Going For Gold

The robber gangs of Rajmahal

Pyarpur, near Rajmahal town, is one of three villages in Sahibganj district that are notorious as bases for criminals. PHOTOGRAPH BY SMITA SHARMA
Pyarpur, near Rajmahal town, is one of three villages in Sahibganj district that are notorious as bases for criminals. PHOTOGRAPH BY SMITA SHARMA
01 June, 2016

ON 15 FEBRUARY 2015, the owners of a commercial space in a building named Gokul Kshitij, in the city of Virar, around 80 kilometres north of central Mumbai, leased out the property to a group of fruit sellers. In the days that followed, the new tenants stocked their shop, introduced themselves to the other shopkeepers in the building, and settled into their business. In particular, they struck up a rapport with the staff of Omkar Jewellers, adjacent to their shop, occasionally giving them fruit on credit.

Ten days later, on the morning of 25 February, the owner of Omkar Jewellers arrived at his shop to find, to his shock, that his neighbours were not the amiable entrepreneurs he had believed them to be. Over the course of the previous night, the supposed fruit sellers had drilled a hole about 1.5 feet long and equally wide through the wall that the shop shared with the jewellery store. They had then looted the shop, gathering up—according to a first information report—six kilograms of gold ornaments, four kilograms of silver and Rs 15 lakh in cash. The fruit shop lay abandoned.

This wasn’t the only incident of its kind in the region around this time. A few days earlier, on the night of 13 February, a group of burglars broke into a branch of the State Bank of India in Badlapur, around 60 kilometres east of Mumbai. Tearing into a strong room using gas cutters, they stole cash and valuables, worth Rs 1.44 crore. And earlier, in January, in the Navi Mumbai suburb of Kamothe, another group pretending to be fruit sellers had burgled a jewellery store next to their shop.

The Mumbai police found that these crimes weren’t similar only in their methods. They concluded that the perpetrators were also all from the same geographical region: a group of islands around the town of Rajmahal, in Jharkhand’s Sahibganj district, a place to which numerous such crimes from around the country have been traced over the past 20 years. After the Virar burglary, Sachin Dorkar, a “police naik”—one rank above constable—of the Mumbai police’s crime branch nabbed one of the suspected thieves from a train bound for Jharkhand, and recovered 400 grams of gold. But the police’s searches of other trains headed north-east from Mumbai did not yield any further results. On the trail of the suspects, “one team reached Patna and another reached Howrah, but couldn’t trace them,” Dorkar told me at his office in Palghar, about 90 kilometres from Mumbai. “Then, finally, we decided to go to Rajmahal.”

River islands, known locally as diaras, dot the Ganga as it flows past Sahibganj district, along Jharkhand’s border with West Bengal PHOTOGRAPH BY SMITA SHARMA

SAHIBGANJ IS RIMMED ON THE NORTH by the Ganga, which sweeps along the state’s border with West Bengal. Scores of river islands, which locals call diaras, dot the river as it flows by the district. In the region, these islands are known to house a large number of criminals, most of whom specialise in burglary, and work in several loosely organised gangs.

I grew up in Rajmahal, and my family has lived there for seven decades. In the late 1990s, when I was in my teens, we would hear of gangs bringing in stolen electronics from heists around India. Word of these hauls would spread and many locals would buy the stolen goods, usually at one of the three most notorious islands: Pyarpur, Amanat or Himshimtola. It became common to see people of all professions, and from across the class spectrum, wearing gleaming luxury watches or carrying sleek mobile phones, some worth tens of thousands of rupees, bought from thieves for a few thousand.

The success of early heists, and the rising prosperity of perpetrators in a region where economic opportunities were limited, lured more people into the trade. Workers from the district migrated around the country, and organisers happily involved them in their “projects,” as the heists came to be called.

The thieves’ ambitions swelled steadily. By the mid 2000s, they had begun to break into jewellery stores and loot large sums of money. In a few years, they began to target banks. Thievery became a way of life in the region. Residents often joked, “Kheera chori karo ya heera, saza to ek hi milna hai” (Whether you steal a cucumber or a diamond, you still get the same punishment)—implying that one might as well steal a diamond. I often heard people taunt honest folk, saying, “Do something like them”—the criminals—“instead of wasting your time.” Even my own relatives directed this jibe at me as I set about making a career in journalism in the late 2000s.

