Dons in a new role

Print edition : December 17, 2004

Arun Gawli in his chawl. - VIVEK BENDRE

Three prominent ganglords make it to the Maharashtra Assembly this time. Does this mean an indictment of the democratic polity, which has failed to meet the people's expectations?

THEY form an unholy trinity - the three mafia dons who were recently elected members of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly from Mumbai. Their constituencies are located in the three corners of Mumbai - Arun Gawli's in central Mumbai, Hitendra Thakur's in the northwestern suburbs and Pappu Kalani's in the northeastern townships.

Before 1992, they were affiliated to different wings of the Dawood Ibrahim gang. Then Gawli and Thakur broke away. Kalani remains loyal to Dawood, Mumbai's most notorious gangster. All the three started their careers in the mid-1980s and profited from extortion and real estate. Now the violence and killings within Mumbai's mafia have subsided.

"Currently, their collection networks are well-entrenched and institutionalised. Once your reputation is established you do not need violence. But that does not mean there is no fear. How else are they making such high revenues?" a police officer said.


The results in many of Mumbai's 34 constituencies were unclear before the counting of votes. But no one doubted whether the three dons would win. It is not just strong-arm tactics that got them victory. The dons have, over the years, nurtured their constituencies and won the people's loyalty by helping them with their everyday problems, whether civic or personal. They are always accessible, unlike the administration's officials or Ministers. Indeed, it is no longer taboo to be linked with the mob.

What makes them tick? How did they manage to gain popularity and win by such large margins? Frontline takes a look at how, after building their fortunes, they built mass support.

When campaign for the Assembly elections was at its peak, the members of a local football club decided it was the right time to tap their candidates for funds to build a gymnasium. They first approached Shiv Sena Member of Parliament Mohan Rawale, whom they asked for Rs.25,000. He gave them Rs.10,000. Then, they went to Arun Gawli. Without batting an eyelid, he instructed the man standing behind him to give them Rs.2,00,000 in cash. In return, Gawli instructed them to ensure that the people in their locality voted for him. The next week, when Shiv Sena activists came to campaign, they were not even allowed to enter the neighbourhood. That is what you call undying loyalty.

Arun Gawli's victory from Chinchpokli marks the consolidation of a fiefdom he built over 15 years, after he split from the Dawood Ibrahim gang. A retrenched mill worker's son, Gawli started his extortion mafia in his central Mumbai neighbourhood, Dagdi chawl, which is now the headquarters of his party, the Akhil Bharatiya Sena (ABS). Today, this slight don wears a neta topi and operates from behind the high, barricaded gates of his chawl.

In this decrepit mill area, Gawli has shared his spoils in exchange for votes. In the compound of Dagdi chawl is a crowd waiting to meet him and seek his help. "Chawl residents visit him with complaints. He gets his men to arrange for the repairs of their crumbling old buildings even before they reach home after meeting Gawli. He has erected water pipes, built toilets, and runs a free ambulance service. He helps people when they need money for medical treatment or to get their daughters married. Who else does all that for people? Has any politician bothered?" asked a former mill worker who now drives a taxi.

Early in his career, Gawli bought off large sections of the constabulary. "He was the first to send money to the widows of policemen. Even today, he provides infrastructural assistance in the police lines situated in his constituency. While we [police officers] keep pushing papers and complaining for months on end to get the police quarters repaired, he spends money and gets the work done in a matter of days," a police officer said.

Gawli projects himself as the champion of the youth, which is why he is called `Daddy'. "At least he gets people jobs. Are the Ministers doing anything?" asked a former mill worker. His party has been trying to wrest control of several unions from the Shiv Sena, including the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd., airport and Oberoi Hotel unions. The Gawli gang's tactics are in many ways not very different from the Shiv Sena's, which makes them natural rivals. Unlike the Shiv Sena, Gawli has gained the confidence of Muslims in his area by promising them security against communal attacks.

The ABS was launched in 1997, soon after Gawli's release from jail. The first elected member of the party was Sunil Ghate, a corporator. Since then, Gawli and his supporters have worked actively to expand their base. Gawli's victory in the Assembly elections was his first poll victory.

His voters are not too concerned about his criminal background, as long as he gets the work done. "Gangsters are not born, they are made. After the mills shut down, many youth could not find work anywhere else, so they joined gangs. Of course, there is fear, but there is also hunger," said a retrenched mill worker.

"There was a time when there would be a killing in Ulhasnagar every Tuesday." That is the story you hear at every street corner. In the early 1990s, the weekly shootouts occured when local gangsters, Pappu Kalani and Gopal Rajwani, settled scores. Ulhasnagar has changed since then. Now Pappu Kalani, still affiliated to Dawood Ibrahim, is the undisputed don of the area. He was elected as an independent MLA for the fourth consecutive time. This time he had the backing of the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party-Republican Party of India alliance.

For more than 15 years, Kalani has held sway in Ulhasnagar, a huge township on the northeastern periphery of Mumbai, which has a large Sindhi community, mainly refugees from what is now Pakistan. This industrious business community made Ulhasnagar a buzzing manufacturing centre, teeming with small workshops producing all kinds of goods from textiles to electronics to papad.

