VELLORE : Their professional interests have evolved into a typical mix of murder, extortion, kidnap and running kangaroo courts, but behind every rowdy who was ‘good’ enough to gain infamy in this northern district the last decade, there invariably is an autorickshaw.
This is true about four out of the top five gangsters in Vellore, who began as auto drivers before graduating to more lucrative professions. But their links to autos remain.
Unlike the swanky SUVs, the size and price of which declares a rowdy’s rise up the crime ladder, autos do not make a statement.
They are the exact opposite: as the common man’s preferred mode of travel for short trips, they are ubiquitous; and the transport regulations on the colour and facilities make them indistinguishable from one another. Little wonder then that these three-wheelers — the bigger type that are operated as share-autos — are the vehicle of choice for the gangsters here for their criminal activities, including kidnapping, red sanders smuggling and ferrying wood cutters.
Autorickshaw union functionaries say there are about 4,000 autos in the city corporation that have permit from the transport authority. But according to police and transport department officials whom Express spoke to, there are an estimated 6,000 autos that run without licence.
Sources believe many of these could be sporting fake registration numbers as well, so that it could be abandoned in case of police trouble. They are part of the gang operations as is required, and ‘moonlight’ as passenger autos when not needed.
Part of this is the fight for control of the auto stands, especially the important ones like Katpadi Railway Station, Sathuvachari, Gandhi Nagar, CMC, Old Bus Stand, VIT and Chittoor Road. Many auto drivers are captive clients for moneylenders, many a time these rowdies themselves, who offer short-terms loans with little or no paperwork but at exorbitant interest. It is a sticky net from which escape is rather rare a likelihood.
Pitched battles have been waged to control these auto stands, the latest episode of which had GG Ravi, the chairman of an engineering college, murdered. It was triggered by a quarrel between his brother Ramesh and a local gangster Mahalingam over controlling Thottapalayam auto stand. The war has already claimed the lives of Ramesh, Mahalingam and Ravi in that order, but is not over yet. For, there is much at stake and much more to earn. And it all begins with the humble auto-rickshaw.
The fearsome five
Over the decades, as the sleepy town developed into a municipal corporation, it witnessed the rise of gangsters, young men from typical lower middle class families. The most infamous of the lot, the ones who repeatedly featured in the police crime records in the last 10 years, are the quintet — Mahalingam alias ‘Athiradi’ Maha (33), who was murdered, ‘Vasur’ Raja (32), John Paulrajan alias Johny (31), Dinesh alias ‘Veechu’ Dinesh (32) and Sathish Kumar alias Kuppan (28).
All but Raja began as drivers, and are connected with the auto stands here in some way or the other. Of them, ‘Vasur’ Raja tops the chart with 18 cases, including three murders and seven murder attempt cases. He has so far been booked under Goondas Act five times.
His father, Manikandan, retired from the army, a career that Raja was also expected to follow like the countless others in the northern belt including Vellore-Krishnagiri-Dharmapuri. He had attended trials and was selected, and was days away from leaving his native place to join the army.
That was when his name figured in police records as third accused in a criminal intimidation and kidnap case on June 11, 2007.“Raja and his friends kidnapped a man in an auto from Gandhi Nagar auto stand and assaulted him. At that time, he was selected to join the military and was about to leave Vellore within a few days. But after being arrested in a criminal case, he could not join. Within the next few months, he was arrested again on charges of extorting a jeweller. This time, he was the prime accused,” a senior police officer recalled.
He began to be known as ‘Vasur’ Raja after the name of his village, Pudu Vasur. In 2011, a 14-year-old girl was kidnapped for ransom, an abduction that went awry and resulted in her death. Police sources said investigations revealed the plan was hatched by Raja and executed by his trusted lieutenant John Paulrajan alias Johny, who was charged for the murder.
