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The attack on Abu Salem at Taloja and the churn in the Mumbai underworld

In the murky waters of the Mumbai underworld, a new friendship is blossoming. Fugitive underworld don Chhota Rajan and incarcerated don Abu Salem are edging closer to each other, signalling the likelihood of a new relationship, which could have widespread ramifications in the Indian underworld. Rajan’s impending handshake with Salem, a former Dawood Ibrahim loyalist, is likely to set off “new action” in the underworld, say sources in the Mumbai Crime Branch.

This future alliance can be traced to the growing prison friendship between Salem and Rajan gang members DK Rao, Vicky Malhotra and Kalia Rajan, all of whom are in Taloja prison, located in Navi Mumbai. One of 43 prisons in Maharashtra, Taloja has rapidly been gaining notoriety for nefarious activities within its walls. Sources say that it is fast replacing Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail as a dreaded gang-dominated prison. Aided by prison guards—easily intimidated by the infamous underworld names Taloja is home to—activities banned under the law thrive here. “Of all the bad ones, Taloja is the worst. All the central prisons in Maharashtra, where the gangsters are lodged, are seeing an increase in nefarious activities,” says a Crime Branch official.

A life threatening attack on Abu Salem on 27 June has once again brought into focus the goings-on in the state’s prisons. Confessions from those arrested after the attack point to Chhota Shakeel, yet another fugitive don, a lieutenant of Dawood, who has long nursed a grudge against Salem. Their battle for dominance dates back to the time Salem spent in Dawood’s gang, and his unceremonious exit from the gang thereafter.

Salem was shot at point blank range by another prisoner, Devendra Jagtap aka JD, with a country-made revolver provided by Manoj Lamhane, a conduit for Shakeel. Salem survived the attack due to the three-foot-long cardboard sheets placed at the gate of each cell by prison authorities to keep rodents and cats from entering the cells. Interestingly, JD and Salem have been on talking terms and have even interacted sometimes in the yard of the high security ‘anda’ (egg-shaped) cell, where Salem is kept.

According to a source, the supari (contract for the killing) had been fixed at Rs 5 lakh, paid to JD in instalments. He was being pressured to finish the job by Shakeel via a mobile phone passed from Lamhane to JD, later recovered from JD’s cell. The late night shooting, police say, was more an act of desperation than a planned action.

“There is an indication that JD was helped by [a] prison guard. The revolver was hidden in a speaker installed near the anda cell and had been there since early May,” says the Crime Branch source. Lamhane, who was arrested in the Navi Mumbai suburb Panvel, told the police that he kept the revolver in a mithai box that was thrown into the prison from a wall adjoining the prison’s visiting room. It was then picked up by a guard and handed over to JD.

The prison has always been a fertile recruiting ground for gangs, and the Salem-Rajan handshake, police say, may see a surge in prisoners keen to be recruited and become part of gangland operations. This held true in the case of JD, who is in prison for the murder of Shahid Azmi, a lawyer who had taken on the defence of some of the accused in the 26 November 2008 terror attack in Mumbai. Strapped for cash, JD was not in a position to hire a lawyer or even get his case papers photocopied.

The Salem shooting also brings into focus another incarcerated gangster: Santosh Shetty. A former Dawood henchman, Shetty broke away from the gang after the 1993 serial bomb blasts in Mumbai. Shetty, along with Bharat Nepali, accompanied Chhota Rajan when Rajan walked out on Dawood post-1993. Though he had placed his trust in Rajan, Shetty was not given an important position in the Rajan gang.

On realising they were not very high in the underworld hierarchy, Shetty and Nepali formed their own gangs and operated individually. A turf war started between them, and they became bitter enemies over the sharing of extortion money. Both controlled their operations in Mumbai from Bangkok.

Each took on Rajan separately, attacking his men. By 2010-11, between them they had killed Rajan’s close confidant Farid Tanasha, and advocate Shahid Azmi. Sources say that Shetty had edged closer to the Dawood gang once again, and executed the Azmi killing through JD. The contract for Azmi’s killing was reportedly put out by Dawood’s trusted lieutenant Chhota Shakeel. This deepened the enmity between Rajan and Shetty. Later, Shetty also killed Nepali to gain dominance of the extortion racket.

On Nepali’s death, his close confidant JD was left in the lurch. Shetty took JD into his own gang’s fold and together, they started executing the gang’s activities from the Taloja prison—their current address. Shetty was extradited from Bangkok in the J Dey murder case.

The plan to kill Salem was firmed up just over a fortnight ago, when Shetty and Dawood-aide Mustafa Dossa met during a hearing at the Esplanade Court. According to sources, Shetty told Dossa that he wanted to be back in Dawood’s gang. Dossa had attacked Salem in the Arthur Road prison some months ago, slashing his face. Subsequently, Salem was shifted to Taloja. Prison attacks are not uncommon. In 1987, Vijay Utkar stormed the Agripada police lock-up with 10-12 fellow gangmembers and shot down Babu Resham, a Dawood affiliate. He belonged to the local Kanjari gang, headed by the Dholakia brothers who had taken out the contract to kill Resham.

In 2002, OP Singh of the Rajan gang was killed in Nashik prison by other Rajan men incarcerated there on the orders of the underworld don, following which about 22 prison officials were suspended and a department enquiry was launched. Now, four Taloja officials have been suspended pending inquiry.

