Of politics and profit

Published : May 27, 2000 00:00 IST

The Shiv Sena was one up on professional criminals when it was in power in Maharashtra; now the mafias are striking back.

A SMALL Shiv Sena office stands at the head of the Four Bungalows market in suburban Mumbai, a fortress-wall motif painted in bright saffron on its tin walls. In the beginning, the Sena office was the only structure on the market pavement. Now there is a long row of makeshift shops that stretch down the road. The illegally raised shops eventually received legal sanction. Unsurprisingly, no one is willing to discuss the mechanics of how this parallel market came into being and received the blessings of t he Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), but it is not difficult to make out what the deal might have been.

The Four Bungalows market, and dozens of places like it across Mumbai, hold out not a few clues about the full-blown assault launched against the Shiv Sena by the Mumbai underworld. Three Shiv Sena leaders were shot dead in April alone, the latest in a s eries of executions initiated in December 1999 by the mafia group led by Shakeel Ahmed Babu. Shakeel claims that the killings are ideological - driven by a desire to avenge the murder of undertrials in the Mumbai serial bombing cases by the rival mafia o f Rajendra Nikhalje, and the failure of successive governments to punish Shiv Sena figures who engineered the communal riots of 1992-1993. The Sena agrees that the killings are ideological, but insists that they have been master-minded by the Congress(I) -Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance.

But profit, not politics, might be driving this war. Through its five years in power, the Sena ran perhaps the most formidable roughneck apparatus ever seen in Mumbai, using state power to displace traditional criminal organisations active in protection rackets, land racketeering and film finance. Now Shakeel is hitting back. And there are signs that his group is not the only one with a grievance.

VIKAS PATIL'S wife opened the door for the man who walked into their drawing room and proceeded to shoot her husband, twice in the chest and once in the head. No one knows why the 26-year-old head of the Shiv Sena in Navi Mumbai was killed. Patil had no documented role in the Mumbai riots, and was too low down in the hierarchy to have any significant role in the party's affairs. Rumours had for long been in circulation that the Sena, until its recent defeat in the municipal elections in Navi Mumbai, had facilitated a series of dubious property deals and secured protection payments from local businesses. If police investigators remain silent on possible motives for Patil's April 26 killing, his irrelevance in the Shiv Sena hierarchy has led some people to make the obvious inferences.

The killing came just five days after the assassination of former Shiv Sena shakha pramukh (branch leader) Baban Surve along with his friend Shivkumar Bajaj at Malvani in suburban Mumbai. The friends were shot dead late at night in a public park w here they used to have a drink. Sena workers reacted with anger to the murder, shutting down the Goregaon-Malad area where Surve had served, but the fact is that he was, like Patil, a minor apparatchik. Five suspects held for Surve's assassination appear to know little about just why he was targeted. Mujahid Sheikh, an unemployed plumber who had moved to Mumbai from Assam recently, had had no idea whom he had been tasked to assassinate. Sheikh received an advance of Rs.5,000 for the killing, and was to share the final payment of Rs.15,000 with his four associates.

Dindoshi shakha pramukh Shivaji Chavan was the first of the Shiv Sena cadre to be eliminated in April. The 40-year-old Reserve Bank of India employee was shot dead at point-blank range on April 19, probably by a single assassin carrying two hand-h eld weapons. Chavan was killed shortly after he parked his scooter outside a railway station on the suburban line that night, suggesting that his murderer either followed him or was waiting at the station. No suspects have been picked up for the killing, but officials believe that contract assassins hired by the Shakeel group were responsible. As in the case of Surve and Patil, Chavan had no documented record of involvement in the riots of 1992-1993, but sources told Frontline that the shakha pramukh had attracted controversy with regard to a series of local land deals executed while the Shiv Sena-BJP coalition government was in power.

Some officials believe that low-level Sena figures have been targeted because more senior politicians in the organisation are hard to hit. Shakeel mafia member Salim Mohammed Amin, some-time journalist for the Hindi tabloid Dopahar and a former so ldier in the United Arab Emirates, told his police interrogators that the attacks had been carried out in order to sharpen communal tension. That might well be true, but there is evidence that Shakeel has the firepower to hit top Sena politicians. In Mar ch 1999, the Shakeel group attacked former Mumbai Mayor and an accused in cases relating to the riots, Milind Vaidya, at his residence in the Mahim area. Kalashnikov assault rifles were used in the attack, which is believed to have been carried out by La shkar-e-Taiba commander Azam Ghauri, one-time aide to Abdul Aziz Sheikh. Vaidya had survived an assassination attempt on December 17, 1998, although a bullet lodged itself in his neck. Sheikh, arrested in July 1999 from a safehouse in Lucknow, later told interrogators that the Shakeel group had secured supplies of assault rifles through Nepal.

Just what, then, is the underworld up to? Shakeel's occasional flirtations with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are no secret. Resident in Karachi, he is charged along with his mentor Dawood Ibrahim with having played a key role in the Mumba i serial bombings of 1993. Abdul Razzak 'Tiger' Memon, Shakeel's associate in those bombings, is also known to have cooperated with terrorist groups, notably the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). Sheikh's decision to join the Shakeel group, made after the Hyderabad gangster completed a training course in Pakistan with Ghauri, again indicates the existence of linkages between the Mumbai underworld and terrorist organisations. And Shakeel has sought to gain legitimacy among Mumbai Muslims by repr esenting himself as a vigilante punishing the perpetrators of communal riots.

