Mumbai's mafia wars

Print edition : March 27, 1999

The battles between and among Mumbai's mafia groups appear to have taken on a communal character as they seek to gain legitimacy on communal terms.

MUMBAI is no stranger to mafia wars. However, for the first time in the city, the mafia's battlefront has become nakedly communal. The attempt to kill former Mumbai Mayor Milind Vaidya on March 4, the second such attempt since December, is believed to have been the outcome of efforts by top mafia groups to gain legitimacy of sorts on communal terms. The attacks on Vaidya, a Shiv Sena leader who played a key role in the anti-Muslim pogroms of 1992-1993, were carried out by members of a Dubai-based group led by Shakeel Ahmad Babu, better known as Chhota Shakeel. The Chhota Shakeel group says that its actions are aimed at avenging the murders of some persons accused of a role in the Mumbai serial blasts of 1993 and that behind these actions are members of the gang led by the Malaysia-based Rajendra Nikhalje, or Chhota Rajan.

The March 4 attempt was carried out with precision. At 10-15 p.m., Vaidya was sitting with six other people in the porch of his Mori Road residence in the Mahim area. A van pulled up outside the gate and gunmen opened fire from inside the van with Kalashnikov assault rifles. (These rifles are believed to be among the 150-odd that were brought into the country before the Mumbai serial blasts and that remain to be recovered.) Vilas Akre and Milind Chowdhury, who had come to visit Vaidya, died instantly. Vaidya, Deepak Akre, Nischal Chowdhury, Vinay Akre and Babu Mangale were seriously injured. A wall riddled with bullets and splattered with blood illustrates the intensity of the firing. Police guards who were stationed there were apparently unable to respond to the attack.

Vaidya had survived an earlier assassination attempt. On the afternoon of December 17, 1998, his station wagon was intercepted on the Bandra-Mahim Causeway by two gunmen, who disappeared into the crowd after the attack. He was hit by a bullet, which lodged itself in his neck, after shattering his jaw. The attack was too sudden for Vaidya's bodyguard Romesh Londhe, a police constable, to respond. This attempt was initially attributed to a property dispute in the Mahim area. Four persons, allegedly members of the Arun Gawli gang, were arrested on the basis of Vaidya's claims that they had threatened him for protecting a builder who faced extortion demands.

However, intelligence, along with the arrest of Zakir Mohammad Siddiqui for his role in the December 17 assassination attempt, brought to light the fact that it was Chhota Shakeel who ordered the attacks in response to earlier actions by the Chhota Rajan gang. (In 1998, the Chhota Rajan gang began wreaking summary vengeance on persons who were charged with a role in the Mumbai blasts. Ninety-seven such persons were released on bail. Many people were worried that the trial could come unstuck. In an evident bid to harvest Hindu communal sentiment on the issue and to secure the tacit support of the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance Government, Chhota Rajan is alleged to have ordered the killings of those who were out on bail.)

Salim Kurla was the first to be killed. Kurla, who was charged with having played a central role in the landing of the weapons and explosives that enabled the serial blasts, was killed on April 21, 1998. Mohammad Jindran, a Mumbai construction tycoon, was shot dead on June 29. Majid Khan, another important figure in the construction industry, was killed by the Chhota Rajan gang on March 1 this year. Majid Khan, along with his Dubai-based brother Yakub Khan, was accused of having harboured in a Mumbai factory a quantity of Research Department Explosive (RDX) for the gang of the Dubai-based underworld leader Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar.

Chhota Rajan's decision to appropriate the courts' duty proved fateful. Sources told Frontline that the Chhota Shakeel gang came under pressure from its backers in Mumbai to force an end to the killings. Reprisal seemed to be the only way in which Chhota Rajan could be pressured, since the targeting of figures close to the Government was expected to goad the Mumbai Police and the political establishment to rein in the Malaysia-based mafia leader. Chhota Shakeel says that he signalled his opposition to Chhota Rajan's enterprise by ordering the elimination of Shiv Sena shakha pramukh Mohammad Salim Badgujar in March 1998. Whatever the truth, the killings stopped after June 1998, until Chhota Rajan decided to revive his campaign by killing Majid Khan.

In Dubai, Chhota Shakeel too decided to raise the stakes. It is not clear why Vaidya was chosen as the target from among the many Shiv Sena and BJP figures alleged to have been involved in the Mumbai riots of 1992-93. Vaidya's complicity in the violence is, however, undisputed. Paragraph 19.20 of the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry describes the events on Mori Road on January 7, 1993, where Vaidya, along with a police constable, Sanjay Gawande, "was instigating and inciting the mob to loot, burn and set fire to the Muslim shops." The Commission recorded that Vaidya was arrested for leading the violent mob. However, Manohar Joshi, as Chief Minister, subsequently demanded Vaidya's release, claiming that his Shiv Sena colleague was innocent.

