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The gang wars to control Uttarakhand's illegal mining

In this excerpt, from ‘R.A.W. Hitman’, the biography of Laxman Bisht, the author provides a glimpse into timber smuggling and illegal mining in Haldwani in Uttarakhand

The dry bed of the Gaula in Kathgodam near Haldwani in Uttarakhand. Image for representation purposes via Wikimedia Commons.
The dry bed of the Gaula in Kathgodam near Haldwani in Uttarakhand. Image for representation purposes via Wikimedia Commons.

Two men, with their hands bound and mouths gagged, looked up at their captors with teary eyes. A group of three to four goons stared down at them. The goons had swords and scythes in their hands.

“We made a mistake,” one of the captives pleaded.

“Please let us go,” the other added.

Just then, a heavyset man entered and all the voices in the room were hushed in a reverence that was born more out of fear than respect. Clad in a white kurta, the man’s flamboyant gait demonstrated the awe and dread he commanded in Haldwani.

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During the mid-80s, this region was still a part of Uttar Pradesh. The state of Uttarakhand was yet to be formed as part of reorganization of certain states which were eventually done by the NDA government during 1998-2000. The population of the town was not even in lakhs but it was considered to be the crime capital of Uttar Pradesh. The only other prominence for the region was that it was one of the largest commercial markets in the state and a town connecting tourists to various hill stations. The laid-back town had rivers flowing byas streams adjacent to rows of houses and limited connectivity in the form of road and railways to other parts of the country. One could hardly imagine that such a picturesque town could be the underbelly of crime.

The man who had entered the room was named Bhopal Singh Rawat and he was quite the terror in Haldwani. Starting his criminal career in the early 80s, Rawat had become a force in the state’s underworld to reckon with. Out of the various illegal trades that he commanded dominance over, the Gaula River mining trade was the most precious to him. The route was used for smuggling wood, forest extract and medicinal herbs which were in high demand in the black market. And it went without saying that whoever tried to mess with something that Rawat held dear would meet the same fate as the two men kneeling down in front of him right now.

Rawat sat down in the chair set out for him, leaned close to the two men and stared at them menacingly. The men looked at him like goats being led to a slaughterhouse. One of them brought his hands forward and uttered whatever words of apologies he could manage through his gagged mouth. “I am a soft-hearted man,” Rawat said. “But if I don’t make an example out of you, others will dare to finish what you had started.”

Cover of R.A.W. Hitman: The Real Story of Agent Lima by S. Hussain Zaidi, published by Simon & Schuster, 304 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499
Cover of R.A.W. Hitman: The Real Story of Agent Lima by S. Hussain Zaidi, published by Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, 499

The men fell on his feet instantly and began to sob and moan incessantly. They were two upstarts who had dared to venture into the territory of the Gaula river and tried to get their hands into the smuggling trade happening on that route. Rawat nodded to one of his goons. The goon pulled out a pistol and shot the two men in the head and they fell dead on the ground instantaneously.

The dead bodies of the two men were discovered the next day at the railway station. They turned into mere statistics, two numbers added to the increasing pile of the deaths caused for control of the illegal mining trade carried out in Gaula river of which Bhopal Singh Rawat was the indisputable king. Starting as a small trader of wood from illegal cutting of trees from the forest, Rawat’s differences with one of the police personnel over the unlawful cutting became the event of his entry into the crime world. The cop was found dead a few days after the dispute. These were border regions of a massive state like Uttar Pradesh and the law-and-order situation was quite out of control. The murder went unchecked and Rawat wasn’t held to account for his action. This inaction on the law’s part to bring the murderer to book emboldened Rawat and he felled men who came in the way of his business with the same cruelty and regularity that he felled the trees to illegally trade them.

There were reports of several men from the Forest Authority Department turning up dead in the forest and with Rawat’s increasing clout and power in the trade, all the fingers of suspicion pointed in his direction. But no one dared to question his authority or speak out against him. He even started exporting wood illegally to Nepal and to other Indian states. Soon, he had gathered a large group of men around him on the strength of which he ventured into other illegal trades such as lisa which is extracted from Pine trees and used to make oil of turquoise and turpentine. He also monopolized the smuggling of Keeda Jadi, a type of fungus extracted from caterpillars and traditionally used in treating various diseases as well as boosting sexual drive. Its trade has been declared as illegal by the Indian government. But the exorbitant returns from the sale of this particular fungus which now go as high as 10 lakhs per kg make it a lucrative business.

He also reigned over the illegal mining of khadia, a highly demanded white talc chalk mineral in the cosmetic industry. He illegally traded the mineral and eliminated all possible competition by employing brute force and, oftentimes, inhumane means. He would kill his detractors by flinging them under the blade of the chainsaw and ripping them apart as if they were logs of wood. Dead bodies washing up at the shore of Gaula River or roasted to bones in a brick kiln became commonplace.

Excerpted with permission from R.A.W. Hitman: The Real Story of Agent Lima by S. Hussain Zaidi, published by Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, 499

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