The great Mumbai public throngs the streets of Lokmanya Tilak Marg on a balmy Monday in December 2011. A woman in a pink sari saunters by, speaking on her mobile. A man in brown shorts manhandles a large red container along the street and another selling striped T-shirts on the pavement calls out to passing customers. Except for a speeding motorbike, a man carrying a large basket of papayas on his head, and a man in a green and white shirt pacing back and forth, nervously looking left and right, nothing disturbs the unwritten rule that dictates pedestrians ought to look ahead and keep walking.

But a new CCTV camera bolted to the façade of a building captures a more chaotic scene. Not long after the woman in the pink sari passes by and a few seconds before the motorbike drives past, a group of men huddle together, prowling the street. They tail the man in the green and white shirt. He’s holding a white bag.

In just five seconds, a member of the group bumps into him, while two others lift black bags. In the sixth second, the man is in a state of panic and hysteria. He has been robbed smoothly, almost invisibly, in broad daylight.

There is neither a suspect nor a witness.

Yeh toh bada machine hai (it’s a big outfit),” pronounced Assistant Police Inspector Vijay Shamrao Dhamal. It was almost as though pickpocketing, a petty crime, had been transformed into an art form, he recalled.

The CCTV footage reached officers at the Anti-Robbery Cell in Kurla. They watched the 30-second clip on repeat for what felt like hours.

Dhamal—a tall man with sharp eyes, the sort that seldom focus on one object for long in case something happens elsewhere—was lost in thought.

Aida kaun mara? Chapad kaun mara? Number One Machine kaun hai? (Who bumped into him? Who lifted the bag? Who’s the boss man here?)”

The sound of a passing train and the loud voice of the senior police inspector, Ashok Surgonda Khot, jolted him out of his reverie. This was not the work of an ordinary bag snatcher but a meticulously orchestrated plot by the Raja Keeda gang. Officers would have to think differently, “reverse angle se dimag chalna chaiye (outside the box),” he ordered his juniors as he twirled his moustache.

Earlier that day, as the rain beat down on the Gothic buildings that house the police headquarters in Crawford Market, the senior inspector received what felt like a tongue-lashing.

“Twelve years is a long time to not catch a thief,” declared Sadanand Date, the Crime Branch chief. To him, the statement wasn’t a mere observation but an accusation of failure. So Dhamal spent a large part of the morning in the British-era compound, moving from building to building, in and out of offices, seeking an answer to one question: “Who is Raja Keeda?”

The facts were scarce but the myths were plentiful.

Over a vada pao in the canteen, an officer called Keeda a kalakar, an artist. In the corridors leading to the office of Mumbai police commissioner Rakesh Maria, another told him that he was “master of his game”. A constable who had once been on the case was impressed by Keeda’s cunning: “He’s always one step ahead.”

Others commented on how years of crime had left Keeda jaded. “He doesn’t trust anyone,” someone said in a cluttered office Mildly paranoid that the police were on to him, Keeda was always on the move. He moved homes frequently: three months in a rental in Govandi, another few months in a small chawl in Kalyan. Even his gang members kept changing, as did the locations he struck at: Mumbai today, Navi Mumbai tomorrow, L. T. Marg, Ghatkopar, Thane. He was everywhere but the police could find him nowhere.

Around the time Keeda’s thefts became even more alarming—he had started working on Lamington Road where the diamond business is conducted—the Crime Branch formed the Anti-Robbery Cell in 2006.

Though many people had tried to nab him, earlier in 2014, Dhamal began working on the case. He had been out drinking with a buddy from the force and had put a small amount of money on a wager that he would catch him.
“You won’t catch him,” one officer said.

“Is that a dare?” he asked. 

So Dhamal went back to the CCTV footage and had it reproduced in slow motion. The first task was to decipher was the “modus”. At what time does he strike, in which location, how many people are involved? Is there a common thread? There were at least eight people involved, he calculated. Zooming in pixelated the gang’s faces but at least he could deduce how they created a diversion to dupe the victim.