WHAT is intriguing, however, is the extent to which these postures are underpinned by sound business considerations. Consider the case of film finance, a key enterprise of mafia groups. Film-making in Mumbai involves financiers having to provide large am ounts of cash up front, and heavy financial risks. Mafia organisations were ready for both. Sena rule, however, saw party supremo Bal Thackeray's daughter-in-law Smita Thackeray emerging as a credible challenger to traditional mafia-linked financiers. Sm ita could secure commitments from top stars for shooting dates. Raising cash, too, does not appear to have been a problem.

Perhaps predictably, film producers gravitated towards the new Shiv Sena regime, backed as it was by state power: Smita became a regular host of industry events.

When the Sena was voted out, the underworld resurfaced. The attack on film producer Rakesh Roshan on January 21 this year, investigators believe, was not undertaken with the intent to kill, but to signal that the Sena could no longer protect its clients. Roshan had stonewalled demands from the Bahrain-based mafia of Ali Budesh for a percentage of the profits from the overseas sale of the Hindi blockbuster, Kaho Na Pyaar Hai. Sunil Vithal Gaikwad (33) and Sachin Kamble (20) were then assigned to s hoot the producer. Although no evidence exists that Smita Thackeray's rise was anything but above board, it would appear that her operations hurt mafia interests.

Hard evidence of Sena subversion of state authority to encroach on other enterprises in which mafia groups have traditionally had a hand has, however, been growing. The collapse of buildings at the Phoenix Mills premises in the Lower Parel area on April 23 focussed attention on the string of land-use illegalities that had flourished under Sena-BJP rule. Five construction workers were killed in the collapse, which is believed to have occurred as a consequence of unauthorised structural modifications. Sen a politicians had allowed dozens of mills to sell lands and buildings without the mandatory sanctions from the municipal authorities and the Board of Industrial Finance and Reconstruction (BIFR). Mafia organisations had been influential players in illega l mill land transfers, on occasion resorting to murders in order to secure deals - until the entry of Sena politicians into the business.

The land racketeering was not confined to Lower Parel's mills. Consider the typical case of a businessman who occupied a 1,310 square metre plot in the upmarket suburb of Santa Cruz in the mid-1980s. Legal proceedings dragged on until March 1998, when th e Revenue Department, then headed by former Chief Minister Narayan Rane, granted the businessman half the plot for a consideration of Rs.66.8 lakhs. Given that the plot had been independently valued at Rs.7 crores, he should have jumped at the deal. He d id not, and with good reason. Two months after Rane became Chief Minister, the Revenue Department issued a fresh document to the businessman, now making the land available for just Rs.8.8 lakhs. In effect, the state was providing legal cover for land rac keteering, much as the mafia had earlier done using its armed recruits.

Where the Sena continues to wield power, its racketeering continues. Last year, some Mumbai developers were allowed to build private clubs on plots of land reserved for playgrounds and other recreational facilities, subject to the caveat that they should be run on a non-profit basis. On May 10, the Sena BJP-controlled BMC voted to allow the developers to take a 20 per cent profit. A Sena corporator, a Sena ex-Mayor and party apparatchik and a BJP corporator are among the beneficiaries of this hand-over of public land. The clubs must admit 10 per cent of their members at a subsidised rate on the BMC's recommendation, a loss that can be made good by serving liquor and providing other services at commercial rates.

It is hard to think of another instance of a political party reinventing itself in this way - and professional criminals are not amused. It has passed largely unnoticed that the Shakeel group and its affiliates are not the only ones talking. On May 6, Sh iv Sena corporator Soapanrao Nichal and vibhag pramukh (division chief) Gabhaji Lal were attacked by members of the rival Akhil Bharatiya Sena (ABS) at Kalyan. The ABS is a political front for the Arun Gawli mafia group and it was at one point aff iliated to the Shiv Sena. Gawli has been externed by court order, but continues to wield considerable influence in the Mumbai underworld. As with the attacks by the Shakeel group, no clear motive has been found for the attempted killing of Nichal and Lal , but speculation has focussed on an ongoing ABS-Sena battle for control of the trade unions.

Disturbingly for the Sena, public outrage against the killings of its cadre has been at best muted. The party has been unable to organise a single State-wide protest on the issue, despite Bal Thackeray's allegations that the murders were engineered by th e Congress(I)-NCP alliance. Thackeray is now calling for efforts by the Sena to rediscover its Maharashtrian chauvinist constituency and for the revival of an agitation over the State's border dispute with Karnataka. The Shiv Sena's Sthaniya Lokadhikar S amitis (native residents' rights committees), which spearheaded its early campaigns against south Indian migrants in the 1960s, have also been reactivated. On April 25, some staff members of the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai were beaten up for failing to hire what the Sena considered to be adequate numbers of Maharashtrian-origin nurses in the premier cancer-care facility run by the Department of Atomic Energy.

The Sena's connections are not new. In a 1996 essay, the sociologist Jayant Lele had pointed to the party's "collaboration with and coercion of those benefiting from the chaotic underside of capitalist development (builders, importers, exporters, smuggle rs, drug pushers, bootleggers) as well as those in the forefront of 'cleaner' capitalist expansion (big and small industrial capitalists and service and film industry magnates)". He also noted: "The Sena leader and the sainiks forged complex links betwee n the two poles of the emerging capitalist nexus and profited from those links." During its five years in office, the party with a difference almost succeeded in putting the traditional mafia organisations out of business.

Now, with the bureaucratic and police apparatus no longer committed to keeping the Sena's cash registers ringing, the underworld is signalling that it, not Bal Thackeray's army, are the organisations which Mumbai's rich must do business with. Unsurprisin gly, few of the people involved are unduly perturbed at the prospect of having to switch loyalties, again.

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