Some observers believe that Vaidya was targeted by the Chhota Shakeel gang because of property disputes and not the findings in the Srikrishna Commission report. The proposition that there may be motives other than the stated ones for the attacks is rendered plausible by the fact that the first attempt on Vaidya's life was made on December 17, well before Chhota Rajan's gang members killed Majid Khan. Nor does Badgujar's assassination have a clear causal link with Jindran's murder. Clearly, the Chhota Shakeel gang was seeking to regain its somewhat fragile support base in Mumbai by projecting itself as the guardian of the city's Muslim community. In this, its political objectives mirrored those of the Chhota Rajan gang.

Policemen examine a wall riddled with bullets and splattered with blood at former Mumbai Mayor Milind Vaidya's home in Mumbai. The attempt to kill Vaidya, a Shiv Sena leader who played a key role in the anti-Muslim pogrom of 1992-93, was made by members of a Dubai-based group led by Chhota Shakeel.-PUNIT PARANJPE

HOW did these groups come to structure their conflicts along communal lines? One of the many ironies of the confrontation between them is that both Chhota Rajan and Chhota Shakeel were Dawood Ibrahim's lieutenants - allies in what was a firmly 'secular', though criminal, enterprise. Both affiliated themselves with Dawood Ibrahim early in his career. The processes that tore apart Chhota Rajan and Chhota Shakeel are rooted in the communalisation of Mumbai itself, a process which crystallised after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, with the anti-Muslim riots of 1992-93 and the subsequent serial blasts.

Born on December 31, 1955, Dawood Ibrahim is the son of a former Criminal Investigation Department (CID) havaldar, Ibrahim Kaskar. The collapse of the Mumbai textile industry in the 1980s and the urban despair that it caused provided the backdrop for Dawood Ibrahim's spectacular rise. After falling out with Amirzada Pathan and his brother Alamzeb Pathan, two major figures in Mumbai's underworld who associated themselves with the Karim Lala gang, Dawood Ibrahim set out on his own. In 1981, his eldest brother, Sabir, was shot dead by the Pathan brothers. Dawood Ibrahim promptly had Amirzada assassinated. In 1984, under pressure from both the police and Karim Lala's gang, Dawood moved to Dubai.

However, 41-year-old Chhota Shakeel, who grew up in Mumbai's Nagpada ghetto, stayed on in India to manage Dawood Ibrahim's interests. By the late 1980s, these interests were indeed vast. Despite his criminal record, Dawood Ibrahim had acquired a curious respectability. Prominent film stars were among his guests in Dubai, and his circle of political contacts in Mumbai was legendary. Mumbai serial blasts accused Hanif Kadawala and Samir Hingora are alleged to have helped plough back Dawood Ibrahim's money into the film industry through their company. These film interests were believed to have been managed by one of Dawood Ibrahim's five surviving brothers. Smuggling, extortion and land racketeering were his other major enterprises.

By 1987, however, Mumbai had become too hot for Chhota Shakeel. First arrested in 1983 on charges of kidnapping and illegal possession of weapons, he faced by 1987 additional charges in a spectrum of other crimes, including extortion. Shakeel, who was arrested on December 1, 1988 at Dongri in Mumbai under the National Security Act, received bail from the Mumbai High Court on March 28, 1989. Not surprisingly, he moved to Dubai soon afterwards. Dawood Ibrahim's enterprises in Mumbai continued to flourish with the help of other key figures in his gang, including Chhota Rajan.

As is the case with his colleagues in the underworld, Chhota Rajan too was the product of urban despair. A Dalit from Mumbai's eastern suburb of Chembur, Chhota Rajan started out with extortion rackets centred on the Sahyadri Krida Mandal, which organises the annual Ganesh festival at Tilak Nagar. Mumbai Police intelligence dossiers list several prominent property business houses as having contributed to the festival. At that time, the Ganesh festival served as a platform for mafia groups to project their social power and legitimacy.

Chhota Rajan broke away from his partners after the Mumbai serial blasts, which are believed to have been organised by Dawood Ibrahim's gang under pressure from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The mafia's economic interests were apparently under pressure for at least a year before the blasts. Intelligence estimates suggest that until 1991, smugglers brought around 198 tonnes of gold into India each year. However, with the liberalisation of gold imports in 1992, gold prices crashed, squeezing the smuggling trade. The ISI, which controlled shipping routes from the Gulf to India's west coast, demanded that the mafia transport weapons and explosives into India in return for the use of Pakistan's waters.