Dhamal would often ask Hawaldar Ankush Babalal Nyaynirgun to watch the clip with him on a grey Samsung laptop. He tried to memorise it as well as he could, for he knew that this was the sort of case that could make your career, and he was an ambitious officer.

Fourteen years of being on the force allowed him a few preconceived notions. The addresses that were associated with Keeda—Bhiwandi, Mankhurd, Mumbra—were areas with dense slum populations, breeding grounds for criminals as lack of opportunity, limited education, and large family sizes pushed the desperate to the underworld. Years of being on the force also meant Dhamal had a sizeable list of informers whom he tapped for particulars on Keeda.

Fourteen years of being on the force allowed him a few preconceived notions. The addresses that were associated with Keeda—Bhiwandi, Mankhurd, Mumbra—were areas with dense slum populations, breeding grounds for criminals as lack of opportunity, limited education, and large family sizes pushed the desperate to the underworld.

Unlike most cases where informers are only too happy to curry favour with the police, people were reluctant to tell on Keeda. In fact, the opposite was happening: informers were passing on a message to Keeda that the police were on his tail. For instance, whenever the senior inspector enquired after progress, Dhamal always responded with the same answer: “Perfect information nahin hai.” There’s no perfect information.

A couple of months into the case a picture started to emerge. Raja Keeda was born during the reign of notorious pickpocket Kadar Badshah. Badshah was lord of the streets in the 1970s when dwindling agricultural growth pushed even more people out of the villages into the densely populated Mumbai suburbs. Born into a poor household in the Baiganwadi slum in Govandi (West), Keeda’s father died when he was just a boy. The youngest of three brothers, he followed them into the only source of employment open to uneducated, poor boys like him: crime. First he stole because he was hungry.

“It started with a vada pao,” I was told at Kurla Railway Station by addicts on the tracks. Soon after, he started picking pockets. A lanky boy with a quick disposition, he earned a prized reputation at a young age and was picked up by Kadar Badshah. Keeda was then co-opted into a world as dark as Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist while being trained by the Artful Dodger.

At first he ran Badshah’s errands—getting tea and cigarettes, and later served as a mule that delivered charas and ganja to Badshah. In his teens he started getting high and soon after developed a taste for gambling. Occasionally Badshah would send him to the busier parts of Mumbai where pockets were deeper.

“He became one of Badshah’s main protégés,” Dhamal said. It was Badshah who nicknamed him Keeda, because of his smooth and stealthy manner and his ability to advance slowly but with remarkable results.

“He became a hero to many,” said a hammal (porter) at Kurla railway station. He spent a few mornings stealing and many evenings getting high and chasing women. After the money started coming in regularly, Keeda changed his appearance. He would wear powder blue shirts from Siyaram’s, pink shirts from Raymond. His shoes were always polished and, by many accounts, he looked like a young man from a good family.

It was during his early 20s that he fell in love with a Baloch girl. She was fair with light eyes, slim and tall, and he pursued her for months. She eventually married him against the advice of her parents.

Keeda was frequently in and out of Arthur Road jail and learnt more about the dhandathere than on the streets. It was in jail that he learned about the clear boundaries that are drawn in the world of crime. The gangster seldom notices the dacoit who barely glances over at the pickpocket, but each group sticks together. Crossing into another person’s territory is almost sacrilege. In jail he made contacts that he would follow up on outside, and slowly a gang formed around Keeda.

As Keeda’s prestige grew, so did his ego. “If Kadar is the Badshah, then I am the Raja,” he said and fashioned a new personality: Raja Keeda. Later he spent months developing and polishing a new modus for his crime. He would need a few people to encircle him as he picked pockets and snatched bags. His lack of trust in new people grew, as did his profile, so he co-opted his brothers into his racket.

Most people in his gang were short-term visitors—boys looking for a quick fix, boys who had ambitions of their own. A few of the boys Keeda had offended wanted to get even and after months of hunting, Dhamal finally found one who passed over Keeda’s most recent address.

firm believer in the power of hunches, Dhamal knew that sooner or later, Keeda would be in his hands. It was only a matter of time. But given Keeda’s distrustful nature and street-smart cunning, he would spot a police officer within seconds. After all, he’d been running from the law since he was a boy.

