Very few have attained the kind of global infamy that Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar had attained in his heydays. Escobar, whose cocaine cartel was worth a whopping US$30 billion in the 80s and 90s, is said to have had a firm grip on the political and business elites of Colombia at the time.
While no Indian criminal probably comes close to the notoriety achieved by Escobar, underworld don Dawood Ibrahim would figure high on the list of India’s most well-known mafia boss. Few however know that a youngster from Bhilai in Chhattisgarh has fast risen in the ranks to become one of the biggest fugitives of India.
If there ever was a ‘30 under 30’ award for fugitives and underworld kings, it would hands down go to Saurabh Chandrakar, a young man in his twenties who grew up selling juice in Bhilai in Chhattisgarh. Chandrakar immigrated to Dubai in around 2018 and started ‘Mahadev Book’, an online sports betting and casino platform, with the help of his friend and partner Ravi Uppal.
In the last five years, there has been no looking back for Chandrakar and Co., who even by conservative estimates has amassed an empire of over Rs. 50,000 crores in a short span. Luring, students, youth, unemployed, farmers and other impoverished sections of society with the promise of quick money, Chandrakar and his team has ingeniously started given sports betting IDs called ‘panels’ through a labyrinth network of agents and sub-agents.
This multi-level marketing approach allowed Mahadev Book to infest all major states and cities in India and abroad. The Mahadev Book model even circumvents India’s foreign exchange, money-laundering and taxation regulations by allowing bet to make deposits via credit cards, debit cards, bank transfer or UPI.
Chandrakar’s modus operandi includes taking control of inactive or semi-active bank accounts, from unsuspecting and less-educated populace for a monthly fee of a few thousand rupees. Agents and middlemen associated with the betting app lure gullible farmers, tribals, students and others to surrender their debit cards, cheque books and bank account access for a small fee.
Thousands of such collected accounts are then freely used to make transactions worth crores, with deposits accepted into savings account of third parties who wittingly or unwittingly allow their bank accounts to be used for betting and money-laundering. Thus, even if a few bank accounts are blocked or frozen by law enforcement authorities from time to time, it hardly affects their operations.
Besides, Mahadev Book which has agents and lakhs of users throughout India, particularly in Left Wing Extremism affected areas of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, Chandrakar in a short span has finished almost all competition, by either acquiring rivals or forcing them to scale down or wind-up businesses with his aggressive and strong-arm tactics.
In the last couple of years, Chandrakar has virtually monopolised India’s illegal offshore gambling and betting business, acquiring brands like FairPlay, Laserbook, Lotus365 and Reddy Anna, besides launching ingenious new brands under names like ‘Ambani Book’ and ‘Betbhai’.
Chandrakar and his associates are known to operate at least 51 illegal betting websites through various brand names and even though the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has blocked some of these domain, mirror websites or similar websites with different extension names immediately crop up, making complete eradication of this menace almost impossible.
Chandrakar and his associates names have also cropped up in a murder case in Bhilai and are said to be responsible for several other crimes that have happened in Chhattisgarh in the last couple of years as well.
Many of the illegal betting brands owned by Chandrakar and his associates have hired top-notch cricketers and Bollywood actors as brand ambassadors and are openly seen advertising in newspapers, hoardings, digital and social media in gross defiance of the country’s gambling laws and central government’s three recent advisories asking media houses to desist from gambling and betting promotions, and a fourth advisory to state governments to take action against illegal betting outdoor advertisements and hoardings.
Although Enforcement Directorate, Chhattisgarh police and even the National Investigation Agency (NIA) are said to have registered cases against Chandrakar and his minions for terror financing, money-laundering, fraud, cheating and illegal gambling.
Despite cases and lookout notices, the alleged masterminds of Mahadev Book, who have relinquished Indian citizenship in favour of a fresh passport from an island nation, are completely oblivious to any legal troubles and live an opulent lifestyle in Dubai, with occasional visits to some Asian, African and Central American countries, when there is heat and glare from Indian law enforcement agencies.
If whispers in the corridors of power are to be believed, several top political leaders and bureaucrats have blessed the masterminds of Mahadev Book and in exchange a substantial chunk of their election financing is being taken care of by the betting mafia.
Although the rot is deep and well-entrenched, one hopes that there emerges someone who can slay the demon of betting mafia, which while misappropriating the names of one of the venerated deities in the Hindu pantheon, has destroyed an entire generation of Indians through addiction and financial losses.