How Natwarlal, the con artist, conned jail officials
He boasted that no prison in India could hold him and as long as there was a dishonest cop, he would always find a way to get out
Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava, or Natwarlal, belonged to a rare breed of crooks called ‘thought criminals’. He did not need a gun or weapons to rob people of their hardearned cash or stickup a shop. His expertise lay in vanishing not only from the scene of crime but also from jails all over the country. By 1987, India’s greatest con man had escaped from prison 10 times, which included seven times in Uttar Pradesh (UP) alone!
He boasted that no prison in India could hold him and as long as there was a dishonest cop, he would always find a way to get out!
What is most impressive about the life, crimes and escapes of Natwarlal is how seamlessly it leaves the realm of facts and enters the sphere of myth It takes something special for names of people or things to be turned into verbs. You need to be able to capture the public’s imagination as a unique entity. In recent years, for example, you do not ‘search the internet’ for information, you merely ‘google it’. If you are fearless, you are called Sher Khan and if you are a manipulative personality in public life, in all likelihood, you’ll be called Natwarlal.
It is a name that is still used as a sobriquet. Born in 1913 in Ruiga village in the Siwan district of Bihar, Mithilesh Kumar Srivasatava’s origins are shrouded in as much mystery as his entire life. While certain accounts claim that he came from a plebeian background much like the rest of India, others claim that he belonged to a well-to-do, land-owning class. He was an exceptionally bright boy, with a knack for everything but math, although he had no interests in studies.
Every anti-hero deserves a fitting origin story, and Natwarlal, too, has his fair share: two. After a tiff with his teacher, his father got a whiff of his insolence and beat him to a pulp. The next day, young Mithilesh disappeared.
The other story is that he discovered his ability to forge signatures when a family friend of his, who went only by his surname, ‘Sahay’, sent him to deposit some money at the bank. Srivastava copied Sahay’s signature and discovered his ability to forge flawlessly. Over a period of time, he withdrew over Rs 1,000 from the account. On being discovered, he disappeared.
While both stories are different, they have one commonality—the disappearance of Mithilesh Srivastava and the emergence of Natwarlal. A move he would perfect in the years to come.
Throughout his life, the police wanted to put him behind bars, but he always managed to be one step ahead. His record of jailbreaks made him the legend that he is today. He was arrested by the police on many an occasion and was imprisoned under sections such as 420, 467, 463, 120-B of the IPC relating to criminal conspiracy and forgery, but never for too long.
The first time his disappearance caused a stir was in 1953, when, in the midst of the trial in the Punjab National Bank (PNB) cheating case, he escaped from the custody of the police. Before that, according to the crime intelligence gazette of the UP police, he had also disappeared from the judicial lock-up in Delhi.
In 1957, he executed his most brilliant escape. Natwarlal was arrested in Meerut on charges of cheating and he had interned at Lucknow Jail a year earlier. During this time, he had a close associate who went by his surname, ‘Kapoor’.
This associate was tasked with only one job: to bring gifts for the jailor, Abdul Rehman Khan. Kapoor would do just that. He regularly brought all types of presents for Khan, who was slowly won over. Once the jailor softened, Natwarlal offered him a sum of Rs 5 lakh on a condition that he would be allowed to escape.
Kapoor played the role of the intermediary and the jailor fell for the bait, hook, line and sinker. On the agreed day, Kapoor came with the money and Khan went through the box full of currency notes to his satisfaction. As promised, he sent a superintendent’s uniform to Natwarlal’s cell. Natwarlal promptly wore it and leisurely sauntered out of the prison and disappeared into a waiting car.
After Natwarlal disappeared, an excited Khan examined his booty and found to his horror that only the top layer in the box contained genuine currency notes— underneath were merely pieces of paper! What happened next has continued to puzzle crime experts to this day, the box with the money suddenly caught fire and the money was set ablaze.
This final trick of the con man sent Khan’s hope up in smoke. In UP alone, Natwarlal had been convicted in 20 cases. In 1956, there was a flood in Lucknow in which all his files were washed away. The Bihar police only have records detailing his crimes till the age of 44.
He used to prey on people’s weaknesses, and the vice he exploited the most was greed. After successfully duping Khan, Natwarlal was tracked, rearrested and brought back to Lucknow Jail almost immediately. His recapture and return to the prison saved the police some embarrassment, but the entire prison staff was suspended following his escape. However, the respite of the jail authorities was only short-lived, as Natwarlal found another way out of the prison and waltzed out again, leaving the police licking its wounds.
Natwarlal had perfected the technique that he had first adopted in Lucknow Jail and employed it again and again—the art of vanishing. His modus operandi was largely the same for nearly five decades. He would convince jail guards that someone was waiting or some money was to be gotten, and they would get a cut, and when the moment was right, he would give them the slip.
Another confirmed instance is from Kakinada Sub-jail in Andhra Pradesh. It was this manipulation of policemen that stood him in good stead in his commission of crimes.
It is unclear whether Natwarlal died in 1996 or 2009. In 1996, his brother claimed that he was dead and got all the cases against him dismissed, claiming to have cremated the body. In 2009, his lawyer came to the local administration and informed them of the demise of Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava. The officers were scratching their heads wondering how a man who had died 13 years ago could die again.
Much like most other aspects of his life, it was difficult to separate the truth from the myth, the fact from the fiction. But what contributed to the myth or the legend was his Robin Hood-esque actions. Reportedly he had said that his interests lay in duping big-moneyed men off Rs 50,000 and above at a time, and distributing it amongst the poor.
(This extract has been taken from ‘The Most Notorious Jailbreakers’ by Abeer Kapoor, with permission from Rupa Publications)