How an underworld don became a crusading journalist

Raksha Kumar
Grist Media

In May 2010 at the height of the Karnataka Lokayukta's tirade against the Reddy brothers, Agni Sreedhar went from Bangalore to Bellary. For about eight months in 2010, his weekly paper Agni consistently published pieces exposing the Reddy brothers and their illegal mining. In the summer, though, Sreedhar gathered a group of activists, professors and journalists - a group of 200-odd people went to Bellary, to the home of the Reddy brothers. It was a chaotic day. The brothers were either inside the house or had fled the scene, while the demonstrators called for their arrest.

This time, Sreedhar was registering his protest much more directly. "The police approached me and said they'd give me and the rest of the protestors some security," recalled Sreedhar. He was convinced that that it was actually a passive-aggressive attempt to scare them away. "We are in a majority," he yelled back, "we don't need the security as much as the Reddy brothers do who are in a minority." The press gathered, increasing the pressure on the government to act.  The Reddy brothers didn't get arrested that day, but the protestors returned feeling they had added enough fuel to their campaign.

When in mid-2012 the Reddy brothers were arrested, it wasn't just the Lokayukta and the CBI who felt vindicated - Agni too celebrated.

In itself, this wouldn't be a particularly unusual story if you didn't know who Sreedhar was. Fifty-eight-year-old Sreedhar is widely credited to be the last don of the underworld in Bangalore that witnessed its peak in the late 1990s.

Sreedhar's story has always been unusual. From being a law student with dreams of joining the civil service to a don was dramatic enough. The kind of narrative we've seen so often in movies from the 1980s where a gentle Sunny Deol is pushed willy-nilly into a life of crime. But at some point he seemed to have chosen a different life: one of a crusading journalist. The kind of radical reinvention that even fiction attempts gingerly.

* * *

In a nondescript corner of Bangalore, about three kilometers from the hectic Kanakapura Road is the fort-like structure that Sreedhar lives in. A ten-foot tall brick wall and a taller metal gate ensures that the world inside is safely hidden. A knock on the metal gate prompts a brisk opening of a tiny slide door. A pair of eyes appear. "Yes? Is the boss expecting you?" is the man's refrain, no matter who approaches this gate. If you answer yes, then he checks with the boss, and after confirming the visitor's identity to his satisfaction, the visitor is allowed through the metal gate. It is a huge compound with an office block on the right. Five boxy cars - what are known as LUVs, Lifestyle Utility Vehicles - are parked side by side in front of an overpowering house. Sreedhar lives here with his family of five as well as a few former accomplices from the underworld. Indoors, it is furnished in a fairly spartan way. Its main ornaments are the engraved teak doors, and floor-to-ceiling shelves of Kannada and English books.

Inside the house, Sreedhar is in his living room. He sits watching BBC World News on a huge television set, which covers almost a whole wall. "I try to catch up with news before I meet a journalist so that I don't seem stupid," he jokes.

Only the metal gates, ferocious Dobermans (chained but barking) and some outsized men hanging about the house remind you that you have entered the abode of the former underworld don. At first glance Sreedhar looks slight, dressed in a loose white tee shirt that hides his strong body, and black denim pants that sit firmly on his slim waist. "It was partially the requirement of my previous profession, and partially my obsession to keep myself fit and healthy," he says at some point. Sreedhar doesn't shy away from discussing his past. He doesn't use euphemisms. Neither does he dramatize it. He is fairly matter-of-fact about his former occupation.

"I was the undisputed don. Between 1992 and 1997, there was not even a single group in Bangalore that opposed me," says Sreedhar. He wrote about his two eventful decades in organized crime in a three-part book series called Dadagiriya Dinagalu (Days of Dadagiri), which once again in a truth-trumps-fiction move, won the Karnataka State Sahitya Akademi Award in 2011. A small excerpt was adapted into a critically acclaimed film Aa Dinagalu in 2007 by filmmaker Chaitanya (screenplay by Girish Karnad and Sreedhar, produced by his friend Syed Aman Bachchan. Bollywood actor Atul Kulkarni plays Sreedhar). Westland released a condensed English translation of the book, My Days In The Underworld, this month.

Like Sreedhar, My Days In The Underworld doesn't waste time in getting to the point. Sreedhar starts the book by talking about the circumstances that lead to his entry into the underworld. With short, crisp sentences, the book describes the dramatic journey. In the early 1970s Sreedhar came to Bangalore from Kanakpura. As a young law student in a small college he slowly got involved, inch by surprising inch, in violence, small-time extortion and then became an efficient minion of the mafia.

