Ground Zero | Karnataka murders — From underworld to broad daylight

A fishing harbour in Mangaluru. According to the police, elements from the underworld dominate the black market in import/export of bitumen, naphtha, and timber in many ports along coastal Karnataka.   | Photo Credit: H.S. MANJUNATH

On the night of October 15, business began to slowly pick up at the Duet Bar and Restaurant off the busy Brigade Road in the central business hub of Bengaluru. The bar owner, Manish Shetty, 41, as was his routine, left his flat in Bhoopasandra in North Bengaluru in his SUV and reached Brigade Road at around 9:30 p.m. As he got down from his car and walked up to his bar, a bullet from a single-barrel breech-loading gun pierced his back. Assailants surrounded him and rained blows on his head with machetes, killing him on the spot before fleeing from the scene.

It did not take long for the police to conclude that what happened that Thursday was an underworld hit job. It had all the hallmarks of one: the firearms and the bike were abandoned a short distance away, a known modus operandi in such cases. Moreover, the deceased was a jailbird, with known links to underworld gangs in coastal Karnataka, associated with Ravi Pujari, Bannanje Raja and Muthappa Rai, at various points of time. The first two were arrested and the third died recently. Shetty had seven criminal cases including robbery and extortion against him.

Duet Bar off Brigade road in Bengaluru where Manish Shetty was shot dead.

Duet Bar off Brigade road in Bengaluru where Manish Shetty was shot dead.   | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

Hours later, their suspicions were confirmed when a person who identified himself as Vikki Shetty, 47, an underworld operative from the coastal city of Mangaluru and now suspected to be based out of Southeast Asia, called up multiple media outlets and claimed he “got Manish Shetty killed, to avenge the murder of Kishan Hegde”, a realtor with a criminal background, who was hacked to death in Hiriyadka, Udupi on September 24.

A shoot-out in the heart of the city coupled with the brazenness of an underworld operative calling up media houses claiming “he got it done” sent shockwaves across Bengaluru, not used to such crimes. The last such shoot-outs were in 2007 and 2010 when Ravi Pujari attacked the offices of Shabnam Developers, killing two employees, and Mantri Developers, for extortion. “But this was different. It was not a builder or a business that was targeted, it seemed like gang rivals were spilling blood on the streets,” said a senior police official handling the case. But the police were left flummoxed as the Udupi Police had already ‘cracked’ the Kishan Hegde murder case. They had arrested nine men including the alleged kingpin Manoj Kodikere, another history-sheeter and moneylender. Contrary to Vikki Shetty’s claims, Manish Shetty’s name had not figured in the investigation.

The murder that started it all

Kishan Hegde, 35, a realtor and money-lender associated with Hindu right-wing organisations, was a history-sheeter accused of murder and assault. Related by marriage to a Shiv Sena corporator in Mumbai’s Kalyan Dombivali Municipality, he served as ‘Madipu’, a translator of utterances of ‘Daiva’ (holy spirit) at Inna village. He and his brother Kiran, both with careers in crime, were arrested for murder and assaults. Kishan Hegde was allegedly linked to Vikki Shetty.

When he was released on bail in connection with a murder case, Kishan Hegde focused on real-estate and money lending. “He had borrowed money from Manoj Kodikere and in turn lent it at a higher rate of interest. Kodikere had recently assaulted Kishan’s friend Rajesh Shetty over non-payment of loan to the tune of ₹55 lakh. This angered Kishan and he complained to Vikki Shetty, who reportedly asked him to not repay Kodikere,” said senior police officials in Udupi. The decision had a domino effect and many debtors stopped repayment. “To send out a message, Kodikere and his associates killed Kishan Hegde in the busy Hiriyadka market in broad daylight,” the Udupi police added.

Also read | Ravi Pujari: The making of a ‘Hindu don’

Nowhere had the name of Manish Shetty figured in the probe. But the two were acquaintances when they were in prison together in 2010 — Manish Shetty in a jewellery store robbery case and Kishan Hegde in a case related to an attempt to murder a Karkala businessman case, it has now emerged.

In an interview to Daijiworld, a coastal Karnataka-based news portal, Vikki Shetty said: “It was Manish Shetty who organised boys for the murder of Kishan Hegde. He held meetings and was the force behind Manoj Kodikere. Kishan Hegde was with my boys, and came from a respectable family. Should all financial disputes end in murder? This is wrong. I can’t let people who hit at my boys go. So I had to take down Manish Shetty”.

Meanwhile, the Bengaluru Police arrested four men in connection with the case, on October 17 — Shashikiran, 45, a history-sheeter who led the gang in the case and has three cases of murder against him; Ganesha, 39; Akshay, 32, who worked at a bar near Manish Shetty’s bar on Brigade Road; and Nitya, 29, the shooter with no criminal antecedents. All of them hail from coastal Karnataka.

“CCTV footage of the crime led to the identity of two of them — Shashikiran and Akshay. We got a tip-off on their location and arrested them from a lodge in the city. The four have confessed to the murder. They said Vikki Shetty gave the orders to carry out the hit,” said M. N. Anucheth, DCP (Central Zone), Bengaluru.

