Bhanu Pratap* left his hometown of Jagdishpur, Uttar Pradesh, five years ago to set up an e-commerce venture in Delhi. He never imagined he'd be on the radar of India’s Home Ministry.
"One evening, I had cooked egg curry for my friends in our Laxmi Nagar apartment in Delhi. We had smoked up a joint and were in the middle of a game of monopoly when the cops barged in through the door,” Pratap recounted, sipping filter coffee in a central Delhi café. That was in September 2016. The 29-year-old finance graduate is currently out on bail.
Pratap’s story is straight out of an episode of 24, or Person of Interest, or any show that intersects technology, corporations and the crime. He founded a “borderline illegal” e-commerce venture, became rich overnight, and ended up in the Meerut Jail. There, he became a celebrity among the inmates for a crime he claims he had no connection with—a robbery that delayed the launch of Reliance Jio, "the world’s largest startup" and the dream project of India’s richest man.
Pratap said he is trying to fight the case, and claimed he is not the “criminal mastermind” and “tech savvy robber” that the media made him out to be. “I just wanted to set up a business. My only dream was to earn enough money to open a restaurant.”
A friend had introduced him to Mahesh*, an employee with a technology company who had worked at Nokia Siemens and Vodafone. He suggested a simple way to earn money in a short time. “In all mobile towers, there are a few expensive electronic devices at standby, to be used only in case the main ones malfunction, a rare occurrence. Most of these devices get sold as scrap in the grey market by technicians and telecom officials. The sale of these products is like an open secret in the market.”
Pratap began to source these devices and sell them online to interested clients in the USA at a fraction of the cost they were available there. “I knew it was on a thin line between legal and illegal, but not something anyone would go to jail for,” he argued.
His connections grew and so did his wealth. At the peak, Pratap said he was earning around Rs. 10 to 12 lakhs per month. “We were now showing off our money and throwing lavish parties. Many people tried to follow our model but we had the advantage of starting out early," he told me. "Jab paisa zyada kamaane lago, apne aap hi log soongne lagte hai." People start sniffing around once you get rich.
Pratap’s downfall began on August 6, 2016. A group of five men forcibly entered the Jio’s 4G mobile tower unit in Meerut’s Brahmpuri, stole micro data wires, transfer units and other electronic items worth crores of rupees, and kidnapped a guard—to release him on a highway later. Because the robbery delayed the much-anticipated launch of the Reliance Jio in Meerut, it lead to a large-scale investigation across the country.
The police eventually found the perpetrators a month later by tracking the cellphones that had operated near the phone of the guard who was held captive. After pinpointing the suspects, the police started taping their phone conversations. One of the numbers belonged to Pratap’s roommate. “Little did he know that cops were listening to him when he was bragging about his exploits on the phone,” Pratap said.
The cops arrested him from the Delhi airport and then brought him to the Laxmi Nagar apartment where Pratap lived. “It was crazy. They busted the door and we saw our friend in handcuffs.” In a jeep, they took all those present to a police station in Noida and then to Meerut—enquiring with all of them separately and threatening them with consequences, Pratap claimed.
When they reached the office of Meerut Police’s Special Operations Group, the cops asked them if they wanted some cigarettes. “I said yes. After we smoked, the beatings began.” Pratap said the cops thrashed two of them with their slippers and fists. Five of them confessed to the crime after this torture. “They needed people to show that the crime was committed by a gang," Pratap said.
Another cop entered the room, gave Pratap a slate with his name written on it and clicked his photograph. He had a bad feeling.
The next day, Pratap and his friends were taken directly to Partapur Police Lines in Meerut, where they were paraded before the local media. “My mask was removed and I was momentarily blinded by the camera flashes," he said.
Reliance Jio alleged that the robbery was part of a large-scale corporate conspiracy against them at the behest of their international rivals.
His name and photographs were in most local and a few national newspapers with titles like “hackers”, “high-tech thieves and “engineer gang”. When he reached his barrack in the Meerut Jail, Pratap discovered his name was being bandied about as one of the masterminds of a Rs. 200 crore scam, another Rs. 70 crore crime in Gwalior and a few other robbery cases from across the country.
