‘Chhota Shakeel Calling’

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The IPL spot-fixing scam has again brought the disparate worlds of gangsters and reporters together

Some media reports on the IPL scandal have hinted that not everyone in the mob involved in cricket gambling sports a tika on his forehead or plays for an IPL team. These reports suggest that the ringleader of the operation is none other than India’s most wanted gangster, Dawood Ibrahim, himself. To verify this, a reporter of The Times of India sent a text message to Chhota Shakeel, the gangster’s second-in-command. Shakeel rang the reporter back and denied their gang’s involvement.

“We have grown now; we have left those days far behind,” Shakeel is quoted as saying in the paper. “We are into real estate and other white businesses. Bhai does not want this haraam (ill-gotten) money coming out of betting.” Shakeel goes on to complain about media reports that have linked Dawood to the scandal. “There are some channels that are putting our gang’s name into police officers’ mouths. It’s easy for news channels to do that as we do not get a chance to deny it. And news channels want our name so that their TRPs go up and they can… make a big impact.”

TRPs. Stories. Impact. It’s newsroom jargon rolling off the tongue of a criminal. No surprise, given how media-savvy gangsters have become lately. But it does arouse curiosity about the gangster-media relationship. What is it like to interview a don? What kind of interactions do a gangster and reporter have?

On a Friday evening in Mumbai, a man in his fifties with a grey stubble and oval dark glasses leans against his car outside Shreejee’s restaurant near Oshiwara Police Station in Andheri. He is Baljeet Parmar, a veteran crime reporter who has dined with underworld dons and even faced their fury. Parmar claims to have had meals with Dawood Ibrahim. He was also shot at once from close range by Chhota Rajan’s men. After we shake hands, Parmar leans on me for support during the short walk from the car to the restaurant. It is not the damage caused by the attack that makes him do this. “I twisted my foot,” he says.

Shreejee’s is a typical Udupi restaurant, complete with the clatter of spatulas and sizzle of dosas on hot pans as background noise. Parmar doesn’t take off his glasses even after we take our seats. He says he rarely does. He orders tea and begins to tell his story in Punjabi-accented English. “I interviewed Dawood, Vardarajan Mudaliar, Haji Mastan [among others],” he says, “I have travelled with these people, had meals with them…”

Parmar is originally from Chandigarh. He came to Mumbai in 1976 to try his luck with films, which didn’t work out, and became a journalist at the start of the 1980s. But it was his interim job, as chief of security at Holiday Inn hotel in Juhu, that gave him the exposure that would help him as a crime reporter. “Holiday Inn and Sun n’ Sand were the two hotels where many film and underworld parties would be held. I got to meet and observe people there. Film personalities, underworld dons, cops…” Parmar says he quit for reasons beyond his control, and became a reporter for The Free Press Journal.

Back then, Parmar lived in Mumbai’s Antop Hill area, where Vardarajan Mudaliar (aka Vardabhai) was active as a gangster. Mudaliar was Mumbai’s most feared don in the 70s and early 80s, and Parmar saw the way he dotted the area with illicit liquor joints, brothels and hutments; he even had illegal roads laid. Parmar started writing about all this, and that’s how the don asked to see him. One of their exchanges during the meeting went something like this.

Parmar: “Aren’t you worried the cops will get you?”

Mudaliar: “Do you read Hindu granths (texts)?”

Parmar: “Not much.”

Mudaliar: “The books say each of us has come to this life with a return ticket. When the time comes, we all have to go. I’m not scared.”

Parmar: “If you say you do good work, why is everyone scared of you?”

Mudaliar: “Are you scared of me?”

Parmar: “No.”

Mudaliar: “Why?”

Parmar: “Like you, I also have a return ticket.”

The above exchange—as Parmar recalls it—broke the ice between Parmar and Mudaliar. Parmar got a defining story, his first interview with a don.

The conversation shifts to Dawood Ibrahim, who Parmar claims to have met almost 20 times (but not even once after 1992). He speaks of a 1988 meeting in Dubai that was set up by a rival-turned-friend of Dawood. Parmar was staying at Hotel Astoria, from where Dawood’s driver Sajid picked him up in a maroon Mercedes. “It was a huge car with a satellite phone,” says Parmar. “After picking me up, his driver called him and said he would reach the office in seven-and-a-half minutes. That’s exactly how long it took. I remember that.”

Asked if he felt apprehensive about meeting such a dangerous man, Parmar says, “No. By that time, I had met many underworld people.” The Dawood he remembers is a man dressed in white who was a slave to Cartier: Cartier cigarettes, Cartier lighter, Cartier pen. Parmar says Dawood served lemon tea in small cups. “He apologised for the cups, saying they had to be small as he had to drink about 80 a day with the various people who came to see him.”

