In May of 2014, four transgender sex workers were attacked in two separate incidents in Hyderabad. Two of them were bludgeoned and robbed while two others were beaten, raped and robbed. In October, another transgender sex worker was assaulted and robbed while she was at work. The latter victim, Stella, lodged a police complaint with Gopalpuram police station. However, in 2015, another transgender sex worker, Pravallika, was lynched to death by multiple goons in an attempted robbery. And these are just a few of the alleged victims of Venkat, the mysterious serial extortionist who has been brutally robbing, raping even killing trans-women in Hyderabad for over eight years now.
While a total 12 FIRs against the accused have been lodged in various police stations across the three commissionerates in Hyderabad, Venkat remains at large. He was arrested following an FIR in January 2015 after the killing of Pravallika, but he was out on bail by October. According to Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli, a founding member of Telangana Hijra Intersex Transgender Samiti (THITS), the problem has existed from 2012.
"The man clearly exhibits some kind of hate against transwomen, especially the ones in sex work. In fact, he has spent time with the community, he even had a transwoman partner who he lived with. It was with her that he learnt the ways of the hijra community and started committing petty crime among them," Mogli said.
THITS has actively been working with the transgender sex workers who have been victims of assault and loot and said that after studying the accounts of all victims, they could discern a credible pattern of attacks and also settle on the common assailant, though the latter took some time.
"At first, we kept hearing accounts of this man. It was usually the same thing. Hijra people attacked when they are alone in streets at wee hours in the morning and looted of everything they own. It was only recently that we could procure a photograph of him," Mogli said.
History and Modus Operandi
According to members of THITS, Venkat was initially an auto driver from Ananthapur. He moved to Hyderabad with his wife and minor daughter but soon left them to start living with a transgender sex worker, Divya. It was through Divya that he found out about how the trans community in Hyderabad functions.
As most transpersons prefer to live in communes of more than four to defend themselves against undue attack or violence, victims claimed that Venkat soon learnt about the different communes, and the shifts that members of a particular commune work in.
He started attacking transwomen who were out begging or working. He would do it later in the night when the victim would have collected enough cash for the day and was about to wind up. He would prefer victims who were alone.
First, he would snatch their phone, then ask for all the money and belongings the victim had on them to be handed over to him. If the victim resisted, he would brutally assault them. Pravallika was killed because she tried to resist giving away her purse which had Rs 1200. In recent years, the looting has become more sophisticated. He now regularly assaults, abuses and extorts money from members of the same commune or loot their common living spaces.
According to transgender activist Chandramukhi Muvvala, the reason why Venkat chose to victimize the trans community is because it is the least represented in the state of Telangana.
"Most of us don't have bank accounts as a large majority of hijras in India, especially those involved in begging or sex work, do not own a pan card. Therefore we keep most of our money at home," Muvvala said. She added that though sex work or begging pays little, most transpersons saved money and that the added savings of all the members in a commune can mean good money.
At first, Venkat worked alone but slowly built a team of 'minions'. While members of THITS say they could identify at least two of his close minions who are more or less permanent, the rest of his gang kept changing. Venkat's gang is locally called the 'gannet gang'and is well feared by the trans community, Muvvala told News18.
According to activists working on the problem, police inaction in the issue was a major deterrent against their efforts. Speaking to News18, a transgender activist who did not wish to be named, said that they suspected some form of police collusion in the matter.
"It is not possible for the police to miss him. He has also been caught once for murder but was out on bail within months. How is that possible?", they said. Members of THITS also said that since Hyderabad had three commissioners and all 12 FIRs filed by them are in different police stations, tracking the arrests and bails in each of the FIRs was getting tougher for the organisation. News18 tried to reach out to the three Hyderabad City police and also other officers from Hyderabad police but have not yet received a response.
Meanwhile, transwomen have taken it upon themselves to ensure that the accused is caught by pressuring the police into action through protests.
"I live in fear every day. Two months ago, Yadav came and tried to injure me with a broken beer bottle. He stole Rs 15,000. The next month, he again tried to rob me and is now demanding 85,000. No way for us to pay this much," said Arthi Yadav. she also said that now that Yadav had targeted her, he knew who his 'chelis' (disciples) were and is now asking them in turn for money.
Aarthi said that after a fresh spate of attacks, Hyderabad police finally seems to have taken notice. In the past week, intensive searches have been led by the police in search of the man. On Sunday, several transwomen protested in Hyderabad against the killing and terrorising of transwomen by Yadav. They demanded strict action from the police. However, the transcommunity in Telangana may continue to live in fear until the accused is convicted.