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Posted at: Feb 11, 2018, 1:43 AM; last updated: Feb 11, 2018, 1:43 AM (IST)

Punjab shaking off inertia – after a huge cost

Aman Sood in Patiala
Punjab shaking off inertia – after a huge cost
Cops sensitize the Goundar encounter site at a village in Sriganganagar. Tribune file

Aman Sood in Patiala

January 21, 2018. Time: Around 2.30 pm. Inspector Bikramjit Brar attached with the Organized Crime Control Unit (OCCU) receives a tip-off that wanted criminals Vicky Goundar and Prema Lahoriya could be hiding near Sarwar Khuhian, district Fazilka. His seniors instruct him to recon the area for 48 hours. On Jan 23, Brar moves with a special team to arrest the gangsters. They have to wait.

The inspector disguises himself as a driver and identifies a house owned by Lakhwinder Singh alias Lakha, a close associate of Vicky Gounder. He informs his senior officers AIG, OCCU, Gurmeet Chauhan and AIG Sandeep Goel on January 24. They get in touch with their IG, Nilabh Kishore, who asks them to move immediately. The two officers move to the village to join their men. The cops are armed with AK 47 while the officers have .9mm pistols. 

January 25: The police receive information that the wanted men were hiding in village Panjawa, in the ‘dhanni (house) of Lakha. Using Google maps, the teams study the entrance and exit to the house. They realize the house was a few meters from a flowing canal. The ground team uses drones (unmanned aerial surveillance) to see if they could ‘peek’ inside the house. 

Jan 26: The team nabs Lakhwinder as he moves out in the evening. Once the police get ‘absolutely’ sure of their targets, they decide to conduct a raid. The operation —over in 16 minutes — was planned on the spot. Goundar, Prema Lahoriya and Sawinder Singh allegedly start firing, injuring policemen Balwinder Singh and Kirpal Singh. In quick retaliation, all the three are shot dead. 

For those 16 minutes, the police team had to work for over a year, tracking the precise location of the wanted men. At present as many as 900 gangsters, big or small, are on the OCCU radar, both in and outside jail. 

The operation highlights both efficiency as well as loopholes in the state intelligence system. Till 2016, Punjab Police were not equipped with the data on organized gangs. In a meeting, state police chief Suresh Arora and DGP (Intelligence) Dinkar Gupta were told point-blank that the police needed a specialized squad to trace the gangsters involved in contract killings, car robberies, murders and ransoms. 

The special squad

The police were pushed to the wall a month after the Nabha jail break in 2016. The gangsters had charged in firing at whoever came their way and managed to escape with Goundar and five other accused. The security agencies were caught napping and despite some knee-jerk reactions against some cops, the police were largely clueless. 

It was then that Nilabh Kishore, who earlier was on central deputation with the CBI, was put as the IG, in-charge of OCCU. It was a turning point as the DGP gave a free hand to the unit. The mission: bring gangsters to justice. 

The OCCU managed to have 150 young men on board. Around 100 of them are at least BTech and are tech-savvy. “We have one of the finest teams”, says Kishore. His office is replete with photos of gangsters hanging loosely, with each having details about the wanted man. 

“Recently we made a special application, using which we can identify any gangster with just a picture. This has helped our men gather information about over 25,000 bad guys. We just need to use our smartphone to track them”, says, AIG, OCCU, Gurmeet Chauhan.

Technology & challenges

As gangsters/terrorists are taking to sophisticated technology, innovations are becoming a critical component of detecting and defeating them. The challenge is divided into two fields: startups operating in the ‘general technologies track’ that includes innovation in social media analytics, cybersecurity, surveillance and reconnaissance, drones and robotics, personal, data and detection of explosives. The second is companies in the ‘urban navigation technologies track’ with a focus on navigation without GPS. 

The OCCU team has professional hackers and those good in decoding languages; the  stuff used by gangsters in abundance. Recently an OCCU squad recovered some hand-written diaries from arrested gangsters in Punjab. But the district police wings were unable to decode or use these for any purpose. Under a DSP officer, a special squad of the OCCU not only cracked the codes but also managed to read the messages and phone numbers mentioned in them. 

Mobile phone eavesdropping and surveillance are indeed resorted to. But the OCCU team relies on inputs received from the arrested gangsters or those lodged in jails where they continue to use smartphone or social media. This way, the OCCU gets to know the outside handlers. 

But then, these gangsters avoid mobile phones and use Whatsapp communication, believing that the security agencies will not be able to track it. The OCCU team has cracked internet calling, without, however, getting much in Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP. 

The social media accounts used in the name of gangsters to feed information are now monitored carefully and a watch is kept on what is important and what is fake. In many cases, the accounts are operated from abroad. “We are worried. We are using new-age technology tools to track the wanted men. In some case, the other side knows what we can or cannot do,” says Bikramjit Brar.

A major problem is how to to trace the origin of a Whatsapp call. Security agencies are still trying to look for applications to trace these calls. “We have had hit-and-trials, we are yet to achieve 100% success in monitoring these calls,” says an officer. “Tracing the internet calls still remains a challenge for us and this is why these gangsters manage to evade law,” he said.

“The fact that a mobile handset is used, helps us,” says a police officer, claiming that the software available in the “Dark Web” (a term used for illegal anonymous internet traders) are yet to show accurate results. “Both digital lines and VoIP convert audio into digital signals, but the manner in which the signals travel is not the same. Put simply, VoIP calls travel over private and public data networks, much like the internet. But digital calls are sent through a dedicated line. We are yet to have a device to track such VoIP calls. However, we are not very far,” says an OCCU officer.

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