Dawood wanted to discuss the allegedly negative media coverage he was getting for something that another gangster, Sharad Shetty, was responsible for. As they spoke, a hefty man arrived and sat beside Parmar. No introductions were made and the conversation continued. Dawood asked Parmar what he thought of Sharad Shetty. “Haraamzaade log hain,” Parmar said, and delivered a 15-minute rant against his gang. After he was done, Dawood told him that the man sitting next to him was Sharad Shetty. Dawood then reprimanded Shetty.

Parmar seems to sense that some parts of his stories may seem too wild to be true. “What I’m telling you,” he says, “is something I have also written in my columns over the years.” Also, he says he never shrank from telling off mobsters when he had to. Nor did he take favours from them. “To have contacts is an asset. But contacts can’t change to links. That’s dangerous.”

S Balakrishnan is a plump man with a cheerful disposition and passion for music. But his geniality belies the almost 35 years he has spent tracking some of Mumbai’s most sinister elements as a reporter for The Times of India. “Crime was considered an entry-level beat, but organised crime is an integral part of Mumbai, its economy and its society. If you report on Mumbai, you cannot ignore its underworld,” says Balakrishnan one Saturday morning in his office in Chembur.

Bala, as he is known, has had his share of controversy and defamation cases against him. He says that organised crime grew in Mumbai in the 1960s with gold smuggling, which boomed after the Government of the time clamped official gold imports to save foreign exchange, giving smugglers an opportunity to meet demand. Maharashtra’s prohibition policy resulted in a market for illicit liquor too. Then, in the late 70s and early 80s, gangsters turned their attention to real estate in Bombay.

Mudaliar was a key player then. “I grew up in Matunga. Vardabhai was from there too,” says Bala, “He was virtually the king of Bombay.” But Mudaliar led a modest life. “He sat on the floor, although his guards would be hovering around. Criminals, cops, ordinary people looking for help would go to him. I have seen DIG-level cops touch his feet,” says Bala, who first met Mudaliar as a curious youngster and later gained access as a journalist. “What I got to see was a nexus between the underworld and the police and politicians,” he says, “Also, the charitable side of the underworld as well as its dangerous side.”

Asked if knowing a don personally ever compromised his objectivity, Bala says, “Not at all. [The underworld] also respects it. But never carry tales. Never pass on information to cops, unless it is about anti-national activities. My phone has been tapped many times by the police. But the police are sometimes so dumb that they would ask me, whose very phone they were tapping, for the meaning of some words or code names used in the conversation. But yes, I’d inform the cops if I hear of something that threatens national security. I’m an Indian first, then a journalist.” Is mob recrimination a worry? “If you are discreet and tactful, you’ll [be okay].”

Bala says that Mudaliar’s empire began to crumble because a Maharashtra politician wanted control of crime and aided the emergence of a monster called Dawood Ibrahim. “The Dawood phenomenon didn’t just happen,” says Bala. “He had police and political backing. Subsequently, the fortunes of this particular politician came down. And another politician co-opted Dawood. This politician is the real don of India,” he claims.

Journalists are sometimes accused of glorifying criminals. And it is true that they experience a rush of blood in their interactions with the underworld. Making contact with the forbidden has a thrill to it, Bala admits: “Not everyone had access. You did. They gave you information. They tried to get information out of you. They tried to plant stories. But overall, I found more honesty in the underworld than in politics or business. If they gave their ‘zubaan’ (word), they kept it.”

Tarakant Dwivedi alias Akela is a sturdy man with close-cropped hair who works for Mumbai’s Mid-Day. In 2011, he had a harrowing experience when he was arrested for a story he had written the year earlier for his previous employer, Mumbai Mirror. It was about water leakage ruining weapons acquired post-26/11 for the Railway Police Force at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Arrested under the Official Secrets Act on charges of trespassing, Dwivedi spent five days in jail. It is perhaps experiences like these that have shaped his approach to work. “For me, it is a source of livelihood, nothing more. The only person I’m answerable to is my editor,” he says when we meet in a conference room at his tabloid’s office.

Differences with his family made Dwivedi leave home in Uttar Pradesh for Mumbai. Journalism came his way by chance: a Hindi publication in Mumbai’s suburb of Ulhasnagar named Ulhas Vikas had a vacancy, and he took it. He later worked for Do Baje Dopahar and Navbharat before making his way to Mumbai’s top tabloids.

