Saurabh Chandrakar, a youth from Bhilai, Chhattisgarh and the alleged kingpin of Mahadev online betting app was getting married in February 2023. Young men from Raipur, Durg and Bilaspur districts in Chhattisgarh received tickets to Dubai. Most of these men were to travel overseas for the first time. Even as they lined up outside their respective passport offices, to get Tatkal passports, a larger-than-life wedding was being planned in Ras-al-Khaimah, UAE. It was not the first party the hosts had thrown, but the scale had definitely changed. Unlike the earlier party invites, this one came with gold coins for the guests.
Around the same time, another Bhilai resident, Gaurav Sahu (25) was realising that his bank accounts had been freezed. “I couldn’t operate my bank accounts through UPI or online transactions for a week. I kept getting notifications that due to several transactions, my bank account had been blocked. It wasn’t until I got a call from the bank manager that the police had taken my account details, that I realised something was fishy,” Sahu, a telecom employee said.
Sahu was one of the several hundred account holders, whose bank accounts were being used as a transaction channel by the Mahadev betting app.
The Mahadev betting app’s story started in 2017, but the police FIRs were registered only in late 2021. The "platform for illegal betting" in poker, card games and cricket,badminton etc, has been creating news since the arrest of bigwigs. And While several prominent people have been named in FIRs , it was mostly young, unemployed people who were working for the app. The realisation that it was illegal to bet online came to them much later, for some only when the police knocked on their doors.
“I saw the ads for the Mahadev betting app everywhere, even on official websites. I thought it was one of the many betting apps that are available now on app stores and are advertised quite widely,” Sahu said. As the month ended, and the stories of a Bhilai-based youth getting married in Dubai started becoming common gossip everywhere, Sahu started realising the nexus he was caught in.
“My friend Yogesh had asked me for my Kotak bank details. It was not my primary account, and he said he needed it for his job, so I gave my details, passbook and the ATM card to him. I did however use the account as a backup UPI ID, which is how I realised it had been freezed,” he said. Yogesh Makthani, Sahu’s friend and a Raipur resident, was arrested by Raipur police in the Mahadev betting app case in April 2023.
According to Chhattisgarh police, they unearthed the Mahadev betting app case by a chance encounter. “We conduct several raids as regular procedures. In April 2021, we arrested four people from a hotel in Raipur who claimed that amongst the many ways they were betting, there was a new app called Mahadev App,” a police personnel said, requesting anonymity.
While police across several districts kept raiding bookies based on the intelligence they received, they only realised the scale of the betting app by early 2022. “It had become a massive ring. We had arrested over 50 men in three districts who claimed to be the members of the Mahadev betting book. They also had sophisticated methods of placing bets, which made the identification of the person indulging in betting more tough,” a police personnel privy to the investigation said. He added, “But there were several apps like that, most of them being run from out of the state. We were getting the information that Mahadev betting app was being run from Dubai. By April 2022, we knew that the case was way more vast than we had anticipated, with more than 10,000 savings bank accounts being used by the perpetrators.”
By November 2022, Chhattisgarh police had arrested over 250 people, booking more than 400 all related to the Mahadev Betting App.
Interestingly, all the accused arrested were between 18 to 34 years of age, and most of them were unemployed. “The sheer number of youngsters was astonishing. But these boys understood tech and thus were prospering within the system of the app. They were running the chapters of the app, acting as a boss of their circles, facilitating a set of bettings. They made money off of a win in their circle, some even earning Rs 50,000 daily just as commissions. Those with less technical facilities were given the job to scout new bank accounts and lure new customers with money to bet. Others were just plain old bookies, who were now using the online platform with their old channels,” the police personnel said.
Bilaspur resident and a small store owner Sunny Dewangann (29), who was arrested by the police and is out on bail, was recruited by an old college friend in August 2021. “He was running a rummy circle in a small town in MP. We were both into betting in college, so he reached out to me on social media. He then showed me how he had managed to buy an expensive watch, phone and other gadgets over a video call. I was told that the app profited by all of us winning and thus my money would be safe,” Dewangann said. He added, “I won enough money in the first three months to buy a chapter when my friend offered me a cut of the commissions.”