Reliance Jio alleged that the robbery was part of a large-scale corporate conspiracy against them at the behest of their international rivals. Apart from the Uttar Pradesh police, a special team from the India’s Home Ministry investigated the case.
Pratap’s father and sister came to meet him in prison—the first time after the incident. “That was the worst moment of my life. What would they have been thinking about me? There was no time that I could have explained them anything. They gave me clothes, biscuits and some food to eat.” He said parents of two of his friends never visited. “I called some of my friends for help. They didn’t pick my calls.”
The gang’s reputation preceded them in the prison where they had become celebrities even before their arrival. “The biggest symbol of the prowess of criminal in jail is his fatta: the bedding. Most people struggled to get one, but because of our reputation we got the nicest one.”
Prisoners called them by names like “moneymakers”, “hackers” and “mastermind”. In a prison with the most notorious criminals of the state, Pratap said they had no option other than to maintain that reputation to survive. “My friends were enjoying the stardom. I wasn’t.”
With the threat of prison time up to 10 years hanging like a sword over his head, Pratap said he suffered from depression and insomnia, spending his days high on weed smuggled inside. A routine part of his life was answering the questions by inquisitive prisoners about his plans after getting out, seeking his advice on ways to earn money through mobile towers and even offering to put him in touch with other criminals who might help him in future in the crime business.
“I hadn’t gone there to make new relationships. I was really angry with my life and the friends who got me into this.” Pratap kept getting into fights with his friends and other prisoners. To keep himself busy, he went to find work in the account department of the jail. “They told me you will somehow bring internet in jail and steal our data.”
Soon however, Pratap got tired of fighting with his friends. Playing anatakshari together at night became a daily part of their lives. He also made a lot of new friends—murderers, rapists and contract killers among them. He told me about some of them. “Tulli was harami of the highest order, but still a nice person at heart. He was gay and an amputee, who came to jail after his brother conspired against him over a property dispute.”
Pratap’s sister used to send him books in the prison. He read Five Point Someone, 2 States, One Indian Girl, some Nagraj comic books, and Chanakya Niti. It was due to the books he befriended Neelu—the alleged contract killer with around 40 charges of murder. “He was the only other prisoner who used to read an English newspaper, Hindustan Times. You won’t believe but he was a very decent person. I couldn’t understand how could he be a murderer.”
Pratap and his friends slowly began to lose of hope of getting out. “We thought we will get out by Diwali—it came and went. When the New Year came, I had this sinking feeling that I will never get out of here. We didn’t even have weed that day, so I just took four sleeping pills. When the clock struck 12, other prisoners shouted ‘Happy New Year’ and embraced each other. I nearly got into a fight.”
Apart from family, the thing that kept him going in the prison was his girlfriend. He said they grew closer during the time he was imprisoned. “The most beautiful part of my jail time was when I used to receive her love letters. I also used to write back.”
Pratap finally got bail in January 2017 after spending nearly five months in the prison. “I was the first among the group to go out. The jail warden called me to his room and told me that the worst is over.” His lawyer Deepak Chauhan told me in a phone conversation that Pratap is now more or less clear of the charges against him, as the guard (the only witness in the robbery case) did not identify him as one of the men who abducted him. The police are now concentrating on some other suspects, he said. “They don’t have any other evidence or video footage that link Pratap to the crime”, Chauhan added.
In the meantime, the allegations have taken a toll on his career and social life. One of his friends, Pawan—who had turned spiritual in prison—eventually died in March this year after he stopped eating for days as part of a "Samadhi" ritual.
Pratap’s lawyer, who had shared the documents relating to the case with us, claimed that Pratap would be acquitted as soon as Pawan’s death certificate was processed.
Trying to find a new beginning in life, Pratap has set up another company, a tours and travel firm in Lucknow. He plans to propose to his girlfriend in this year.
“When I came out from jail, everyone was saying I won’t be able to find other work. But I have done it and it’s doing good so far.” His phone rings as we drink coffee. His father wants to know where he is right now. “This is what has changed. They don’t trust me like they used to. Nobody does,” he said as he lit up another joint.
*Names have been changed at the request of the subjects.
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