Monday, July 28, 2008

Forsaking felony

Like in other parts of India, criminal gangs thrive in Kerala. However, a priest, through counseling sessions, tries to persuade them to give up crime.

By Shevlin Sebastian

Fr. Bosco Njaliath, of the Carmelite order, had befriended a gangster, Raghu, whose younger brother, Sajan, had been killed in an intra-gang rivalry. He held long counselling sessions with Raghu, and dissuaded him from taking revenge.

Meanwhile, the gang members, who killed Sajan, were afraid that Raghu would retaliate. So, one evening, four men attacked Raghu, sliced off his legs and stabbed him 28 times. “I was devastated by Raghu’s death,” says Fr. Njaliath. “I decided to do something for these misguided young men.”

He began visiting the houses of these gang members in and around Angamaly, 40 kms from Kochi, and befriended them. He took the help of the local police, including the then SI, Bijo Alexander.

After ten months of persuasion, he was able to get 50 men, belonging to various gangs, to take part in a seven-day counselling course at the Carmel Bhavan at Karukutty, near Angamaly.

The theme of the course: ‘The emptiness of the criminal life.’ “We asked the gangsters, whether they had profited by indulging in these criminal activities? Were they happy?” says Fr. Njaliath. “We wanted them to analyse their lives. We tried to show them that there were no gains, only losses. We told them that, whether they are Hindus, Muslims or Christians, they are all God’s children.”

In counselling, the priest observed that most of them suffered from the pinpricks of conscience. “One day, a young man, who had killed three men, confessed that he was unable to go to sleep without the help of alcohol,” says Fr. Njaliath. “The moment he awoke, he saw nightmarish images of the crimes he had done.”

It has not been easy for the priest to rehabilitate them. “I know of many boys who came for counseling, stayed for a few days, then could not resist returning to the gangs and ended up dead,” says the priest. “If they remain in the gangs, they are usually dead by 40.”

But Fr. Njaliath has success stories too. “Quite a few gangsters have started a new life by working in small jobs or starting businesses of their own,” says police officer Bijo Alexander.

The priest has encouraged the gangsters to stay at Carmel Bhawan for as long as they want. They attend regular counseling sessions, say prayers, play volleyball or football and work in a brick-making unit that Fr. Njaliath has started nearby. “The longer they stay away from their companions, the better are the chances to lead a straight life,” he says.

For most of these criminals, an unhappy childhood has been the root cause of all their troubles. “My father, who was an alcoholic, beat me and my brothers often and was always quarreling with my mother,” says Pratap, a gang member. “The atmosphere at home was oppressive, so, I spent all my time on the streets and finally ended up joining a gang.”

But what is worrying Fr. Njaliath is how the present-day youth are attracted to people like Pratap. “They see these boys drinking, smoking and spending money lavishly on entertainment,” says the priest. “The gang members wear designer clothes, carry the latest mobile phones and move around in flashy cars like Scorpios.”

Many girls are attracted to them and end up having affairs with these gangsters. “Some come from good families,” he says.

What is not helping matters is the moral breakdown in society. “The basic virtues, like honesty, sincerity and the necessity for hard work have vanished,” says Fr. Njaliath. “In films, these gangsters are glorified. There is a feeling in society that if you do not have money, you are nobody. So, people want to make money quickly and are willing to break the law.”

Apart from the amoral environment, gangs will continue to thrive, says Mani, a gang member, because of the close link with politicians. They use the gangs for protection, to intimidate opponents, and to protect illegal wealth.

“If a gang member is arrested, the politician will immediately call the police station and order the boy to be released,” he says. “If he is not, the police officer is transferred.”

Of course, there are good police officers, but most of the time they are hamstrung by the pervasive corruption among the law-enforcers and the Damocles sword of ‘punishment transfers’ hanging over their heads.

“After some time, even the good officers realise that inaction is better than action,” says Mani, with a smile.

Says police officer Alexander: “In a democracy, there are pressures from all sections of society, including politicians. But we have learnt to overcome them and get the work done.”

However, most gangsters say they continue to thrive despite the ‘ever-vigilant’ policemen.
(Some names have been changed.)

The story of a gangster

On a Wednesday evening, a couple of years ago, Mahesh is walking down a road in Thrissur. Suresh hides in a side street. As soon as Mahesh comes abreast, Suresh jumps out and stabs Mahesh twice in the chest and runs away. There is a stunned silence on the road for several seconds before pedestrians rush towards the fallen man, while panicky shopkeepers pull down the shutters.

By the time the police arrive and take Mahesh to the hospital, it is too late. “I have no regrets,” says Suresh. “I don’t have any bad dreams or nightmares about the murder. Mahesh deserved to die.”

Suresh belonged to a gang, whose members held a friendly football match with another gang. During the course of the match, Mahesh had an altercation with Anil, a member of Suresh’s gang. Later, Mahesh’s gang decided to teach Anil a lesson. So they waylaid Anil and beat him to a pulp. As they were leaving, Mahesh said, “Let me give a parting shot.”

