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The life and crimes of a master criminal Natwarlal

The life and crimes of a master criminal Natwarlal

The life and crimes of a master criminal Natwarlal
Natwarlal in a Varanasi police lock-up: In and out
For more than five decades Natwarlal’s name had become synonymous with cheating in the country. And so when the Uttar Pradesh Police nabbed the legendary criminal last month, the over 100 cases pending against him were reopened. But despite the voluminous police dossiers the master conman still remained a mysterious figure. To trace his hoary history of crime Principal Correspondent Raj Chengappa travelled to Varanasi, Patna and to Ravia Bangra, Natwarlal’s village. His report:

It was a routine cross-check. The Varanasi police had sent word to the Patna Criminal Investigation Department (CID) asking for details about a certain Ambika Pandey, alias Shankar Lal, alias B.N. Mayur, who was involved in several cases of cheating in Uttar Pradesh and claimed antecedents in Bihar.

The file was marked to Bhola Prasad, deputy superintendent of police, CID. A bored Prasad flipped through it till he saw a snapshot of the offender. He instantly recognised him and sat up, excited. The person whom the Uttar Pradesh police had nabbed was no ordinary cheat. He was Mithilesh Kumar Srivastav, better known as Natwarlal.

Wanted in over 100 criminal cases in eight states and sentenced for an incredible 113 years by various courts, Natwarlal had made eight daring escapes from various jails and was the ultimate confidence trickster. He was last seen in 1979, when he audaciously escaped while being taken for a trial in Bombay and since then had been believed dead.

So when Arvind Jain, superintendent of police, Varanasi, received Prasad’s message he was stunned. The man they had in the Cantonment police station lock-up seemed a harmless, pot-bellied old man – a far cry too from the dashing hero played by Amitabh Bachchan in Mr Natwarlal, based on his life. Only after intensive questioning did Srivastav reveal who he was and say proudly: “There are hundreds of thieves who posed as me. But I’m the real Natwarlal.”

Immediately the security around him was tightened. Two armed constables were placed round-the-clock to guard his cell and a sub-inspector was asked to send hourly reports to Jain. Meanwhile, police-men fanned out to Allahabad, Patna, Lucknow and Ranchi to gather more information. They struck gold in Allahabad when they arrested three of his alleged accomplices. One of them had a printing press where Natwarlal had had forged bank drafts printed. The other two helped him dispose of his booty.

Even as the police spent hours questioning Natwarlal, reports of his recent escapades poured in. Although his recent jobs did not match his impressive past (in the last three months he had struck at four places, duping people of Rs 1.2 lakh in all) it was clear that Natwarlal was alive and coming. As J.P. Roy, Varanasi’s bespectacled deputy inspector general of police, said: “We are trying to tie up the loose ends but every day more cases are coming to light. The master forger and conman has been up to his old tricks.”

Natwarlal’s modus operandi has hardly changed from his heyday. Only the yarn he spins has been updated. Three months ago, dressed in a spotless white shirt and trousers, he posed as D.N. Tiwari, personal assistant to the Union Finance Minister N.D.Tiwari and went to a watch dealer in New Delhi’s busy Connaught Place. He told the proprietor, Surendra Sharma, that the Congress(I) Parliamentary Party was having an important meeting in which the members were to be presented watches.

The next day he came back in a chauffeur-driven car and told Sharma to pack 93 watches and send an employee with him to North Block, where he would issue a bank draft. At North Block, the old man strode in confidently, asking Sharma’s employee to wait outside. He soon returned with an authentic looking draft for Rs 32,829 and took the watches. Two days later Sharma’s bank reported that the draft was a forged one.

He used the trick with variations in different cities. To a watch dealer in Varanasi he presented himself as Ambika Pandey, purchase officer of the district judge, looking for watches to present to the employees. He made off with 80 watches worth Rs 25,000, again by presenting a forged draft. A Shajahanpur watch dealer was stung for 48 watches.

And in Kanpur, a watch dealer in the busy Sadar Bazar even bribed him with a VIP suitcase, while parting with 83 watches. But he tried the trick once too often. Last month when he approached a Gorakhpur watch dealer with the same story, the alert owner called the police, who arrested him.

The police then discovered that last year, Natwarlal was doing the rounds of jewellers, taking even larger sums. To Raja Jewellers in Delhi he was personal assistant to the then Union finance minister V.P. Singh. He told them that Singh wanted to purchase jewellery for his son’s wedding. He selected some expensive-necklaces and took one of the shop owners in his car to North Block. He brought out a forged draft worth Rs 82,000 and decamped with the jewellery.