Today, the region remains a hotbed of crime. Nav Kumar Mishra, a local journalist for the Hindi daily Dainik Jagran, has been reporting on the robber gangs for more than a decade. He estimated that between January and July last year—a particularly fruitful period for the thieves—they looted cash and valuables worth around Rs 50 crore. Police officers regularly track robberies to the region and travel to the district to try and arrest perpetrators. But with crime deeply embedded in the local culture, they often face fierce opposition when they arrive.

A few days after the Virar burglary, the Mumbai police team reached Pyarpur village, where the burglars were meeting their prospective customers. But they found the wives of the gang members keeping watch outside the house where the loot was being sold. The women, Dorkar said, threatened the police with sickles when they approached, and hurled abuses at them in Bengali, warning them against arresting any of their husbands. “The villagers mobbed us,” he said. “They pushed and shoved us even after we showed our ID cards, making a counter-allegation that we were there to rob their village.”

The policemen asked for support from local law enforcement, but were taken aback by the response they received. “When we pleaded with the angry mob to take us to the local police station if they wanted to verify our identity, they hesitantly agreed,” Dorkar told me. But, according to Gorakhnath Gharghe, an assistant sub-inspector of the Mumbai police, who was also in the region around the time, “To our surprise, the Sahibganj police was ready to file an FIR against their fellow policemen from Maharashtra on the basis of the villagers’ complaint, and asked us why we entered their jurisdiction without their permission.”

The two groups of police remained at loggerheads. Gharghe told me the Sahibganj police did not offer them support, and even helped the accused slip away. “The local police knows everything about the burglars,” he said. “Their names, addresses and even how much booty they have brought in and from where. But they won’t cooperate with us, as they are hand-in-glove with the burglars.” As a result, he added, the Mumbai police have started going to the villages near Rajmahal without informing the local police stations. He insisted that if they didn’t do this, local police would leak information to the accused, allowing them to evade arrest.

But the Sahibganj police put forward another version of the situation. A senior officer I spoke to accused police teams from other states of blackmailing families in the region. “Suppose they have to arrest a suspect X from our jurisdiction,” he said. “They will take his relatives into custody and they will harass and extort him. And after the deal is finalised, the cops will let them go and report that the accused has been absconding. That they were not found. There are so many empty cases there.”

Crime has taken deep root in the district, and locals often tease honest folk, pointing out that burglars have achieved great prosperity. PHOTOGRAPH BY SMITA SHARMA

Sahibganj’s superintendent of police, Sunil Bhaskar, echoed this view, telling me that there was resentment in the area against police from other states, who bypass local law enforcement and carry out raids on the basis of intelligence provided by local informers. “As per the CRPC”—the code of criminal procedure—“if police come from a different state, they have to inform the local police,” Bhaskar said. “Even if you don’t trust the local police station with the information, you can always get in touch with the higher-ups in the district headquarters.” The approach of outstation police teams raised questions about their intentions, he added. “What would you expect the Mumbai police to do with us if the Sahibganj police went to Mumbai and conducted raids over there?” he said. “Are they going to cooperate with us? They will simply put us behind bars, saying that we are coming to kidnap or extort common people.”

Last August, I learnt first-hand how protective residents of the islands are of the alleged criminals among them. I travelled through the region to learn more about how the thieves operated, and to try and meet some of the ringleaders. On the second day of my trip, I visited Rajmahal’s sessions court, where I encountered a woman who seemed to be in her thirties, accompanied by a young girl who looked around six years old. Though they were dressed modestly, the young girl wore a gold pendant in the shape of a betel leaf. When I struck up a conversation with the woman, she told me that the pendant weighed around 60 grams, and that it was worth around R1,56,000. The photographer accompanying me asked if she could shoot the girl. The mother agreed, then extracted a pair of heavy diamond- and ruby-studded earrings from a nylon shopping bag and put them on. Before the photographer could click a picture, however, a court crier called out the woman’s name, and she ran into the courtroom.

Curious, I asked lawyers at the court who the woman was, and how she could afford such expensive jewellery. One told me in hushed tones, “She is the wife of Kamu chor, who has bought landed property worth crores.”

That same evening, we set out on a motorcycle for Mansigha, the island that was home to Kamruddin Sheikh, known to police as Kamu chor, or Kamu the thief. As we left Rajmahal town and turned off National Highway 80, we came to a road thick with mud and slush, on which it took us 45 minutes to cover a distance of ten kilometres. (The road, like others leading to the islands, is submerged by the Ganga for some part of the year.) As soon as we entered the village and parked, we were mobbed—first, by around 100 young children, and then by the adults of the village. Shortly, a bearded man wearing a lungi and a shirt emerged from the crowd, and introduced himself as Kamruddin. I began to ask him about his criminal reputation—in particular about a burglary case in Chhattisgarh, in which he had been accused. “I deal in property and have nothing to do with burglary,” Kamruddin told me in the local Bengali dialect. “I was falsely implicated in the case and the Chhattisgarh police took away my property papers.”

