“Coach saab, maine bas naam kamana hai.”
Anil Malik recalls the ambition of a teenaged Deepak Pahal days after he broke into the junior India boxing team nine years ago. The former junior national champion did make a name for himself, but not in the way he or Malik imagined at the time. Pahal, 25, is now one of the most-wanted criminals on the radar of Delhi Police.
On March 29, a special cell of the Delhi Police killed dreaded gangster Kuldeep Maan, also known as Fajja, in an early-morning encounter, four days after he escaped from their custody from a Delhi hospital, where he was taken for a check-up.
Pahal, who had jumped parole, was part of the group that attacked the police to free Fajja. He is on the run again, and following Fajja’s encounter, his stock in the underworld would suddenly rise.
Joint Commissioner of Police (Eastern Range) Alok Kumar, investigating the movie-like get away, says the boxer-turned-gangster is wanted in a Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) case for murder, extortion and robbery.
“After registering an FIR, we have started our investigation and identified several assailants, including Deepak Pahal, who came to rescue Kuldeep Maan alias Fajja. Deepak is currently wanted in a MCOCA case. He is carrying a reward of Rs 2 lakh,” Kumar says.
It’s a dramatic twist of fate for Pahal.
In an Olympic cycle when the boxers who he once shared the ring with climbed podiums and grew in stature, Pahal’s dossier with Delhi Police’s crime branch thickened. He now has a reputation and even his own signature crime routine.
In the last three years, Pahal is suspected of being involved in four murders and accused of extortions, apart from planning and executing the escape of dreaded gangsters from police custody.
“Deepak has specific modus operandi, he throws chilli powder at the police, shoots at them and vanishes. Since most of his gang leaders are behind bars, he is the one who runs the illegal operations now,” says a top Delhi Police official.
There are a couple of notings in his dossier that are a reminder of the time when he had the reputation of an ultra-aggressive young boxer, who rarely took a step back during his bout. Police records say he is of ‘strong built’ and has a scar on the forehead, the facial feature common to most daredevil pugilists.
It also mentions his alias. Not surprisingly – even after quitting the ring a long time ago – he continues to be called ‘Boxer’. The police files have an image of a tattoo on his arm, which says, ‘My love, you take my breath away.’
The once-shy village boy, who did not have much of a life beyond stadium complexes, gymnasium and hostels, has changed.
The ‘Boxer’ was once the pride of Ganaur, a nondescript village near Sonepat. “I remember the day when we were all dancing on the streets when Deepak won a gold medal many years ago,” says Sudhir Kumar, who owns a shop on the road that leads to Pahal’s home. “We were all hopeful that he will become a prominent international boxer and our village would then become famous.”
These weren’t hollow dreams. Pahal, according to his coaches, was actually that good.
As per the erstwhile Indian Amateur Boxing Federation (IABF) records, Pahal registered himself as a boxer in November 2008, a period when the craze for the sport had reached its zenith following Vijender Singh’s bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics. Hundreds of teenagers flocked to boxing clubs across Haryana, prompting then chief minister Bhupender Hooda to call the state India’s ‘little Cuba’, referring to tiny Caribbean nation’s dominance in the ring.
His family wanted him to complete his studies – he had studied till Class 9 – and tend to the family’s modest farmland. But Pahal went against their wishes and pursued a career in boxing. Soon, however, the Pahals realised that sport could, after all, be a way out of poverty for them after seeing cash awards, government jobs and overall adulation that an athlete received, especially in Haryana.
So, the family started supporting Pahal in whatever little way it could. Pahal’s conversations with his parents were mostly monosyllabic and he would often scold his father for smoking beedis, a habit he despised. But in the boxing ring, the awkward young boy would explode. He would practice with such single-mindedness that everything else would become inconsequential – so much so that the only time he took a break, and that too just for 10 hours, was when his brother got married.
In a short span, Pahal proved the faith shown in him by the family wasn’t misplaced. Within a year of him taking up boxing, he was recruited by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) as a trainee at its Sonepat centre, where Malik became his coach.
Malik says Pahal was a fighter in the classic mould – orthodox, tough and aggressive who also had the cunningness of a street-fighter. “You did not need to explain anything to him twice. He has a very sharp brain,” Malik says.
