The men were masked. Four of them, who minutes earlier had forced their way into her car. As they allegedly molested her and took photographs in the moving car, she resisted and the cloth mask slipped off the main attacker’s face. She knew him: he was Pulsar Sunil, until recently her driver and a known face in Kerala’s film circles. “Do as we say,” he is said to have told her. “It’s a quotation.”
While the investigation into that February 17 night of horror is still on, the actress’s account to the police of how she identified the key suspect in the case has brought into focus Kerala’s ‘quotation gangs’ — a subject that has provided steady fodder for the Malayalam film industry’s action movies, but this time, like on several occasions earlier, it held a mirror to a dark reality in the state.
In Kerala, quotation gangs — a term for contract- or supari-killers in the local parlance — are usually a dial away. Justice, or what is seen as that, is meted out with a swift stroke of the knife, sword or machete, often for a fee or ‘quotation’ that depends on the task at hand: a threat, a thrashing, a limb or two to be broken, or murder. It’s a form of instant justice that has clients ranging from political parties to real-estate firms, gold smugglers, financiers, hawala dealers, liquor smugglers and mining groups.
Construction firms hire them as escorts when they illegally quarry riverbank sand; parents seek them out to bring back runaway daughters; liquor bars use them as bouncers; financiers hire them to recover money or material from debtors; hawala dealers engage them to ensure safe passage for their money; and youth politicians use them to browbeat students during college elections.
After the police began a crackdown on gangs in the wake of the attack on the actress, as many as 2,641 ‘anti-social’ elements have been arrested in the past week, many from Kasargod, Kozhikode, Malappuram, Alappuzha, Thiruvananthapuram and Ernakulam.
The competition among such gangs is so intense, police say, that there are often bitter turf wars. In Thiruvananthapuram, gangsters Puthenpalam Rajesh and Dini Babu are known to fight open street battles. Last year, after the Dini Babu gang butchered 19-year-old Vishnu, a close aide of Rajesh, the latter hit back by hacking to death Babu’s younger brother Sunil.
One of the most sensational gangster killings in recent years was the 2009 murder of Paul M George, executive director of the Rs 20,000 crore Muthoot Group, a leading non-banking financial company in Kerala. According to the prosecution, Paul was travelling along the Alappuzha-Changanassery road on the night of August 22, 2009, accompanied by two wanted criminals, Om Prakash and Puthenpalam Rajesh, when he was hacked to death in 2009 by a quotation gang over a minor bike accident. The gang had been on its way to Alappuzha from Kottayam to allegedly execute another quotation.
These gangs and their crimes are so commonplace that there is a certain banality about them: children joke about it to each other — “Ninde quotation edikkum (I’ll get a quotation against you) — and the less spectacular of the crimes rarely make it to the news.
Some of the gangsters such as Gundukadu Sabu, Maradu Aneesh, Om Prakash and Puthenpalam Rajesh are now household names, aided in part by movies such as the critically acclaimed Kireedam that’s based on the life of Gundukadu Sabu.
This larger-than-life image of gangsters as people who roam around on bikes, readily picking up street fights and assaulting people, comes in handy when gangs have to recruit. Some of these gangs are even known to “sub-let their quotation” to college students.
James Vadackumchery, formerly criminologist with the Kerala Police, says it’s the promise of easy money that lures youngsters into the world of crime. “Though it’s the attacks and murders that make headlines, a lot of the activities of these gangsters involve threatening their targets. That’s easy. It only requires them to look and act menacing and they are paid the promised sum. Hence quotation gangs make money with very little investment or physical labour.’’
One of the first quotation murders reported in Kerala was from Kasaragod, 28 years ago. On April 2, 1989, Shahanaz Hamza, a businessman who owned buses, was shot dead in his car at Poinachi in Kasargod. Hamza’s murder was attributed to a ‘quotation’ by Dubai-based Abdul Rahman alias Pakistan Abdul Rahman.
Police say Rahman, who then controlled the gold smuggling operations in the western coast of the country, had asked Hamza to transport 1,600 gold biscuits, then worth Rs 6 crore, from Kasargod to Mumbai. But Hamza tipped off the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) instead, leading to the seizure of Rahman’s consignment. An enraged Rahman reportedly gave a quotation for Hamza to be killed. The CBI, which took over the case, had named 19 people as accused, but Rahman remained elusive. The murder turned the north Kerala district into a hotbed of quotation killings, a notoriety Kasargod continues to hold.
While quotation gangs have for long been known to lurk in the shadows, two recent cases — the 2012 killing of CPI(M) rebel leader T P Chandrasekharan allegedly by his own partymen and the 2011 case of a senior police officer in Kollam employing a quotation gang to kill a journalist — exposed the nexus between the hired goons and those in authority.
