On the evening of 6 April 2015, the Special Cell of Delhi Police received a message from a source. Neeraj Bawana—one of the most wanted men in the capital, sought on more than 40 counts of murder, land grabbing and extortion—was going to be in Kamruddin Nagar in west Delhi at around midnight, and then head to Bawana, his hometown on Delhi’s north-west border. A press release that was circulated by the Special Cell on the day of his arrest said that Bawana was going home to visit his family. A senior official from the Cell told me that that Bawana often undertook these trips, and that they were important to keep his extortion racket running.
Police forces across the National Capital Region, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand—all areas where Bawana acted prominently—have been scrambling to catch him for over two years now. Even though 35 members of his gang were arrested in the past year, Bawana remained elusive. Barely educated but a quick learner, he had, according to the senior official I spoke to, picked up pointers from other criminals he had met during earlier stints in jail. He disguised himself when communicating online or over the phone, and changed vehicles often. When the police thought he was in one state, he was actually in another. More than a dozen operations to catch Bawana had failed.
But on the night he was arrested, the Special Cell had concrete information. Bawana, they knew, would be in a white Hyundai Verna with a registration number that ended in 4386. Quickly, a team of specialists was formed and equipped, and rushed to Rohtak Road, a long stretch of road which Bawana would have to cross. They laid a trap, and he fell into it. At 3.45 am, the king of the Delhi underworld was put in handcuffs.
Born as Neeraj Sehrawat in Bawana, in 1988, the name that Sehrawat came to be known by was an appropriation of the name of his town. Bawana was a relatively small settlement, surrounded mostly by farms. However in 1996, a few years after Sehraawat was born, the Supreme Court, following a petition, ordered that industrial units be relocated outside Delhi’s main urban areas. Bawana was picked as one of the areas for this relocation. The government bought land from farmers and sold it to industrialists. Many of the factories that were expected to relocate produced goods such as plastic, batteries and dyes, with noxious by-products. Like many other locals from the area, Prem Singh, Sehrawat’s father, who now works as a bus conductor for the Delhi Transport Corporation, owned large swathes of land in the area. I met him and his wife—neither she nor Singh gave me her name—in mid April, at Mukarba Chowk, in north-west Delhi. Singh was sketchy on the details, but told me that his land “yielded many different crops”.
Landowners in Bawana, a predominantly Jat village, were never poor, but had little interest in ostentatiousness. That changed as land was sold for the factories. There was a lot of new money floating about around the turn of the century, and the general consensus among the villagers I talked to on two visits to the town was that this was when swanky new cars, and much else, came flooding in.
Sehrawat’s house, a modest building in a now gaudy neighbourhood, stands only a few metres from the furore of the town’s market. According to Sehrawat’s parents, school didn’t interest the young boy much. “Instead of getting a formal education, I wanted him to help in my tenting business,” Singh said. A person I spoke to and who has known him his entire life, also told me that as an adolescent, Sehrawat developed a habit of getting into fights, even on his friends’ behalf. This led to occasional beatings from Singh.
However, other than saying Sehrawat was interested in movies, Sehrawat’s parents refused to share any details of the time before their son was first arrested, in 2007.
The town’s fortunes had soured considerably by then. Other than allotting plots to industrialists, the Delhi government did nothing else to help the factories. Officials weren’t strict about enforcing the Supreme Court’s deadline for moving industries out of Delhi. Since Bawana lacked the facilities to support manufacturing, many factory owners were hesitant to shift their operations there. When asked about those times, a man who moved to Bawana in 2002 recalled daily power cuts that lasted from 4 to 5 hours, chronic problems with procuring water connections, and bureaucratic nightmares in obtaining licenses. There was also insufficient policing, and so a problem with security.
Although industry was slow to take off, Bawana’s population shot up. As part of efforts to beautify Delhi, the Delhi government moved slum dwellers from RK Puram, Vasant Vihar and the banks of the Yamuna to a new settlement in Bawana, called JJ Colony—after jhuggi-jhopri. The building of flats to accommodate new industrial workers was also delayed, and so those workers who did arrive also settled in the JJ Colony. Between 2001 and 2011, Bawana’s population grew from 23,000 to 73,000. Suddenly, Bawana was a crowded, poor and over-burdened town. According to a person who had witnessed these changes, it was also a time during which the youth in the area had easy access to drugs and weapons.
When, in 2007, Jaipal Reddy, then the union cabinet minister for urban development, permitted some industries to operate within Delhi’s city limits again, the fate of Bawana Industrial Area was sealed. Realtors quickly bought up the unwanted land that industrialists sold for cheap. It was a good investment. Back in 2002, in the first phase of allotting industrial land, 100-square-metre plots were going for Rs 4.2 lakh; by 2011, similar plots were fetching Rs 16.5 lakh.
