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Chronicle of mill murders not foretold

Print edition : Aug 17, 2002 T+T-

I think I am the only foolish trade union leader fighting for the workers' rights and I know I am going to die an unsung hero.

- Union leader Datta Samant, two days before his murder.

BY the early 1990s, the old, established order in urban life was giving way to fresh uncertainties. The loss of industrial jobs was a grim reality; prices of real estate were going through the roof; and the ugly face of the underworld was emerging. All three ingredients of this deadly brew were on the boil when it came to the sale of mill land in the notorious Khatau case. The saga has all the ingredients of a "Mollywood" blockbuster, replete with guns, gangland killings and the subversion of unions. As it happens, the Khataus are one of the earliest mill-owning families in Mumbai. Their mill in Byculla was 125 years old in 1994, which means that it was established barely a dozen years after the first mill in the city. It occupies 13 acres of very valuable land.

In the early 1990s, the mill, with 5,700 workers, had accumulated losses totalling Rs.54 crores. The Chairman and Managing Director, Sunit Khatau, who was 55 years of age, wanted to shift to a larger, though less valuable, 40-acre plot that he had acquired in Borivli. Alternately, he wanted to move right out of Mumbai to Mahad, where the mill had established a weaving unit in 1985. In 1991-92 - it was the introduction of the liberalised economic policy which served as the backdrop for this sordid drama - the Khatau Makanji Spinning & Weaving Co. went to the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR).

Part of the rehabilitation package was the sale of the Byculla land. The BIFR and Maharashtra government approved of the scheme provided the recognised union, the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh (RMMS), consented to it. There was initially a disagreement over what the 50,000 sq m of land was worth. According to Khatau, it was only worth Rs.80 crores, but the government and financial agencies believed it was closer to Rs.250 crores, judging by the prices of nearby real estate. Moreover, the president of the RMMS, Haribhau Naik, refused to allow the sale to go through unless there was a clear proposal to rehabilitate the workers who would lose their jobs. He suspected that Khatau was interested in liquidating his prime asset for his personal gain.

Khatau engineered the defeat of Haribhau Naik in the RMMS elections to further his scheme. Naik was replaced by Shankarrao Jadhav with the help of the gangster, Arun Gawli. His nephews, Sachin and Vijay Ahir, were already working as Khatau's personal assistants and bodyguards. Khatau is alleged to have come to an understanding whereby he would help Jadhav become president of the union in return for his "persuading" the workers to shift to Borivli. Jadhav was supported by the Gawli gang, which supplied him with arms, ammunition and lakhs of rupees. Naik and Narendra Tidke, State president of the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) - the all-India Congress-sponsored organisation - had personally briefed Chief Minister Sharad Pawar on what was happening and warned him that inaction would mean compromising the trade union movement.

With Jadhav ensconced in the corrupt and manipulative RMMS - which was a post-war creature of the Congress government, godfathered by the notorious Bombay Industrial Relations (BIR) Act, to ensure that there would be only one union to represent all textile workers - Khatau is believed to have connived with Gawli to sell his Byculla land. Gawli is variously alleged to have been promised Rs.5 crores or 5 per cent of the sale value - the land was estimated to fetch anything between Rs.250 crores and Rs.400 crores, considering it was at the height of Mumbai's real estate bonanza. The two Ahirs (Sachin is the secretary and Govindrao Adik, the senior Congress leader, the President of the RMMS) went on a rampage inside the mill and coerced the workers to sign a declaration agreeing to shift the mill to Borivli.

Armed with this declaration, Khatau went back to the State government and sought permission to sell the land. According to reports, he had almost sewn up a contract with a construction company which was a front for the gang led by Dawood Ibrahim, who had set up base in Dubai. Dr. Datta Samant openly made this allegation, saying that the deal had been struck for Rs.400 crores. He stated that politicians and mill owners were responsible for the infiltration of criminal elements into unions. "To get the consent of the majority of mill workers for such deals, they brought in criminal gangs to intimidate workers," Samant alleged, citing the Khatau episode.

After Dawood Ibrahim - of 'D Company' notoriety - fled to Dubai in the early 1980s and the remnants of his gang were hunted after the March 1993 serial bomb blasts in Mumbai, the two rival gangs of Arun Gawli and Amar Naik sought to fill the vacuum. Gawli, described as the "more earthy" of the two dons, was said to have planned entering politics. One of his gang members, holed up in the infamous Dagdi Chawl, its den in south central Mumbai - ironically, cheek by jowl with several cotton mills - asserted: "Bhai is the only rival worth the name to Dawood. So naturally Dawood's men are after him. But the police here would also like to see him dead. Sooner or later he is likely to be shot down in an encounter, so politics is the only way out." According to Amarjit Singh Samra, the former Mumbai Commissioner of Police, "The Arun Gawli gang is a force of nearly 800 dare-devils, who get a monthly honorarium of up to Rs.4,000. Pitched battles for the underworld crown are being fought and it appears that the 'final' fight will be between Arun Gawli and Amar Naik, as Dawood is fast becoming an out-of-sight, out-of-mind character, although he owns crores worth of assets here. In 10 years, this ordinary-looking son of a police head constable had become, virtually, omnipresent in any crime."