But it was clear that age was finally catching up on the master criminal. The Natwarlal that the police had in custody seemed a shadow of his former exuberant self. In his heyday, he jet-setted across the country, planned elaborate deals, acted big and conned people out of huge sums of money. But now, at a doddering 73, Natwarlal concentrates on smaller jobs. And it was apparent he was slipping. He tried the watch trick so many times that police believe he was desperate for money.

When they nabbed him he wore a sloppy shirt and trousers, and they could find none of his other belongings. He seemed frail and constantly complained of dizzy spells. He limped badly and his face was etched with lines of tiredness. He spoke several languages fluently and his command of English was good. But his voice quavered, he tended to ramble on and his mind constantly wandered. His lack of concentration could have been because of the week-long police interrogation that gave him little rest.

Yet, he still boasts that he can lift money at will and seems totally unrepentant. He portrays himself as a modern day Robin Hood, claiming he robbed only from “rich capitalists” and distributed the money to the poor, lie talks of a constant communication with God and seems to believe that he is on some divine mission.

It is only when talking about his past escapades that his eyes light up mischievously. And when he chuckles, flashes of the old Natwarlal are evident. It would be foolish to underestimate him. His eyes always remain watchful. His addiction to crime seems as strong as ever.

With a hoary history of crime spanning five decades and sentenced for an incredible 113 years by various state courts, Natwarlal was the ultimate confidence trickster.

The police are unconvinced about his poor-old-man act and believe this might be just another of his games. In custody he was cooperative and readily admitted to crimes. He said: “I don’t want to be tortured so I’ll tell them what they want. But I know that what I say in custody cannot be used against me in court.”

Nevertheless, the police are now finally making an attempt to piece together Natwarlal’s incredibly hoary history of crime, spanning five decades. With the master conman striking in several states, the Varanasi police were confronted with mounting problems. His files with the Lucknow CID had been washed away in floods and there is nothing left of the man after 1956. The Bihar police case history ends with Natwarlal being only 44. Other states have some more details but despite the voluminous dossiers, Natwarlal still remains a shadowy figure.

The police have still no idea where he has stayed in the eight years that he was out of jail. They do not know where he has stashed away the huge sums he had made or who his numerous accomplices were. They know little of his family life too. He claims that his wife and only son died some years ago.

But that seems to be a bluff because his wife, Lalitha, is said to be living somewhere in north Bihar and his only daughter (not son as he claims), is married and lives abroad. After questioning him for more than 12 hours, Jain said: “He is remarkably clever. I don’t believe that he was a pauper, as he claims to be. Or the stuff about distributing his money to the poor and having no vices. We need to probe more intensively into his past.”

So despite having spent more than 20 years in jail and being nabbed by as many as 10 state police departments, the life and crimes of Natwarlal still remains hazy. And over the years, myths about his daring deeds have mixed with facts, making it even more difficult to piece his criminal history together. As S.K. Saxena, a deputy inspector general of police, CID, Patna says: “He seems to believe in national integration, striking at every state. And as a conman he is unmatched in the annals of Indian crime.”

The older of two sons of a rich zamindar in Ravia Bangra in north Bihar (the late President Dr Rajendra Prasad’s village is located a kilometre away), Natwarlal’s early life seemed innocuous. The village folk remember him as an average student. Says Maheswar Prasad, 72, who was his class-mate in middle school: “He seemed more interested in playing football and chess than in studies.”

Mithilesh or Natwarlal is said to have first discovered his prodigious ability to forge when his neighbour, Sahay, sent him to deposit his bank drafts. Mithilesh discovered he could forge Sahay’s signature and withdraw money regularly from the account. The game was up when Sahay discovered that his account was overdrawn by Rs 1,000. Mithilesh Kumar fled to Calcutta, where he enrolled as a student for a bachelor of commerce degree. Simultaneously he worked as a broker in the stock-market. He tried to set up a cloth business in the Burrabazaar area, but failed and took up work as a casual broker.

In 1937, he first came to the notice of the Calcutta Police, when he was arrested for the theft of nine tonnes of iron. The iron joints were lying on Metcalfe Street. Using forged documents, Natwarlal pretended that the iron belonged to him and had them sold to a dealer. The police caught up with him and he was convicted for six months rigorous imprisonment. His jail term didn’t deter him.

Then began a little-known activity of Natwarlal, which the police called “prostitute poisoning”. The police alleged that he visited prostitutes regularly and doped them with spurious liquor before decamping with their jewellery and money. He was arrested when a prostitute identified him. But she mysteriously committed suicide a week before the trial.

Finding “prostitute poisoning” a dangerous game, Mithilesh Kumar went back to conning people. Several factors helped him. Since his father was once a station master, he knew the flaws in the mammoth railway freight movement. His claim of having a commerce degree and a stint as a stock broker gave him an intimate knowledge of the banking rules. And his ability to forge any document or signature helped him pull off the con jobs.