I pointed out that the police had also named him in several other cases, and claimed that he had bought property with ill-gotten money. He insisted that he had been framed. At this point, the people around him suddenly grew aggressive and began to move towards me and the photographer. I asked her to pack up her camera, and we both rushed for the motorcycle.

Riding out of the village, it seemed at first that we had made it out safely. Then, I noticed in my rear-view mirror that four men were chasing us on two motorcycles. One of the riders was Kamruddin.

Pretending to be unaware that they were in pursuit, we rode on for a few kilometres. As we passed a village named Fulbaria, an acquaintance of mine from college spotted us and waved us down, and then invited us to his house for a cup of tea. As we sat with him, one of our pursuers entered and told me brusquely that Kamruddin was waiting for me outside.

When I stepped out, Kamruddin accused me of being a Central Bureau of Investigation officer. “If something happens to us, we won’t spare you,” he said, thrusting his finger at me. I assured him that I was from Rajmahal, and that I was just a journalist trying to do my job. This mellowed him down. He gave me the name of his lawyer in Rajmahal and asked if I knew him. When I said that I did, he called up the lawyer to cross-check. It was only when the lawyer confirmed my identity, and said that I was not from the CBI, that Kamruddin ended the call. He then left with his associates, riding away along the decrepit road to Mansigha.

THE ROBBERS' NETWORK OF RAJMAHAL comprises around five kingpins, including Kamruddin, and a group of some hundred freelancers. “They have perfected the art of burglary,” Kapil Deo Narayan Agarwal, a veteran lawyer who has practised in Rajmahal for 30 years, told me. “They spend lakhs of rupees just to plan and plot a crime.”

A project begins when a kingpin identifies a target somewhere in the country, typically either a bank or a jewellery store. According to the journalist Nav Kumar Mishra, a common part of this step is to identify potential accomplices who have access to the target—such as security guards who can be bribed. The kingpin then finds an investor—often a wealthy businessperson in Rajmahal or a nearby area—and proposes a partnership. Once a funder comes on board, the kingpin selects his team.

Kapil Deo Narayan Agarwal, a veteran Rajmahal lawyer, told me that police officials often strike deals with criminals, and allow them to slip away in exchange for a share of their loot. PHOTOGRAPH BY SMITA SHARMA

Mishra told me that the network “has spread its wings in the small towns of Jharkhand, Bengal and Bihar.” He added that the thieves also recruit accomplices from neighbouring countries—particularly Bangladesh and Nepal. “The entire diara area has become a safe haven for illegal migrants,” Mishra said. Anant Ojha, a Bharatiya Janata Party member of Jharkhand’s legislative assembly from Rajmahal, claimed that illegal immigrants became a major source of recruits for criminal gangs after 1994, when the district magistrate identified 17,094 Bangladeshi nationals in the region and removed their names from electoral rolls, but did not deport them. “This was the first mistake,” he said. “Some of them took shelter in the Gangetic islands of the Rajmahal area, as it was geographically inaccessible.”

The Virar and Badlapur robberies are typical examples of the Rajmahal robber gangs’ methods. A group will travel to the location of the crime and familiarise itself with the target. As in the Virar case, this occasionally involves creating a false front. Police officers in Mumbai told me about another foiled burglary in the city of Nashik, in which burglars opened a plastic-furniture shop next to a jewellery store. These preparations involve considerable investment, since the perpetrators have to be housed and fed, while also, in some cases, appearing to run a legitimate business.

A police team sets out on a raid from Rajmahal’s police station. Police from other states often face resistance from local police when they travel to the region to apprehend suspects. PHOTOGRAPH BY SMITA SHARMA

The burglars’ method usually involves some form of tunneling to reach their loot. In one case, in JP Nagar in Bengaluru, police arrested three Bangladeshi nationals who were attempting to rob a popular jewellery store. (The police emailed pictures of the accused to me. When I sent them to Mishra, he identified one of them, saying he had seen him with suspected burglars in Rajmahal.) The men had already dug an eight-foot tunnel through the walls of a storm-water drain adjacent to the store. “The plan was to break through the floor of Priyadarshani store and clean out the shop,” Sanjeev Mahajan, a sub-inspector of the Bengaluru police, told me over the phone.

