How a special squad caught gangster Ravi Pujari
Sandeep Patil, joint commissioner of police, Bengaluru says the team had received inputs about Pujari living in Senegal, on the western coast of Africa, from several agencies.
The Karnataka Police team that caught Ravi Pujari, one of India’s most wanted gangsters, was set up in December 2018. State additional director general of police, Amar Kumar Pandey, handpicked a crack squad to investigate, track down and capture the gangster who has been on the run from Indian agencies for two-and-a-half decades. Pujari was brought to India from Senegal on February 24, and remanded to police custody until March 7 by a local court in Bengaluru.
Sandeep Patil, joint commissioner of police, Bengaluru, was one of the officers chosen for the operation. “We had nothing to go by,” he said. “There was no accurate recent photograph. We had to rely on just two archival pictures; one of him in a swimming pool and another in which he is at a cricket prize distribution ceremony. However, we could not absolutely confirm that the photos were his.”
Patil says the team had received inputs about Pujari living in Senegal, on the western coast of Africa, from several agencies, and although the officers had been on his trail since December 2018, missed capturing him a couple of times because he proved to be a step ahead of his pursuers.
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“Recently, Pujari was arrested in Senegal, but he jumped bail,” Patil said,referring to his arrest by Senegal police from a barber's shop in January 2019 at India’s request and a Red Corner notice issued by Interpol; he received and jumped bail, and became untraceable in June.
“But we eventually nabbed him in Senegal. Media reports that Pujari was apprehended in South Africa were not accurate,” Patil added.
According to Karnataka Police, getting the Red Corner notice issued against Pujari was the single biggest factor behind his arrest. “Based on that information, Senegal police arrested him,” Patil said.
Pujari was best known in the Senegal capital Dakar for his restaurant, Maharaja, and it was at the restaurant that the police team managed to catch him. “As soon as he saw us,” Patil said, “he knew the game was up. ‘Kya ho raha hai, sahib? (What is going on?)’, is all he could tell us.”
Pujari has 97 cases against him in Karnataka (including 34 in Mangaluru and 28 in Bengaluru), and 52 more in Mumbai. There are more cases in Karnataka cities such as Moodbidri, Kavoor, Kadri, Konaje, Barke and Urwa, all of which pertain to extortion, attempt to murder and murder
“He was literally escaping like a ghost,” said another police officer, who requested anonymity. “He was flitting in and out of countries at will and was eluding us with ease. We came so close to catching him, but he always seemed to be one step ahead.”
He added, “Mumbai Police have been trying to track him down ever since he murdered two underworld associates in 1994 and 1995, but he first fled to Nepal and then to Bangkok in Thailand.”
From Thailand, Karnataka Police said, Pujari travelled to Australia and then to Africa. In Africa, his port of call was Uganda, said the second officer, citing information received by India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), and other agencies that had been keeping tabs on him before the special team was formed in December 2018 .
Pujari finally found his way first to Burkina Faso, where he became a citizen, and then fled to Dakar in Senegal. He had a fascination for Christian aliases, and, on separate occasions, changed his name to Anthony Fernandes, Ricky Fernandes and Vicky Fernandes.
Patil said he would make threat calls to Indian personalities using burner phones (he would make only a couple of calls using these prepaid phones and then discard the SIM as well as the device). When the Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology became popular, it became even more difficult to trace him.
According to senior Karnataka police officers, who did not want to be named R&AW provided vital information on his business assets in Uganda, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast, in addition to Senegal, where he ran a chain of Indian-themed restaurants. He later diversified his business to textiles and electronics, and would routinely travel to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
“The Indian community in some African countries also helped us with vital information [on his business dealing and movements],” one officer of the squad said .”If not for them, it would have been really difficult to nab him.”
According to Patil, Pujari had ingratiated himself with the local community by donating some of his wealth to charity. “He would use his inroads into the community to recruit informers so that he could remain one step ahead of the investigators. He would donate clothes, install water pump sets and do other charitable activities.” Police officers declined to say whether members of the community had turned against Pujari.
Patil added, “Contrary to reports that he was arrested in South Africa — with whom we have an extradition treaty and, if true, we could have got him back earlier — Pujari was captured in Senegal. There he had been arrested by local authorities based on some of the inputs we had provided. Till the very end he kept claiming that he was Anthony Fernandes. However, his fingerprints in the Bala Zalte murder case in Mumbai (Pujari’s first killing in 1993) nailed his lies. He also had got a passport claiming that he was originally from Mysore. This was a complete fabrication.”
Another officer of the team added, “Till the very end, he expected to evade us using legal loopholes. When we boarded the plane to Dakar, the court there had yet to decide on his fate. Luckily, everything fell into place. On the flight back, he was quiet and said that he needed medicines as he was diabetic and had some heart condition.”