Karnataka: Tale of a seven-decade-old blood feud between two criminal clans

It may have hit pause, but it seems unlikely to end anytime soon

16-Mahadev-Sahukar Shadow of death: Mahadev Sahukar (right), who heads the Bhairagond family, with his associate Hanumanta Poojary | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

On June 21, a dozen young men on motorcycles arrived at the Amogha Siddeshwara temple in Vijayapura (Bijapur) at midnight and broke coconuts before the deity for fulfilling their ‘wish’. Their leader and history-sheeter Madiwalayya Hiremath alias Maduswamy―prime accused in the infamous Mahadev Sahukar Bhairagond shootout case (2020)―was released on bail by the Karnataka High court, 31 months after his arrest. The gruesome attack had left two men dead. But the actual target, Mahadev Sahukar, who was a rival gang leader, survived.

Vijayapura, a border district in the Hyderabad Karnataka region, has been a mute witness to the mindless violence between the families. It has been notorious for violent murders, abductions, extortion and gang wars.
ADGP Alok Kumar’s efforts to broker peace between the warring families have resulted in some gang members surrendering before the police. In February this year, he organised a peace meeting in which he forced the two sides take a vow before the people of Chadchan, religious pontiffs and local police officers.
Stricter policing can help control criminal activities in the region. The border towns need better coordination with police stations across state lines. ―L.M. Yaligar, Sub inspector, Chadchan

At the Vijayapura Rural police station, there are murmurs that the 33-year-old Maduswamy could be once again trying to avenge the murder of his ‘master’, Dharmaraj Chadchan. The attack on Mahadev three years ago was to avenge the double murders of the Chadchan brothers―Dharmaraj, a sharpshooter, and his younger brother Gangadhar, a contract killer―in 2017. Mahadev was the main accused in the case and was out on bail after spending eight months in jail.

The Mahadev shootout was the latest episode in the 70-year-old rivalry between the notorious Chadchan and Bhairagond families of Umarani, a sleepy village on the banks of the Bhima river in Vijayapura district. The two families―both from the Adi Lingayat Banajiga community―are close-relatives-turned-bitter-rivals. Although the Chadchan family shifted base to Konkanagaon village in Indi taluk and the Bhairagonds to nearby Kerur village, it did not lead to a change of heart in both families.

Vijayapura, a border district in the Hyderabad Karnataka region, has been a mute witness to the mindless violence between the families. It has been notorious for violent murders, abductions, extortion and gang wars. The empire of crime, which seems to enjoy tacit political support, is fuelled by illegal sand mining, irrigation contracts and the sale of country pistols.

On October 30, 2017, Dharmaraj, son of Mallikarjun Chadchan, the present head of the Chadchan clan, was killed in a ‘police encounter’ at his farmhouse in Konkanagaon. His younger brother, Gangadhar, was allegedly abducted by the police and handed over to Bhairagond gang members. Gangadhar was killed, and his body was dismembered and thrown in the Bhima river. If not for his mother, Vimala Bai, who filed a habeas corpus petition at the Kalaburagi bench of the Karnataka High Court, the criminal act of the police would never have been exposed.

The court sent a notice to the Vijayapura police to find Gangadhar and the investigation led to the arrest of the then Chadchan sub inspector Gopal Hallur, circle inspector M.B. Asode and constables Siddaroodha Roogi, Chandrashekhar Jadhav and Geddappa Naikodi. The police maintained that Hallur raided Dharmaraj’s premises as he had information about illegal country-made guns and killed Dharmaraj in self-defence.

