'D' Company on the run?

Print edition : February 28, 2003

The promulgation of the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999 has had a perceptible impact on the crime situation in Mumbai but the underworld's influence is too pervasive to be checked by the law alone.

EVENTS in the Mumbai underworld baffle and confound many of us almost unceasingly. This is not merely because of so many infamous names thrown at us, which are hard to remember. Each happening also carries with it overtones of some mystique, which whets our curiosity and provokes an insatiable desire to go deep into a forbidden yet fascinating world. Coarsely painted with human avarice and vengeance, the scene oscillates between Mumbai, Karachi and Dubai with nearly predictable frequency. It has become the staple diet of Bollywood which is both a victim and an exploiter par excellence.

Against this backdrop, the recent killing of Sharad Shetty, considered a lieutenant of Dawood Ibrahim, is a blow to the latter, something that his adversary, Chhota Rajan, can crow about for a while. The next scene in the drama (or a movie?) could be a decisive strike at Rajan, who only a few years ago had a brush with death in Bangkok. His foes were unlucky, for a change! Coming on the heels of the slaying of Shetty, the reported detention of some of Dawood's family members and aides in Dubai by the local authorities is possibly another reverse for the `D' Company. (Subsequent reports indicate that they have possibly been released and warned against indulging in any criminal activity within the United Arab Emirates.) It will be premature, however, to look upon recent incidents as the beginning of the end of a clever and calculating operator who has dictated terms to the bigwigs of Mumbai for more than two decades.

Nevertheless, he is under immense pressure to reflect on his future strategy. It will be interesting also to watch how he is going to react.

React, he should, or else he will be under further firepower from Rajan's armoury. Rajan is said to command a reservoir of resources. He has also possibly grown in strength lately through support from totally unexpected quarters. On the whole this is a situation that will continue to charm those who admire adventurism and recklessness, and should hog media attention for quite some time.

The son of a head constable in Mumbai's Crime Branch CID, 48-year-old Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar was one of those instrumental, along with a few Pathans, in forming a `Young Party' during the 1972 general elections. Essentially, a group of fanatic Muslim youth, it operated from south Mumbai to carry on smuggling and related activities. In course of time, following differences over sharing the booty, there was a split, with the Pathans walking out on Dawood to form a separate entity.

Subsequently, a few small gangs led by persons such as Arun Gawli, Amar Naik with his brother Ashwin Naik, and Rajan Nair ("Bada Rajan") came into being. These resorted to protection money rackets and also started to settle financial and land disputes. But all of them owed their loyalties to Dawood.

Looking for a strong ally after the Pathans deserted him, Dawood found one in Bada Rajan and the two came together for joint operations sometime after 1979. Around this time, Rajan Sadashiv Nikhalje alias Chhota Rajan, who specialised in the blackmarket sale of cinema tickets and had acquired notoriety for defying the police, was drawn towards Bada Rajan and the two became a formidable combination, while remaining a source of strength to Dawood. After the murder of Bada Rajan in 1983 by the Pathans aided by Abdul Kunju, once an associate of Bada Rajan, Chhota Rajan established himself as a force to reckon with. Later, Abdul Kunju's killing in 1985 was attributed to Chhota Rajan operating through one Sanjay Raggad.

The death in the same year in a police encounter of Rama Naik, another prominent associate of Dawood, is also believed to be the result of a tip-off from Dawood and Chhota Rajan, who looked upon him as a rival who needed to be eliminated.

With Dawood establishing Dubai as his base in the early 1980s for convenient smuggling operations, Chhota Rajan was at the helm of affairs in Mumbai to manage the Dawood gang's activities. The twists and turns of the Mumbai underworld became most absorbing with Chhota Rajan's decision in the late 1980s to migrate to Dubai. This was mainly to get away from a strong case of assault of police officers, in which his conviction to a long term of imprisonment was looming large. Based in Dubai, both Dawood and Chhota Rajan, began remote-controlling the Mumbai operations through their aides, many of whom were proven sharpshooters. They carried out a number of killings committed mainly to convey the message that they were still very much in control, even though they were not physically present in Mumbai. Typical of the rivalries in gang politics, Dawood soon began to suspect the loyalties of Chhota Rajan, thanks to the machinations of some close aides, and had almost given the green signal for Rajan's liquidation. The latter bought temporary peace through a total surrender to Dawood. The Bombay blast of 1993, executed by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence through Dawood came as a blessing in disguise for Chhota Rajan who was literally down and out. Rajan gave a communal twist to the whole episode to damn Dawood as a communal virus and also to confuse the ranks. He did succeed to an extent in this ploy.

Escaping soon after from the clutches of a Dawood who was under immense pressure, Rajan crept into Malaysia to set up his own base. The murders in quick succession of Philoo Khan (a suspected dealer in narcotics) in Bangkok, Takiuddin Wahid (of East West Airlines) in Mumbai and Sunil Sawant, an acknowledged henchman of Dawood, in Dubai, gave a shot in the arm to Chhota Rajan and greatly demoralised the Dawood gang. Since then, it has been a no-holds-barred fight between the rival gangs.

The attempt on Chhota Rajan's life in Bangkok, in 2000, and the murder of Sharad Shetty in Dubai, are important events that confirm the bitter edge of the animosity between the two dons. These crimes may have occurred outside India, but they have implications for our internal security considering Pakistan's unconcealed desire to use Dawood from his base in Karachi. The million-dollar question is, what should our attitude be towards Chhota Rajan? There are many cases registered against him in Mumbai courts. Does his expedient patriotism give him any immunity? These are contentious issues that cannot be resolved all that easily.