But the tipping point came when Sreedhar's younger brother was attacked by goondas. His younger brother Basant was visiting from their hometown to watch an India versus Pakistan test match. In a possible case of mistaken identity, Basant was attacked by a large gang of goons with machetes and swords and nearly crippled. In a mist of rage, Sreedhar is said to have vowed to take revenge on whoever led the group and found that it was Kotwal Ramachandra, one of Bangalore's two big dons. With the murder of Kotwal Ramachandra, Sreedhar was firmly a part of Bangalore's mafia. He became the right-hand man of the other Bangalore don MP Jayaraj, a don and the publisher of what Sreedhar refers to as a socialist 'rag called Garibi Hatao'. Jayaraj was closely associated with the late Chief Minister Devaraj Urs's son-in-law MD Nataraj.  Urs has a reputation for having been the 'architect of backward caste politics' in Karnataka. He is said to have pushed land reform, actively helped backward caste and Dalit candidates enter politics in Karnataka and created several alliances between backward caste communities. However between him and his son-in-law there are also plenty of stories of close ties with the Bangalore mafia.

Caste discrimination was, then and now, a powerful catalyst for Sreedhar too. As is evident from the screenplay he wrote for Aa Dinagalu. Film critic MK Raghavendra points out, "The gangster films in Kannada cinema follow a similar trajectory, a migrant comes to Bangalore, is forced into the underworld and is very modest in his ways of living. Sreedhar's film is no different. Sreedhar fits into the larger hierarchy of the Kannada society where caste rules. This is exemplified by a scene in Sreedhar's films where an average Brahmin businessman orders the don of Bangalore to get out of his office and the powerful don (of a lower caste) complies. This caste dynamic is what I found realistic."

The murder of Kotwal made him a big name in the underworld. He spent a year and 8 months in jail but was acquitted for lack of evidence. Years later the death of Jayaraj and Sreedhar's subsequent challenges to another strong don, Muthappa Rai, made him incredibly powerful.

* * *

In 1997, in a Bangalore on the cusp of changing into a metropolis unrecognizable to those who had lived there before, Sreedhar too decided to change. If you ask him, he will tell you it is because his wife told him that his image posed a problem to his children's future. (It is true that at least two former Bangalore dons have sons with MBAs and aspirations to movie stardom). Was that really it? Was it an increasing and genuine distaste for the world of violence he lived in? "One is shaped by incidents," he says. "It looks attractive from a distance but once you go there, you need to have a lot of courage."

Sreedhar's weapon of choice these days seems to be words. He writes fiery columns in his controversial weekly tabloid Agni on issues ranging from women's rights to political corruption. He spends most of his time playing chess online, reading books and meditating. "I am very interested in quantum physics," says Sreedhar. His next book is on the Bhakti and Sufi saints of Karnataka.

This is not a pose, however baffling it may seem. It has been, for him, a return to the young man he used to be, someone who loved reading Che Guevara, Gabriel García Márquez, Franz Kafka and Jean-Paul Sartre. "Camus' The Outsider inspired me a lot," he says. "When I first met him, he was reading a big, fat book while talking to me," says his associate from the underworld days, now a big businessman in Bangalore. "It took me a long time to digest the fact that there were intellectual dons. Perhaps, he is the only one like that," he adds, still sounding a bit bemused.

Sreedhar founded Agni in 1998 with several leftist thinkers, writers and intellectuals of Karnataka contributing to it. Prathibha Nandakumar, a journalist, fiery poet and close friend of Sreedhar's has, for instance, been associated with Agni since its inception. Over time Agni the weekly has acquired a dual reputation as both fearless anti-establishment tabloid and gleeful muckraker. Kempegowda Bus Stand (or Majestic as it is better known) is by convention the 'heart of Bangalore City'. Here, a man named Bairappa sells Kannada newspapers from within a small tin box that can fit a small man like him. He has several tabloids hanging from the roof of the box. Agni and Hi Bangalore are his best sellers. Hi Bangalore is run by author Ravi Belagere, also a colorful character who is said to have once opened fire on an eight-member gang that attacked him when he was on a story. Bairappa has opinions about what he sells. "Agni gives people the fuel to rebel, it educates them politically and also keeps them abreast with news that they need to know," says Bairappa.