Thus the inspector began the grooming of Hawaldar Ankush with great earnestness, not only moulding him into a suspicious character but also dressing him up as one.

Ever since his days in the police academy, Ankush had been the butt of many jokes but the one that haunted him still was that he looked more like an accused rather than an officer. With a stocky build and stooped gait, he stood out among the tall and well-built rank and file. Yet, he loved being in the force and therefore agreed to Dhamal’s absurd plots and costumes, including the current one. He was dressed in orange Bermuda shorts, a black and white striped T-shirt, and chappals.

The inspector was visibly pleased by his appearance. “You look nothing like a policeman,” he said. Ankush smiled. He probably wanted to say that he hated the Bermuda shorts, that he would never wear them even in the privacy of his home let alone on the streets. But he knew better.

“Chuck this look, we need you to be an addict,” he said. He knew what that meant. He had once grown a beard for a couple of months, when it got too much he had shaved it off. The simple act had meant that his superiors, including the senior inspector, had chastised him. “Beard. Tight shirt. Black pants,” Dhamal instructed. “Wear them for a couple of days. Let it get dirty, even smelly.”

So when Ankush journeyed to Keeda’s house, he received dodgy looks on the train and a wholesome welcome outside Keeda’s former resident. “Doesn’t live here anymore. Moved to Kalyan. If you want work, meet him at the maidan,” said a man who thought that he was just like Keeda, another desperate thug in the city of desperation.

Dhamal remained undeterred.

This new bit of information had sparked another idea. “Kaam saja ke karna padega (we need to set it up properly),” he bellowed. It was time for a set-up.

He already had an idea of the type of people that made up the Keeda gang. They were all small-time pickpockets, between the ages of 20 and 40. Almost all of them were addicts and the money robbed, easy money, was spent fast on charas and ganja.

He would have to send someone in but in order to gain entry into this world, they would have prove that were “on this line”. Dhamal dug deep within his network of informers for a petty thief, with at least a case or two lodged against him, who had done time in Arthur Road jail. It would have to be a perfect fit for the plan to succeed and after a few days of assessing his options, he settled for Bablu (name changed).

Bablu was a silly thief, not particularly good at his trade. Dhamal had caught him twice—once he had jacked a car and another time had made off with a bag—and had rehabilitated him. He had personally helped Bablu stay off the streets by providing a small donation to set up a vada pao stall. So in more ways than one, Bablu owed the inspector and so when he called on him and explained the case, Bablu was only too keen to help.

Tumko via via karke andhar bhejna pade ga (we have find an indirect way in),” Dhamal had told him.

Night had already fallen when Bablu got off the train in Kurla. Though he was clean, he was in frequent touch with friends from the underworld. An associate in Thane had told him to look for a man called Munna in the Raja Keeda gang.

Bablu walked around the train station and into a dark expanse. He spotted a group of men in the far corner and as he approached, the scent of hashish overpowered him. He reminisced about his days as a criminal but the words of Dhamal came flooding into his mind.

“Don’t smoke too much. One or two hits, remember you are clean. You are an honest working man now,” he had said.

Bablu sought out Munna, who quickly drafted him into the circle. He passed him a joint and the rest of the evening was spent in a mild haze where people spoke predominantly about Keeda. One person discussed how they’d met, another mentioned the last time he had heard from him. A third recounted a story of how he’d seen Keeda lose over a lakh in a game of teen patti.

That day Bablu barely spoke; he just listened. A few days later, Bablu took Munna into the “soft corner”. He explained how he was out of money and needed work, that it was getting difficult to buy dope and that he was nearing desperation. He asked Munna’s advice.

Boss ka bharosa jeetna padega (you have to win the boss’s trust),” he told Bablu.

A month passed. There was no sign of Keeda, but Bablu had been accepted into the group. Sometimes he would share charas with the boys but more often, he smoked their stash as they played cards late into the night. On one such night, Keeda appeared on the scene.