The police took them to Barlane Cemetery, Hosur Road, to recover the machete used in the murder and then disposed of. Shashikiran and Akshay allegedly attacked the escort police in a bid to escape. “The police warned them and later fired at their legs to stop them from fleeing,” said a senior police officer.

The interrogation of the accused revealed more contradictory information. “The gang had carried out a recce of Manish Shetty’s movements as early as February 2020, when Kishan Hegde was still alive,” a senior police officer said, adding that the murder of Kishan Hegde had definitely acted as a catalyst but was not the only motive.

Ground Zero | Karnataka murders — From underworld to broad daylight

‘More than what meets the eye’

As the Bengaluru Police were trying to cut through this haze, another gory murder was reported from Bantwal, from the coastal district of Dakshina Kannada. Financier-turned-actor Surendra Bhandary, 39, who was associated with Hindu right-wing outfits but had recently fallen out with them, was found hacked to death in his flat on October 20.

Two days later, his long-time associate Satish Kulal sent an audio clip to the police and the media, owning up to the murder. “I had forbidden Surendra from giving financial aid for the murder of Kishan Hegde and his killers later. But he threatened to kill me. So, I, along with Kishan Hegde’s associates, killed him,” the audio said.

The Bantwal police have arrested Satish Kulal and 10 others, including close associates of Kishan Hegde and Akashbhavan Sharan, a notorious rowdy-sheeter and a close associate of Vikki Shetty. Sharan is presently in jail for the rape of a minor girl and organised resources for the murder of Bhandary from jail, police said. “A photo of the crime scene with Bhandary dead was sent to Sharan,” said an investigating officer.

In this case too, the police are not buying the narrative that Surendra Bhandary was killed only to avenge the murder of Kishan Hegde. His name too had not figured in the Udupi murder investigation earlier. “Satish Kulal owed Surendra Bhandary money, and so did another accused in the case. They have put together a team convincing associates of Kishan Hegde that Bhandary helped his murderers. Akashbhavan Sharan held a grudge against Bhandary for the role Bhandary played in his arrest in the rape case. Many who held a grudge against him came together,” a senior police officer probing the case said.

The murders have raised red flags in the State police. “Though we have caught the people who carried out these murders, in each of the three cases, we are yet to unravel the real motives behind these murders. There is definitely more than what meets the eye. This may indicate a churn in the underworld of coastal Karnataka,” a senior police official, who has had long stints in both Mangaluru and Bengaluru, said.

‘A cover story’

Born as Balakrishna Shetty in 1973, ‘Vikki’ Shetty fled the country in 2005 after coming out on bail in an arms case in Mangaluru, the only time he was probably arrested. “He was a small-time crook then, influenced by the Mumbai mafia, like many boys of his age in the coastal districts,” said an officer who arrested him back then.

After fleeing the country, he is said to have been based out of Australia, Dubai, Thailand and Cambodia. In his recent calls to media outlets, he claimed to be speaking from Australia, which the police don’t buy. “He has shifted to Southeast Asia,” a senior official said. Vikki Shetty has eight criminal cases registered against him, all in the coastal districts of the State. Said to have earlier worked with Ravi Pujari, he fell out with him and is now known to be running independent operations.

A senior officer overseeing the probe into the Manish Shetty murder case in Bengaluru said they had picked up chatter that Vikki Shetty had raised money from among businessmen in the powerful and monied Bunts community in Mumbai and coastal Karnataka to “avenge [the death of] Kishan Hegde”, who was a big name in the community. He has made calls to some financiers in the community, sources said. “We are yet to figure out the root of enmity between Vikki Shetty and Manish Shetty, but it definitely did not start with Kishan Hegde’s murder. It seems to be a cover story,” said the official.

In fact, in his call to Daijiworld, Vikki Shetty said: “Manish Shetty is just a robber but was talking big. I had warned him a year or two ago, but he did not mend his ways.” This indicates that their rivalry is older.

Given that multiple underworld operatives hailing from coastal Karnataka have taken a hit recently, Vikki Shetty may be trying to emerge as a new player, a senior police officer from Mangaluru said.

What’s at stake?

The underworld in Karnataka’s coastal districts is closely associated with and is modelled on the mafia in Mumbai. While smuggling and labour unions were at the root of the mafia in Mumbai, so is it in Mangaluru, but real estate has been a new addition in recent years.

Starting from Karwar, the State’s coast is dotted with several ports in Mangaluru and Belekeri, to name a few. “Elements from the underworld dominate the black market in import/export of bitumen, naphtha, and timber in many of these ports,” a senior police official in Mangaluru said. While customs officials and sources in the shipping industry said operations at New Mangalore Port Trust (NMPT) had largely been corporatised putting a check on smuggling, the police said post this phenomenon, black market operations at other smaller ports had only gone up. Queries to NMPT did not elicit a response.

