Power Shift in Gangster Land

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Once the Mumbai don took refuge in Uttar Pradesh after a hit job. Today it is the criminal politicians of UP who use use Mumbai as a safe house. S Hussain Zaidi, India’s foremost chronicler of the Underworld, writes on the new balance of power in the ever-expanding mafia world
“If a single baal (strand of hair) is touched on the head of Bal Thackeray, then I vow to kill Dawood Ibrahim in less than 24 hours in Pakistan,” said Pawan Kumar Pandey. This pledge, made in a packed press conference at the Mumbai Press Club in the mid-1990s, was intended both as a challenge to the Underworld and as proof of loyalty to the Shiv Sena founder.

Pandey, who was a Shiv Sena member of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly from Akbarpur, was reacting to a veiled threat issued by Chhota Rajan to Thackeray in an English weekly. Chhota Rajan had picked up cudgels on behalf of his mentor, Dawood Ibrahim, soon after the serial blasts of 1993 in Mumbai when Thackeray had gone full throttle on the “deshdrohi Dawood Ibrahim” theme, calling the gangster a betrayer of his country. In righteous indignation on behalf of his boss, Chhota Rajan had been sending missives to newspapers. “Old man Thackeray should mind his business and not meddle with the Underworld,” he said in one interview.

Pandey, of course, got away with his posturing. Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan dared not touch a gangster-turned-politician. It was Pandey’s criminal legacy in UP that had got him his political legitimacy: 30 cases in all, of which seven were for murder, five for attempts to murder, and the rest for assaults, kidnapping of women and violations of various laws under India’s Arms and Gangster Acts.

Shiv Sainiks in Mumbai were glad that Pandey had spoken up for their venerated leader. What they could not figure out was how Pandey, with his criminal antecedents, had won an election on a Shiv Sena ticket in UP. In a state where politics is the last resort of scoundrels and where the maxim ‘bullets for ballots’ often prevails, Pandey was hardly a trendsetter. He would have won with any party’s patronage. After his short dalliance with the Shiv Sena, he moved on to the Bahujan Samaj Party and is currently contesting a parliamentary seat—Akbarpur’s.

The might-is-right model of UP and Bihar is getting harder to use in cities like Mumbai, given the heightened vigilance of the Election Commission (EC) and security apparatus. So much so that NCP leader Sharad Pawar was recently heard griping about the EC’s all-pervasive reach after its officials started stopping vehicles to check for unaccounted cash. With thuggish tactics under closer watch than ever before, the emphasis now is on the process of electioneering more than booth capturing and ballot-box stuffing.

Until a couple of years ago, the big trouble spot for the EC was South Mumbai. Booth capturing was usually reported from Umerkhadi, Khetwadi and Nagpada areas, all of which could be broadly classified as Dongri. The trend here was set by a Maulana turned politician, the late Zia- ud-din Bukhari. It was he who started using muscle power to ensure electoral victories in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was done indirectly—with goons from Teli Mohalla working under the command of Baashu Dada, who issued all the tough directives even as Bukhari laughed all the way to the Assembly (and went on to set up a colony called Millat Nagar in northwest Mumbai).

In return for his services, Baashu Dada had a simple expectation. The winner in that constituency had to pamper him with money and loads of respect. On one occasion that Bukhari failed to do so, Baashu Dada made his displeasure evident— and Bukhari lost his next election in 1972. So much for a people’s mandate. Furious at having his political career nipped this way, the Maulana hatched a Machiavellian plot to dislodge Baashu Dada’s hold over the area and its electoral preferences. He roped in a budding don called Dawood Ibrahim and his raucous gang to form a group called the Young Party. As Bukhari planned it, this formation’s aim was to take Baashu Dada’s influence down a peg or two. But to the Maulana’s consternation, this gang—far from turning into his stooge—went on to become a Frankenstein’s monster. So while the Maulana wanted to smite Baashu Dada, what the city got was a new don, Dawood Ibrahim.

Even until the late 1990s, long after Baashu Dada vanished from Teli Mohalla and Dawood Ibrahim had flown the coop, South Mumbai candidates had to hire local goons for support during elections. Among those who protested against this was the late Abdullah Shahadat, a rare politician who deserved his reputation as a clean leader. As a Congress candidate for Maharashtra’s Assembly polls in the late 1990s, he spoke up against Bashir Patel’s high- handedness and the Underworld’s role in elections in Umerkhadi.