Once the heist is completed, the gang returns to Jharkhand (usually by train, but on a truck if the haul is large), where the process of distributing the spoils begins. Alam Sheikh, a member of the thieves’ network who told me he had reformed, said that in cases where cash is involved, it is split between the investor and the gang members. (Policemen I spoke to contradicted Sheikh’s claim about his reformation, saying he was still involved in planning robberies.) If a gang of between eight and ten people robs Rs 1 crore, and an investor put in Rs 5 lakh, he or she might take Rs 10 lakh from the spoils, while the rest is divided between gang members, with each getting upwards of Rs 8 lakh.

Often, the loot is gold. To monetise it, once the news of a successful burglary reaches the islands, the investor informs prospective buyers. Some jewellery store owners in the region may make purchases, but the investors also rely on a buyers’ network that extends farther, particularly into the districts of Bhagalpur and Kathihar in Bihar, and Murshidabad and Malda in West Bengal. Buyers converge to conduct their business at a pre-determined location, often the home of one of the burglars. In one such incident, the Mumbai police arrested the owner of a popular jewellery store in Malda for purchasing looted gold from a Rajmahal gang. “I know a jeweller who bought two kilograms of gold at the rate of Rs 15 lakh per kilogram, while the market rate was Rs 30 lakh,” Agarwal, the lawyer, said. “Now, the jeweller is languishing in jail.”

In some cases, burglars even enter into barter deals to dispose of their loot. Recently, Andhra Pradesh police arrested a land dealer from a diara named Amanat because he had given property to a burglar in exchange for gold.

The burglars have also begun to monetise stolen gold through gold loans. “Since the gold loan policy of the banks doesn’t ask the depositors about the source the gold, it’s easier for burglars to get loans against the gold,” the manager of a national bank branch in the region told me. “This is fast turning into a trend among burglars and their financiers.”

According to Agarwal, one of the reasons the gangs have flourished is that police officials who travel to the region to investigate crimes have been less than honest. “Everyone knows how loyal and faithful Indian police are to their duties,” he said sarcastically. “Be it Mumbai, Karnataka or Kerala police, they come here, arrest the accused and seize the booty, too. But on the way, they strike a deal with the burglars. Suppose they recovered 5 kg of gold, they show only the recovery of 2 kg. The burglar would be allowed to run away as part of the deal”—and the police would personally pocket some of the confiscated loot.

Patronage from local leaders also helps. “I visit the local police station at least ten times a day,” Mohammed Maroof, the brother of the local political leader MT Raja, formerly of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, and now with the Congress, told me. “What I gather is that the police only follows the direction of Gandhi-ji”—a reference to currency notes—“or the instructions of highly-placed political leaders.” Maroof claimed that 90 percent of cases “are either hushed up or weakened by the cops, who take favours from the accused.” He claimed that, as someone in politics, he did not have the luxury of taking a principled stand. “See, I am a politician,” he said. “I will have to side with the right and the wrong people too. But it is the duty of the police to book the culprit.”

If the thieves encounter legal trouble, they tap into a network of dozens of lawyers for help. “Our main job is to supervise if the client—that is, the burglar—is being fooled by local lawyers, in whichever state the case has been filed,” one lawyer popular among the region’s thieves told me. “In 90 percent of the cases, the clients are kept in the dark about case proceedings and fleeced. If the bail petition has been cancelled, the lawyer won’t inform them. They will quote Rs 50,000 for a set of stamp papers that actually cost Rs 5,000. This is where we come into the picture.” Rajmahal lawyers typically get a daily fee of Rs 3,000, this lawyer said, along with airfare to, and accommodation and food in, the place where legal aid is needed. Since the burglars don’t speak the local languages in many places where they operate, they “face problems communicating with their counsels also,” he said. “We are hired to understand what’s happening in the case and update our mostly illiterate clients who can speak Bengali or Hindi only.”

The lawyers aim to secure their clients’ procedural rights, such as the right to bail if a charge sheet is not filed within the time laid down by law. “The defence lawyer secures bail for the burglars citing CRPC 167 (2), which mandates the release of the accused if the police fails to file a charge sheet within two months,” the lawyer said.

