Saturday, June 24, 2006

Guns and poses

This appeared in the Tehelka issue dated 24 June 2006

Last week, within minutes after the shot fired in Mahesh Bhatt’s office, a gangster by the name of Ravi Prakash Surya Poojari rang up news correspondents claiming responsibility for the incident. It was the traitor’s good fortune he was not there, Poojari said. He got lucky. He wouldn’t miss next time. The thing is, it had all been heard before. Poojari often levitated to the media with dramatic statements of intent. He relied on the press to give him new life as a criminal.

Bhatt was in Delhi, addressing “a conference on the awareness of elderly abuse”, when he heard the news. He thought it “funny and absurd and bizarre and comical and a mixture of all these emotions at once”. Apparently, a boy had come into his office, asking for him. He was fidgety. Then he turned impatient. He was told Bhatt wasn’t in. He ran out of the office, pulled out a country-made gun, and fired at nothing in particular. If you can’t find the traitors, the message went, at least put a bullet through their veneer floor.

“It’s a little bizarre,” Bhatt said. “Why did he choose to shoot when I wasn’t there? Did he actually come to shoot me and kill me, or was it to announce that he was around? Was it a dreaded gangster doing it of his own free will, or was he nudged by somebody who wanted to muzzle the voice of an individual who has spoken fearlessly about the atrocities committed against minorities of every kind?”

Poojari, a Karnataka boy, is 35 now. When he was last arrested, in 1994, aged 23, he already had four years of crime to his credit. He stayed in the Jan Kalyan residential Society in Andheri, with parents who knew what he was up to. He fell in love with and married a Punjabi woman who knew what he did. And he had children who knew his profession. The family was called in for questioning a few days after the incident at Mahesh Bhatt’s office.

Poojari had spent a month planning Bhatt’s death, and said his days were numbered. “Jab main kisi aadmi ke peechey pad jata hoon to usey chodta nahin hoon,” Poojari said over a telephone to a television channel. He said Bhatt was anti-India and had connections with the Inter Services Intelligence. His hitlist was long, he said, and Dawood was on it, besides other Muslim builders. Also on it was Majit Memon, the lawyer, who survived an attempt on his life last year (Incidentally, Poojari had spent a month tracking Memon and then went to the press after missing his target). He claimed that once they were dead he would surrender. This, an officer investigating Poojari said, was like advertising. “You know how brands create identities? That’s what he’s doing. He’s no big nationalist. He goes around threatening Hindus. What kind of a nationalist is that?”

The police believed that Poojari did it for attention. “He used to bring tea and buy vegetables for Srikant mama,” a senior inspector at the Mumbai crime branch said. Srikant Desai was a gang leader. “When mama passed away in an encounter in 1993, Poojari thought Bala Zalte, brother of the gangster Bandya Zalte, had tipped off the police, so he murdered Bala.” It was a brutal killing. A dozen men, including Poojari, used swords. One by one the men were arrested and, based on a tip-off, they finally arrested Poojari when he visited home to see his newborn daughter at his MIDC residence in Andheri. “You could see cruelty in his eyes. What kind of a man kills a person that way?” But cruelty in the eyes is not permissible evidence, and he was acquitted a few months later. He fled the country in two years.

The police thought he was somewhere in India now, doing what he did best: extortion. The problem was that Poojari’s stock was a tad low in the police’s eyes. “Just imagine,” the officer recalled with a chuckle, “he called up some guy and said, ‘Give me 50 lakhs.’ The guy said no, so he said, ‘Okay, give me 25 lakhs,’ and the guy said no again, and he said, ‘Alright then, give me five lakhs,’ which the guy agreed to. Then he sends two of his boys, young boys, and we picked them up.”

Poojari had parted ways with Chota Rajan after an attack on him by Dawood’s men in Bangkok, supporters had left him en masse, and he needed people to know that he was around. He needed the publicity to spread fear. He hired young boys, luring them with cell phones and a bundle of cash, and left them cold if they were unlucky. “He never helped his assistants,” the inspector said, “and so they didn’t trust him. They left him.” Then, tiring of the questions, he sighed and said, “Why don’t you just speak to him? He’s given just about everybody his contact number.”

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