The Secret Life Of A Delhi Pickpocket

In the world of pickpocketing, the codeword for your smartphone is ‘teeli’ while money in your inside pocket is ‘chacha’.

Ashwin’s* descent in the dark underworld of Delhi’s criminal gangs began when he was just a school student. A classmate at his senior secondary school in Badarpur, a lower-income neighbourhood on the outskirts of India’s national capital, introduced him to this world. Ashwin’s shock knew no bounds when this friend told him that everyday after school on his way back home, he picked pockets of people travelling in buses. 


After this revelation came an offer that Ashwin promptly accepted because of the easy money that came with it. His new friend asked Ashwin to act as a carrier — the person who carries the stolen phone or wallet to safety. For the easy task of just carrying a phone for some distance, he’d earn Rs 200, a considerable sum for an eleventh standard kid. 

“You cannot escape bad company in Badarpur, regardless of your background. If you come from a good family, who will be your companions? How long can you withstand the environment of this place?” he asked me, when I met him at a tea shop in Badarpur, a stone’s throw away from the inter-city bus terminal, the area’s biggest landmark.

Pickpockets have existed in human society for centuries, with their sleight of hand being captured in art and literature, including Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel ‘Oliver Twist’. The skill of pickpocketing has also been used as a source of entertainment in magicians’ shows, with some of these pickpocketing magicians becoming the highest paid performers in European circuses!

In India, thugs have been picking people’s pockets for centuries. In New Delhi, the intricate network of pickpockets have operated for decades in crowded markets and touristy areas. Despite efforts like police patrolling, CCTV surveillance and public awareness campaigns, pickpockets continue to operate in New Delhi.


Tricks of the trade

As Ashwin became one of them, he learnt the tricks of the trade from his friend — picking pockets of unsuspecting people in buses, metro and shared autos on the streets of New Delhi. Soon he would understand that pickpocketing is, after all, an art of using your fingers with stealth, combined with misdirection. “Blades as tools were those for amateurs,” he believes. He’d also get familiar with the slang used by pickpockets. Their codewords for a smartphone is ‘teeli’ (matchstick) while money in an inside pocket is ‘chacha’ (uncle).

“In a crowded bus, one boy would massage the thighs of our target. In that state, the person begins to feel comfortable. This is when the other boy would take out the teeli from his pocket,” said Ashwin. “In my team, there were experts who could even take out money from inside your wallet! To take out the ‘chacha’, one boy pushes a man's stomach, while another uses a string to take out money from the wallet,” he added, taking a sip of tea as buses that ferried people to different parts of Delhi and Haryana kept passing and blaring horns that created a cacophony that is part of lives of most who travel in these buses. 

However, the costliest phones are not carried by bus passengers, but by the slightly better-off ones who travel in metros. “We’d strike when people were either getting onto or out of the train. It's the time they are most distracted,” Ashwin said. Hundreds of pickpockets keep getting arrested by CISF every year at metro stations, with alerts for passengers being issued by police and pickpockets apprehended from time to time. 


Ashwin was never caught in a metro though. Blinded by the riches coming his way, he got hooked onto drugs. “Once you start using drugs to escape the poverty surrounding you, they become an integral part of your life. To sustain that addiction, you require more money," he added. 

It was the lure of money that led him to join a notorious gang of pickpockets, run by a longtime criminal with a history of involvement in illegal possession of firearms, extortion, assault and murder. “At first, they splurged money on us, then trained us in better ways to pick pockets. Soon I was earning Rs 20,000 per day for the gang. One fourth of the sum would go to them, while the rest was divided among the boys who carried out the operation,” said Ashwin. 

The different units of the gang worked in shifts — one group worked during the morning rush hour, while another one performed their duties in the evening. The territories were also divided by route numbers of buses. If one group chose a bus, the other won’t get onto it. “There is that kind of respect," said Ashwin. In this life of youthful euphoria and adventure, Ashwin dropped out of his school.

Though he was a new entrant, the seniors in the gang were hardened criminals, not averse to using violence at the slightest need. While some of the gang members would scare their victims by self-harm, others would simply attack the victim. “When he was caught picking someone’s pocket on the street, a gang member attacked the victim with a knife, slashing his arms. When the guy tried to resist, the pickpocket hit his own head on a stone lying nearby. The victim was stunned to even move. The robber crossed the road with his wallet, washed the blood and went his way,” Ashwin told me. 


The blackmail

When Ashwin was arrested by the police in New Friends Colony, the seeds of doubt were sown in his mind. However, he’d find out it’s not as easy to get out of a pickpocketing gang as it is to get in. When he stopped providing them their daily share, they began to threaten him on his phone, and whenever they found him roaming in their locality, beat him up. “They had goons at each and every corner who used to inform them where I was,” he said.

To avoid contact with the gang, Ashwin changed his number, but that didn’t help — he was caught in a vicious circle. “Consider this: I am a pickpocket and a criminal. Even the police know what I do. If I don’t follow their dictates, the gang can get me arrested through their contacts in the police. I will then be beaten up, tortured or arrested by the police itself,” he said. This was the time the gang would try playing the saviour and pay for his release — the debt that they had to repay by picking pockets for them again. 

This was not the only way gang members tried to get Ashwin back in the fold. Once when he was travelling in a bus, some gang members tried to slash his face and ended up cutting his arms. “It was my fortune that their blades were small. I ran from the bus as fast as I could. I began travelling by metro,” he said as he showed me marks from the attack on his arms. 


On another occasion, the gang members chased Ashwin on a bike in Gautampuri area in South Delhi. “I saved myself by running through the street to find refuge in a police chowki. Instead of helping me, the old cop sitting there just asked me to go home. My friend came to pick me up from there,” he said.

Moving ahead

With time, the gang lost interest in Ashwin, and got back to recruit more enthusiastic young boys from schools in Badarpur. Ashwin keeps hearing stories of kids from his own school still joining pickpocketing gangs. “The government schools in the area are still the best recruiting place for pickpockets. They see it as a shortcut,” he said. 

Ashwin has now found a job and intends to start his life afresh. “I don’t hang around in my colony anymore, and mostly keep to myself. I keep thinking about leaving Badarpur but Delhi is an expensive city. Where will I go?," he said.

When I asked him if he still picks pockets of people for himself, he replied in negative. "I have quit that life for now forever. I will not come back to it ever," he said. But the way his eyes lit up while he scanned the people getting onto the row of green and red buses at the terminal, I had my doubts. 

*Name has been changed at the request of the subject.

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