(From left) Dubai-based underworld leader Dawood Ibrahim; Dawood's key aide Chhota Shakeel and Dawood's one-time lieutenant Chhota Rajan.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The ISI's overtures to Dawood Ibrahim to secure his help in terrorist activity in India are believed to have been made through Pakistani smugglers Yusuf Godrawala and Taufiq Jallianwala. By most accounts, initially Dawood Ibrahim resisted the pressure. After the anti-Muslim pogroms of 1992-93, however, his position is believed to have become vulnerable. Members of his gang, including his brother Anees and Mumbai builder Abdul Razzak 'Tiger' Memon, are believed to have demanded retaliation. In the second week of January 1993, at a late night meeting in Dubai, Dawood Ibrahim finally endorsed the serial blasts idea. Within a fortnight, explosives landed on the west coast, marking the beginning of the preparation for the worst act of terrorism in India.

Subsequent events are well known, but their motivations are not. By 1994, Chhota Rajan, having fled to Dubai after the serial blasts, left for Kuala Lumpur, taking with him a large chunk of Dawood Ibrahim's leadership-level Hindu aides, including Sadhu Shetty, Jaspal Singh and Mohan Kotiyan. Chhota Rajan claimed that he had split with his mentor because of the serial blasts. However, in an interview to Frontline (featured separately), Chhota Shakeel pointed out that his one-time ally's decision to leave Dubai came well after the Mumbai blasts. Whatever the truth of the matter, Chhota Rajan's departure sparked one of the bloodiest gang wars in Mumbai's history.

Chhota Rajan's campaign, sought to be legitimised on the grounds that it represented vengeance for the Mumbai blasts, claimed the lives of several members of Dawood Ibrahim's gang. Top leader Sunil 'Sawtya' Sawant, one of Dawood's few remaining team-members who are Hindu, was shot dead three years ago by Chhota Rajan's hit men in Dubai. Alleged financiers and fronts of both the groups were also hit. After Dawood Ibrahim's gunmen Salim Haddi and Raju Egre shot Omprakash Kukreja, a builder, in September 1995, Chhota Rajan retaliated by eliminating Taquiddin Waheed, head of the now-inoperative East-West Airlines, in November 1995. Gang warfare claimed 52 lives in 1996, and the figure has continued to rise since then.

Chhota Rajan also targeted Dawood Ibrahim's ISI links. On June 29, 1998, Chhota Rajan's operatives killed Mirza Dilshad Beg, a Nepalese politician who was believed to be operating what is perhaps best described as a "one-stop shop" for the ISI - providing to terrorists safehouses, cover identities and storage for weapons and explosives. Indian intelligence agencies were charged with having engineered the assassination: the body of Chhota Rajan's aide Vikram Wahi had been discovered in October 1997 in the basement of a property owned by Beg.

Significantly, the war that began with the serial blasts seems to have led to a transfiguration of the Mumbai-centred underworld's alliances. Chhota Rajan appears to have entered into what might be described as a strategic partnership with Uttar Pradesh mafia leader Om Prakash 'Babloo' Shrivastav. Although lodged in Allahabad's Naini Jail after his extradition from Singapore, Shrivastav has succeeded in holding together his formidable criminal apparatus. People targeted by Chhota Rajan on Shrivastav's behalf include Romesh Sharma, Dawood Ibrahim's alleged point man in Delhi. Romesh Sharma is believed to have conspired with Dawood Ibrahim's aide Abu Salem Ansari to have Shrivastav assassinated right inside the Naini Jail.

Above all, Dawood Ibrahim's own empire appears to be in a state of chaos. The rise of his brother Anees Ibrahim, who is described by associates as an aggressive and temperamental person, has sparked new feuds. Anees Ibrahim is believed to have ordered the 1998 assassinations of Firoz Sadguru 'Konkani', Dawood Ibrahim's confidant in Mumbai, and Irfan Goga. Goga, who split from the Dawood Ibrahim group along with Pakistani smuggler Shoaib Khan, Ijaz Pathan and Ali Budesh, is believed to have entered into an alliance with Shrivastav. His disappearance led the Dubai police to arrest Anees Ibrahim in November 1998. He was, however, released because no concrete evidence that Goga had indeed been murdered, was found.

ENTROPY in the underworld perhaps best explains the narrative, of which the attempt on Vaidya's life marks just one brief episode. Chhota Rajan's efforts to project himself as an enemy of the ISI, determined to avenge terrorism in India, clearly seeks to gain the support of both the Indian state and politicians who believe that a "Hindu" underworld is somehow better than a "Muslim" underworld. For his part, Chhota Shakeel is driven by the need to find legitimacy as the protector of Mumbai's Muslims.

So far, the Mumbai Police have, to its credit, shown no signs of taking sides in the battle. But the fact that such a war is actually taking place shows that the forces unleashed in 1992 are still far from spent.

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