Since both Rajan and Salem are at the top of Shakeel’s ‘bump off’ list, the future could see more gang wars across the country. In a bid to increase their numbers, Rajan, Salem and Shakeel are already scouting for sharpshooters and recruits with no previous criminal records, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Odisha. This could lead to a huge churn in the underworld, and cause regional dons to emerge much stronger due to an affiliation either with Shakeel or Rajan. Both Rajan and Salem are seeking to reduce Dawood’s hold over Mumbai.

“An association with Salem works for Rajan,” says a police source, “as the former does not directly involve himself in any dirty work. But Salem operates through a lawyer.” Salem, extradited from Portugal in 2005, is being tried for his role in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts, murder and a slew of extortion cases. The extradition followed an executive assurance by India that Salem would not be awarded the death penalty or charged with any section of the law that entailed a jail term of more than 25 years.

The real estate business, particularly slum rehabilitation projects, will see a lot of interference from Rajan and Shakeel, as both will want a dominant share. If Salem jumps the Rajan bandwagon, sources say, it may just get bloodier.

The Mumbai Crime Branch is keen that the prison guards be taken to task for dereliction of duty. If gangland activities can go on unchecked in prisons, then the very purpose of arresting top gangsters is defeated. On the other hand, prison officials say it is a no-win situation for them. If they follow prison policing law, then under-trials complain to courts and the courts censure prison guards. To avoid being ticked off by the courts, they turn a blind eye to gangsters.

In underworld lingo, prison guards who ‘help’ gangsters are ‘taxis’. Such guards cater to the needs of the gang to which they are ‘assigned’. According to Crime Branch sources, taxis facilitate underworld activities within prison walls. “They are on a monthly retainer from gangsters. It is a salary from gangsters,” says a crime branch source. “The taxis make sure their gangster-bosses do not lack anything, be it drugs, cigarettes, mobile phones or even weapons.”

A special taxi is assigned to high profile gangsters like DK Rao, Mustafa Dossa and Abu Salem in any of the jails where they are lodged, police sources say. The guards also act as conduits and messengers between fugitive gangsters like Shakeel and Rajan, and their lieutenants or henchmen in jail.

Rates for taxis vary according to the money power of gangsters. A gangster like Mustafa Dossa would pay a monthly retainer of Rs 20,000 to his taxi, while DK Rao would pay about Rs 10,000-15,000. Smaller gangsters would pay Rs 2,000-5,000. Apart from this monthly pay, taxis get paid each time they pass on an important message or deliver an item desired by the gangster-boss.

Money and muscle power are what work in prison. Prisoners gravitate towards those who have both. The poorer among the prisoners are asked to carry out errands within the prison. In return, gangsters pay them paltry sums and often help them get legal help. Benevolence by a gangster gets them benefits such as an ability to break queues for the toilet and bathroom, a ‘good’ sleeping place in overcrowded cells, and even early court dates.

Police sources say a petrol station on the Sion-Panvel highway, close to the Taloja prison, is the meeting point for gangsters and their conduits. ‘Business deals’ with builders and businessmen are struck at this petrol station. The modus operandi is simple: the police van (whose guards are on the gangster’s payroll) will stop at this station for refuelling on a day when the gangster has a court appearance. The time for the meeting is already known to the conduits, who line up the businessmen or builders to be met with. The refuelling finishes only after the meeting concludes. The police van then makes its way to the court. The same procedure is followed on the return.

Gangsters are not open to video conferencing; they want a reason to leave prison and hold their ‘meetings’. Even prison guards are not keen on it as their ‘extra’ earnings would disappear.

There is a lot of infighting among prison guards and officials. Some years ago, a sting operation conducted by a senior jailor against his female subordinate laid bare the bitter khaki rivalry in prison. The female jailor then conducted her own sting, which showed her senior in poor light. The state home ministry conducted an inquiry and held the senior jailor guilty of dereliction of duty. He was suspended from service, but later reinstated. The female jailor is in a very senior position now and is much hated by her male colleagues as she is extremely strict and closely follows the rule book.

Prison officials throw up their hands in frustration, citing overcrowding as the root of all problems, as it renders the segregation of gang members impossible—every inch of available space is already being utilised. All amenities fall short, prison sources say, and fights erupt over the use of toilets and bathrooms. Overcrowding has led to prisoners sleeping in whatever space is available. The ones with money and power get the best spots in the cell, and poor prisoners have to make do with whatever’s left; many often sit out the night as they are not ‘allocated’ a place to sleep.

Of the 43 prisons in Maharashtra, 27 are ‘full’ and cannot house even a single additional prisoner. All prisons are filled far above capacity. The Maharashtra government has sought permission from the Centre to set up five additional prisons at Nandurbar, Washim, Gadchiroli, Sindhudurg and Jalna.Mumbai Central Prison, commonly known as Arthur Road Jail, is the most crowded in the state relative to its capacity. Built for 804 prisoners, it houses 2,710 at present, of which only 39 are convicts; the remaining 2,671 are in judicial custody.

Pune’s Yerwada Central Prison houses the largest number of prisoners in the state. Of the 3,307 prisoners here, 3,032 are men and 275 women. Of them, 1,211 men and 211 women are serving sentences, and 1,817 men and 63 women are in judicial custody.

There are 25,904 prisoners in the jails of Maharashtra. Of these, only 1,464 are women. The total combined capacity of all the prisons is 22,294, which means there are 3,609 prisoners too many.