This is how the story of Mahadev betting app started. According to investigative sources, Ravi Uppal, a mid-level businessman met Saurabh Chandrakar, a juice-stall owner at a tea shop. Chandrakar, whose father was an employee of the Bhilai Municipal Corporation is remembered in the area he grew up in as a mischievous, ambitious boy. He started a series of small businesses but none took off; eventually leading him to working at his juice shop.
According to people close to Chandrakar, he started working on a betting website in late 2017. However, between 2017 to 2019, he faced massive losses, leading him to even reconsider his business. “Uppal and Chandrakar, before ditching the effort, tried to set-up a meeting with the owners of the Reddy Anna app through one of their associates. This is when the game changed. The duo then built a strong mechanism under the guidance of seasoned players in the game,” a source privy to the case said.
In 2019, Uppal and Chandrakar migrated to Dubai, taking their immediate family members in the next couple of years. In 2021, Chandrakar had thrown a lavish party in Dubai for the success of his venture. In 2022, he organised another lavish party for his sister’s wedding. Chartered jets were hired to ferry relatives from Nagpur and Kolkata to Dubai.
According to an old neighbour of Chandrakar, the family instantly uprooted from the city, but not before it was clear that they had suddenly found money. “They were from the lower middle-class, but suddenly, they had fancy gadgets arrive in their house. They would tell us their son was sending them goods from overseas where he apparently worked in a construction firm,” the neighbour said.
While Chandrakar and Uppal monetized and spread the betting website and then app far and wide, in Chhattisgarh, young unemployed men were being recruited in a massive scale, according to investigating agencies.
Drawn by the volume of money-flow and the extravagant parties, replete with bollywood stars, the Enforcement Directorate started investigating the Mahadev app in December 2022.
This is when investigation details started getting murky. While the Enforcement Directorate agents based their initial investigation on the FIRs provided by some state police station, the ED soon claimed that the kingpin of the betting app is a 32-year-old man Shubham Soni, also a resident of Bhilai.
According to ED officials, Soni had befriended and employed Chandrakar and Uppal in Dubai, and the trio had created the betting empire.
The Chhattisgarh police officials vehemently deny this theory off the record. Even the state Congress government through its media representatives and other senior faces have raised suspicion over this development. Days before Chhattisgarh headed to polls in the first phase, the investigating agency released a press statement alleging that the masterminds of the betting app were in touch with the Chhattisgarh CM. The central investigating agency even claimed that Rs 508 crore had been transferred to key persons in the state government.
Meanwhile, the Chhattisgarh police managed to get a lookout notice issued against Chandrakar and Uppal. But, even police officials agree that the quantum of the case is still unknown. “They have transferred money to the tune of Rs 5000 crores. There are several thousand savings bank accounts and even more corporate bank accounts linked to shell companies that we are investigating. There are more such accounts that have not yet come up in the investigations, we are sure. We are investigating further,” an ED official privy to the investigation said.
Khursipar resident Dhananjay Singh (26), who was arrested by Raipur police in December 2022 in the same case has been out on bail since February this year. According to Singh, an electrician, he still bets to his family’s chagrin. “I won a little money in the beginning, and then I kept losing. So, I started working for them as an agent, to get more customers. I still have to repay loans, and betting is the only way to make that money,” he accepted.
His wife left him after he was arrested and his family tried to take him to a de-addiction centre. “But I am not addicted to substances, so they sent me away. I now know that I am addicted to gambling and once I repay all of my money, I will try to never gamble again,” he said.
28-year-old Rahu Singh, also a resident of Khursipar and a salesboy lost his job after he was arrested along with Dhananjay Singh and has been unable to find a new job ever since. “I am not sure what legal ways are left for me to make money, but I want to try,” he said. He added, “My last recourse is to go back to the life of being an agent for these apps, but I don’t want to do that.”
The Central government in November banned nearly 20 apps involved in online betting, and yet many more have cropped up since then, the young men said. “They just change the names, tweak a few letters in the same old names and are back online. It will take stringent laws to ensure that no one gets entrapped in their vicious cycle,” Rahul said.
Gaurav Sahu, who has had to quit his job over the police investigation in the Mahadev app, has written several applications to unfreeze his account. “I am unable to operate that account. It doesn't even have money, but the police are keeping an eye on it,” he said. Sahu, who had approached the police on his own, has not been subjected to interrogation, yet. “Someone told me that my other bank accounts might also get affected. I hope my credit score or financial history is not damaged due to this. I have learnt my lesson to never share bank details with anyone,” he said.