19-The-Bhima-River Turbulent history: The Bhima River, which has been a witness to several ghastly murders by the Vijayapura gangs | Shutterstock

As there was no clear information about Gangadhar, Vimala Bai met the then inspector general of police (Northern Range) Alok Kumar and told him that she was worried that her son might be dead. During interrogation, the Bhairagond gang confessed to killing Gangadhar. But Alok Kumar sensed that something was amiss as the witnesses and the accused came up with different versions about the murder. He recommended a CID probe, and the subsequent investigation led to shocking revelations about the police department. According to Hallur’s statement to the CID, he was transferred from Belagavi to Chadchan in August 2017 based on Mahadev's “recommendation”. They plotted to kill Dharmaraj in an encounter at his farmhouse. Mahadev wanted Hallur to hand over Gangadhar to him. “As per the plan, I shot Dharmaraj after raiding the farmhouse and sent Gangadhar along with police constables to be handed over to Mahadev’s accomplices,” said Hallur’s statement. Mahadev, in his confessional statement, said he got Hallur posted at Chadchan with the help of then MLA Raju Alagur. “We hatched a plot to kill Dharmaraj in a fake encounter and murder his younger brother,” said the statement.

Hanumanta Poojary, a key henchman of the Bhairagond family, and his accomplices took Gangadhar from the police, drove him to an open field and tortured him, before chopping off his limbs and beheading him. They drowned the head inside a defunct bore well and the body parts into the Hingani barrage. Mahadev and 14 others were arrested in the case. The murder charge and the subsequent imprisonment ruined Mahadev’s political ambitions as he was preparing to contest the 2018 assembly elections.

Shocked by the murder of their ‘boss’, the Chadchan gang decided to hit back. On the quiet afternoon of November 2, 2020, a rickety, stolen truck parked near the Kannal cross on National Highway 50 in Vijayapura charged towards a fleet of three SUVs and rammed one of them. Around 20 young men armed with country-made pistols and rifles surrounded the convoy. They opened fire at Mahadev; two bullets pierced his stomach and one injured his shoulder. They also hit his head with a huge rock. The gang retreated only after Mahadev’s men returned fire and started attacking them with swords. Mahadev was rushed to a nearby hospital and was later shifted to Hyderabad. He survived, but his driver Lakshman Dindure, and manager, Baburam Maruti Kanchnal, lost their lives.

21-A-notice-displayed-inside Wall of infamy: A notice displayed inside the Chadchan police station showing the faces of Bhairagond and Chadchan gangs | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

As the city was gripped by fear, the Vijayapura police swung into action and deployed nearly 1,500 personnel to maintain law and order. They arrested 38 of the 40 people named in the FIR. However, accused number one and two―the dead duo's parents Mallikarjun and Vimala Bai―evaded arrest and went underground.

Three years later, an unusual calm prevails in Kerur. “Maduswamy might strike at any moment," Mahadev told THE WEEK. "I am prepared to walk into their den and take the bullets. I will show no resistance. But I pray that he spares my children and my family. I want peace. Let it end here."

THE WEEK met Mahadev at his residence which is built like a fortress, guarded round the clock by gun-toting men. The huge compound has a two-storey house, a large courtyard, a temple and a school. Donning a yellow kurta and a white pyjama, a dot of vermilion on his forehead, gold rings on each finger and amulets around his wrist, the don was busy hosting the pontiff of a powerful Lingayat mutt, whom he calls his spiritual guru.

23-Dundavva-Ramagondappa-Biradara Wages of violence: Dundavva Ramagondappa Biradara (left), a member of the Chadchan family, says nothing can be done if the police start killing people | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Mahadev appeared nervous speaking about Maduswamy. “I want an end to this rivalry. The threat is so high that even my children refuse to accompany me. The police department and officers like Alok Kumar (who is now additional director general) have always wanted us to reform for our own good. If I am at peace, it is only because of these efficient officers. I have given my word to Alok Kumar sir that I will keep away from violence,” said Mahadev.

The Chadchan gang had tried to eliminate Mahadev twice before the shootout. On Dharmaraj's third death anniversary, the gang tried to kill him during a satsang programme. But they were forced to abort the plan after spotting a police van. Another trap was set near Dhoolakheda village, when Mahadev was travelling to attend the funeral of a Congress leader. He escaped that day as he took a different route. The final attempt at the Kannal cross was nearly successful, but Mahadev somehow survived.

Alok Kumar’s efforts to broker peace between the warring families have resulted in some gang members (including Vimala Bai) surrendering before the police. In February this year, he organised a peace meeting in which he forced the two sides take a vow before the people of Chadchan, religious pontiffs and local police officers. “This is the last warning. Both families should forget their rivalry and stick to the promise made during the meeting. If you fail to do it, let me remind you that the police weapons are not here to perform just ayudha puja,” said the ADGP.