When Dwivedi speaks, he often rocks in his chair, tilts his head back, and shuts his eyes. He is acutely aware of the voice recorder on the table, and asks me to switch it off from time to time. He says he has had plenty of direct interaction with underworld dons. The first don he met was Arun Gawli. It was in the late 1990s. Dwivedi was with Navbharat. Having heard that Gawli was going to contest elections, he went to Dagdi Chawl, Gawli’s residence, to confirm this news. Anyone was allowed entry to Dagdi Chawl, he says, as long as there was a legitimate reason to see Gawli.

The hard part was the wait. “They watch you as you wait. And they make you wait because they’d rather you go away. The wait is also designed to make you drop your plan in case you have any.” What struck Dwivedi about the meeting with Gawli was the terrace of Dagdi Chawl. “The terrace has a garden, with dummy animals and a small waterfall. It’s like being in a jungle.” A jungle with a snooker table.

When Dwivedi finally met Gawli, he was somewhat disappointed. “He is a slight man, weighing 50 kg or thereabouts,” he says, “I thought if I hit him, he’d fall.” This surprises me: for, in pictures, Gawli looks small but sinewy, a man whose slap could turn you into an instant astronaut. I ask Dwivedi if he is sure of what he’s saying. “Yes,” he says. “When I met Gawli, I thought, ‘Don aise bhi hote hain’ (a don could be like this too). But he had a huge TV in his room. These are common now, but were not back then. Now, that was don-worthy.”

Dwivedi says he has met or spoken with other gangsters too. He feels little fear, he says, because he is originally from UP, a state where if you didn’t carry a knife or gun to college, you didn’t matter. But he says interactions with the likes of Dawood have become rare since the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993. Till then, the underworld was mostly involved in making money and fighting among themselves. But with those serial bombings, Dawood turned into a terrorist. “You can’t talk to him directly anymore. You have to go through a mediator,” Dwivedi says. “Also, when MN Singh became police commissioner of Mumbai, he frowned upon reporters directly contacting gangsters.”

In the rare event that Dawood now has to speak to someone, he might call on a third person’s phone in an area like Nagpada or Pydhonie to conduct the conversation—indirectly. And what are the kind of things he says? “Bhai, kyaa haal hai? Zara iske baaare mein kam likho…” (Brother, how are you? Write less about this). Asked for a little-known detail about Dawood, Dwivedi says, “He used to love Girgaum Chowpatty and wanted to replicate it in Karachi.”

Some crime reporters avoid all contact with gang leaders, preferring to get their information from the police instead. They see the notion of the underworld allowing you journalistic space or respecting unspoken ground rules as naïve and romantic. They believe the underworld is plain ruthless and cite the murder of Mid-Day crime reporter J Dey as its most recent evidence. “You should not get too close, you should not be perceived as being sympathetic to a certain gang. Even perception is enough [for a rival gang to turn vindictive],” says Lekha Dhar Rattnani, one of the first women crime reporters in India. She covered the beat for The Free Press Journal a few years in the early 80s. She never met Vardarajan Mudaliar, for example. But she says she got veiled threats from him. “Someone or the other would say to me, ‘Look, they know you are writing this or that’,” remembers Rattnani. “I told my editor, Virendra Kapoor, about the threats. He said that the paper was behind me and encouraged me to keep working, as few women were doing what I was. Also, my sister was in the police. That made me feel safe.”

Prabhakar Pawar, crime reporter of Saamna, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, is also clear about taking a safety-first approach. Sitting in his air-conditioned and wood-panelled cabin under the sleepy gaze of an oversized close-up of Bal Thackeray, Pawar says, “You meet underworld people and they soon ask you for favours… ‘Tell the police to go easy on this guy’, ‘Give us information.’ When you refuse, problems begin.”

Pawar lists out names of journalists who paid a price for their interactions with the underworld. “Suresh Khanolkar, who ran a publication called Khatarnak, was murdered. The editor of a publication called Raazdaar was murdered. J Dey was murdered. Baljeet Parmar was attacked. Jigna Vora went to jail. A few others went to jail as well. So there is a history—and I was very clear: I got my stories [by] talking to the police.”

Pawar cites a Marathi proverb to make his case: “Sheli jaate jiva nishi, khaanaara mhanto vaattad.” Roughly translated, it means the lamb lays down its life, but the person eating it grumbles the meat is rubbery. The proverb could be interpreted in several ways. What Pawar means, perhaps, is that such a sacrifice is not worth it. For all your courage and efforts to get the truth, all you get are complaints.