The boys stood up to greet their patron. He called out everyone by name and paused on Bablu. Munna quickly came to his defence, “Bhai, apna dost hai (he’s my friend),” he said. That night Keeda gambled thousands of rupees away. A week later, he played even more and lost. That night, he took his anger out on a boy and slapped him. “Phat ho ja (get lost),” he said. The boy was never seen again.

After a few other meetings, Bablu appealed to Keeda.

Bhai, mujhe bhi line pai ana hai (I want to join),” he said.

His reply was terse: “Jab zarurat padegi, bulayenge (we’ll call when we need you).”

A few weeks later, Bablu received a call at 7 a.m. “Bunta, ana hai kya (want to come along)?” asked the voice. There was no mistaking it. It was Keeda.

Ji huzoor (Yes, sir),” he replied and made his way to Thane. But Keeda didn’t show up that day. Later when they met in the park, someone said it was because Keeda had a bad feeling that someone was on to him but he just couldn’t put his finger on the culprit.

Later that week he was called to Ghatkopar but again Keeda didn’t show. That night he gave him Rs.100 in the park, “Beta, mein phir phone karoonga (I’ll call you later, kid),” he said

The frequency of the phone calls excited Dhamal; it meant his plan was working. Again, he would have to think like a criminal and deal Keeda a blow by second-guessing where he would most likely strike. So he studied the areas in which he hadn’t operated for a while.

On a hot April morning, Bablu received a phone call.

Chal bunta, aaj to chapad mar (come on, this is it, kid),” Keeda said over the phone and called him to Kalyan. Ankush rushed to the spot and saw Bablu meet with two other gang members.

Dhamal had already sent Hawaldar Dyaram Tukaram Mohite to Ghatkopar, based on a hunch, and it turned out to be correct as Bablu journeyed to Ghatkopar with the others and met two more gang members. Now there were five in total.

The five gang members and the two constables boarded a bus.

Bhaiyya, where are we going?” asked Bablu.

“Chembur,” Keeda’s right-hand man replied.

Dhamal jumped into his white jeep with Inspector Jadav and they made their way to Chembur. Something within him told him that today was the day. He had imagined this moment so many times.

In his favourite version, Dhamal would yell, “Stop, thief, stop, thief!” The chase, the human passion for hunting excited him, but he knew emotions would muddle the entire plot. Raja Keeda would be scanning the scene for prey and anything abnormal would tip him off. Dhamal would have to be cool.

Half an hour later, Keeda appeared on Kidwani Street. Dhamal was taken aback. Keeda was a handsome man with gelled back hair and a sharp nose. He wore a powder blue shirt tucked neatly inside his brown trousers. His shoes were polished and he even had a belt on.


Half an hour later, Keeda appeared on Kidwani Street. Dhamal was taken aback. Keeda was a handsome man with gelled back hair and a sharp nose. He wore a powder blue shirt tucked neatly inside his brown trousers. His shoes were polished and he even had a belt on. He recalls thinking, this doesn’t look like a bag snatcher, this looks like a decent white-collar worker, a respectable man. But he didn’t look for too long lest he arouse suspicion.

Keeda scanned the crowd. Ankush stood less than a metre from him and followed his gaze. When a person is carrying something valuable they tend to hold it close to their chest, they tend to touch it often to make sure it is there. Keeda looked for somebody who looked like they had something of value, something they didn’t want to lose. This was not just theft; it was a study of human behaviour and attention span.

A few minutes later, he clocked a target and motioned to his gang. Everyone was in place and behind them, Dhamal got his officers in place. As soon as Keeda was about to dip, the police nabbed him.

Chal Raja, tu abhi haat mein aa gaya (we’ve got you finally, come along now),” Dhamal said.

Kaun Raja, kya?” Keeda responded immediately, almost as though he too had played such a scene in his
mind before.

Zada syana mat ban (don’t try to be smart),” Dhamal said.

Mein Keeda nahin hoon (I’m not him)!” Keeda shrieked.


Postscript: Raja Keeda has confessed to the crime in the Anti-Robbery Cell offices. He has been booked for 32 cases and is an under-trial serving time in Arthur Road Jail. Dhamal is certain he will plead not guilty.