In areas like Pulianthope, gangs flourish, often drawing children into their fold.
October 2, 2020: K Rajesh, 45, a lawyer based in Chennai, was hacked to death in front of his home. His death was attributed to a “gang war”; Rajesh was described by the police as being part of a gang who used his political connections to “hide illegal activities”. The prime suspect in the case was speedily arrested but he’s now out on bail.
June 20, 2018: K Murali, 41, was murdered by five men while serving a prison sentence at Chennai’s Puzhal Jail. Murali had multiple cases against him, including three charges of murder and three charges of attempt to murder, and was an alleged “gangster”. According to the police, his murder was planned by Vyasarpadi Nagendran, a gangster and fellow inmate at Puzhal Jail.
These are gruesome crimes but they’re par for the course in Chennai, where “gangsterism” thrives in the absence of stringent laws.
For instance, the main accused in Rajesh’s murder, Sulchi Suresh, was detained at least four times under the “Goondas Act”, otherwise known as the Tamil Nadu Prevention of Dangerous Activities of Bootleggers, Drug Offenders, Goondas, Immoral Traffic Offenders, Forest Offenders, Sand Offenders, Slum-Grabbers and Video Pirates Act.
Being booked under Goondas Act prevents a person from getting bail for 12 months, unless it’s set aside by a government advisory board or the high court. But “delays in judicial proceedings” led to Suresh absconding after the court granted him bail.
“If the trial was completed earlier, he would be serving the sentence now,” said P Jawahar, a police inspector at the Kodungaiyur police station. “Once out of bail, they don’t appear in court. And so, the police remand them following a warrant from the court. They get bail again and abscond. Caught in this cycle, cases from the 1990s are still languishing in the Madras High Court.”
In September, for instance, state police arrested 3,325 history-sheeters and seized over 1,100 weapons across Tamil Nadu during a 52-hour “storming” operation. The news made headlines, but the legal process that will follow will take years.
Then there’s the case of Vyasarpadi Nagendran, who allegedly “planned” Murali’s murder, Nagendran is already serving a life sentence. His team of accomplices usually carry out murders on his instruction, according to officials.
“Just like any other gang, Nagendran’s gang has a well-structured hierarchy: a team to hold kangaroo courts, another to extort money, another to commit murders, and so on,” said Kannadasan V, an advocate at the Madras High Court. “Nagendran doesn’t involve himself in any of the crimes.”
With this in mind, Tamil Nadu announced in September that it was introducing a special law – the Tamil Nadu Control of Organised Crime Act – in the upcoming assembly session in January 2022 to tackle the issue. The state government told the Madras High Court the law was inspired by similar laws in Maharashtra, and would provide for stricter punishment, including the death penalty.
“Organised crime” here refers to unlawful activities by anyone who is a member of an “organised crime syndicate”, or on behalf of the syndicate. While the Goondas Act is “slapped on habitual offenders to stop the recurrence of the offence”, the new law will “ensure a speedy trial of the case through special courts”, according to advocate K Bhaskar.
Chennai police commissioner Shankar Jiwal told Newslaundry there are 4,856 rowdies in Chennai, spread across different categories as detailed in the table below. Between January 2015 and November 22, 2021, he said 3,709 organised crimes took place, of which chargesheets have been filed in 1,815 cases.
Police officers told Newslaundry they hope the new law tightens bail provisions for accused. They also want special courts to be introduced to exclusively hear cases related to organised crime. “That’s when the conviction rate will increase,” said Rajesh Kannan, deputy commissioner of police, Pulianthope.
So, will a special law help? What leads to this cycle of violence, or “rowdyism”, in Chennai?
Newslaundry visited Pulianthope, a North Chennai locality infamous for gangs and gang wars, to find out.
Pulianthope and crime
From Sulchi Suresh to Vyasarpadi Nagendran, Kathiravan to Boxer Murali – all these gangsters have one thing in common. Pulianthope was their home turf. Murali’s supporters even composed this song for him.
Located around three km from Chennai Central railway station, Pulianthope houses Chennai's dumping yard in Kodungaiyur and the city’s biggest slaughterhouse in Aadhudhotti, besides several buildings of colonial importance such as Binny Mills. One of the first clans of boxing, Sarpatta Parambarai, originated in Pulianthope.
“Today, most of the professional boxers are linked with notorious gangs as the sport did not get the recognition it deserves,” says Kanaka Pillai, 80, who has lived on Pulianthope High Road all his life.