He started by making small heists. He would stroll into the railway freight office and check out the goods waiting to be lifted. He would then issue bogus release orders and cheques to the railway authorities and vanish with the goods. Among the items he lifted were a harmonium valued at Rs 135, a Benz engine, and a box of screws worth Rs 1,000.

In the ’40s, Mithilesh Kumar, cashing in on the shortage of textile goods, moved into the big time. It was then that he earned his name Natwarlal. He posed as a purchase officer to the textile commissioner in Bombay. With an associate, a Gujarati named Natwarlal, they approached manufacturers who were keen to get out-of-turn allotments of cotton.

The two would take large advances, issue false railway release certificates and ask dealers to collect the goods from the Azamgarh station. When the dealers arrived at the station, there were no goods waiting for them. While Mithilesh was caught, his ally Natwarlal escaped. But the police thought he was Natwarlal. The name stuck and soon became synonymous with cheating in the country.

The ’50s and ’60s saw Natwarlal moving rapidly across the country, conning jewellers, bankers and traders. He planned his strikes meticulously. No minor detail was ignored. Every document was brilliantly forged. The house he hired, his lavish life-style, the contacts he maintained all were designed to win the confidence of his victims. He was wanted in seven different states under 30 aliases.

One of his best-known stings was in Darbhanga in Bihar in the ’50s. He gained the confidence of a manager in the Punjab National Bank by posing as a big businessman. He would book one bag of pulses or rice to be sent by freight to Calcutta by the railways. On the railway receipt he changed one bag to 100 or more and obtained advances from the bank on these receipts. He rapidly built up such advances, honouring only a few of them, and even got their Patna branch to advance money. When the total reached Rs 6.5 lakh he abruptly closed the account and vanished.

But Natwarlal was not the kind to keep his ill-gotten wealth a secret. He drove one day to his native village with three cars, wearing princely clothes and a perfume that, as one villager said, “smelt for miles around”. He set up a pandal, got some cooks to prepare a grand meal and entertained the whole village. He even distributed Rs 100 each to the poor folk of the village and then vanished.

In fact even now his village thinks he has done nothing to defame them. Banke Biharee Prasad, 76, who had known Natwarlal from his early days, said: “He did not commit violence. He has not harmed anyone, he robbed only the rich. He was a twisted genius. In fact, we say that Bihar has produced three famous people: Rajendra Prasad, Jayaprakash Narayan and Natwarlal.”

But his crimes finally started catching up with him. The Darbhanga court put him behind bars for 17 years and fined him Rs 2 lakh. The Singhbhum court sentenced him to 19 years of rigorous imprisonment. A Patna judge sentenced him to live years. And soon, in Bihar alone, he faced 14 convictions and sentences running to over 100 years. But Natwarlal has served hardly 20 years of his various sentences, making daring escapes on most occasions.

His 1957 escape from the Kanpur jail is rated to be one of the most famous jail-breaks in the world. Natwarlal had a sub-inspector’s dress smuggled into his cell. He got his cell guards to open the door by handing over an attache case filled with money and he walked out wearing the sub-inspector’s uniform.

Thinking he was a police officer, the guards at the gate saluted him and let him out. He got into a car and drove away with his accomplice. On the way the car broke down but, unfazed, Natwarlal stopped a hearse and headed towards Kanpur, where he disappeared. He had the final laugh too: when the jailors opened the attache case they found it to be full of newspapers, instead of money.

From 1977 onwards he was lodged in the Indore jail pending trial – probably his longest ever stint in jail. Finally in February 1980 the Indore sessions judge sentenced him to 26 years of rigorous imprisonment for duping a bank of Rs 4.5 lakh in 1956. He was then sent to Bombay, to be tried for the 30-odd cases the Maharashtra Police had against him.

It was while he was in police custody that he faked a kidney ailment. On the way to the doctor he got the constable to take him to a five-star hotel on the pretext of getting some money. There he disappeared and only came to the limelight again when he was caught last month.

Apart from being tried by various Uttar Pradesh courts for his more recent offences. Natwarlal is still on the wanted list of over seven other states. His pending jail sentences would also mean that he would be confined to a prison cell for the next 20 years.

But for a man who once boasted that no jail could keep him for long, the police don’t underestimate his prowess. And Natwarlal is still capable of making one of his great escapes.

The man him self still brims with confidence about his abilities: “Leave me free for an hour and I’ll get thousands and thousands of rupees from the same street where I took money. And the people would give it to me willingly.” And judging from his past. Natwarlal is certainly not coming himself.

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