Rise in crimes involving politicians and criminals in Maharashtra is a direct result of political instability

As general election approaches, influence of muscle power on the ground could play a worrying role in determining the outcomes in the crucial State.

Published : Feb 21, 2024 23:39 IST - 11 MINS READ

Chief Minister Eknath Shinde is seen with Nilesh Ghaywal, a gang leader who has kidnapping and extortion cases against him. Sanjay Raut of the Shiv Sena (UBT) posted this picture on X.

Chief Minister Eknath Shinde is seen with Nilesh Ghaywal, a gang leader who has kidnapping and extortion cases against him. Sanjay Raut of the Shiv Sena (UBT) posted this picture on X. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

It seems the “gun raj” has returned to Maharashtra, especially Mumbai, with a series of recent incidents that involved a nexus between politicians and criminals. These back-to-back incidents have raised concerns about the law and order situation in India’s financial capital and the decay in its politics.

In what is perhaps the first killing broadcast live on social media in India, Abhishek Ghosalkar, a former corporator in the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, was shot dead when he was live on Facebook with his friend and social activist Mauris Noronha on February 8. The duo had decided to settle their differences, and their meeting was being streamed live on Noronha’s Facebook page. But as soon as Ghosalkar, 41, got up from his seat to leave the room, he was shot by someone not seen in the footage. According to the police, Noronha shot Ghosalkar before killing himself.

The next day, supporters of the ruling BJP and its ally the NCP (Ajit Pawar) attacked the senior journalist Nikhil Wagle and the social activists Vishwambhar Choudhari and Asim Sarode, who were on their way to Pune to address a public meeting for their movement “Nirbhay Bano” (Be Fearless). Their car was attacked, the windscreen shattered, and ink and eggs thrown at it. Apparently, Dheeraj Ghate, the BJP’s Pune city chief, had publicly said his party would prevent the meeting from taking place.

Also Read | Shinde government accused of blocking development funds in Opposition constituencies in Maharashtra

It is the many crimes involving politicians, especially from the ruling alliance, that have shocked the people of the State. On February 4, BJP MLA Ganpat Gaikwad of Kalyan East Assembly constituency shot at Mahesh Gaikwad, Kalyan city chief of the Shiv Sena (Eknath Shinde), inside Ulhasnagar’s Hill Line Police Station on the outskirts of Mumbai. Mahesh and his colleague Rahul Patil were seriously injured.

The trigger was apparently a dispute over a piece of land in Kalyan East area. According to Ganpat, his company had bought the land from a real estate company in 2018. But other claimants to the land surfaced, and they were demanding money at 2023 rates. They sought the help of Mahesh, who is close to Chief Minister Eknath Shinde. He allegedly used his influence in the police station to control Ganpat’s activities.

Allegations against Chief Minister

Ganpat levelled serious allegations against the Chief Minister, pushing the controversy into the public space. Speaking to the Marathi news channel Zee 24 Taas, he accused Shinde of harbouring criminals. “I was helpless; Mahesh and his goons were slapping and beating my son at the police station,” Ganpat said. “The police in Kalyan are under pressure from the Chief Minister and his son, Shrikant Shinde, who is a Lok Sabha member. [Shrikant] Shinde has harassed me for the past two years. It is they who have made me a goon.”

Accusing Eknath Shinde of indirectly running many criminal gangs in Maharashtra, Ganpat said: “He is supporting many goons in Thane district and everywhere. I have said this often to Home Minister Devendra Fadnavis.”

Although Fadnavis ordered a DGP-level inquiry into the incident in the police station, he maintained a stoic silence on his own party MLA’s allegations.

People gather on February 9 to pay their final respects to Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Abhishek Ghosalkar, who died after being allegedly shot a day before by unidentified people in Mumbai.

People gather on February 9 to pay their final respects to Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Abhishek Ghosalkar, who died after being allegedly shot a day before by unidentified people in Mumbai. | Photo Credit: ANI

Meanwhile, opposition parties lost no time in seizing the opportunity to launch attacks against the government. Sanjay Raut, Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray) leader and Rajya Sabha member, posted a series of photographs on X showing the Shindes with history-sheeters. One of the photographs showed a known criminal of Pune, Hemant Dabhekar, greeting Shrikant Shinde at the Chief Minister’s official residence in Malabar Hill, Mumbai.

The next day, Raut uploaded a photograph of the Chief Minister with Nilesh Ghaywal, a gang leader who has kidnapping and extortion cases against him. In another shocker, Vijay Wadettiwar, Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, posted a video on X of Ghaywal filming a video reel at Mantralaya (administrative headquarters of the Maharashtra government, in Mumbai).

Soon after, photographs of Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) at his official residence in Mumbai with Asif Mohammad Iqbal Shaikh, alias Asif Dadhi, a known criminal from Pimpri Chinchwad, Pune, surfaced on social media. A few days before this meeting, Ajit’s son Parth had visited Pune’s most-talked-about criminal, Gaja Marane, at his house. Parth, it was said, had gone to meet Marane’s wife, Jayashri, a party worker, and Marane was there to greet him with a bouquet. Ajit later called the meeting a “gross mistake” that “should have been avoided”.