On May 7, 1994, Sunit Khatau was being driven in his white Mercedes at a traffic light near the Mahalaxmi Race Course when two gangsters on a motorcycle broke a window using a hammer, shot him in cold blood 11 times and escaped. His driver whisked him to the Nair public hospital, where he was declared dead on arrival. It was the first such killing in broad daylight of a prominent industrialist, which sent shock waves through the city. In highly dramatic fashion, it focussed attention on the role of the underworld in speculative land deals in the commercial capital. According to one theory - and gangland killings often lent themselves to wild and partly-substantiated speculation on the part of the police and media - Khatau was identified too closely with Gawli and was murdered by the rival Amar Naik gang. Had the Byculla land deal gone through, Naik feared, Gawli would be able to buy every AK-47 in town and eliminate rivals. It was also said to be in retaliation for the near-fatal attack on Ashwin Naik, Amar's brother, on April 18 at the sessions court in Mumbai, when he was shot in the head at point-blank range, which reduced him to partial paralysis.

On his part, Pawar reacted to Khatau's murder by immediately stopping the sale of any more mill land because the underworld had entered these transactions. The State government was also said to be planning to remove the textile industry from the purview of the BIR Act of 1946, but that was political bluster: the Congress had no intention whatsoever of relinquishing control over the union it had in its pocket. Govindrao Adik still presides over it, with Sachin Ahir as secretary. After the murder of Khatau, industrialists were quoted as saying: "The killing could slow down the sale of surplus land by other mills or the underworld may start demanding a share." A magazine put the total value of over 500 acres of surplus mill land alone at Rs.8,275 crores and these properties after development as apartment or office complexes at Rs.15,270 crores.

Datta Samant, who led the 1982-83 marathon textile mill strike, was a bitter critic of the policy to permit redevelopment of mill land. "The sale of mill lands and other factory lands is because of the Chief Minister's policies," he alleged. "Several sick units have closed down over the past two years because of the nexus among the politicians, the builders, the owners and the unions. They want to throw the workers out and make money. Most of the mills are not sick. They are made sick."

By any reckoning, the Khatau episode was a sordid chapter in the history of Mumbai's industrial relations. There were some early indications of these murky trends. In 1989, the police arrested Kirti Ambani, the head of public relations of Reliance Industries, the rapidly rising synthetic textile empire masterminded by Dhirubhai Ambani, for hiring Arjun Babaria, a local gangster, to kill Ambani's arch rival, Nusli Wadia of the well-established and modernised Bombay Dyeing mill.

The clinching proof of the infiltration of gangland politics into mill affairs, according to a Khatau mill worker whom the author interviewed, was the fact that at Sunit Khatau's funeral, it was none of the senior managers who delivered the oration but Sachin Ahir himself. He is reported to have pledged to fulfil Khatau's dream and shift the mill to Borivli. The worker cited that there were 500 employees who owed their allegiance to Gawli. Everyone in the mill was afraid but they could not raise their voices because they had families to support. The RMMS had apparently agreed to the retrenchment of 650 workers in Khatau's revival scheme.

IN January 1997, Datta Samant was brutally gunned down by four hired assassins outside his home, sending reverberations through the entire trade union movement. There was endless speculation regarding the killers. Just before his murder, Samant had been involved in a prolonged and ultimately unsuccessful lock-out at Premier Automobiles, which had a collaboration with Peugeot, at its Kurla and Dombivli factories. The veteran trade unionist, a former medical doctor, had made his mark in the engineering industry after coming into contact with patients who were working in quarries and getting drawn into their struggles. At the height of his power, he probably commanded the support of more workers as a leader of unions run by a single individual than any other such unionist in the entire world - as distinct from unions affiliated to political parties or other groups. His Kamgar Aghadi had a combined strength of nearly 2.5 lakh workers in 300 industrial units.

In November 1997, the police closed the Samant murder case as unsolved after naming 16 accused, though nine of them, including gangsters Chhota Rajan and Guru Satam, were absconding. Sachin Ahir was also interrogated. The police alleged that inter-union rivalry at the Premier Automobiles (PAL) plants was responsible; unionists cited how there were clashes between Samant and Ahir, who had gone on record as supporting the controversial proposal by mill owners to sell their land. With Ahir's tentacles spreading beyond the city's textile mills, their rivalry was intensified. Samant was ousted from Modistone's Sewri unit and Ahir installed as its union president.

THE third and last of the "mill murders" that shook the commercial capital of the country took pace on April 17, 1997 - only three months after Samant's death. Vallabhbhai Thakkar, the owner of Raghuvanshi Mills was shot dead within his car by two assassins at point-blank range. Since Thakkar had voluntarily accompanied them in his own car, it was obvious that they were known to each other. According to the police, the gangsters were allegedly sent by Sada Pawle, a close associate of Arun Gawli who was running the gang's operations during the latter's imprisonment, to demand some money from the mill owner as payment for "persuading" some of Thakkar's tenants to vacate their premises. Some months later, Pawle himself was shot dead by the police.

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