He ran back, twisted Anil’s neck and hit his head with an iron rod. It was a fatal blow. Anil died a day later in hospital. When Suresh heard about this, he had vowed to take revenge. Now Mahesh was dead. And Suresh was on the run for several months. Finally, he was arrested and now he is out on bail.

A stocky, muscular man, with a week’s stubble on his face, he says, “The only thing I am worried about is being convicted by the court. I might get life imprisonment.”

Suresh has a valid reason to be scared. One of his former colleagues, Ravi, who had committed a murder, had been convicted recently to life imprisonment by a fast-track court.

Suresh had become a gang member by accident. One day, when he was 18 years old, he was playing cards with a neighbour, Ranjit. There was an altercation, and Suresh slapped Ranjit.

Ranjit, a senior member of the CPI(M), returned with a group of friends and beat Suresh up. Later, Suresh was arrested and taken to the sub-jail at Aluva.

“When people go to jail for the first time, they have one of two reactions,” he says. “They vow to themselves that they will never go to jail again, and so, they avoid wrongdoing. The second group thinks that this is all there is to it, so there is nothing to fear.”

Suresh belonged to the second group.

“I thirsted for revenge,” he says. “I felt that violence was a part and parcel of life.” When he was released from prison, Suresh joined a gang and spent the next 14 years indulging in murder, robbery, confiscating vehicles of loan defaulters, arranging compromises between rival businessmen for a fee, apart from indulging in intra-gang fights, punctuated by short spells in jail.

Finally, Suresh had two turning points in his life. Once, when he was hard up for money, he had started selling drugs. For an investment of Rs 5,000, he made a profit of Rs 25,000.

One day when he returned home, his mother told him there was a letter from his sister who was a social worker at Kolkata.

“She wrote that she was working to rehabilitate drug addicts,” says Suresh. “The first thought that came to my mind after reading the letter was that while my sister was trying to save drug addicts, here I was, trying to destroy them through drug addiction. So, I decided to get out of the drug business.”

The second turning point occurred when he met Fr. Bosco Njaliath of the Carmelite Order who was holding a counseling session for gangsters.

After the session, Suresh experienced a peace of mind for the first time in years. He decided to get out of the gang, but it was not easy. “My enemies were keen to wipe me off,” he says. “But I knew that if I remained I would be scared for the rest of my life. Hence, I decided to take the risk and leave.”

In the first year, he faced a lot of harassment. “I had to move around with three to four boys, as protection,” he says. “I realised that the only way to survive was to stay out of sight of my enemies, avoid getting into fights, or losing my temper. Whenever I saw a fight take place somewhere, I moved in the opposite direction.”

Today, he has a small business, selling toys, but he is not sure whether he will be able to stay free of the gangs. He got married a year ago and has a baby son.

“My wife knows everything about my life,” he says. It was a love marriage and they had known each other from school. “There was no way I could have had an arranged marriage, because of all that has happened,” he says. “I have a bad reputation.”

Asked on the advice he would give an eighteen-year-old who might want to join a gang, Suresh says, “He should never join. He will gain nothing from it. On the other hand, there is a strong possibility that he will die. In all my years with these gangs, I don’t know of a single person who has come good after all this violence and robbery.”

(Some names have been changed)

The modus operandi of the gangs

If there is a loan default on a car loan, banks allegedly hire these gangs to recover the vehicle. The banks have one key to the vehicle. “This is given to the gang who takes the vehicle away, if it is parked somewhere,” says John, a gang member. “Otherwise, the defaulter is stopped on the road and his vehicle is forcibly taken away.”

The payment to the gang is fixed: Rs 1500 for a bike, Rs 3000 for an autorickshaw, Rs 5000 for a car and Rs 15,000 for bigger vehicles.

The second job is to enforce compromises. If somebody owes a lot of money, the creditor hires the gang to extract the money. “We will use the threat of violence to get the money back and we are given a commission for it,” says Rajesh, a gang member. “This can be a good amount.”

Then they steal black money which is transported up and down the national highways. These belong to politicians and businessmen. They get a tip-off that a car is carrying this money and they attack it and steal the cash. After the robbery, a commission is given to the person who gives the tip. “Recently, one gang cleaned up Rs 5 crore during such an attack,” says Rajesh. Later, the gang leader was shot dead, in retaliation.

These gangsters use the money to fuel their alcoholic and drug addictions. “Quite a few of them are sex addicts and spend a lot of money on their girlfriends,” says John.

According to Rajesh, there are about 3500 women, between the ages of 15 and 35 who are in the flesh trade in Kochi. “They take apartments for rent and arrange for brokers to bring in the men,” he says. “Sometimes, like the police, we raid these flats to get money and have sex with the girls.” Incidentally, he says, whenever there is an advertisement in the newspapers for a massage parlour, “be sure that it is just a front for a sex racket.”

Copyright: The New Indian Express, Chennai)


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