The 1990s also saw the gangster-politics nexus take a daring turn. Until gangster Arun Gawli contested polls on his own and the Shiv Sena gave a ticket to don Ashwin Naik’s wife Neeta Naik in the 1990s, Mumbai’s mafia had always lingered on in the fringes. Gangsters were on-call but kept a safe distance. However, they could not stay away from the actual rough-and-tumble of politics. As in UP and Bihar, Mumbai graduated to having its own local dons preside over the city’s affairs.

When Arun Gawli first got 1,000 votes in an assembly election, an alarmed IPS officer, the late Hemant Karkare, said of Gawli’s support base: “Today, it is 1,000, tomorrow it will be 10,000 and later the figure will keep increasing. We might even have him as our home minister one day, who knows?”

It was the fear of law-enforcers that drew mafia dons into politics. They were being gunned down left right and centre in encounters. Gawli was running scared and so were many others. Police encounters— or extra-judicial killings—were the norm for almost two decades. This had its effect. It sent the mafia reeling. When Ashwin Naik’s wife was contesting civic elections for the first time in the early 1990s, she said she was in the fray only because she was tired of “midnight knocks by the police”.

In 2004, taking a cue from Arun Gawli, Iqbal Kaskar, Dawood’s brother, filed his papers to contest Assembly polls from Umerkhadi. In no time, the gang’s ‘boys’ had zeroed in on the rival contestant Bashir Patel, the incumbent MLA who was fighting on an NCP ticket. Patel was an old hand in the dirty tricks department, having used the same boys to help him score victories in the past.

However, Kaskar, who was in jail at that time, withdrew his nomination. It transpired that the police told Kaskar they would tighten the noose of a chargesheet on him that would make his life miserable if he insisted on contesting the polls. Willy-nilly, Kaskar withdrew from the fray.

“The mafia does not resort to strongarm tactics anymore,” says Prem Shukla, political analyst and editor of the Hindi eveninger Dopahar ka Saamna, “Their coercive tactics has become much more subtle and sophisticated.”

Ever since electoral fortunes got inextricably linked with a candidate’s personal fortunes, local dons have become political parties in their own right. Bhai Thakur of Vasai-Virar and his brother Hitendra Thakur are an example. Land prices in Mumbai having gone through the roof, people are looking for affordable homes in the distant suburbs—in the vast swathes of land in Nalasopara, Vasai and Virar, where the Agri community holds sway because of their ancestral links and hold over villages. Ditto in Thane and Kalyan, Dombivali, Bhiwandi and other areas. Many years ago, an IPS officer from Thane told me horror stories of murder and mayhem involving local corporators and MLAs of the Agri community, even as he bemoaned his lack of proof to prosecute any of them.

Right from the mill territory of south central Mumbai to the huge pockets of land beyond Thane, the dynamics of electoral politics in the city now hinges on real estate. Exceptions apart, the police, builders, corporate houses, politicians and mafia dons are all part of a vast power matrix that dictates the way we live and the way we vote.

The experiment was first started by the Shiv Sena, which still calls the shots at the civic level by running the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, whose annual budget is bigger than that of several small states of India. Very little of that money is spent on city infrastructure. Likewise, on the outskirts of Mumbai, local civic bodies are floating on a pool of cash even as local dons prefer staying in their own fiefdoms, fighting civic and assembly elections to consolidate their hold over the territory in their constituencies. Ganglord Bhai Thakur’s brother Hitendra Thakur has his own party, the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi, which in 2009 bagged 55 of the 89 wards in civic polls. His son Kshitij Thakur is an MLA who recently roughed up a traffic cop for pulling him up for speeding.

The mafia is embedded in politics and the financial stakes are high. For local-area and state elections, it is the builder’s lobby and its mafia associates that play a big role in shaping outcomes, while in general elections, it is corporate entities— including builders or their agents—that have begun to influence popular choices. Election campaigns, including ads on TV and the internet, are typically sponsored by corporate houses that have huge sums of money at stake.

With their graduation to the big league, the mafia has given up on some of their petty earnings. Extortion calls from dons and their henchmen are few and far between. Instead, they prefer direct ownership of property and other stakes in lieu of their services. What they do to earn their share may include suppressing an ambitious candidate who can cause an electoral upset, and drawing an influx of votes to engineer a turnaround in the fortunes of a favoured candidate. The favoured lot know what the game is and are expected to work for bigger goals. Where there are deals, there are shifts in favour. So if Arun Gawli and Geeta Gawli suddenly discover a love for Congress candidates, you may ascribe it to behind- the-scenes machinations of the mafia- politician nexus.

