For 26 years, Ravi Pujari ensured that the Indian police did not come anywhere close to him. His monitored calls yielded nothing because he had adopted technology like no other Mumbai-grown gangster had. But, technology, yet again, proved to be a great leveller.
Pujari, wanted by the police of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Kerala for murder and extortion, was finally extradited through a special arrangement from West Africa’s Senegal and brought to Bengaluru by a team of officers, led by additional director-general of police (law and order) Amar Kumar Pandey.
Like many from the coastal belt of Karnataka, Pujari also headed to Mumbai to set up a tea shop but, unlike others, his enterprise was evident in activities which impressed the underworld.
His links grew stronger after he committed a murder in Andheri. Today he stands as an accused in about 200 cases, which include murder and extortion, in Karnataka and other states.
His performance was such that he was adopted by gangster Chota Rajan before the latter parted ways with Dawood Ibrahim. But Pujari appeared to have a mind of his own and charted his own course. He built a team that helped him target businessmen, particularly land developers, politicians, celebrities, film stars and others.
For instance, in Bengaluru, Pujari was charge-sheeted for the murder in 2001 of builder Subbaraju. Six years later, one of his men killed the receptionist and driver of Samiulla of Shabnam Developers. Two years later he had targeted the office of a television channel in Indiranagar and his men had indulged in a shoot out at the office of Mantri developers in 2010.
He left India, entered Nepal and got a fake passport issued allegedly from Mysuru in a name that was given by Chota Rajan, Anthony Fernandes. As Fernandes he then travelled to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia before moving on to Uganda and Burkina Faso before landing in Dakar, capital of the Western African country, Senegal.
Anthony Fernandes became Tony Fernandes, then Rocky Fernandes and acquired a passport from Burkina Faso since he had lived there for about a dozen years. During these years, he invested in hotels and textiles and travelled to various countries like Malaysia and the US.
“He never committed a crime in any of these countries,” said a police officer, who has followed this case all through, on condition of anonymity. In fact, Pujari was seen as a good man who was very involved in social service in Burkina Faso and Senegal. He distributed Navarathri gifts and installed bore pumpsets. His Indian-style chain of restaurants was named Maharaja.
But in between his social work, he indulged in his favourite pastime of making calls to threaten and extort. Tracking him was a tough task for the police because he kept shifting his base constantly and kept changing his phone numbers.
It was only after one of his contacts was tapped that the police realised that Pujari was unlike other Mumbai gangsters. He was using VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) to make his calls of extortion. It took a long time for the police to crack one of his associates who, finally, agreed to be an approver.
Sometime in 2018, the police received a tip off that he was in Burkina Faso. That too did not help much until his name was revealed. It was Chota Rajan’s Anthony Fernandes who was living next to a English school. Soon after physical surveillance began, Fernandes vanished, yet, again.
Much later, the police received concrete evidence of his existence in videos and photographs that showed ‘Fernandes’ shaking hands with the participants at a Navarathri festival.
The invitation also had a list of donors and Anthony Fernandes was one of them. Further proof came in the form of a picture of a cricket match where he was present. The evidence was traced, with the help of high-end visual technology, on Pujari’s goggles.
Most importantly, technology helped in confirming the location to be Dakar, capital of Senegal. It was technology, finally, that helped Indian Embassy officials to formally seek the help of the law enforcement authorities in Senegal to nab Pujari.
Technically, it gave room for preparing a strategy and the legal framework for his extradition to ADGP Pandey who had been specifically assigned the task to nab Pujari by then chief minister HD Kumaraswamy in 2018.
But just when the matter was being argued in court, the Senegalese lawyers realised that Pujari could not be sent out of the country since he had a case registered against him.
“Senegal law says very clearly that anybody involved in a case cannot leave the country. This was a new twist in this case,” said an official who did not want to be identified. And Pujari gave the slip again to the authorities there and ran away to South Africa.
It was the Senegalese police which helped nab him and handed him over to Pandey and his team of Sandeep Patil, Joint Commissioner, Crime, Bengaluru and others.
Until technology provided images and visuals of Pujari, Pandey should be believed when he says quite openly: “Most of the time I thought I was chasing a ghost!”