Apart from their fees, he added, lawyers also regularly ask their clients to fund sightseeing trips when they travel on assignments. When he went to Bengaluru on a case, for instance, the lawyer also had his client book a trip to Kerala for him. “I always wanted to travel to different places,” he said. “This job has given me the opportunity to explore places across country. I am one of the few lawyers from this small town who have boarded a flight in their lifetime, or visited metropolitan cities like Mumbai, Delhi and so on.” He insisted there was nothing unethical about such an arrangement. “It is my job to defend my clients,” he said. “And if that gives me money and opportunity to explore places, I think there is nothing wrong in it.”

IN RECENT YEARS, the criminal reputation of Sahibganj has taken an even more sinister turn. According to Alam Hussain, a 30-year-old high-school teacher and social activist from Rajmahal, the burglars “never carried firearms, as a matter of policy, but now they have started using firearms also.”

According to Maroof, the politician, the gangs, which once focussed on burglary, as well as producing fake currency, have now started venturing into kidnapping, and even organ smuggling. Recently, police rescued a seven-year-old boy who was kidnapped from the North Dinajpur district of West Bengal. According to Maroof, the kidnappers planned to extract a kidney from the child and sell it. When the police went to Pyarpur village, where the boy was held, to rescue him, the situation grew tense, as a crowd of around 25,000 locals gathered, intent on lynching the kidnappers. The police had to ask for reinforcements from eight stations to control the situation. “Then my brother”—MT Raja—“who is worshipped by people there, intervened and appealed to people not to take the law into their hands and allow the police to do its duty,” Maroof said.

Owing to the region’s poor reputation, locals from Rajmahal often suffer discrimination when they travel outside their district. PHOTOGRAPH BY SMITA SHARMA

Names from the region have also surfaced in connection with the Burdwan blast. In October 2014, an explosion occurred in a two-storey building in Khagragarh, a locality in West Bengal’s Burdwan district, killing two people that investigators suspected were making bombs. In January 2015, the National Investigation Agency arrested Rejaul Karim, a key accused in the case, from Sahibganj district. It alleged that Karim was a member of the militant Islamist organisation Jamaat ul Mujahideen Bangladesh. A senior official of the Sahibganj police told me that his officers had another member of the cell in their sights, and were hoping to arrest him soon.

Rajmahal’s deteriorating reputation dismays some residents. For around five years, Hussain has been running a campaign calling for a social and financial boycott of burglars and their families. “In our society, criminals command more respect than honest men,” he said. “Their main target is to become rich at any cost.” The reputations of honest citizens were being tarnished by the criminals, he explained. “We are all seen through the same glasses.”

For some time, Hussain tried to build support for his cause. But his efforts had little effect, he said, and, for many people in the area, crime continues to be an acceptable way to earn a livelihood. In fact, the prosperity of criminals often serves to increase their social status. Hussain told me of a 2014 incident where a burglar was arrested a few days ahead of his wedding. Local journalists asked the father of the bride whether he would call off the wedding. “So what if he has been arrested?” Hussain told me the father said. “At the most, it will take him three months to get bail. My soon-to-be son-in-law has a lot of money. I know he will be able to take good care of my daughter. If you have money, the world is yours. I don’t give a damn about what other people have to say about this.”

As crime has taken firm root in the region over the decades, honest locals suffer discrimination when they travel outside the area. Hussain recounted one instance, from five years ago, when he went to Kolkata to take an entrance test for a job with the Indian Railways as a ticket examiner. “The hotel receptionist had already done all the formalities and allotted me a room,” he said. “In the meantime, I got a call from home and spoke in the local Bengali dialect. I don’t know what happened in two minutes, but I was politely told that they couldn’t give me a room.”

When he asked the hotel’s manager why he was being denied accommodation, Hussain was told: “Sir, we have no problem with you. You look like a gentleman. But the area you belong to is full of burglars. A few months back, some people stayed in our hotel after carrying out a heist in Mumbai. Once they left, police came looking for them and subjected us to hours of grilling, as if we had committed the crime.” Since then, the manager said, the hotel did not let out rooms to people from Rajmahal and its surrounding areas. Hussain had to spend a sleepless night on a railway platform in Howrah.

Powerless to counter the growing criminalisation of the region he has always considered home, Hussain’s frustrations have driven him to consider leaving. “I have a four-year-old son,” he said. “I am worried about his future. If he grows up among the burglars, he might also get lured into doing what most people do here. So I have decided to sell off my property here and move to the town, just to break this vicious cycle.”

Sanjay Pandey Sanjay Pandey is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. He contributes to several national and international publications, including Al Jazeera, AJ+, Friday magazine and Vice News. He writes on society, culture, human rights and the environment.