The politics of street wars

Print edition : January 08, 2000

A string of recent killings in Mumbai point to a war between the Dawood Ibrahim empire and the Shiv Sena, with dangerous communal overtones.

ATMARAM BAGWE left the small telephone booth he owned at Four Bungalows market on the evening of December 14, as he did most days. He began walking towards the Shiv Sena office up the street, which occupies the last of a block of shops illegally construc ted on the pavement. Bagwe never made it: gunmen pulled up next to the small-time Shiv Sena politician and put three bullets through his body at near-point-blank range. Two passed through Bagwe's chest and the third through his cheek. Bagwe died on the w ay to Cooper Hospital, a 15-minute drive away.

Several factors ensured that the killing of the little-known Shiv Sena politician became a key moment in the ongoing communal war in the Mumbai underworld. Bagwe's wife, Anita Bagwe, is a Shiv Sena member of the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation. Her p olitical influence ensured that the murder led to a furious response from Shiv Sena cadres in suburban Mumbai, with mobs forcing the closure of shops and businesses in the Andheri area. Shiv Sena politicians joined the chorus, with former Chief Minister Narayan Rane charging the Democratic Front Government with allowing mafia rule.

Rane's outpourings, perhaps unsurprisingly, have little basis in fact. Bagwe's death was only the second killing of a Shiv Sena figure since the Democratic Front Government took power on October 18. Shakha pramukh Vivek Kelkar had on December 9 been shot through the head by gunmen sent out by mafia baron Shakeel Ahmad Babu, better known by his alias Chhota Shakeel. By contrast, six Shiv Sena workers were killed in mafia attacks from January 1998 during Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party rule. Besides, att empts were made on the life of Mumbai's former Mayor and Shiv Sena leader Milind Vaidya in December 1998 and March 1999.

Significantly, not all these killings were communal in nature. The murders of Manohar Jhingade in January 1998 and Kedari Redekar in March 1998 were attributed to gunmen from the mafia group headed by Arun Gawli. Gawli had at that time broken out of the Shiv Sena's embrace and formed his own political organisation. A third murder, that of Manohar Chavan on July 2, 1998, was traced by investigators to a property dispute in which the Malaysia-based gang of Rajendra Nikhalje, alias Chhota Rajan, had an int erest. Only the twin attempts on Vaidya and the killing of another Shiv Sena worker had explicit communal overtones.

Chhota Shakeel made no secret of his offensive against the Shiv Sena. In an interview to Frontline, given in March from his Karachi home, Shakeel claimed that his attacks were intended to punish persons who had been indicted by the Justice B.N. Sr ikrishna Commission of Inquiry for a role in the communal riots in Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993. Vaidya and the others who had been indicted, he said, would face attacks in the future as well. The enterprise was evidently guided by Shakeel's need to build legitimacy among his dwindling network of supporters among Mumbai's inner-city Muslim poor and to attract new recruits. In the event, no further attacks took place although the Shakeel group was believed to have shipped in fresh supplies of at least six Kalashnikov assault rifles.

If it was the fear of state power that deterred further attacks on high-profile Shiv Sena targets, that fear would have dissipated with the coming to power of the Democratic Front. But the Shakeel group still stayed away from high-profile targets. Neithe r Bagwe nor Kelkar had any documented connection with the riots of 1992-1993; this has led to speculation that the Shakeel mafia's real motives for the killings were purely local. Some persons believe that dubious property transactions, or even revenge c ontracts to punish romantic affairs, were in fact the real factors behind the killings.

There are, however, other interesting theories that account for the renewal of the killings. For one, Dawood Ibrahim's Mumbai network, of which Shakeel's mafia is just the largest unit, came in for extraordinary losses through 1999. Mumbai Police data sh ow that in 1997 and 1998, the operatives of both Dawood Ibrahim and Rajendra Nikhalje were involved in near-equal numbers of police shoot-outs. Through 1999, in the wake of Shakeel's declaration of war against the Shiv Sena, the figures were transformed dramatically. Shakeel's operatives appear to have become the Mumbai Police's principal targets. They were involved in more than half of the 64 shoot-outs that took place and accounted for a similar proportion of gang members killed.