If Mahadev lost his two elder brothers in the gang war, apart from other relatives and loyalists, Vimala Bai and Mallikarjun lost three young sons. (Their first son Shanthappa was killed by a gangster when he was a school student.) Mallikarjun, an accused in many murder and extortion cases, has been absconding for quite some time. He is said to be unwell and is hiding in Pune. Now, with Maduswamy out on bail, there is apprehension that the gangs would return to their old ways. Vimala Bai's response during the peace meeting was ominous. "Mahadev Bhairagond has killed all my three sons and I don’t want to see his face. Can anyone give my sons back to me? I respect Alok Kumar sir, so I will listen to him,” she told reporters after the meeting.

BHIMATEERADA HANTAKARU (Killers from the banks of Bhima), a book written by the late journalist Ravi Belagere, chronicled the ghastly murders by the Vijayapura gangs. A Kannada movie titled Bhima Teeradalli added to their cult status. The bitter family feud between the Chadchans and the Bhairagonds dates back to 1954, when Shanthappa Chadchan’s wife, who was fed up with her husband’s wayward behaviour, sought refuge with the Bhairagonds. An enraged Shanthappa kidnapped Nagavva, a widow from the Bhairagond family, and held her captive in his house. Nagavva’s son, Neelappa, responded by killing his own mother. Shanthappa took revenge by killing Neelappa.

The next wave of violence started when Shanthappa targetted Siddagonda, a member of the Bhairagond family, and his relative, Patil Puttappa. Shanthappa killed Puttappa during a panchayat meeting in 1958, and was jailed for the crime. After his release in 1966, Shanthappa rebuilt his criminal empire and attacked Siddagonda again. As he had taken abundant precaution, Siddagonda managed to survive, but his left hand was chopped off. In retaliation, Siddagonda fatally attacked Shanthappa, and then dismembered and decapitated him.

After Shanthappa’s death, his sons Mallikarjun and Srishaila fled to Pune with their aunt. There was relative calm in the region for nearly two decades, but it ended when the two Chadchan brothers returned to their village and started rebuilding their criminal empire. Mallikarjun and Srishaila announced their arrival with the murder of Mahadev's uncle Ninganna Bhairagond, who headed the panchayat council. They stabbed him in the stomach, slit his throat and watched him bleed to death at the local bus station. The brothers also killed Dareppa Peergonda, the local school headmaster.

“Mallikarjun and his gang murdered my uncle when he was returning from Hubballi, where he had gone to secure permission to open a new school in Umarani. Mallikarjun and Srishaila wanted to be directors of the school, but they were not allowed to do so. Enraged, they killed my uncle. My elder brother Putrappa and my associate Hanumanta Poojary had rushed to the spot and vowed to kill them,” said Mahadev.

Mallikarjun and Srishaila and eight others were convicted for the double murder, but were released after two years in jail. Upon their release, they reached out to gangsters like Chandappa Harijan, Keshappa Tawarakheda and Shivaji Boragi. They also shifted base to Konkanagaon, Vimala Bai’s native village, and expanded their network. A year later, the brothers visited Umarani during a local festival and fired shots in the air, right in front of the Bhairagond house. An angry Putrappa took three truckloads of armed men to attack Mallikarjun and Srishaila at their home. But they had fled by then.

Chandappa Harijan was a don from Sindhagi taluk who had 55 murder cases against him. The Chadchans joined hands with him, and on January 31, 1993, the two gangs executed four murders in Afzalpur in Gulbarga district. Chandappa proved his worth further by killing Annappa Koli, Putrappa's bodyguard, as it became increasingly difficult to target the Bhairagond family members themselves, who were holed up in their fortress home. But they proved to be vulnerable outside. On July 24, 1994, a gang of 25 men led by Mallikarjun and Srishaila shot dead Mahadev’s eldest brother Kashinath and his aide Prasanna Poojary. The duo was headed to the police station to renew their gun licence. The brothers were arrested and were sent to the Belagavi jail. Srishaila was later killed in a police encounter.

