Dark side of that gangsta life

Once known as the Dawood Ibrahim of South India, Sridhar Dhanapal’s death in 2017 split his gang into two factions, each vying to take his place.
Dark side of that gangsta life

CHENNAI: Three years after the mysterious death of gangster Sridhar Dhanapal in Cambodia, the vacuum he left behind has resulted in an escalating gang war in Kancheepuram district that has sucked in school and college students. Three weeks after 60 youngsters were summoned to the office of the Kancheepuram Superintendent of Police and warned by the SP, Samundeeswari, Express met some of them to understand how they got drawn into a vortex of violence.

The Dawood of the South
Once known as the Dawood Ibrahim of South India, Sridhar Dhanapal’s death in 2017 split his gang into two factions, each vying to take his place. One faction is led by Dinesh, who was Sridhar’s personal driver, and his partner Thyagarajan alias Thyagu. The other is led by Sridhar’s brother-in-law Thanikachalam.

The violence started just a month after Sridhar’s death with Thanika’s men hurling country bombs at Dinesh’s car in November 2017. In recent months, the gang war is no longer confined to Kancheepuram district. Thanika’s men brutally murdered Dinesh’s aide M Satheeshkumar on a moving bus in Cheyyar in Tiruvannamalai district after the latter attempted to murder Thanika’s advocate Siva. To avenge Satheesh’s death, Dinesh’s men hacked Thanika’s cousin Karunakaran to death in Kancheepuram. Police sources say there have been more killings, often staged as accidents. Even cops are leery of looking too closely at the deaths lest the war escalates. However, Dinesh and Thyagu are now in prison and detained under Goondas Act. Thanikachalam is absconding and police are struggling to trace the tech-savvy gangster.

Young blood
Retired police sub-inspector Natarajan has seen Sridhar’s rise and fall. According to him, as soon as Dinesh realised there was going to be a full-scale war, he joined hands with Thyagu. “Dinesh had a huge amount of money with him and Thyagu had the men. However, in the early days, some of them —considered capable — were murdered or arrested. So to evade police attention, they started recruiting school and college students and influencing them with money and power,” Natarajan said.

Just claiming he knew Dinesh, Thanika or Thyagu, would give a boy a lot of power and influence in his locality. “The boys would be made to get alcohol and food. For them, it is easy money. For instance, to buy five packets of biriyani they will give the boys `4000 and let them keep the change. They have easy access to booze and cash,” said a senior police officer attached to Kancheepuram district.

‘I would get goosebumps’
One of the youth, warned by the SP, is 23 years old. He has been helping a gang for five years. “I had heard a lot about Sridhar and Dinesh in my schooldays and have seen them whenever they visited our village for functions or funerals. I would get goosebumps when people said Sridhar’s men murdered his rival or talked about how he was so influential and had cops in his pockets,” the youngster told Express.
“My friends and I would hang out with ‘annas’ in our area who were friends with Sridhar’s men. One day, one of the annas was very excited to get an ‘assignment’ from Dinesh. If they trust you for an assignment it means you are considered their close mate,” he explained.

According to the youngster, the gang had several circles of trust. At the highest level was Sridhar, Dinesh and their close aides. “Deals and information would not cross this circle. The next level was the henchmen, who would carry out orders. The henchmen were sworn to protect and do the biddings of Sridhar. They could not refuse any ‘assignment’,” he said. “Then there were occasional goons used only to threaten or assault a person. The last circle was the students and dropouts who are well-paid delivery boys,” he said, adding that he had hoped to work his way up to the innermost circle.

“I wanted to get into Sridhar’s close circle because even henchmen were respected in their localities and knew policemen and politicians,” he said.“My friend introduced me to one of the henchmen. When my friend would go to buy food or alcohol I would accompany him. After they became familiar with me, they let me run errands,” said the youngster.

The last “promotion” he received was a few months ago. He had to carry a message from Dinesh’s aide to Thyagu’s men as the gang was worried their mobile phones were being tapped. “I bought a mobile phone, motorbike and helped my family with some money. Now that many of the important persons are arrested, there is no work and I do not know what to do next,” he said.

Studies, peace lost
“It’s like an open secret. Everyone knows the boys are involved in the gang war but nobody speaks about it,” said a resident from a hotspot of youngsters involved in gangs.“I know a boy in my locality who was 15 when he joined the gang. His parents were struggling to make him study but he was drawn away by the ‘area’ boys lifestyle. Soon he was into running errands for the Dinesh’s men,” he recalled.
The boy had apparently failed in Class 10 and was hanging out with the gang, until the SP called and warned him. “When his parents confronted him, he pulled out a knife and threatened to kill them if they interfered in his affairs,” said the resident.

The senior police officer told Express of a 20-year-old boy who was selling ganja for Thanika’s gang. “He would get into fights with students part of Dinesh’s gang and was taken to the police station and warned. He told the cops his boss would come and fight for him. His boss obviously didn’t. After that, he promised police he would stay clear of the gangs,” he said.

Web of danger
Although the youngsters believe they are under the protection of the gangsters, the gang leaders don’t care about them, the senior cop said. Worse, gangs can make them part of murder plots. “When Thanika decides to kill someone he sends his men and murders the person. But Dinesh takes his time and stages the death as an accident,” Natarajan said. “He constantly tracks a person and uses students to do so. Once the information is received, a third person will be arranged to commit the murder. These boys will have to report back as to whether the person died or escaped,” he said.

The roundup
On December 28, at least 34 people, members of both gangs, were arrested in a roundup conducted by Samundeeswari with Chengalpattu Superintendent of Police Kannan. With them, some 60 students in the age group of 18-23 were taken to the Kancheepuram SP’s office, with their parents, and warned. Police said that since then the activity of both gangs has come down in both Kancheepuram and Chengalpattu districts.

The SP told Express the youth were warned and let off after noting their details. “Some were willing to leave this lifestyle while others were reluctant. It might take some time, but we are working on it,” she said.

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