If the loss of personnel hit Shakeel, there is also evidence to show that the Mumbai Police cost him, and other underworld figures, business. The numbers of people killed in Mumbai gang-related violence rose from just one in 1995 to 23 in 1997 and to 48 in 1998. But 1999 saw a sharp decline, with just seven recorded murders until October 31, the last date for which official figures were available at the time of writing. This remarkable decline reflected a general fall in violent crimes involving firearm s. Registered cases of extortion also fell from 367 in 1998 to 259 by the end of October.

This dramatic decline in the figures related to organised crime reflected the underworld's losses. Out of a total of 376 underworld operatives picked up by the Mumbai Police by the end of October 1999, 167 belonged to the Dawood Ibrahim empire. The figur es for both arrests and killings of underworld operatives are the highest so far recorded in Mumbai. As many as 425 firearms were seized in 1998, and a further 417 until October 31, 1999 - again record figures. "Contrary to popular perception," says Mumb ai's Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) D. Sivanandan, "both 1998 and 1999 were remarkably bad years for organised crime. Mafia groups in Mumbai received a hammering of the kind they never have before."

WHAT then does the killing of Atmaram Bagwe signify? The strange case of Additional Sessions Judge J.W. Singh casts interesting light on the latest round of killings. Warrants for Judge J.W. Singh's arrest were issued in December after the Mumbai Police intercepted telephonic conversations between him and Shakeel. The intercepts formed part of the investigation of the murder of lawyer Kailash Sutrale, allegedly on Chhota Shakeel's orders, in February 1999. Investigators revealed that Judge J.W. Singh ha d, through prominent criminal lawyer Liaqat Sheikh, offered to release members of the Chhota Shakeel group in return for the mafia leader's help in securing the return of Rs.40 lakhs that had been allegedly embezzled by a business associate (see box on t ranscripts of conversation).

Judge J.W. Singh acquitted Sashi Namdeo Kadam and Vakil Rajkumar Bind, two key members of the Shakeel gang who had been charged with murder, after he received half his money. The Judge continues to be a fugitive from justice. Reliable sources told Fro ntline that legal officials close to the Judge had offered to secure his surrender if the police allowed him to travel to the Nanded Gurdwara to offer penance. Police officials turned down the deal; they say they are confident that the Judge will soo n surface in Mumbai. Several other top figures in the legal establishment, including three criminal lawyers, are being separately investigated for alleged connection with Shakeel.

Serious though it is, judicial corruption is in some senses less important than the content of Shakeel's conversations with J.W. Singh. The mafia boss' almost farcical sense of moral outrage at encounters with the Mumbai Police suffuses the dialogue. Sha keel complains repeatedly of police brutality and injustice, but in the same breath turns happily to his execution of Sutrale. "The important point here," says one intelligence official, "is that Shakeel feels he has been singled out. He is signalling to the Government that unless they ease off, he is still capable of giving them a serious political headache by starting off attacks against the Shiv Sena again."

If this was indeed Shakeel's motive, it appears to have backfired. On December 17, the Mumbai Police, which had been relatively quiet since the Democratic Front took power, renewed its offensive against the underworld. That afternoon, two members of the Shakeel group, identified by their aliases Kanwar Munna and Chhotu, were shot dead in Mumbai's Jogeshwari area. Their associate, Noor Mohammed Abu Bakar Sheikh, was killed outside the Chandan Cinema in Juhu the same night. A fourth underworld figure, Ash win Naik's aide Vilas Mahadev Kadke, was also shot dead. Kadke, widely known by his nickname Yamdoot (agent of the god of death), was responsible for the killing of two members of the rival Gawli gang, Ramdas Ambaonkar and Deepak Dev.