Today, real-estate offices are far easier to find in Bawana than working factories. Several industrialists sold the plots allotted to them, and ownership of these tracts has been switching hands ever since. Raj Jain, a property dealer who has reportedly been selling the flats built for labourers by the government, has an office in the industrial area. “Ten years ago I had nothing, but today I can afford all this,” he said, showing off his finely tailored shirt as we spoke in his violently air-conditioned office. This—a reeling city with weak security, and a handful of people flush with cash—was the backdrop to Sehrawat’s adolescence. When he turned to extortion, he took a particular interest in land barons.
Sehrawat’s first arrest was for a robbery in Haryana in June 2007—“He just went there with some friends and they did the wrong things,” Sehrawat’s mother told me. He served three months in jail and was let out on bail.
Shortly after, he was arrested again in November 2008 for the possession of arms without a license. This time, he completed his term and spent two years in Tihar Jail. That was, as per the account of the person who had known Sehrawat, where he learned the tricks of the trade: how to keep the police at bay, how to use technology without being tracked, what mistakes could lead to being arrested. An important influence, this person said, was his maternal uncle, Rajeev Kumar—commonly known as Rajeev Kala—the current sarpanch of Ashodha village in Haryana and a cult figure. According to Manish Chandra, an assistant commissioner with the Special Cell, “Kala is a Haryana politician. He has more than a dozen cases of murder against him.” During Sehrawat’s period of transition, Kala became his role model. In jail, Sehrawat made friends with the likes of Naveen Bali, Rahul Kala, Sunil Rathi and Amit Bhura, all of whom would later become a part of his gang. “Prison is where these people network and branch out,” a senior officer in the Special Cell told me.
In September 2011, Sehrawat was arrested again, but was let out on bail after twenty days.
In 2012—the year in which he served his second term in Tihar after he was arrested in June—Sehrawat extorted money from 19 businessmen just in the Bawana Industrial Area—mostly businessmen, according to the police. He also targeted bookies in north-west Delhi, in places such as Rohini and Rajouri Garden; realtors from Najafgarh in west Delhi; and businessmen with factories in Bahadurgarh, on the city’s outskirts. Part of his modus operandi, was reportedly to take some targets to empty factories in his hometown and frighten them by theatrically firing bullets at a figure of a man drawn on a wall. In 2013, when the gangster Neetu Dabodia, whom Sehrawat succeeded as the unofficial don of Delhi, was killed in a police encounter, Bawana was out of jail on parole. He never returned.
“Bawana was a smarter man than Dabodia, he avoided confronting the police as far as he could,” SN Shrivastava, Special Commissioner of the Delhi Police, told me. According to another senior official, his ability to keep a low profile was perhaps the result of Sehrawat’s proximity to another of his maternal uncles, Rambeer Shokeen—an ex-MLA from Mundka who joined the Congress Party earlier this year. Many people I spoke to in the police and in Sehrawat’s home neighbourhood claimed that Shokeen had supplied him with arms and money for his ventures in the beginning. It wasn’t a bad investment as far as Shokeen was concerned. According to the same senior official, Sehrawat had helped supply funds to Shokeen’s campaign when he won the Mundka seat, in 2013—“A figure close to 1 crore,” the official said. This wasn’t a huge sum for the gangster, whose extortion racket was by then so successful that it came to be called the Neeraj Tax in the Bawana Industrial Area.
Sehrawat’s parents deny every single charge that has been levelled against their son. When Singh, Sehrawat’s father, asked me to come meet him at Mukarba Chowk, I had presumed he would be on duty. But he showed up in a hatchback car, with his wife. “We’re just coming back from visiting Neeraj,” he told me. “How is he?” I asked. “In pain,” he replied. We stood there for the next 20 minutes, squinting, with a blazing afternoon sun in our faces. “It is a conspiracy by the police,” his mother said. “Other people used to make calls using Neeraj’s name. My son never killed a fly. The rivals of Rambeer [Shokeen] will go to hell.” Singh and his wife blamed everyone—police, politicians, Sehrawat’s friends, the media, god—for their son’s predicament. They wanted me to believe them; I wondered if they also wanted to convince themselves. It became increasingly obvious through the conversation that there was no point asking the questions I really wanted to ask, about why Sehrawat became what he did. Denial was all they had to offer.
Bawana town was not quiet. Two weeks after Bawana’s arrest, on 21 April, two men arrived on a motorcycle at Soham Hospital in Bawana to ask for protection money and fired shots at the hospital after the employees refused. They might not have been associated with Neeraj Bawana, but claimed to be nonetheless. The figure of the gangster who took on the town’s name continues to haunt its streets.
Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.