WHEN THREE men were arrested earlier this month by the Anti-Extortion Cell of the Mumbai Police Crime Branch for opening fire at two shops in the far suburbs of the city, they found that none of them had a prior record.
Sudhakar Kristophariya (52) was a caterer who used to supply food for inmates of Surat jail. His associate Raj Chavan (25), the second accused, was working as a waiter. And, Chavan’s acquaintance Ali Abbas Khan (27), the third accused, was an aspiring model from Kashmir struggling to enter Mumbai’s glamour industry.
Police investigations revealed that none of the three had ever handled a gun before, but were allegedly promised Rs 10 lakh for the job by fugitive gangster Suresh Pujari.
Senior Mumbai police officers say this case is indicative of the near-total destruction of the world of “sharpshooters”, once a powerful segment of the Mumbai underworld and key to issuing threats on behalf of gangsters and to eliminating enemies.
Such is the “shortage”, say police, that gangs are now settling for the most improbable candidates: caterers, waiters, aspiring models and hookah parlour owners. According to an officer from the Crime Branch, gangs sometimes have to approach nearly 50 potential recruits these days before someone “bites the bait”.
“A lot of these new boys are told that they don’t have to kill anyone or even shoot at a person. They are asked to, for example, fire at a glass window near the target, leave a note asking the victim to call the gangster and then flee. Such firings are mostly to scare people into paying. These youngsters think they can get good money — at least Rs 1 lakh — without harming anyone, and agree to take the job,” said an officer linked to the Pujari probe.
In this case, police said, the three were arrested for extortion attempts in Nallasopara and Ulhasnagar. Pujari, who was lodged in Surat jail nearly 10 years ago, is believed to be currently on the run in Australia or southeast Asia.
In a similar incident last October, Hanumant Gaikwad (27) and Rahul Londhe (24) were arrested for allegedly firing at builder Sumit Chakraborty’s office in Thane. The two are from Solapur, both sons of farmers. “They were facing acute financial distress. Gaikwad needed money to get his sister married. When they were approached, they readily agreed. Neither had a prior criminal record,” said an officer.
Others arrested in the case included a hookah parlour owner from Navi Mumbai and a Pune-based caterer.
One month later, the Anti-Extortion cell arrested Ankush Indulkar and Sagar Chavan from outside the residence of an Oshiwara-based builder in suburban Mumbai. The duo, residents of Mira Road, had been allegedly contracted by fugitive gangster Ejaz Lakdawala to fire at the builder. Indulkar worked in a garage while Chavan was employed as a shop salesman.
Tracing their entry into the underworld, police said the duo were previously arrested for their involvement in a scuffle on Mira Road, following which they were sent to judicial custody. In prison, they got in touch with alleged Lakdawala henchman Prashant Rao. Rao reportedly later offered them the “opportunity” of working for Lakdawala, who is believed to be in Canada.
“Youngsters with one or two minor cases go behind bars and see the power that some gangsters’ aides wield. These things become an attraction and they are offered jobs as shooters,” said another officer.
Officers say these “novice shooters” are a far cry from the sharpshooters of the Mumbai underworld at its peak.
For example, Firoz Sarguroh alias Firoz Konkani of the Dawood gang, who carried out his first contract killing at the age of 17, is believed to have been one of the first to use an AK-47 in Mumbai, in the mid-1990s. Police believe that Dawood’s aide Chhota Shakeel and brother Anees Ibrahim got Konkani killed in 2003 fearing his growing clout in the gang.
According to police officers, the main reason for the unwillingness of many old-timers to be associated with “shootouts” now is the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA). “Earlier, after being arrested, these sharpshooters would be released from jail within a few months, and would return to taking contracts. Over the past several years, such people are booked under MCOCA… Once booked under MCOCA, getting bail becomes very difficult. They have to spend a minimum of 3-5 years behind bars. If they are convicted, it can go up to 10 years. For a lot of them, it does not make economic sense,” said an officer.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, the officer said, police have booked between 80 and 100 such shooters under MCOCA.
Police say the most that some gangsters manage nowadays is to convince old-timers to accompany the novice shooters. “They will stand behind them and guide them. At the slightest hint of an arrest, the experienced men flee,” said an officer.
Besides, the officer said, there has been an almost 100 per cent detection rate in extortion cases in the city in the past several years.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Dilip Sawant, said, “A lot of gangs look for new boys who are not always easy to find. On several occasions, the promised amount is never paid in full. The three arrested recently for firing at two shops were promised Rs 10 lakh. We recovered Rs 3 lakh after arresting them.”