The gold rush

Priyanka Kotamraju | Updated on September 12, 2014

tatlu illus+text blurb.jpg

Brick bane A ‘gold’ Mughal brick in copper.

Incredibly, even today, smooth operators from Mewat successfully run a Mughal-era gold bricks scam

On December 10 last year, Sandeep (name changed on request) was rather nervous. He was waiting at a chowk near IMT Manesar in Gurgaon. He checked his pockets again, the cash was there. But there was no sign of Rahul. In a little over a month, and after about a dozen phone calls, Rahul, a conman from Mewat, had lured the 20-year-old student from Odisha here to buy a “Mughal-era gold brick”.

While Sandeep waited anxiously, a group of policemen hovered nearby. Just then, Rahul appeared and said, “We are being shadowed, let’s walk.” As they walked down the road, Sandeep grew suspicious. “Where are you taking me?” he said. Abruptly, Rahul asked him to return to the chowk and wait for his instructions. Scared, Sandeep sprinted back to the chowk where Delhi Crime Branch officers homed in on him, asking if Rahul had given him anything. Several minutes later, he learned that the police had nabbed Rahul and his aides from Rajokri, near NH 8. They had recovered from his person a 0.315 bore pistol, two live cartridges and one “fake Mughal-era gold brick”.

Tatlu bana rahe the, the policemen told Sandeep later. Thoroughly rattled, he has returned home since, disturbed and unable to resume his normal routine. “They call their victims tatlu, someone who is a fool, that’s how they got their name,” says Head Constable Yashpal Singh.

Mohammed Salim Khan, 25, a native of the Mewat region, was identified by the Delhi Crime Branch as the leader of the “tatlu gang” they nabbed that day. According to ACP Hoshiyar Singh, the Mewat region is particularly rich in such tatlu gangs who exploit people’s weakness for gold, practicing their art on scores of people over the years. Their victims in the recent months have mostly been from Odisha and Jammu & Kashmir.

Dreaded and blamed for causing nightmares and fevers, these gangs have inspired some sensational headlines. Sample this from an arrest made in June 2013: Tatlu giroh ka dehshat desh ke kone kone main phail gaya hai (The terror of the tatlu gangs has spread to every corner of the country).

The tatlu gang’s shtick is simple but effective. The gang members randomly dial phone numbers with an innocent tale. In this case, Khan pretended to be Rahul from Mewat, a labourer working JCB cranes at an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) dig on the banks of the Yamuna, behind the Taj Mahal. While digging, he said, they had found a package wrapped in a tattered, smelly piece of cloth. Inside the package were gold bricks that he believed were from the Mughal era, each weighing more than 800gm.

Rahul then painted a sad picture of his life — he was poor, illiterate, landless, and he had a sister to marry off. He was scared of what he’d found and didn’t want to deal with excessively curious authorities. His aged father, who he claimed was an expert, had the bricks checked at the local goldsmith and as unbelievable as it sounded, it was real gold. For a man of his means, he said, it was too dangerous to be in possession of a small gold mine. He just wanted to get rid of the gold, even if it was at half the market rate.

In many ways this is the real life version of the online scam where everyone from Nigeria seems intent on giving their money to you. “The beauty of the trap lies in their innocence,” says DCP Bhisham Singh. “They speak with such innocence that the victim is fooled into thinking that he is the one cheating the poor man.” Sandeep also agrees, “itni sharafat se baat boli thi, I thought I was being smart.”

Sometime last November, Sandeep came to know that his friend’s colleague had received a call from Rahul. Initially they laughed it off, but the idea began to slowly appeal to him. What if this man wasn’t lying? To him, an engineering student in Odisha working part-time for a Noida-based company to fund his education, this seemed like an opportunity too good to pass. “My mistake was that I kept taking his calls,” he says. On one of the calls, Rahul told Sandeep that he had sold a small piece and made ₹28,000; a whole brick would fetch him at least a few lakhs.

Borrowing from friends and raising loans, Sandeep collected Rs 15,000. His college fees could also come in handy, he had thought. And yet, Sandeep had no clue about the prevailing gold rates in the market.

In December, Sandeep found an occasion to travel to Delhi. His Noida-based firm was late with a renewal amount due to him, so he took five days off to collect the money and simultaneously set up a meeting with Rahul. If things had gone according to the tatlu gang’s plan, Sandeep would have returned to Mewat to buy the brick, which would have been nothing but copper dressed up to look like ancient gold.

“The brick looks very authentic,” says Yashpal Singh. The Urdu seals embossed on the brick make it seem even more so. “It’s highly unlikely that the bricks could belong to the Mughal era,” says Swapna Liddle of INTACH, “Even the coin-like seals are fake.” And they are certainly not gold.

After convincing the buyers, the gang asks them to come to Mewat with the cash. On their turf then, victims are robbed at gunpoint. Salim and his tatlu gang had been plying their trade for a year-and-a-half. His gang had made more than Rs 10 lakh in this time. “They choose their victims indiscriminately, just dialling numbers in a serial order. Of hundred calls they make every day, perhaps one falls into the trap,” says DCP Bhisham Singh. “I even recall a senior police officer getting such a call a while ago. He hung up saying he was not interested.”

In 2009, Navin, a Chennai-based businessman, fell prey to a similar tatlu gang robbery staged by Pappu and two others. Pappu’s tatlu gang asked Navin to come to Chata in Haryana, where they gave him a piece of the brick. “I got it checked, it was 73-74 per cent gold,” says Navin, who then came back to buy the brick. He lost Rs14 lakh. In December 2011, almost three years after the incident, Pappu dialled Navin’s number again. “I don’t think Pappu recognised me, but I knew, immediately, who it was,” says Navin. “And this time I decided to give it back. I enlisted the help of the Delhi Police, which asked me to set up a meeting with Pappu in Delhi. Predictably, Pappu insisted that I come to Haryana instead. But I knew he was desperate to make the sale. So, I told him I could only meet him in Delhi and I had just two hours to spare.” Pappu agreed reluctantly, only to be trapped by the police. They also arrested his partners in crime, including the man who played his “aged father”.

“I realised how they did it the first time. There were three of them. While one talked to me, the other hammered away at the brick. The third man would distract me with something else and then they would cleverly drop a piece of real gold on the ground from their pockets and offer it as the only piece they could break off. It was all distraction and sleight of hand,” says Navin.

Tatlu banaya re, the policemen had said to him then.

“I filed an FIR, something I should have done the first time but I was too embarrassed then. I won’t get my money back but you won’t believe how well I have slept since these guys were all arrested. My nightmares are gone,” says Navin.

In instances of tatlu gang robberies, FIRs are hard to come by. Most victims prefer to keep mum and forget these episodes, or file cases in local police stations of their home states. Even in Navin’s case — the FIR was lodged in May 2012 in Delhi — the proceedings of the case are yet to begin. “In the latest case of Rahul, there is no complainant. We don’t even have a case,” says Bhisham Singh. “He’ll walk free in a month’s time, lie low for a while, and then he’ll be back.”

Published on January 24, 2014

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