Last month, the Delhi Police arrested members of what they referred to as the “namaste gang”, after the Indian salutation. Its members would rob motorists at gunpoint after a friendly namaste to disarm their victims. The police said that the gang was active in the national capital for the last two years, and are believed to have been involved in over 50 cases of robbery.

The namaste gang appears to be an evolved version of Delhi’s thak-thak gangs, which were active over the last decade, said senior police officials. Both gangs targeted solo motorists and attempted to distract them in order to get them to stop their vehicles after which they were robbed. While namaste gang members pretended as if they knew the victim, so as to get them to slow down or stop, thak-thak gang members used several tactics to do so. They either signaled that the vehicle had a puncture – sometimes even throwing nails on busy roads to effect punctures – or they would throw a bundle of Rs 10 notes at traffic signals and then knock on windows of idling cars to ask drivers if the bundle belonged to them. Others still, would fake an epilepsy attack to distract drivers. Once drivers bit the bait, stopped their vehicles, and rolled down their windows, other gang members swung into action, robbing them of their belongings at gunpoint. Their targets often happened to be businessmen ferrying large amounts of cash and office goers with laptops and briefcases.

The police derived the name thak-thak from the sound that is made from knocking on car windows.

“There was a time around 2013 when cases against thak-thak gangs were reported almost every day, mostly in Central Delhi,” said a senior police officer in the national capital’s South-West district investigation unit who wished to remain anonymous. “Then special teams were formed to handle the menace and we observed certain patterns.”

The officer added: “While most of the puncture gangs were migrants from Meerut, others resorting to the note bundle [distraction] technique were from Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu. Cases of the epilepsy method were rare and not too many arrests happened with regard to that.”

Migrant gangs

Several gangs run by migrants, and criminals from neighbouring states like Uttar Pradesh have targeted Delhi for rich pickings in past years, said a former Delhi Police Crime Branch officer, recalling police investigations into crimes by such gangs during his tenure.

Earlier in February, the Delhi Police busted a gang of women who would attend marriage functions pretending to be guests, and then steal wedding gifts and other valuables. “The gang was involved in at least 100 cases of theft, mostly targeting banquet halls and occasionally marriage functions in some five-star hotels in the city,” said Ravindra Yadav, joint commissioner of police, Crime Branch.

An officer at the inter-state cell of the Delhi Police’s Crime Branch said that this was the fourth such gang busted in Delhi in the recent marriage season, and that all its members belonged to Gulkheri village in Madhya Pradesh.

Gangs that strike at weddings have been active previously too with the Delhi Police referring to them as band-baaja gangs after the musicians who herald the arrival of the bridegroom.

Members of these gangs usually got auto-rickshaw drivers to provide them with information about marriage functions who would also ferry them to and from the wedding venues. They also made children party to their crimes. While their juvenile associates performed gimmicks to grab the attention of guests, the gang’s adult members picked up valuables from the venue. “Now they have upped their game, targeting marriage functions at five-star hotels too,” a senior official said.

Traditonally, band-baaja gangs have been run by migrants whose members come to Delhi only during the marriage season. “The recent cases seem like a re-emergence as such gangs had nearly vanished from the city around three years ago,” the officer said.

‘History sheeters’

Among other migrant gangs are the Iranis – members of a nomadic tribe who trace their ancestry to Irani horse-breeders who worked for the Mughals. An officer who was earlier posted with the Special Task Force of the Delhi Police’s southern range recalled that he came across several Irani gangs during the course of his work around 10 years ago. “The Irani gangs belonged to a nomadic tribe and frequented Delhi at one point,” he said, adding that they had a unique modus operandi. They often pretended to be police officials and relieved their victims – such as elderly women – of their valuables on the pretext of protecting them, he said.

Though this gang has been inactive in Delhi for quite some time now, with only a few cases having emerged in the past five years, they are still active in Maharashtra and Karnataka. “Presently most of them have given up their old ways – not for good but for worse,” said the officer. “Many of them have organised themselves as burglars and violent robbers.”

Early risers

In previous years, the national capital has seen several incidents of crime by gangs based in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.

For instance, gangs from Pasonda village in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad district are known to make their way into Delhi at dawn to rob people, only to escape into Uttar Pradesh by noon. About five years ago, they used to terrorise morning walkers in eastern and southern Delhi.

“Pasonda is infamous for producing expert snatchers and robbers,” said a police official in the Special Task Force of Delhi Police’s eastern range. “They work in an organised manner, usually starting their days around four in the morning. They head for Delhi on their scooters and motorbikes, usually in groups of 20-30. Once in the city, they disperse. And by 10 am to 11 am, they are usually done and they head back home.”

Criminal gangs from Jhinjhana village in Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli district differed slightly from their counterparts in Pasonda in terms of their targets and working hours. “In the early hours their targets would mostly be women who would be accompanying their school-going children to bus stops, and later random passers-by. They were occasionally found to have rented rooms in the city too,” the police official said.

Both gangs have reduced their activity in Delhi, according to the police official. Investigators believe that the application of the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act on members of such gangs over the past few years has acted as a deterrent. Though the law was first enacted in Maharashtra in 1999, it was adopted in Delhi by an executive order of the Union government in 2002.