Veerabhadra, a 37-year-old auto driver and regular reader of Agni, agrees. "I read Agni to know more about the corrupt politicians we are electing every time! It is frustrating. Agni makes me angry. When we read about Yeddyurappa's corruption scandal and that he had amassed a lot of tax payers money, we were very angry. Apart from politics, I read Agni because it talks about pre-marital sex, rights for prostitutes and promiscuity without censorship. I like that." He smiles a little.

As always, there is some degree of class, snobbery and guilty pleasure involved in reading the tabloids. Girish Rayenalli, a crime reporter in one of Karnataka's most popular broadsheets, the evening paper Udayavani, says, "The biggest difference between crime reportage in the tabloids and crime reportage in broadsheets is that a lot of the information that the tabloids get are tip-offs from the police and the anti-social elements. Both parties see vested interests in getting their stories printed in the tabloids. Also, we cannot print half the news that they do, because we refrain as much as possible from sensationalism. When an average reader reads those tabloids, given the language they use, he understands that a lot of the news is exaggerated." Shashidhar Kulkarni, 63, a former employee at the Vidhan Soudha is the kind of skeptical reader that Rayenalli is talking about. "I buy a bunch of Kannada tabloids every week. When I go to meet my son in Tumkur, I catch a bus from Majestic and read these tabloids on the 2-hour bus ride. I read Agni for entertainment. For the thrill of it. I don't trust half of what is printed. How can I believe that a swamiji stole the jewels of a temple or that my daughter can be married to a person of a different caste and she will be fine? This is the kind of news they print, in a very coarse language."

One Agni 'exposé' that caught national attention involved The Art of Living Foundation and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Sreedhar alleged that Ravi Shankar grabbed 15 acres of land owned by an NRI and that he was involved in several illegal activities at his ashram. Ravi Shankar countered the claims by filing a case against Sreedhar stating that he made a threatening phone call to him.

The controversy not only increased Agni's circulation figures (What is the circulation, I asked. Enough to fend for itself, he replied), but also made people question if Sreedhar had actually left his underworld days behind. "If I had not left my underworld days behind, Ravi Shankar would have seen it real bad!" smiles Sreedhar. (The Art of Living Foundation has refused to comment on the issue.)

The fascination that Sreedhar's life holds for people is possibly because of that one question: Can a human being change? It depends on whom you ask. "Though there are no violent streaks in him anymore, his fervor for activism has remained intact," says Bachchan, Sreedhar's accomplice in Kotwal's murder, which changed the face of Bangalore's underworld. If you ask Manjunath Adde, Sreedhar is a reformed man. Adde, an earnest young man in his 30s and a former journalist is the president of Nyakkagi Naavu, an NGO started by Sreedhar. Nyakkagi Naavu is part of a state-wide coalition against communalism called the Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike. Adde says, "Sreedhar has been a part of KKSV since 2002 when KKSV was formed post Gujarat riots. He spends immense amounts of time working against the exploitation of women and backward castes. He is against communalism. I have personally seen him spend hours and hours together working for the betterment of women in riot affected areas. He has also pumped in a lot of money (income from his tabloid) to causes that KKSV deals with."

Others are less starry-eyed. A senior editor of a Kannada broadsheet says, "Earlier, he ensured that people feared him as an underworld don. Today, he ensures that people fear him as a writer with a venomous pen," he says. The editor says that he suspects that several of Sreedhar's pieces are politically motivated and that he might still have a relationship with the politicians where he uses them and in turn gets used by them.

As I began reporting for this story, a senior police officer called. I wasn't sure how he had heard that I was working on this story. This officer was rather less inclined to think that Sreedhar has changed. He asked me why I wanted to glorify crime and criminals.

"There is just one similarity between Sreedhar's two incarnations," says another high-ranking police officer who worked in Bangalore during the 1970s and 1980s. "He remains equally loved and hated by the powers that be." He explains carefully, like the editor did, that the underworld dons and social activists - which is what Sreedhar calls himself - are people who use politicians and businessmen and are used by them.

Sreedhar's own view of the world is not quite idealistic either. "The underworld is maintained by the establishment for its own reasons," says Sreedhar. He says he has 'worked' for all the top politicians, businessmen, religious leaders and lawyers. "Now the thugs are the politicians, police, journalists and lawyers. The ordinary man is not safe from these established rowdies," says Sreedhar. And he says he has taken it upon himself to fight these 'established rowdies'.

And then disarmingly, he adds. "And you should always keep an eye on the establishment. No matter how strong you are, it is stronger than you."

Raksha Kumar is a freelance journalist who writes for the New York Times, The Caravan, South China Morning Post, The Hindu, The Express Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She tweets @Raksha_Kumar.