इंडियन आवाज़     27 Jan 2023 09:05:07      انڈین آواز

‘India’s Money Heist: The Chelembra Bank Robbery’

Book review by By A.J. Philip

It was while watching a programme on Asianet the other day that I revisited the Chelembra bank robbery, touted at one time as India’s largest bank heist.

Recently, when I visited my friend Ravindran Mannodi at Ramanattukara in Kozhikode, I saw private buses displaying the board Chelembra, a hamlet in Malappuram district.

If I remembered the robbery, I would certainly have requested him to take me there, as it was less than a 10-minute drive from his house.

Fortunately, the Asianet report mentioned the recently-published book titled ‘India’s Money Heist: The Chelembra Bank Robbery’ by Anirban Bhattacharyya (Penguin) as its source.

Within minutes, I bought the book and started reading it. Whenever I read a crime report and I find that the villain is a Christian, I do not know why but I feel ashamed.

It was towards the end of the report that the full name of the mastermind of the robbery was revealed — Babu alias Joseph alias Jaison alias Joemon.

Why I was fascinated by the robbery was the sheer volume of the loot — cash and jewellery worth Rs 9 crore. Until Chelembra, the biggest such robbery was reported from Ludhiana in Punjab when a Khalistani commando force looted a Punjab National Bank branch and escaped with Rs 5.7 crore.

While I was with The Tribune in Chandigarh, I used to joke that it was difficult to ascertain whether the Punjabis or the Malayalis were better tipplers.

Unlike the Punjabis, who drank only in the evening, the Malayalis waited for the dawn to break to start drinking. Chelembra proved that Malayalis were better bank robbers too!

What’s more, it was the handiwork, essentially of one who used three others for his convenience. Babu, who had his baptism in crime when he stole crackers from a shop to celebrate Christmas, grew into a petty criminal and flitted in and out of jails.

It was at Viyyur central jail that he met Shibu, his accomplice in the robbery. Babu always dreamed big. He wanted to commit one crime that would make him super rich and then lead a settled, happy life forever.

When he married Aneeta, a beautiful girl, at Changanasseri, he gave goodbye to crime to lead a blissful, carefree house courtesy his father-in-law, reminding the reader of the famous Malayalam song mouthed by comedian Adoor Bhasi, “if the father-in-law has a lot of money, marriage is truly enjoyable”.

He did many jobs afterwards, including the sale of ganja and as the “editor” of a journal. He found that the best one-time crime to become rich was to loot a bank. He and Shibu looked for a bank that was easy to rob.

That is how Babu chose the Kerala Gramin Bankat Chelembra. It was selected because, it was located in an isolated place. More important, the bank did not have any security guards at night. Once the evening fell, darkness enveloped the area.

Babu obtained the key to a restaurant that ran on the ground floor right under the bank. The restaurant was about to be closed as it did not have any business. He convinced the landlord that he would run a modern restaurant. He took the ground floor on a daily rent of Rs 300 and paid an advance of Rs 50,000.

Babu was inspired by the film Dhoom in which actor “John Abraham goes to rob a casino. He makes a hole in the roof of the vault and then goes directly inside and robs it”.

Babu calculates the exact location of the strongroom of the bank. Over two nights, he drills a hole, not from the top but from the bottom which is wide enough for him to enter the strongroom. He uses gas cutters to open the lockers.

He uses the same hole to “download” 69 kgs of gold jewellery, mortgaged to the bank by its customers and a huge amount of cash.

Just one hour before day broke on December 31, 2007, Babu, Shibu, Radhakrishnan and his wife Kanakeswari, made good their escape with the largest-ever haul of Rs 9 crore from a single robbery.

When the bank opened a few hours later, the news spread that the strongroom had been wiped clean of all the pawned jewellery and cash. There were over 3000 packets of jewellery pawned by the customers.

The brilliance of Babu lay in the fact that he did not leave even a single fingerprint in the restaurant. The district police chief P. Vijayan had no clue. The robbers had left no lead for the police to follow. Was it a perfect heist?

Vijayan put together a team of dedicated police officers who began searching for the needle in a football ground filled with hay and mud. They finally managed to get a description of Babu and the telephone number he used for the operation.

Babu was clever enough to use the phone only to make four or five calls. It was a second-hand CDMA phone he bought for Rs 400. It did not need a SIM card.

For the next two months, the police did everything possible to identify Babu and ascertain his location. On his part, Babu also did everything possible to mislead the police.

Vijayan and Babu were made for each other, except that while Vijayan’s was a noble mission, Babu’s was not. By then Babu had sold quite a bit of gold to buy flats in Bengaluru. Ultimately, the police caught him at Baby Memorial Hospital where he had fixed an appointment for his pregnant wife.

The trial lasted over five years. Babu, Shibu and Radhakrishnan were given 10 years of rigorous imprisonment, while Kanakeswari got five years. After a few years, Babu and Shibu got bail. Babu jumped bail and tried to rob a jewellery shop in Tamil Nadu. He made one mistake of looking at the CCTV camera. He was arrested and sent to jail.

The police were able to get most of the gold, even the gold Babu had sold. The properties he acquired were attached by the police. By then the gold price had increased and the bank received more money than it lost. Babu’s investment in real estate also fetched the bank more money.

Anirban Bhattacharyya’s narration is at once gripping. He had access to all the information and case files courtesy P. Vijayan. And he used his narrative skill and imagination to weave a story that is at once absorbing.

Very interestingly, the first thing Babu did after he was caught was to tell the police about the location of Shibu. The biggest loser is Radhakrishnan, whose wife Kanakeswari ditched him and eloped with Shibu. They live in Tamil Nadu with her three children from Radhakrishnan. The saying “once a criminal, always a criminal” is true about Babu.

After reading the book, I could not but salute P. Vijayan and his team. The story of the investigation of the Chelembra bank robbery will always be written in golden letters in the annals of the Kerala Police, to use a hackneyed phrase.

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