Raja’s infamy lured youth, who got attracted by the power he wielded and the life they could lead as part of his gang. In 2014, when a supermarket in Sathuvachari was ransacked, police learnt it was Raja along with four young boys taking revenge on the shop owner for not paying up. He used these boys to behead a farmer in Kaveripakkam over a land dispute. Police say they met Raja at a gym.
Johny, a native of Vandarathangal near Katpadi, began as an auto driver and was first arrested by Katpadi Police in 2010 for mobile robbery. Just a year later, he was charged as the prime accused in the abduction and murder of the 14-year-old girl.
In 2016, he was accused of robbing `1 lakh from a business man near Viruthampattu. Within a few days, Vellore South Police booked him for abduction and murder of Saravanana, the nephew of Karagattam artiste turned red sanders smuggler, Mohanambal. Johny allegedly demanded `3 crore from Saravanan’s family, which was not paid. Presently, he is remanded in Vellore central jail.
Another trusted aide of Raja is Dinesh, a native of Vijayaragavapuram in Sathuvachari. A history-sheeter who controls the auto stands in Sathuvachari, he reportedly lends money to auto drivers for a higher interest.
Dinesh is an accused in the murder of Santhosh Kumar, an auto driver who questioned his right to control the affairs at the stand. The original dispute was between Sathish, the auto owner, and Santhosh over paying the rent for riding the former’s auto. When Sathish threatened to inform Dinesh, Santhosh reportedly questioned Dinesh’s authority over matters at the auto stand.
Sources said Dinesh was not only informed of the matter, but also saw the video clippings of Santhosh abusing him, which was recorded on a mobile phone. Santhosh was quickly abducted and by the time he was murdered, he had undergone torture for two whole days. Dinesh then surrendered before the court.
Mahalingam, known locally as Maha, was the son of a village administrative office hailing from Thottapalayam. Dropping out of school after Class VIII, Maha began moving with the smaller criminals helping them smuggle arrack, alleged sources. He used to drive an auto then. Though he was involved in several crimes, his notoriety came to light only in 2009 when he murdered John Sekar, then public relation officer of CMC Hospital, in full public view for a fee of just `30,000. The murder was plotted by an ambulance contractor Babu.
During investigation, police claimed Maha was responsible for two previous murders that remained untraceable till then. In 2003, the body of M Gilani with cut injuries were found near Latheri railway track. The case was closed as untraceable in 2007. Maha reportedly told the police that Gilani was murdered for cheating one of his friends.
Similarly, murder of a financier K Shankar in Sathuvachari, which also remained untraceable, was charged on him. Maha told the interrogators that Shankar was murdered by mistake, as the actual target was his brother, another financier, a senior police officer said.
Though Maha was awarded life sentence for murdering the PRO, he was released on bail as the appeal went on. In 2012, Maha clashed with Ramesh, brother of GGR Engineering College owner Ravi. Ramesh, a moneylender, reportedly opposed the entry of Maha’s gang member, Sathish Kumar alias Kuppan into the Thottapalayam auto stand. “Ramesh did not want Kuppan to enter the auto stand network as he feared that Kuppan will take control of the stands in Thottapalayam,” said a police officer.
This worsened from a squabble to turf war. After escaping murder bids, Mahalingam ordered a hit on Ramesh, which was executed on April 20, 2013, in front of his office at Arcot road in Vellore. It then became a war between Ramesh’s brother Ravi and Mahalingam, with both sides trying to bump the other off.
Finally, soon after Maha tried to kill Ravi by stabbing, he was bludgeoned to death by Ravi’s sons in September 2015. This then led to Ravi’s murder a fortnight ago, allegedly by Kuppan and associates.
Of the five, Maha is dead, Dinesh is out on bail and the rest three are in Vellore Central Prison. But that is unlikely to prevent them from continuing their operations from behind the bars. If not, the next line of leadership would emerge to stake claim for the lucrative red sanders smuggling and other rackets — just like the encounter killing of the gangster ‘Kora’ Krishnan in 2007 gave space for his close aides, Raja, Maha and Kuppan to grow.