Various factions of the underworld have had stakes in the logistics of the cargo business like in the transport sector, contracts for toll collection and also in labour unions at multiple ports and docks, said police sources. For instance, Manoj Kodikere, who allegedly killed Kishan Hegde, was locked in one-upmanship with a friend-turned-foe associated with Kishan Hegde, on control over logistics at the old Mangaluru port, sources said. A section of the police in Mangaluru suspect that the murder of Kishan Hegde may also be a fallout of this turf war.

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Meanwhile, at present, Congress leader Rakesh Malli, a former aide of Muthappa Rai who fell out with him during his last years, and who is now leading a “reformed life”, leads the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) in the region. He is credited with the recent INTUC victory in the union elections at NMPT, consolidating his grip over the labour force in the region, and thereby over logistics at these ports.

“The ports of the Karnataka coast and real estate in Mangaluru are a lucrative business. Muthappa Rai did exercise considerable influence over these spheres until he came down with cancer and eventually died in May this year. Many are trying to take a share in the pie. Vikki Shetty may be just one of them,” a senior police official said.

Hindu right and the underworld

Mimicking Mumbai, the underworld in Karnataka’s coast has also been divided along religious lines. All the three killed and most of the accused in the three cases have had associations with Hindu right-wing organisations in the coastal districts. Acknowledging this, office bearers of the Hindu Jagaran Vedike, Bajrang Dal and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) came together and appealed to the youth, especially those associated with either the victims or the perpetrators of these murders, to “end the cycle of revenge”. VHP Mangalaru Divisional Secretary Sharan Pumpwell said: “Those who were murdered and those arrested have been associated with Hindu outfits. We cannot be silent spectators when both victims and the accused are from the Hindu community. We are making efforts to reform such youths.” But he was quick to add that none of those arrested in the Kishan Hegde and Surendra Bhandary murder cases were, at present, associated with Sangh Parivar outfits.

Also read | Kishan Hegde and Surendra Bhandary murders: Sangh Parivar to counsel people against revenge crime

Hindu right-wing organisations have worked as front organisations for underworld operatives to not only acquire a veneer of acceptability in the garb of religious polarisation, but also to recruit youths, said the police. Many of the accused in cases of cattle vigilantism and moral policing are also history-sheeters with links to the underworld, they said.

Various factions within these organisations have now been at each other, the recent spate of murders show, they said. In his interview with Daijiworld, Vikki Shetty lashed out at Manoj Kodikere, who allegedly killed Kishan Hegde, for targeting “other Hindus”. He said, “Community organisations must help the poor, not keep people who target others from the same community. It is they who give the organisations a bad name.”

Vikki Shetty has also often used his ‘Hindu identity’ over the years, for instance, in making threat calls to Karachi Bakery over their name. “Avenging the murder of Kishan Hegde who had a large following in Hindu right-wing organisations will fetch Vikki Shetty boys to work for him,” a senior police official said.

Rumblings in Bengaluru

Bengaluru police are worked up that members of the underworld could carry out a daring hit in the heart of the city and make brazen calls to media houses. “At this juncture, our analysis says that the gang rivalries in Mangaluru have spilled over into our streets. But we have increased surveillance and are keeping tabs on any activity in the city,” a senior Central Crime Branch official from the Bengaluru City Police said. He added that stringent action would be taken to nip it in the bud. However, as it stands today, after Manish Shetty’s murder, Vikki Shetty has not made any calls to businessmen in the city. The police have learnt that he has raised money in Mumbai and Mangaluru, sources said.

Ground Zero | Kannada film industry and drugs — Cracking the world of make-believe

Not being a port city like Mumbai, and with no strong labour unions, Bengaluru is not big on the narcotics map either. Real estate is the only parallel economy that can sustain a mafia in the city. Ravi Pujari and others operating from abroad have earlier made futile attempts to gain a foothold in the city’s realty sector. “Ravi Pujari carried out two shoot-outs on leading builders in the city in 2007 and 2010. But he failed to gain a foothold in the city,” said a senior police officer in the city. Multiple sources in the realty sector of the city said it has been at least three years since any of them received a threat call for extortion that had become a menace when Ravi Pujari was active.

Local underworld operatives in Bengaluru are involved in “dispute settlement” between various parties over properties or end up buying disputed properties, settle disputes by the threat of violence and sell them for a windfall. “The real estate market in the city is dominated by the local politicians who use local rowdies and the police as a muscle. The police are also an active part of dispute settlement in the real estate market of the city,” said a retired top police officer, who did not want to be named. The Karnataka Police has in fact issued multiple circulars over the last decade explicitly barring the police from intervening in “civil disputes”. The set-up in the city doesn’t allow outsiders so easily, police said. Historically, underworlds of Bengaluru and Mangaluru have never converged, they added.

A senior official in the State police leadership said Karnataka had demonstrated a success streak in tracking down underworld fugitives — Muthappa Rai, Bannanje Raja and Ravi Pujari — and successfully extraditing them to the State to stand trial for their offences. “We think it is time to concentrate our efforts to nab Vikki Shetty, before he grows any bigger. Our teams are working on the same,” the official said.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2021 12:02:14 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/ground-zero-karnataka-murders-from-underworld-to-broad-daylight/article33196773.ece

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