Renegades

How a Brutal Mafia Enforcer Became a Deadly Serious Marathoner

One of the Mumbai underworld’s most feared gunmen, Rahul Jadhav spent years running from the law. Now he runs for absolution.

How a Brutal Mafia Enforcer Became a Deadly Serious Marathoner

Rahul Jadhav struggles to put pen to paper. He’s in a rehab program at an addiction center, sitting on the last bench in the back of the room, and his counselor has asked the class of 30 addicts to draw two columns on their sheets: “strengths” and “vices.” Jadhav is quick to list his cardinal sins: lust, greed, envy, pride and wrath. But when it’s time to consider his strengths, answers evade him. He knows he was good with a 9 millimeter pistol, and an ace at extorting hundreds of thousands of rupees from real estate developers at gunpoint, but those skills can’t be listed.

“Running,” he says, when the counselor, Habiba Jetha calls on him. “I’m good at running.”

“Great,” encourages Jetha, “Do you have any experience?”

“Some,” he hesitates. When the counselor assures him he can drop his guard, Jadhav turns his gaze to the floor. “I run when I’m chased. I have experience running from cops, from the people I shot at, and from rival gang members. The farthest I’ve run is two kilometers — after I fired at a few policemen and bystanders while threatening a real estate developer in Mumbai.”

In Jadhav that day, Jetha saw a frail outlaw whose troubles went beyond alcohol and drugs. She saw a former gangster who was pissed at the world for not taking him back and for not rescuing him from his mistakes. So she suggested he train for a marathon.

“I knew running would be a good outlet for his many frustrations. He could express his anger through running,” says Jetha. “I wanted him to sweat that rage out so he could truly reform.”

In 2016, Jadhav ran in a 10-kilometer race, completing the course in 55 minutes — a respectable time — and found that running for distance is more pleasurable than running for one’s life. He now runs about 20 kilometers a day, has run the Mumbai marathon, and once ran from Mumbai to Pune — a distance of 150 kilometers (93 miles) — in two days. His proudest record, and one he wants to improve on, is 63 kilometers in six hours.

“The current world record is 100 kilometers in six hours. I want to beat that one day,” he smiles, as he sits on a promenade watching the sun set over Mumbai — a city he once terrorized.

Jadhav grew up in Dombivli, a city on the outskirts of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital. During his university years, he met his first and only girlfriend — a shy, soft-spoken girl, who he wished to marry. But the girl’s father, who saw Jadhav struggling to finish his bachelor’s degree, got his daughter married to another man.

“That was the first time I felt this uncontainable rage,” Jadhav says. “That’s when I decided I’ll never allow anyone to make me feel this helpless again. I would be the one in command.”

Soon after, the 21-year-old dropped out of college. Looking for easy money, he met a gunman for the Mumbai mafia who lived in his apartment complex. Charming and determined, Jadhav managed to get a meeting with the local don and an entry-level job in one of India’s many booming industries: extortion.

“It was bad company,” says his father, Ramakant Jadhav. “He had always been a good student, and I’d hoped he’d become a chartered accountant one day. But he started mingling with local goons from the neighborhood, which paved the way for his foray into the world of crime.”

Rahul Jadhav at Marine Lines, South Mumbai, in May 2018.

Jadhav began working as a bag man in the hawala department, an informal money transfer system that skirted regular banking channels to ensure the gangsters always had cash on hand. When the money arrived, Jadhav’s job was to dole it out.

“It was easy money,” says Jadhav. “The don calls you. You go to the designated spot, meet the operator, exchange code names, get the money, and deliver it at the addresses given to you. For every 10 lakh [$14,500] I collected and distributed, I would make at least one.”

Jadhav stuck to hawala distributions until 2000, when his father, hoping to encourage his son to “stop loitering in the streets,” convinced him to take a computer course. The internet was still new to India, and Jadhav was keen to exploit it to enhance his criminal résumé. He joined a private class, and came out with invaluable data — names and contact numbers for every real estate developer in Mumbai. Impressed with the findings, the don “promoted” him. Jadhav would now make extortion calls.

“Unlike many others in the underworld,” he says, “I was very quick to develop a sixth sense — I could tell who would pay, and who wouldn’t; who could be convinced over phone, and who required violence.”

Across hundreds of calls the next year, Jadhav was able to extract millions of Indian rupees for his boss. He liked the work, and he was good at it, but the organization needed something more. In 2004, Jadhav’s boss confessed a problem: a shortage of gunmen.

“They’re not loyal anymore,” he said. “Worse, they’ve grown tongues — asking for more money.”