Despite this rich history, Pulianthope police district – which covers areas such as Otteri, Kodungaiyur, Thiru Vi Ka Nagar and MKB Nagar – is characterised by abject poverty. The roads are battered, the streets narrow, and basic amenities such as clean drinking water are a luxury. Most localities do not have stormwater drains or underground sewage networks.
There is no specific data on the break-up of organised crime across Chennai’s localities. The police claim Pulianthope police district sees the “most organised crime cases” in the city, although this is contradicted by some reports. According to the police, gangsters and history-sheeters outnumber police personnel in this area.
“There are 400 police officials but more than 600 rowdies in the police district,” said a senior police officer from Pulianthope police station, on the condition of anonymity. “Many officers were changed in the past 20 years but there have been no convictions in cases of the most notorious or dreadful gangsters, such as Sulchi Suresh and Kathiravan.”
Lawyers and locals also told Newslaundry about a “nexus” between gangs and the police. “Not all police officers are honest,” said advocate Bhaskaran. “A section of the police that benefit financially from these goons tip them off in case of a possible arrest.”
Rowdyism in Pulianthope dates back to the 1960s, when Chennai city saw an influx of people of Indian origin returning from Burma. These “Burmese repatriates” formed colonies across cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Vellore and Chennai. In Chennai, Burma Bazaar was set up near Chennai Beach railway station to help these repatriates, and small-time criminals soon found a ready trade in illegal products like cigarettes and alcohol from Burma. Criminals would extract “protection money” from these shops too.
But Pulianthope’s first official gang was formed in the 1970s when clashes broke out between one Subbaiah from the Devar community and Benjamin, a member of a Scheduled Caste.
“At least 14 murders happened on both sides,” Pillai said. “And Kathiravan is a third-generation rowdy on Subbaiah’s side.”
The Vyasarpadi goods shed.
Pulianthope police district.
Things changed in the 1990s. “Gangs were formed not based on communities but based on loyalties,” said DCP Kannan. “To sustain the gangs, gang members indulged in extortion, murders and illegal trade of drugs, and began conducting kangaroo courts.”
Areas prone to gang violence in Pulianthope include Vyasarpadi Goods Shed, BV Colony and Sathyamurthy Nagar. The area’s gangs also depend on fast-developing real estate markets in neighbouring places like Red Hills and Sriperumbudur to expand their business.
Rowdyism also comes with an air of glamour: of rags to riches, of pride and honour.
“It offers scope to come out of poverty for those growing up in abusive environments with alcoholic parents,” said Anupriya Murugesan, a social worker in the area. “This, along with other sociological reasons, prompts children to take this path.”
Joel Pandi, a former member of Nagendran’s gang, told Newslaundry that many gangs often involve children in their activities.
“Drug usage is so engrossed in the environment that the children get easily influenced,” said J Tanya Verony, social work manager with Oasis India, a NGO that works with children in North Chennai. “There is a lot of apathy and to neutralise it, children resort to drugs. Drug usage in adolescents is so high that children rely on crimes such as chain snatching and burglary to buy the drugs. The locality has got a bad reputation that social workers are advised not to go alone to the field.”
Meanwhile, for the police, arresting gangs is not as easy as the cinematic world would have you believe.
“Fearing consequences, the victims of these gangsters often do not file a complaint,” said a retired police official who used to work at Otteri police station. Additionally, if X commits a crime, X’s accomplices will often surrender to the police instead, in order to confuse the cops and delay the investigation, the official explained.
Adding to these problems is that the police isn’t entirely to be trusted as well. Anand, a former member of Kakkathopu Balaji’s gang in Tondiarpet, told Newslaundry the police often file “fake, unsolved cases” against rowdies to strengthen the case against them. After the anti-gangster squad detained Balaji in November 2019, Anand gave up his life of crime and relocated to Madurai so that he couldn’t be tracked down.
“That’s how Vyasarpadi Nagendran remains behind bars for 20 years,” Anand said, “not being able to come out on parole, despite many health complications.”
In recent years, technology has changed how gangsters operate. “They use stolen mobiles and reroute locations using VPNs,” said the retired police officials.
While the new organised crime law is hoped to help, the police admit that early intervention is required, particularly in the case of children who are absorbed into gangs.
“We are accelerating activities in the boys’ and girls’ clubs attached to all police stations,” said Chennai police commissioner Shankar Jiwal. A government order has been passed to add 51 boys and girls clubs to the 102 currently set up in Chennai. The police have also planned initiatives to educate school students on law enforcement and traffic rules.
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