Here, Pappu Kalani's family ran a distillery. Pappu decided to spread his wings and get into smuggling, politics and real estate. He was first elected an MLA in 1990, on the Congress ticket, and then he contested twice from prison. This time he won on the RPI (Athawale) ticket. Kalani controls the Ulhasnagar Municipal Council, of which his wife Jyoti was once president.

Hitendra Thakur with his supporters.-

Voters feel that Pappu has done a lot for building roads in Ulhasnagar. "He does a lot for slum-dwellers, like installing water taps and building roads. He has no opponent here," said a vegetable vendor. When it was pointed out that a Bharatiya Janata Party candidate contested against him, the man replied: "It is the first time he is contesting. Maybe next time he will stand a better chance."

Kalani was jailed in 1992 when Sudhakarrao Naik became Chief Minister. Sudhakarrao Naik had Kalani and Bhai Thakur expelled from the Congress and re-investigations ordered into cases against them. They were jailed under the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Act, or TADA. Kalani was detained in connection with a shootout at J.J. Hospital in central Mumbai.

Kalani's opponents say that his popularity is waning. "During his first term, he was popular because he improved the roads and the water supply. But after that he did nothing. People are angry because builders have had their way and the township is growing totally unplanned. Corporators have demolished public latrines to make way for buildings. You cannot do any trade or business here without Kalani's men extracting their share. Many businessmen have moved out," said one of his adversaries.

Are people afraid of Kalani? "Why should we be scared? The cases against him are his personal matter, they do not affect us. If a mosquito troubles you, won't you kill it?" said Sunil Jotrimani, a shopkeeper. Whether through fear or favour, Kalani has managed to keep his fiefdom in tact, after almost 10 years in jail.

It was Sunday morning but we were stuck in rush hour. The hordes in Virar, the commuter suburb at the end of Mumbai's Western Railway, were not pushing us out of the local train as they do normally, but pushing us in while queuing up outside the office of their newly elected MLA, Hitendra Thakur. In his poky office just outside Virar station, people dressed in their Sunday best streamed in with flowers to congratulate their bhai and ask him for help.

It was a motley crowd - businessmen flattering the new king, building residents asking him to solve their water problem, and giggly schoolteachers who came just to wish their patron. Through it all Hitendra bhai was polite and welcoming, serving them cool drinks and listening patiently to their problems.

"There may be other MLAs who have done more work, but I have the personal touch," HitendraThakur tells us. "I am available here all day, unless I have a meeting. I listen to people, attend their functions, sort out even their family problems, until late in the night."

Hitendra Thakur's is the last word in Vasai-Virar, a lush, green belt that has been converted to an urban sprawl, thanks, in large part, to the don's activities. An Adivasi area situated along Mumbai's northern coast, it is now a suburb with a large, educated middle-class population. He controls the local economy and business contracts. He reportedly holds sway over the entire tanker and construction syndicate here.

The list of cases against Hitendra Thakur and his brother Jayendra alias Bhai Thakur is long - extortion, criminal intimidation, attempt to murder, murder and land grab. Bhai Thakur, once part of the Dawood gang, is in jail, booked under TADA. Like Pappu Kalani, he too was put behind bars after Sudhakarrao Naik took over as Chief Minister.

Hitendra Thakur was orphaned at the age of three. His family had a small caf. Now his businesses include resorts, shopping malls, multiplexes, hospitals, educational institutions and so on. "Thakur has every official in his pocket. Initially, he even fudged land records so that he could demand a share in every land transaction," said a police officer. "Every builder has to buy materials only from the people he favours, use only his transport companies, employ his boys as security guards. That is how he creates employment for his people and earns their loyalty."

During the election campaign, Thakur doled out the goodies. Women performed aarti for him in the areas he visited. He sponsored parties in most building societies and at beach resorts three days before election day.

"If we just mention his name, things get going," said Vaishali, a teacher in one of his schools. "He is like a messiah for us. He is not a gangster. People always criticise those who do good and help others."

Projecting himself as a youth leader, Hitendra Thakur has also built schools and a college in the area. "I make sure that not a single student is denied admission in my college. I also plan to build a huge campus with professional courses," he said. "You should come here during the last week of the year when we organise our annual youth festival. It is a huge sports and cultural event, like the Olympics, which I started when I was first elected MLA in 1990."

"What has he done for Vasai?" asks an activist. "Look at the state of the roads, we have to rely on tanker water, there is no hospital here. There are no buses to reach the 62 villages here. All health and education facilities are in private hands." His tankers have depleted water from the wells in the region, lowering the water table dramatically. Fields that were once green have become marshy owing to saline ingress. "Without his backing, no professional or businessman can survive here. That is how the constituency, 80 per cent of whose voters are educated, chose someone like him. But the poor Adivasis and Kolis are against him," says the activist.

People remember the days in the early 1990s when there was violence every day. Now killings are rare. The most tragic murder was, however, that of social activist Navleen Kumar, who dared to fight against the grabbing of land belonging to Adivasis, two years ago. Activists working with her are threatened almost every week.

"People here keep saying haan ji (yes) in order to survive. But why should we all have to bow down to get what is rightfully ours?" asks a resident. Those like Navleen Kumar who did demand their rights paid a heavy price.

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