Without a thought, Jadhav agreed to graduate to the “obvious next level.” His work had got him closer to the boss, which, in turn, made him feel indestructible. He was confident that if he was arrested or if rival gangs ever came for his blood, the don would do everything to shield him.

Jadhav picked nine of his friends, all unemployed youths from his neighborhood, and molded them into a gang. When he paid calls on real estate developers, his friends would back him up — or go out on calls by themselves, paying part of the profits back to him.

“It was the lure of money which drew us,” says one friend who does not wish to be identified. “While some of us would accompany Rahul to the shootouts, others would conduct [reconnaissance] before Rahul could fire at his victim and stood waiting with getaway motorbikes after he was done, while a few others stayed stationed at the spot to gauge the victim’s reaction. The reaction, in these instances, is of extreme importance, especially when the rounds are fired in public spaces. We have to be sure that the victim was scared; else, he wouldn’t cough up the money we want from him.”

“It was a good life,” Jadhav says. “I would spend thousands of rupees on my friends, and would drink the best scotch. I was getting addicted to alcohol and hashish, but I didn’t mind that. They made the shootouts easier.”

He fired his gun often, but only rarely did he shoot to kill. Mostly, he says, he made threats. If a developer was reluctant to pay money owed, Jadhav would discharge a few rounds in the office — breaking a pane of glass or shooting into the ceiling. Usually that worked. When it didn’t, things could get out of hand.

One day in November 2006, Jadhav woke up with a hangover. In order to get rid of it, he drank another three shots of whiskey. He could afford being drunk — his only job for the day was to survey the office of a real estate developer, who he was scheduled to fire at the following day.

Around 11 a.m. Jadhav and an accomplice reached his victim’s office; however, just before the duo was about to enter the premises, their boss called for a sudden change in the plan. They would have to shoot at the builder the same day.

“I was hesitant at first, but I went ahead anyway,” says Jadhav. “I walked to the developer’s cabin, handed him a piece of paper with my boss’s name and number, and ordered him to pay the extortion money we had been asking of him. Of course, I had to shoot at him — that would make sure he would pay up. I took an aim at his chest, while my accomplice shot at his stomach.”

With two critical wounds, the developer collapsed. Jadhav and his cohort rushed out of the office.

Since the shootout was unplanned, Jadhav did not have a getaway vehicle waiting for him. As the security guard chased after them, the duo ran through the streets of Dombivli, rushing to get to the railway station.

“When I turned around, I saw there were several people chasing after us — the guard, a couple of locals, a few bikers, and even a police patrol van,” he says. “I fired a few rounds at the bikers and locals, ensuring the crowd was discouraged. Soon, I was able to stop an auto rickshaw, and threatened the driver at gunpoint. He drove as fast as he could, and dropped us at the station. We then entered a nearby bar, called our boss, and informed him the job was done.”

Such days made him a prime target for the local police, who, in one of the complaints against Jadhav, cited him as a criminal involved in “many serious offences,” and one who “always carries firearms.” But Jadhav insists he never killed anyone, and says that despite the people he left bleeding in his wake, he saw his work as a “noble” business.

“Victimizing the poor is sinful,” he says. “Here, we were taking a negligible amount from the extremely affluent in Mumbai, and giving it to the dons, who were the poorer ones. The way I looked at it, we were facilitating an equitable distribution of wealth in the city.”

It was February 27, 2007. Jadhav was inebriated when he walked out of a Mumbai bar and was picked up by a police officer. Drunk out of his wits, he was driven to the precinct house.

“Get me some alcohol, and I’ll talk,” Jadhav told the cops arrogantly, still certain about his immortality in the world of crime. The cops didn’t respond. “At least give me a cigarette. Do you have some hashish?”

The policemen handed him a plate of noodles.

Jadhav tried to explain to the interrogating cops that he was an addict, that if he wasn’t given alcohol, he would start shivering and pass out. The policemen, however, didn’t relent. Jadhav passed out and woke up two days later in a government-run hospital, unaware that he had been arrested.

By the time he landed in a Mumbai jail, Jadhav had eleven cases against him, including three counts of attempted murder. He was booked under the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, and charged with procuring arms and ammunition for the underworld. Most of his friends, meanwhile, had also been arrested. Most of them were beaten, charged and abandoned by their families. One, upon being arrested, lost his father to a heart attack.

While in jail, Jadhav sank into despair. His friends’ plight had started bothering him. His addictions could no longer come to his rescue, and there was no one on the outside who cared what happened to him. He began to think about reform — something that, for a long time, seemed impossible. As he stayed in the prison, staring out the window at apartments inhabited by “normal” families, he craved the boringness of a mundane life.