Even as we debate this, the influence of Dawood, Chhota Rajan and the several other subsidiary gangs is felt in Mumbai, though one cannot exaggerate it. Police operations have no doubt been effective. The fact, however, is that they have oscillated between very strong tactics and the not-so-strong measures. A lot has depended on the integrity and courage of police officers leading the operations. Some have covered themselves with glory, and a few have been dubious in their methods to counter the might of the gangs. Nevertheless, the common man is not very exercised over the problem because it is the moneyed - very often the ones who are both rolling in wealth and flaunt it unashamedly and who cannot account for most of their possessions - who are the target of the gangs.

AN analysis of how among all the metros in the country, it is Mumbai that has become the hotbed of gangsterism yields interesting responses from those who are knowledgeable. History provides us research material in the form of Haji Masthan and Varadaraja Mudaliar, colourful personalities who dominated the scene in the 1960s and 1970s. They were mainly known for large-scale smuggling operations. Their wealth and influence in society could not but have inspired Dawood and others who have followed him. Again, being a port city of enormous size, Mumbai gives the space and opportunity which other Indian cities can hardly match. The opulence of Dubai and the buzzling commercial life of Karachi, both about an hour's flying time from Mumbai, complete the triangle. The bond of religion is no less a factor. Mumbai has an enormous Muslim population, a section of which may ensure a continuous flow of recruits looking for money without educational equipment or hard work.

Bollywood has played not an insignificant role in the flowering of the underworld. Those in the business know how much money is needed to bring out a movie that is of acceptable standards and has also star value. The Mumbai dons have taken advantage of the resource crunch of the average film producer. This explains the strong nexus between the two.

It may be recalled that from about the beginning of the 1990s, the failure rate of Hindi movies started going up. This was not, however, accompanied by any lower fee for the artists. They had to be still paid mind-boggling sums, irrespective of how the films did in the field. Open funds to make up deficits or losses were hard to secure. The breach was effectively filled by the gangsters who had abundant black money to offer. Slowly, these elements started to demand a say in the choice of the cast as well as the director. Once this was done, gang leaders used to impose a deadline for completion of film production. Enormous pressure began to build on actors and other personalities connected with the film industry, who had to agree to stiff schedules. Convinced by the wisdom of keeping gang leaders in good humour, many of them - actors, financiers, directors, and producers - got into a close and cordial relationship with them.

The consequences of such a strategy have been disastrous. The murders of Gulshan Kumar, who made audio-cassettes and film producer Mukesh Duggal, both allegedly at the hands of the Dawood gang, and the attempt on the life of actor Rakesh Roshan were a fall-out of the intricate rivalries arising from the unholy ties between the movie world and the underworld. The government's decision to treat movie-making as an `industry' so that producers need not go to the dons for help has not greatly changed the situation. Producers will still prefer to go to them because of the speed with which liquid cash is available, and there is no documentation whatsoever of money passing hands which is liable to be scrutinised by the income-tax officials.

The prosecution of Nazim Hasan Rizvi, producer of the film Chori Chori, Chupke Chupke and Bharath Shah, financier and diamond merchant, under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime (MCOC) Act, 1999, for their alleged links with Chhota Shakeel confirms that the malady is hardly curable. The number of prosecution witnesses in this case, mostly from the film world, who have turned hostile makes a mockery of whatever government agencies are doing to break the nexus.

THE construction industry has been another area that has come under the spell of the underworld. Some of the builders themselves were responsible for this development. Their expedient but mindless moves to get apartments and plots of land vacated with the help of the gangs have been ruinous. Protection money paid by them to gangs has whetted the latter's desire to get a stranglehold over the real estate business. The underworld's investments in this area have been substantial. This phenomenon has naturally generated tensions and inter-gang rivalries. Three gangs - led by Dawood, Chhota Rajan and Arun Gawli - have spread their tentacles over the construction industry. The many murders reported in the business do not, therefore, come as a surprise.

Interestingly, investigations have revealed the entry of the underworld into the hotel industry as well. Some hotel owners, for a variety of reasons, have got mixed up with a few of the gangs. This unwitting decision to establish ties with criminals has led to several unfortunate consequences. One of the first killings arising from this queer relationship was that of Ramnath Payyade in 1995, who was eliminated by the Rajan gang for his alleged proximity to Dawood. More recently, another hotelier, Vinod Shetty, was shot dead by the Rajan gang because it suspected that he had leaked out information regarding Rajan's location in Bangkok to the Dawood gang which resulted in the attack against Rajan.

The promulgation of the MCOC Act, 1999, has no doubt brought about a perceptible change in the situation. The Act came against the background of an alarming rise in extortions during 1998, as a result of which ostentatious weddings came to a halt, luxury car purchases declined and building activity almost came to a standstill. Many arrests and prosecutions under the Act quickly restored public confidence in the Mumbai Police. One can confidently say that this well-drafted legislation has introduced more than a measure of deterrence. According to one study, the number of shootouts in Mumbai, which were 93 in 1998, came down to 40 in 1999 and 23 in 2000. The numbers killed have also shown a decline. From about 100 deaths in 1998, the figure dropped to just 18 in 2001 and 12 last year.

Gang activities do continue, but definitely on a smaller scale. They have assumed a lower profile and are also subtle in their methods to extort money. It will, however, be preposterous to think that gangs will totally go out of business soon, since many individuals in different industries need their services to wrest extra-legal solutions to intricate problems with fellow industrialists. But many among the Mumbai citizenry hold the view that the media are needlessly glamorising the gangs, thereby giving a fillip to their activities. The belief is that once the media stop paying attention, the gangs will fade away over a few years. I wish they are right!

In the ultimate analysis, one should remember that the gangs have a pervasive influence and have corrupted the entire polity. No investigations will ever succeed in unearthing the spread and identifying all the characters who are associated with the gangs only for the sake of money and other favours. This is the most unfortunate aspect of the whole scene.

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