Mallikarjun used his influence to get himself shifted to a jail in Vijayapura where he expected to receive better facilities. Putrappa used the opportunity to avenge his brother's murder. As the cops escorting Mallikarjun stopped on the highway for tea, Putrappa opened fire on him. Mallikarjun, however, managed to escape and soon fled to Maharashtra along with his wife and sons Dharmaraj and Gangadhar.

The sons, who grew up hearing stories about the bitter feud, wanted to take revenge against Putrappa for attacking their father. In 2008, Putrappa was campaigning for the Congress candidate Raju Alagur from the Nagthan assembly constituency. Dharmaraj and Gangadhar used the opportunity to attack him. Although Putrappa survived, he sustained a major injury to his spinal cord. He succumbed to the injuries two years later. Dharmaraj and Gangadhar were arrested in the case, but they got out on bail after two years and continued to expand their criminal empire. As the young Chadchan brothers grew more powerful, they began to attract a huge fan following. Their flashy lifestyle and daredevil attitude lured many young men to the gang. One day, they led a mob to Mahadev's residence and fired many rounds in the air. An enraged Mahadev chose to silence the brothers forever and ordered the double murder.

Today, a few thorny bushes cover the graves of Dharmaraj and Gangadhar, which is located in a four-acre farm. There are two small pucca houses nearby that serve as transit homes for the Chadchan family and the gang members visiting the place, said a villager. Villagers are generally suspicious of outsiders and try to avoid any conversation. THE WEEK managed to track down Dundavva Ramagondappa Biradara, Vimala Bai's sister-in-law, who agreed to talk after much persuasion. “Vimala Bai is a good woman. But she rarely comes to the village now,” she said. “She sometimes visits her farm and the graves. What is the use of land when your sons are dead? What can you do if the police get down to killing people," said Dundavva.

The Mahadev shootout was an eye-opener for the police as the accused were in the age group of 20 to 30 years and most of them had no prior criminal background. They were perhaps hoping to gain popularity by killing a dreaded history-sheeter like Mahadev and establish their dominance. The police said Maduswamy, too, was like many of those youngsters. He came from a Vijayapura slum and met Dharmaraj for the first time in 2014 in jail. Maduswamy was serving time for a murder and Dharmaraj was facing trial in the murder of Fayaz Mushriff, nephew of Vijayapura mayor Sajjade Peeran Mushriff. Dharmaraj secured bail for himself and also arranged for Maduswamy's bail. Maduswamy was touched by the gesture as Dharmaraj, who belonged to a forward caste, treated him well. In gratitude, he joined the Chadchan gang. Vimala Bai now considers Maduswamy as her own son and has pledged her property to him on the sole condition that he avenges the killing of her sons.

The police thought the Chadchan gang had become inactive after Dharmaraj's murder. "We did not anticipate such a deadly attack (on Mahadev Sahukar). We thought the gang would indulge in some petty crimes, but not that it would get into organised crime and network with criminals from across the border (Maharashtra)," said a police officer. They are keeping a close watch on Maduswamy, who was permitted to go to Pune for treatment by the High Court. Said Chadchan sub inspector L.M. Yaligar, “Stricter policing can help control criminal activities in the region. The border towns need better coordination with police stations across state lines as intelligence gathering will help us avert such gang wars and illegal sand mining. Often, interstate criminals commit the crime and escape to the neighbouring state.”

Mahadev, however, is worried about what future holds for him, but he is no longer in a mood to fight. “I swear by my guru that I will give up my life, but will not lay my hands on anyone,” he said. When asked about the reason behind his sudden transformation, Mahadev said he wanted peace. “I run the Byravanatha Shikshana Samsthe which has 1,500 students from LKG to degree level. I am a changed man and I am tired of the trips to police stations, courts and prisons. Moreover, the burden of remaining stuck in the vicious cycle of revenge killings is exhausting. We have lost lives on both sides. We must put an end to this rivalry. Our future generation must live in peace.”