The seven-member gang accused of killing Chandrasekharan in Kozhikode in May 2012 had 75 cases against them, including nine political murders carried out in Kannur, between 2000 and 2012, all allegedly for the CPI(M).
Since it reared its ugly head in the late 80s, observers say, the culture of the hired goon has thrived in part because of political patronage and the lack of will on successive governments to crack down on it.
“Every party has got leaders who support the goons,” admits Congress state vice-president and legislator V D Satheesan. He, however, adds the support is local in nature. “They (gangs) have become very powerful in the western ghat zone of the state, where there is large-scale quarrying. When a Legislative Assembly panel went to inspect the quarrying, the gangs of the quarry mafia blocked them. They are that powerful,” he says.
CPI(M) leader and former Rajya Sabha member P Rajeev agrees. “The goons have got support from politicians in certain cases and in certain places,” he says.
“Earlier, political parties deputed their own cadre to physically target rivals. But over time, as young cadre with political aspirations of their own refused to do that, parties hired quotation gangs to finish off rivals,” says Chandran Churayi, a CPI(M) rebel who is now with the Communist Marxist Party.
In 2007, the then LDF government introduced the Kerala Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act, under which anti-social elements were placed under preventive arrest and jailed for six months. But after every such jail term, gang members regroup and get back into action. And while the current crackdown has netted 2,641 ‘anti-social’ elements, arrests under the Act have been low. In 2016, only 84 people were arrested under the legislation while the number was 132 in 2015 and 38 in 2014.
Police also admit convictions in quotation attacks are low. “Even if we know which gang has carried out the attack, the victims and the witnesses are usually too scared to depose against them,” says retired police superintendent Subash Babu.
The quotation killings and attacks began to be reported across the state, particularly from Malappuram and Kozhikode, by the late 1980s and early 90s, with unaccounted money flowing in from the Gulf and with gold smuggling becoming lucrative,
Retired SP Babu says hawala operators and gold dealers in Kozhikode and Malappuram were the “first to tap the potential” of quotation gangs. “They employed criminals to ensure that the money and gold reached the destination as per plan. They also needed these goons to recover loans given on high interest rates,’’ says Babu.
Criminologist Vadackumchery says there is a “demand and supply factor” behind the existence of quotation gangs. “The flow of Gulf money and the parallel economy it generated couldn’t have been run without the support of these goons,” he says.
The “goon culture” spread across Kerala after 2000, a period that coincided with a boom in the real-estate sector. With riverbed mining highly regulated, gang members on motorcycles would pilot trucks as they transported sand to construction sites in the dead of the night. Real-estate developers, who wanted to acquire prime plots, also sought out these gangs to forcibly evict small landholders.
CPI(M) leader P Rajeev is among those who believe that this goon culture is an offshoot of the rapid urbanisation in Kerala.
“The urbanisation has led to a rise in business activity in many parts of Kerala. The business groups seek the services of gangs to settle disputes or to suppress protests against their interests,” he says. Rajeev also says that less politically active campuses are fuelling the quotation gang numbers. “Members of the gangs are very young. When campuses were politically alive, youngsters were not attracted to anti-social activities in large numbers. Now, campuses have been shorn of politics, paving way for the growth of rowdy culture among the youth,” he says.
A state police intelligence officer blames Kerala’s rigid laws. “For a society flush with money, there are far too many things that are either banned or restricted in Kerala. Local politicians exploit such situations with the help of quotation gangs. For instance, there are strict regulations regarding land reclamation and construction activities in coastal areas. But with remittance money fuelling real-estate growth, there is pressure for land reclamation and constructions in violation of coastal zone regulations,” he says.
Gangs are known to oversee land reclamation activities at night and threaten activists who stand in the way. “When the reclaimed land is sold to real-estate barons, these gangs demand a 20-30 per cent of the profits,’’ says the intelligence officer.
Former DGP K J Joseph believes a change in the police’s role has played its part in giving these gangs a free run. As part of the police’s ‘Janamaithri scheme’ launched in 2008, the state police have ventured into more social activities, such as visiting the elderly at their homes and attending to them. This shift towards social policing, coupled with police actions frequently coming under the radar of human rights activists, says Joseph, has blunted the police’s image, at least in the eyes of the anti-social elements.
“When there is an impression that the force is ineffective, quotation gangs will act with impunity. When police do the job of social welfare departments and NGOs, where is the time to manage law and order? Naturally, there will be no end to this cycle of violence,’’ says Joseph.