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Mystique surrounds slain Indian biker gang leader

With his death in a police shootout in New Delhi, notorious bandit Bunty rises to legendary status.

August 31, 2008|Sam Dolnick | Associated Press

NEW DELHI — The skinny would-be kingpin and his fearless biker gang were seemingly everywhere.

When someone was shot or robbed in this city of 16 million, where murder is relatively rare, police pointed to the same suspect: Bunty, the notorious gang leader who terrorized New Delhi astride a motorcycle.

Bunty's reign ended last week when he died in a shootout with police. Authorities trumpeted the news as a hard-fought victory over the city's most wanted man.

Police classified him as a "BC," for "bad character," the highest category of criminal. One leading newspaper announced his demise simply: "Bunty shot."

"It's almost like he's a quasi-mythical figure," said Santosh Desai, a media critic and Times of India columnist. "It's blurring into lore."

India has a long history of celebrating bandits as folk heroes, and their legends often reflect the society they stalk.

With a youthful nickname, a passion for flashy motorcycles and an ambition to rise high, Bunty -- whose real name was Om Prakash -- was a criminal for the new India.

A generation ago, the ubiquitous vehicles crowding Indian streets were clunky Ambassadors, cars that never won any style contests. The loosening of the economy in 1991 brought a flood of foreign vehicles -- including the motorcycles favored by Bunty.

His exploits were straight out of the motorcycle robbery film "Dhoom" and its sequel, perhaps lending a patina of Bollywood glitz to his thuggery.

Police said he roamed the streets, forcing motorcyclists to part with their wallets and their bikes, quick to shoot those who hesitated. Since his latest crime wave began, in April, he had stolen at least seven motorcycles and killed at least five people, police said.

His mystique grew along with his brutal record, which included four murders in one week in July.

Police said he harbored dreams of rising above street robberies and becoming a crime boss. Authorities said they recovered true-crime magazines at his hide-out, as well as clippings he kept about himself, English-language exercise books, a telephone directory written in code and a cache of guns.

"He wanted to become an English-speaking don," said senior police official H.G.S. Dhaliwal, according to the Press Trust of India news agency. "He was ambitious and street-smart."

Some have suggested that authorities inflated Bunty's criminal record, making him a fall guy for unsolved crimes. With Bunty dead, his true reach and details of his background may remain unknown.

Desai compared Bunty to the legendary Veerappan, a smuggler who murdered police officers, slaughtered elephants and became a national celebrity before police gunned him down in 2004. A dashing figure with a giant mustache, Veerappan was a Robin Hood for villagers who felt forgotten.

"It seems like Bunty is a more urban version of Veerappan, without some of the romance," said Desai.

Commuters at a motorcycle parking lot in New Delhi all knew of Bunty, and they said he got what he deserved.

"He used to kill people over a gold chain," said Sameer Sharma, 22. "I don't think he was cool at all."

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