In the 1990s, former Shiv Sena MP Mohan Rawle attended the funeral of gangster Amar Naik after he was killed in an encounter on 10 August 1996. Rawle’s loyalty to the mafia cut across gang rivalries. In 1997, when Arun Gawli was booked under the National Security Act, Rawle went on a hunger strike in protest for eight days outside the Agripada police station. He did not end his fast till Gawli’s mother offered him a glass of juice. At his annual Dussehra speech at Shivaji Park, Bal Thackeray would routinely call the Maharashtrians among these mobsters ‘Amchi muley’—‘our boys’.

Once in a while, you hear stories about the underworld planning a hit on some erring politician or the other during election time. In early 1999, the Mumbai Police were once left scratching their heads, unable to fathom a firing incident on a yacht during the birthday bash of Sanjay Nirupam, who was then with the Shiv Sena and had yet to jump ship to join the Congress. The party thrown by him was in full swing on a yacht off Madh Island when a man opened fire at someone.

The incident remains shrouded in mystery, but it was alleged that Rohit Verma, Chhota Rajan’s ace lieutenant, was present on the yatch and it was he who had dared do it. The Mumbai Crime Branch investigated the case, but nothing of substance came of it.

Later, Verma fled to Bangkok, where he got killed when Chhota Shakeel’s hitmen made an audacious attempt on Chhota Rajan’s life at Verma’s Sukhumvit Soi residence. While Verma died, Chhota Rajan lived to tell the tale.

The lack of delineation between the mafia and politicians in UP helped the Mumbai mafia in the 1990s. The city’s mobsters would find easy refuge in UP after having committed some crime or the other in Mumbai. And most of the time, the person offering them such safety was a Hindi-belt politician who was also part of the mafia. One of these, for example, was Brij Bhushan Singh, the Samajwadi Party’s MP from Kaiserganj who had famously stated that “I am a don and not a politician. I have 40 cases against me, so that makes me a mafia man.”

For once, Singh was neither lying nor exaggerating his connections with the Underworld. For many years, Singh was known in UP as a ‘Dawood man’. His huge house in Gonda district was a safe house for Dawood’s goons on the run. Singh’s name figures prominently in the statements of Dawood’s killer duo— Sunil Sawant alias Sautya and Subhash Singh Thakur. (While Sautya was killed in Dubai by Chhota Rajan’s men, Thakur is lodged in Fatehgarh jail.)

In fact, Singh’s house in Gonda played a vital role in the famous 1993 split between Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan. Before the two parted ways, Kim Bahadur Thapa, a Shiv Sena corporator who was close to Subhash Singh Thakur of the Dawood gang, was gunned down near Mangatram petrol pump in Bhandup by Rajan’s men. The killers escaped from Mumbai and took refuge in Kathmandu.

However, at the behest of Thakur, Sautya called them to Singh’s farmhouse in Gonda. Thakur, who was at the time hiding in Singh’s Delhi house, reached Gonda and killed Rajan’s sharpshooters, Diwakar Churi, Amar Avtu and Sanjay Raggad. Later, Singh’s men dumped their bodies in the Sharayu river.

Brij Bhushan Singh, then a BJP MP, was charged under TADA and sent to Tihar. But in UP, jail is rarely how a mafia career ends. His wife stood in his place and won subsequent elections for him.

Here, I should mention Ajai Rai, a member of a gang led by Brijesh Singh (involved in Mumbai’s JJ shoot out of 1992) who has got a Congress ticket for Varanasi this election, pitting him against Arvind Kejriwal and Narendra Modi in this high-profile constituency. Another gangster, Mukhtar Ansari, with a stack of criminal cases against him, has withdrawn from the fray in favour of Rai, who has won five elections so far and was once a UP cabinet minister in Rajnath Singh’s BJP government.

Incidentally, while Mumbai gangsters would once flee to UP for refuge, the pattern now works in reverse. The state’s criminal-politicians send their hitmen off to Mumbai after a hit job, to lie low.

In UP, ‘bahubali’—or ‘strong man’—is the euphemism in use for dons with criminal records. Currently, 11 such bahubalis are in the fray for Parliament seats, fighting on behalf of assorted parties in UP. As somebody who can sniff a bahubali from a distance, I would say they are in action all over India in some guise or the other, masquerading as agents of change. According to the Association of Democratic Reforms, one-third of the candidates announced by all political parties till 2 March 2014 have criminal records. Watch out!

S Hussain Zaidi’s recently released book Byculla to Bangkok chronicles the evolution of Maharashtrian mobsters in Mumbai with the tacit patronage of political parties