates said his entry into real estate in Kanchipuram came at a time when the town earned the tag of “Detroit of India” with the arrival of a number of top automobile companies, such as Hyundai, which led to a land boom.
According to Dhanapalan’s associates, he also went on to command a “huge fan-following”. The Facebook pages of his fans were full of greetings and videos of “Sridhar Anna” when he turned 43 last June — some of them conducted events for the poor, too. Also, a number of photographs accessed by The Indian Express from his associates show packets of rice and relief material stamped with Dhanapalan’s photos being distributed to victims during the heavy rains that ravaged Chennai last month.
Dhanapalan, however, claims, “I spent only a small amount during the floods, just Rs 3 lakh. I asked my men to distribute aid in the most difficult areas. I insisted they avoid any publicity… it wouldn’t be help but an advertisement. I will never do that,” he said.
Asked about his future, Dhanapalan said his dream was to start a school and a college in Tamil Nadu of international standards. “I hate the Indian system. It’s not for profit or charity, but my dream is to open a school for children in the standards of educational systems in Finland,” he said, adding he had read that the country has the best education system in the world.
Despite the serious charges levelled against him, said a police officer, Dhanapalan is often compared to Robin Hood by many people. “But in our meetings, he is known as Don Sridhar or the Dawood Ibrahim of Tamil Nadu,” he said.