Bettiah (Bihar), Jan 24 (IANS/ 101Reporters) A well-organised outfit of thieves from the Ghorasahan block of Bihar's East Champaran district, popular as the Shutter Katwa ('shutter cutter') gang, has become a terror for traders dealing in high-value electronic goods in several states.
Investigations into hundreds of cases registered in police stations across the country, such as Delhi's Roop Nagar, Uttarakhand's Haldwani, Rajasthan's Kotwali Dausa, Karnataka's Khade Bazaar and many others, have led to this gang.
On September 17 this year, Rajasthan's Hanumangarh Junction police registered a case of theft after 86 smartphones and several internet routers worth more than Rs 11 lakh were stolen from a shop.
"The thieves' modus operandi, revealed by the CCTV footage, pointed at the Shutter Katwa gang," investigating officer of the case, Assistant Sub Inspector Shiv Narayan, told 101Reporters. A team headed by him went to Ghorasahan in October but could not arrest any of the culprits.
On January 14 this year, Rajasthan police in coordination with East Champaran police arrested three members of the Shutter Katwa gang - identified as Deepak Kumar, Mustafa Diwan and Maqbul - from Birata Chowk area in Ghorasahan in connection with the burgling of a showroom at Bhiwadi on December 3, 2020. They recovered 52 iPhones worth around Rs 50 lakh from the accused.
Sub Inspector VV Bhola of the Anti-Terrorist Squad in Ahmedabad said that 98 mobile phones were stolen from a shop in Rander near Surat in October 2018. "Judging from the methods used by the thieves, police suspected the role of the Shutter Katwa gang. A five-member team headed by a sub-inspector from the crime branch went to Bihar and arrested two of the suspects," said Bhola, who was then attached to Rander police station.
On February 22, 2018, a joint team of Haridwar and Raxaul police arrested two persons - identified as Bipatdas and Prabhunath Pandey, both residents of Ghorasahan - for allegedly stealing 27 iPhones and 13 tablets from a showroom in Haridwar a month ago. Police recovered six iPhones and many tablets from their possession.
Akhilesh Kumar Mishra, the station house officer (SHO) of Ghorasahan police station, confirmed that police from many parts of the country had visited the block in search of the members of the Shutter Katwa gang. "Police from Uttarakhand, Telangana and Maharashtra alone have arrested at least 15 persons from this region in connection with thefts committed in their respective states," he said.
A safe haven in Nepal
A former SHO at Ghorasahan police station, who wished to remain anonymous, cited the area's proximity to the Nepal border as the main difficulty in busting the gang. "Many of these thieves have relatives in Nepal. After committing thefts, they sneak across the border with the booty, making it difficult for Indian forces to track them. The gang also finds selling the stolen goods easier in Nepal. Nonetheless, at least 25 thieves were arrested during my tenure at Ghorasahan police station," the officer told 101Reporters.
Sources in the local police said that the Shutter Katwa gang, comprising more than 250 members from Ghorasahan block and its neighbouring villages, had around 15 groups operating in different states. Over the years, more than 100 members of the gang were arrested in Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Orissa and Maharashtra. Some of these arrests were made in cities such as Dehradun, Haldwani, Surat, Siliguri, Delhi, Hyderabad, Bhopal and Gurgaon, they said.
Sub Inspector Bhola said, "They visit shops posing as customers during the day to assess the stock of electronic gadgets. If satisfied, they return at night and pry open the shutters using jacks. While some of them enter the shops and steal the goods, others cover the shutter gap by pretending to be folding bed sheets," Bhola said.
"If the gang members find CCTV cameras installed in the shop during a theft, they switch groups for their next strike. They flee the state by train immediately after committing a theft," a police officer at Hanumangarh Junction police station told 101Reporters.
The gang swells, lured by money and prestige
Police said the Shutter Katwa gang was formed by a small group of thieves in the mid-1980s, but it grew with time as the lure of money attracted many criminals to it. The gang, also known locally as Archa Company and Chaddar Gang, has members ranging from teenagers to 50-year-olds, they said.
"Local criminals consider a membership to the gang as a matter of pride and will go to any extent to please the families of its members to gain a place in the gang," said a villager who did not wish to be named.
Many members of the gang, including the notorious Belwa and his brother Chelwa who were arrested recently by Motihari police in East Champaran, have reportedly constructed huge residential and commercial buildings in Ghorasahan block. "Chelwa is wanted in 25 cases of theft registered in 10 states, even as Belwa is facing charges in 12 cases of theft," said Naveen Chandra Jha, Superintendent of Police (SP), East Champaran, adding that recovery of three kilograms of narcotic substances from their possession had added a new twist to the investigations into the gang's operations.
Villagers told 101Reporters that the outfit has its own jargon. They use the term haldi (turmeric) for gold, chuna (lime) for silver, petti (box) for money, pen for screwdriver and master for police. They train new members by deploying them for thefts in nearby towns such as Raxaul, Motihari and Narkatiaganj. They also maintain close links with other criminal gangs in the region and extend support to each other in many ways, including securing bail when a member is arrested, the villagers said.
The families of Shutter Katwa gang members do not consider theft as a crime. "They consider the 'work' as a matter of high esteem as it fetches enough money to change their fortunes. The gang members also borrow money from fellow villagers as a good luck charm before setting out for an operation," said another villager.
"Local villagers are aware of the identities of the gang members and their activities but stay silent fearing a backlash," said a local journalist, adding that some of the members who had retired from the gang were running their own businesses in the region.
(The author is a Bettiah-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)