Like former boss Chhota Rajan, Ravi Pujari sought title of ‘Hindu don’

Mohamed Thaver, Deeptiman Tiwary
Pujari, who was an auto-rickshaw driver in Andheri before he joined the underworld, also has cases against him in several other states, including Gujarat and Karnataka.

Like his once-boss in the underworld, Chhota Rajan, Ravi Pujari aspired for the title of a 'Hindu don’, or a ‘patriotic don’, a tag coveted by several estranged Rajan gang members to get protection of a section in the Indian security establishment, according to police officials.

Detained in Senegal, he has been accused in at least 50 cases registered with Mumbai Police. "Pujari has been apprehended in Senegal a few days back," Mumbai Police Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) Ashutosh Dumbare told The Indian Express on Friday.

A senior officer said, "Since the 1980s, there are more than 50 cases against Pujari in Mumbai and several Red Corner Notices had been issued against him…. We will now seek his extradition."

According to officers, like Rajan was said to have been used as an asset by agencies to target 1993 blasts-accused Dawood Ibrahim’s infrastructure, Pujari tried to demonstrate his dislike for Pakistan-linked dons, and those alleged to be part of jihadi terror infrastructure.

A similar route was followed by other estranged Rajan gang members such as Bharat Nepali, Hemant Pujari, Vijay Shetty and Santosh Shetty.

But unlike Bharat Nepali, who orchestrated several murders, including that of Rajan’s close aide Farid Tanasha and lawyer Shahid Azmi before being shot dead in 2010, Pujari hardly orchestrated any murders after splitting from Rajan, police officials said. His typical attacks, officials said, would be on a builder’s office, where shots fired by a hired amateur shooter, usually from Uttar Pradesh, would either shatter the glass door or cause minor injuries to the security guard.

Ravi Pujari's Burkina Faso identity card.

His attempts at becoming a security establishment asset ranged from making threat calls to lawyers representing arrested Indian Mujahideen operatives to JNU student leader Umar Khalid and Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, officers said.

Pujari, who was an auto-rickshaw driver in Andheri before he joined the underworld, also has cases against him in several other states, including Gujarat and Karnataka.

Absconding for nearly 15 years, before being tracked, and arrested, in west Africa, Pujari earlier operated from countries such as Australia, Malaysia, Thailand and South Africa.

Like Rajan, Pujari started out working alongside Dawood in the 1990s before moving to Dubai, from where he made extortion calls to builders. He took Rajan’s side after the Dawood gang split on communal lines following the 1993 Mumbai blasts and Rajan proclaimed himself a "Hindu don".

Things, however, changed after an attack by Dawood gang on Rajan’s life while he was in Bangkok in 2000. A senior officer said, "Rajan knew his location was known to only a handful of men, and Pujari was one of them. He started looking at Pujari with suspicion – as someone who could have leaked the details and parted ways with him."

Pujari subsequently formed his own gang and tried to forge an identity for himself.

Over the past few years, most of his targets were Bollywood personalities, including top actors such as Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar. In April 2018, a sessions court convicted 10 members of the Pujari gang for conspiring to kill filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt. Pujari was a wanted accused in the case.

Pujari, according to police sources, also picked on unusual targets. He left a message at the office of industrialist Nusli Wadia in 2014 that his son, Ness, should not "mess with" Preity Zinta after the actress filed a molestation case against Wadia junior. Pujari purportedly called up a news channel later and told them he was a fan of Zinta.

In 2015, he reportedly called up singer Arijit Singh. Singh, however, told the police that it was not an extortion call and that Pujari had told him that he liked his voice and asked whether he would sing for an event that Pujari planned to organise.

Over the years, his influence was seen to be dwindling. A Mumbai Crime Branch officer said, "Several of his men were slapped with Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) and are in jail for several years. Besides reducing his workforce, we also started booking hawala operators through which the extortion money would reach him. As a result, his influence had gone down in the last few years."