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Sushil Kumar's arrest exposes the underbelly of wrestling; gets a lock on nexus with organised crime

Sagar Rana's murder points to a series of illegal activities involving former wrestlers, and an alliance with gangsters in search of a continuous supply of gun-toting, deal-brokering, cash-carrying muscle.

June 01, 2021 / 10:28 AM IST

A double Olympic medallist, former World Champion is in the news. But not for making a comeback. Sushil Kumar, the man they say revived wrestling, making it an aspirational sport, is in the dock – for allegedly committing murder.

But the story is not just about murder. Or about an alleged murderer. It’s about wrestling, its links with the underworld and how some former champions at the national, Asian and Olympic levels are using that fame and largely that brawn to set up gangs that, on the face of it, look like companies but are into land grabbing, extortion, facilitating real estate deals (not the legal kind), and also being a conduit for anything from contraband to getting politicians to give their nod to shady deals.

Sushil Kumar’s arrest on murder charges lifts the lid on a peculiar supply chain producing champions and gangsters in quick succession. The pehelwans, or grapplers, who built stupendous physiques by pumping iron and sometimes with the help of steroids and human growth hormones, have always been in great demand. They travel in high-end SUVs, carrying guns and cash, the way they wore their medals. Some of those who dropped out of competitive sport have also picked up guns.

Now, these very businesses are under the scanner after the Crime Branch of Delhi Police started interrogating two-time Olympic medal winner Sushil Kumar for his alleged role in the murder of Sagar Dhankhar Rana, a young wrestler. The arrest of Kumar, the prime accused, has shocked many young wrestlers who considered him their role model.

Police are sanguine that Kumar, the Big Daddy among Indian wrestlers, was an integral part of the power game. Kumar's lawyers said they had no comments to offer on behalf of their clients. One of Kumar's lawyers, B.S. Jhakar, was quoted by a daily saying Kumar was framed.

“We are working on multiple angles, the investigation has just begun. Wrestlers have been running a parallel government for a long time,” Deputy Commissioner of Police (Crime Branch) Monika Bhardwaj told Moneycontrol.

Bhardwaj said it would not be possible for her and her team to explain (at this time) the details of such links of wrestlers in northern India who operate across South Delhi and West Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh.

Also read: Sushil Kumar: Caught in his own kaichi daav

Two friends

Once Kumar and Rana were best friends. Both had the bodies of comic book heroes - thick, muscular. Both coped with the bruising. Both led a somewhat lonely lifestyle. And both cut deals to sustain their high-end careers. They both carried imported pistols, were reportedly seen as powerful, easygoing men in a profession that also bred criminals and addicts.

Kumar’s alleged involvement in this trade was a far cry from his genial face as a champion. When not on the mat, he would be invited to attend weddings, cut ribbons to inaugurate shopping malls, cinema halls and even big stores selling cosmetics and body-building foods. He earned a lot of cash and his men uploaded videos on YouTube to make him a superstar among the wrestling fraternity. Kumar had even explored a career with WWE, the richest and most glamorous wrestling enterprise in the world, but it did not work out.

Kumar watched former WWE stars such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and told his friends that Johnson was a millionaire because he was powerful, smashing opponents regularly. Kumar had won the Arjuna Award in 2005, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in 2009, and the Padma Shri in 2011.
For thousands of his fans, Kumar was a star, his life was a hopeful, inspiring story. But like much about wrestling, this wasn’t cent per cent true.

Police personnel investigating the case told Moneycontrol that a large number of wrestlers from Haryana, Punjab and Delhi were found to be linked to such illegal business. Under the cover of night, wrestlers using muscle, guns and cash (in that order) allowed backfiring trucks and belching lorries to carry contraband through the Haryana toll plazas without checks.

This was just one part of their illegal trade.

Behind the scenes

The wrestlers, claim the police, have been involved in this business for over two and a half decades, each passage helped them earn anywhere between Rs 3-5 lakhs per vehicle. These were all-cash deals, the currency notes stocked in leather bags in SUVs and taken to undisclosed locations. Once the toll plazas were opened up for free movement in December 2020, the wrestlers moved away.

Police in Delhi and Haryana say these wrestlers are controlled by some King Kongs of the trade; big wrestlers who have deep links with gangsters.
No one had the guts to complain, no one could touch them because they were protected by their masters, ranging from politicians to businessmen, bankers and real estate companies, even big liquor store owners. These were wrestlers who had spent some time on the mat before picking up guns, bullets and power (in that order), and are part of behemoth organizations across northern India.

After years of wandering through wrestling’s grimy lower levels, these men — now in their mid-30s — were the bad guys of business who could solve any disputes for commission ranging from 15% to 25% of the total deal amount. It could be real estate, agricultural land, restaurants for sale, highway truck cover or high-profile extortion.

Kumar and Rana were great friends but lust for cash apparently made them enemies. Their existence became ringed by fears of sudden death.

Police looking for clues into Rana’s murder are investigating if Rana was killed after arguments over who will keep what percentage of cash earned from a dubious deal. The police are also probing whether drugs and the long-term effects of this line of work played a part in Rana’s tragic end.

Wrestling Federation of India President and BJP Member of Parliament Brijbhushan Sharan Singh told Moneycontrol the Sushil Kumar incident has rattled the wrestling fraternity in India but it would be premature to pass any judgement. “The cops are investigating the case, and I am sure it will reach its logical conclusion. But I agree that the incident has triggered widespread shame for wrestlers.”