These qualities helped him become the junior national champion in the 57kg category when he was just 15. “That year, we had one of the best group of boxers from Haryana. We had Manish Kaushik and Amit Panghal in that team and both have now qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. Deepak was better than them in some aspects and he could easily have been an Olympian as well,” Malik says.
Pahal’s performances made the national junior coaches take notice and he was named in the India team for two junior international tournaments.
A petty dispute with a fellow trainee at SAI Sonepat, which ended with Pahal punching him in the face, meant that he was expelled from the centre. After that, he was looking for employment in the Services under the sports quota. “He had seen how so many boxers recruited by the Army ended up representing the country apart from the job security. In several conversations, he mentioned that to me,” Malik says. “He was frustrated that he wasn’t able to get what he wanted.”
In late 2012, the IABF was suspended by the government as well as the International Boxing Federation for alleged manipulation of the elections. For almost four years after that, domestic tournaments dried up, camps were called off and Indian boxers weren’t invited to competitions abroad because of the international suspension.
The impact of this was visible at the Rio Olympics, where just three boxers qualified and none of them came close to winning a medal. But a bigger blow was felt domestically, where an entire generation of up-and-coming boxers lost out. One of them was Pahal, whose hopes of landing a sports quota government job took a hit as well because no national championships were held.
While some boxers, like Kaushik and Panghal, persevered, sources in Haryana police said it was during this phase that Pahal was introduced to dreaded gangster Jitender Maan aka Gogi, a close associate of Fajja, by some of his friends. “Gogi looked for young athletes who were disillusioned with their sporting career, especially boxers and wrestlers because of their strength,” an officer said.
Pahal’s first brush with crime was in 2016 when he played role in executing Gogi’s escape from police custody. He was arrested within a few days and was released on bail a year later.
He gave his boxing career a second chance, again getting inspired by his idol Vijender. The Beijing Olympics medalist had by now given up amateur boxing and turned professional, and Pahal, too, wanted to take that route. “He had that fire in him,” Deepak’s brother Arun, who was his lawyer, says. “A lot of people in our village sympathized with him, thinking he got mixed up in bad company. We were all just glad he was back doing what he loved the most: box.”
At their modest one-storey house, Pahal’s mother Rajbala Devi flips through old photographs, certificates and shows off a stack of medals that are in a pitiable condition – the only belongings left of a son who the family has now disowned.
His father Suresh lies on a bed, unable to speak or sit after suffering a paralysis attack two years ago that put him in a coma. At a mere mention of his son, though, his eyes well up.
Rajbala, 50, says Pahal remained the ‘quiet and secluded boy after returning from jail’, but the prospect of boxing professionally excited him. “He started training for that at a stadium near our house but in 2018, when Delhi Police lodged an FIR against Gogi under MCOCA, they also made Deepak an accused,” Rajbala says. “There was only one case against him but still, they booked him under MCOCA. After that, he left home without informing anyone and hasn’t returned since.”
After jumping his parole, Pahal joined Gogi’s gang and police suspect he is involved in four murder cases. “His name has been disclosed by an accused in all the four cases. He, along with another member named Hemant, operates the gang and they are accused of killing rivals, and the witnesses of their cases,” an officer says.
The long absence of their son doesn’t mean trouble too has stayed away from the parents. Every time Pahal commits a crime, there is a knock on the door of their house in Ganaur.
“After the latest incident at the Delhi hospital, the police came to our house at around 2 am for questioning,” Rajbala says. “We are often harassed. That’s why we have now installed CCTV cameras in our house.”
Pahal’s family, friends and coaches are convinced that ‘one wrong step’ he took five years ago ‘changed his entire life’. “He was a gifted boxer who was obsessed with the idea of making a name for himself,” Malik says.
On an earlier visit to the Pahal house five years back, mother Rajbala had fished out old newspaper clippings, those fragile pieces of yellowed paper her only connection to the time when her son was pride of the entire village.
Those days now seem a lifetime away, there is pain in her voice as she says: “Last year we have given advertisements in newspapers saying that we have disowned him”.
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