Such retaliation is, however, unlikely to mark the end of the war sparked off by the Shakeel gang last year. For one, Shakeel's opportunistic appropriation of the Srikrishna Report has found some empathetic echoes among riot-affected Muslim communities i n Mumbai, to whom justice has been denied for the best part of a decade. Indeed, it seems clear that the communal peace in Mumbai is more fragile than most believe. This Ramzan season, the ultra-right Students Islamic Movement of India, which was at leas t partly responsible for the recent communal riots in Aurangabad, was selling, through Mumbai's busy Mohammad Ali Road, at Rs.20 apiece new year calendars inviting recruits for jihad (holy war) and shahadat (martyrdom).

IF Shakeel seeks to gain merit and influence government through his murderous enterprise, the Hindu Right is not particularly unhappy. Hindu communal mobilisation is an obvious means to undo the rout of the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party in the Assembl y elections, a fact that was illustrated most recently when Bajrang Dal activists attacked a mildly satirical account of the Mahabharata staged in Pune on December 19. "Yadakadachit" was forced off-stage because, among other things, of scenes where the K auravas are forced into exile in the forests, and Duryodhana is forced to account for his presence there by sandalwood smuggler Veerappan. Street celebrations organised by the Shiv Sena to commemorate the demolition of the Babri Masjid were a major facto r in triggering the Aurangabad riots.

Understanding the continuing war between the Dawood Ibrahim empire and the Shiv Sena means engaging with the fact that Bal Thackeray's organisation is no ordinary party. As with any mafia group, organised violence has long been among its main idioms; ext ortion and intimidation are organic parts of its political vocabulary. Shakeel is, in important senses, merely attempting to win mass legitimacy in the same manner that the Shiv Sena so successfully did. For that reason, if for no other, Atmaram Bagwe is most certainly not going to be the last casualty of the battle between Mumbai's most powerful street-level organisations.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

The following are excerpts of the transcript of a telephonic conversation between Additional Sessions Judge J.W. Singh and mafioso Chhota Shakeel, translated from Hindi. The complete transcript now forms part of the First Information Report against J udge J.W. Singh, who remains a fugitive at the time of writing:

J.W. Singh: We have to get our money back from someone.

Shakeel: Yes, tell me, I'm listening. J.W. Singh: His name is Dara.

Shakeel: Dara - just a minute. Fahim, get that pen and diary here. Right, go on.

J.W. Singh: We have to get at least Rs.35-40 lakhs from him. The money belongs to the whole family. To my son, my in-laws.

Shakeel: OK. Do you have his telephone number and so on?

* * *

Shakeel: I was saying, the police are killing boys with families. Why don't you take action against these policemen?

J.W. Singh: We should do, definitely we ought to.

Shakeel: No, no, why don't you just do it? What is this, bhai (brother)?

J.W. Singh: Actually, I need a case to come up before me first.

Shakeel: Yes, the matter will come before you. Still, the police did that, they did whatever to that inquiry judge (reference presumably to a High Court inquiry that recently cleared police officials of charges of staging false encounters). After that, t he police have stepped up the number of encounters. The police understand nothing about the law!

J.W. Singh: It's an outrage, an injustice!

Shakeel: When people like you talk of outrages and injustices, how do you expect us to feel?

J.W. Singh: What can I do, what can I do! * * *

Shakeel: Look how it is, just the other day one of your lawyers handed over one of my men straight to (Crime Branch official Pradeep) Salaskar.

J.W. Singh: Yes, I heard a lot about it.

Shakeel: Yes! I sent that (lawyer Kishore) Sutrale away (Sutrale was murdered in the Mumbai suburb of Borivali in early 1999). But if your profession gets involved like this with the police, then whom can one trust?

J.W. Singh: Some of us are nice men.

Shakeel: Yes, there are good people. But that doesn't mean you take bad men from their families and kill them!

J.W. Singh: No, no, never, its very bad!

Shakeel: To pick up somebody in front of their parents, their sisters, and then send the dead body back home, what kind of custom is this?

J.W. Singh: It's utterly unjust.

Shakeel: Then you people deliver some justice. Find a solution. Pay some attention to this.

J.W. Singh: Yes, certainly, certainly!
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