Jadhav sits under a bridge at Marine Lines to talk about his past.

Several of his ex-gang members also seemed to be turning against him. Police files show that one guided investigators to the cyber café Jadhav had once used as an office, while others helped the police identify motorcycles used in the crimes.

Jadhav decided he had to make a choice: He could continue to be one of those men in prison, and eventually die like an “unclaimed stray on a street,” or rewrite his story. Determined to start a new life, Jadhav, who could not afford a lawyer, took to reading Indian law books to prepare his bail application — something difficult to get for someone accused of activity related to organized crime.

He “used and misused the law” for his benefit, offering a host of defenses — that the revolvers used in the shootout hadn’t been found, that the motorbikes used in the chase didn’t belong to him, that the eyewitness accounts were inconsistent, and that because he had been passed out for two days following his arrest, he had not been properly presented before the court. His arguments worked, and he was granted bail in 2010.

“When he first returned home after being granted bail, we couldn’t recognize him,” says Sachin Shivale, 45, Jadhav’s childhood friend. “He had lost a lot of weight, and had dark spots all over his face. It was like I’d never known him — the criminal inside him, nor the man who had just walked out of jail. He was a quiet boy when we were growing up, wouldn’t raise a finger at anyone. I couldn’t believe that boy had turned into a gangster. He let us down.”

Although Jadhav had decided to reform, no one — the police, his family, friends or neighbors — believed it possible. His neighbors wouldn’t share their phone numbers with him, and most of them still saw him as a long-haired hooligan with two pistols tucked in his trousers.

Jadhav’s father suggested getting a job, and he started working as a quality inspector for a small razorblades manufacturer. But within a few months, the Mumbai police arrived at his workplace and picked him up for inquiries into an underworld-perpetrated murder. One day in 2011, cops arrived, grabbed him by the nape of the neck, and asked him questions about a recent hold-up.

“They’re friends,” he said, when his coworkers asked him about it. But friends don’t carry machine guns, and no one at the office believed him. He quit the job soon after.

“Every time there was a case of extortion, I was one of the usual suspects,” he says. “They’d ask me the same things every time — Who did you shoot? Where did you shoot? How many bullets? I wanted to let go of that past, but it was being rubbed into my skin over and over again.”

Jadhav’s 71-year-old mother, Shalini says, “They’d even come home, would scour through our belongings, and turned everything upside down each time. They even took my husband away for questioning twice, but we couldn’t do much. We knew our son had been in the wrong.”

Unable to find another job, Jadhav relapsed into alcohol and drugs. Three years later, in 2013, he was tried and acquitted on all charges, largely on technicalities. In making his ruling, the judge admonished the police department for their failure to prove the charges against Jadhav, writing: “The prosecution has failed to establish the nexus between the accused and the alleged offense. In these circumstances, I have no option but to hold that the prosecution has miserably failed to prove its case against the accused.”

But although Jadhav was acquitted, he was still an alcoholic and drug addict. He would stay high for days on cheap booze and bad drugs. He would go without food for days — comfortably lost in his inebriated stupor, waking up in gutters, abandoned buildings, and footpaths.

“That’s when I decided to refer him to a doctor, and took him to the Thane Institute for Psychological Health,” says Mangala, Jadhav’s sister. “Here, he went cold turkey to get over his addiction. Although the process was extremely difficult, he completed it. He started confiding in his doctor, and said he wanted some time off from nagging policemen and judgemental eyes. The doctor advised him to join the Muktangan Rehabiliation Centre in Pune.”

After completing four 30-day programs at Muktangan, Jadhav wasn’t ready to go back to a society that “just wasn’t willing to take me back.” He joined the center as a volunteer. For a monthly compensation of 1,000 rupees — about $15 — he spent 16 hours a day cleaning toilets, throwing out trash, mopping up vomit, and tying up new addicts during their withdrawals.

“It was very difficult for him to trust me at first,” says Jetha, his counselor. “Everything I’d say, he would go back and verify it through the internet. I noticed he was quieter than other addicts, and was giving up on himself. To reform, he needed to express what he was feeling — anger, frustration, and despair. I was looking for ways of expression for him, and that’s when we discovered he could run.”

Six months after Jadhav started running, in mid-2016, he was ready to go back home. “I realized if I had to reintegrate into the society, I had to go back, and face all those people again — even the ones I shot,” he says. “I hadn’t taken drugs and alcohol in over two years. I was training to become a professional runner.”

He simply experienced a “sense of achievement,” he says, “something I’d never known in my life.”

Jadhav runs at the Marine Lines esplanade.