Singh said he and his office bearers were closely monitoring the Crime Branch probe. Singh further said a lot of wrestlers who drop out of wrestling pick up all kinds of jobs, mostly as bodyguards and carry guns which have licences. It is a job for them, he said. “Everyone is not a gangster.”

Ring of death

Those hit hardest by Rana’s death - his family members and friends - say Kumar was already the Godfather of the group, and anyone defying him would run the risk of being eliminated from the gang. Worse, one death always leads to another death, and another death, and another. “It is like a gang war. Only one gang can survive,” said an insider into the life of wrestlers who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Kumar, said the insider, walked and worked like a king, he ruled like Conan, a fictional sword and sorcery hero. Late last year, a television reporter visited him for an interview. Kumar asked the reporter to delete the interview because his pistol was seen sticking out of his trousers. The interview was shot again.

Rana and Kumar, claim police, fought over the spoils of a real estate deal. Kumar had a feeling that Rana would demand more cash from the deal in question and subsequent deals. Kumar - using his network - reportedly touched base with dreaded gangster Neeraj Bawana, currently lodged in Delhi’s maximum security Tihar Jail.

The night Rana was murdered, those alleged to be giving Kumar company were Bawana's henchmen. As many as seven such people belonging to the Bawana gang are now on the run.

Police say they are investigating Kumar’s links with another fugitive gangster Sandeep, popular in the crime world as Kala Jatheri for his complexion.

Kumar and Sandeep’s name surfaced after a resident of Model Town in Delhi told cops he got a call from Sandeep demanding Rs 1 crore as cover money for a real estate deal. The call came from the Middle East, triggering speculation among the cops that Kumar and Sandeep were using some international criminal links to bolster their image of fear among clients.

“Any call from the Middle East, say, Dubai, gives an impression that Bhai - nickname for Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar - is involved. So when the call came, cops found a strange connection to Kumar. It seemed to the cops Kumar was in the know of the development and was pushing the deal to be closed,” said the insider.

Cops say Kumar and Sandeep also had a tiff over the illegal business at the toll plazas. Sandeep wanted to take complete charge of the business, Kumar and his men were extremely reluctant to let go of the toll cash. “To keep Sandeep away, Kumar joined hands with Bawana,” said the insider. Sandeep, rumoured to be in Dubai, vowed revenge. In turn, Kumar bolstered his gang by hiring more wrestlers.

Sushil Kumar, who has been named in the FIR, is on the run, and efforts are on to trace him, a senior officer had said earlier. (File image) Delhi Police had announced a reward of Rs 1 lakh for information leading to Sushil Kumar's arrest. (File image)

Follow the money

The night Rana was murdered, Kumar’s gang had a huge fight with one Sonu Mahal, a history sheeter who has more than 19 cases of alleged murders, extortions and robberies lodged against him. Sonu, who fought alongside Rana and got severely injured, is Sandeep’s nephew.

Crime Branch police say Sonu and his gang were instrumental in settling real estate deals in both Delhi and Haryana, also Uttar Pradesh.

As many as nine people have been arrested in the Rana murder case. Among them, one Vijender Singh, nicknamed Binder, has told the police he thrashed Rana at Kumar's behest on the night of May 4, 2020, in the parking area of Chhatrasal Stadium, Delhi. A photograph of the brawl is already circulating on social media.

So why do many young wrestlers take to crime? There are only guesses.

Easy cash and lifestyle are two big factors. The wrestlers do not realise that life outside the wrestling mat could be tougher than life within it.

Wrestlers know they can get government jobs if they pick up medals in India or abroad, even cash rewards. But then, they would not be able to maintain their chiseled superhero physique. It can happen only if they join gangs where they don’t have to push files. They must use muscle building drugs, and have well-built figures like musclemen from Bollywood movies.

Kumar trained at the Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi since he was 14 years old. His coach, Satpal Singh, wielded tremendous influence at the stadium, and Kumar was his favourite student. Singh retired as additional director of the stadium but appointed Kumar - also his son-in- law - at a top post. Kumar grew in stature. Singh continued to interfere in the internal affairs of the stadium even after retirement.

Kumar’s camp started weeding out rivals, among them were wrestlers Yogeshwar Dutt and Bajrang Punia. Dutt was pushed out from Chhatrasal in 2018 for not supporting Kumar in a doping case involving Narsingh Yadav, a bronze medallist in the 2015 World Championships. Yadav was to participate at the Rio Games but failed a dope test. He blamed Kumar for spiking his food. India’s National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA) cleared him but the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) overturned NADA’s decision. Such was the crisis in 2016 that Yadav was given an armed guard by the authorities at SAI (Sports Authority of India) Complex in Sonepat, Haryana.

When Rana was murdered, Satpal Singh was quoted by newspapers as saying that his son-in-law was not involved. But once Kumar was arrested, cops started interrogating Singh regularly. A family member of Singh told Moneycontrol that he will not talk about the alleged murder case involving his son-in-law.

India’s topmost wrestler is in a police lockup on an alleged murder charge. His athleticism within the ring and his charisma out of it have been reduced to dust. The double Olympic medallist is in danger of not only having his legacy tarnished, but wiped out from the pages of Indian sports folklore.

Shantanu Guha Ray is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.

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