In another incident that left the police red-faced, a youth named Marshal Luis Lilakar escaped from police custody from Pune’s Sassoon Hospital on February 11. The Pune Police had arrested Lilakar on the charge of threatening the Pune criminal Sharad Mohol’s widow, Swati Mohol. Sharad was murdered on January 5 by his associate Sahil Polekar and others. He was then hailed as a Hindutva icon, which underscores the link between crime and identity politics too. Addressing a rally in Solapur, T. Raja Singh, a BJP MLA from Telangana, said: “He [Sharad] had dedicated his entire life to the country, religion, and cow security.... A lion has been killed.”

On January 27, during a Hindu Akrosh Rally in Malshiras of Solapur, BJP MLA Nitesh Rane said: “We [Hindus] do not disturb others’ festivals. So, others must not disturb us too. If something happens, I need only one call from you.... I am talking about this in front of the police. Because I know they can’t do anything. My boss is sitting at Sagar [Fadnavis’ official residence in Mumbai].”

The phrase “My boss is sitting at Sagar” was soon trending on social media, and the opposition was quick to turn it into their slogan against the partners in the ruling alliance, specifically the BJP. Raut, for instance, in a reference to the shooting incident in the police station, also remarked: “When the boss sitting at Sagar is shielding any crime, why wouldn’t an MLA dare to open fire in a police station?”

  • Continuous incidents of crimes involving a nexus between politicians and criminals raise concerns about the law and order situation in Maharashtra.
  • Many see the spate in crime as the result of political instability in the State in the past four and half years, with political parties switching alliances to capture power.
  • The signs of political pressure on the police force are obvious. Political interference in police investigations had increased recently.

Opposition’s demand

Former Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said on February 9: “We have seen how ruling parties are behind the deterioration of law and order. This government does not have the right to stay on. Maharashtra should come under Governor’s Rule.”

However, Mumbai BJP chief Ashish Shelar said Thackeray’s utterances were out of frustration. “His government has seen far worse crimes. The then Home Minister [Anil Deshmukh] was accused of demanding extortion money. Saints were killed, and a Central Minister [Narayan Rane] was arrested for no reason. But the current government has put an end to this lawlessness and restored governance. This is why Thackeray is making such demands,” said Shelar.

Political whataboutery and accusations and counter-accusations are widespread. “In the Ganpat Gaikwad case, the CCTV footage was immediately released to the public,” Thackeray said. “But in Abhishek Ghosalkar’s case it is kept hidden. Was there any person other than Mauris who shot Abhishek? Only the CCTV footage will tell us exactly what happened.” Nitesh Rane said the internal rivalry in the Uddhav group was the cause of Abhishek’s murder. This forced former MLA Vinod Ghosalkar, Abhishek’s father, to issue a statement appealing to everyone not to politicise his son’s murder. “I expect a free and fair investigation. This is a tough time for my family. I appeal people not to indulge in politics. My son was killed by betrayal. I hope the police will investigate and find the culprit,” said the statement.

Many see the spate in crime as the direct result of political instability in the State in the past four and half years, with political parties switching alliances to capture power. Shinde’s elevation as Chief Minister showed how the BJP was desperate to gain control over the State’s politics. It is no secret that Central investigation agencies played no small role in this. The Enforcement Directorate, for instance, which had targeted leaders like Ajit Pawar, Hasan Mushrif (both NCP), and Pratap Sarnaik (Shiv Sena), has noticeably gone silent after the new dispensation. But the same agency is investigating Rohit Pawar (NCP-Sharad Pawar faction) and Ravindra Waikar (Shiv Sena-UBT). The general feeling is that those who refuse to join hands with the BJP are at the receiving end of cases, while the ruling class believes the system will protect them, paving the way for the gross misuse of power.

Mrudul Nile, professor of civics and politics, University of Mumbai, said: “The feeling of immunity is behind this open misuse of power. Be it the firing at the police station or meeting history-sheeters openly. What does it suggest? That some people are above the law, they have such power that they can escape from anything if they stand on the right side.”

Builder-politican nexus

Significantly, all the crimes have taken place around the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) or the Pune Metropolitan Region (PMR). Mumbai and Pune are among the country’s top 10 real estate markets. “More than 80 per cent of politicians across parties in the MMR or PMR zone are said to have direct or indirect financial interests in the real estate business. This builder-politician nexus needs muscle power for their projects to run smoothly. That’s why they need goons. Vested financial interests during a time of political uncertainty are the biggest contributors to this vicious atmosphere of political violence now prevailing,” said Nile.

With the general election around the corner and the Assembly election six months away, power is crucial. When the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government was formed in 2019, it was the strongest anti-BJP alliance in any State in the country. But the BJP engineered splits, first in the Shiv Sena and then in the NCP, to gain the upper hand in Maharashtra. Despite that, a recent survey projected that the MVA would get 26 Lok Sabha seats out of 48. Muscle power on the ground during the time of voting thus becomes an important factor.

When Parth Pawar met Gaja Marane in Pune, there was speculation on social media about the possible reasons for the meeting. Parth had lost the 2019 Lok Sabha election on the NCP ticket from Maval, a constituency across Pune and Raigad districts. Vijay Chormare, political editor of Sakal, a leading Marathi newspaper, said: “Even if Parth does not contest, his party has political interests in Pune district. So, meeting Gaja Marane ahead of the crucial Lok Sabha election will certainly be seen politically. We will get to know during the campaign and voting whether this meeting has had any direct or indirect impact on political movements on the ground.”

Ganpat Gaikwad’s allegations against Shinde is also part of a high-voltage political battle. He has publicly opposed the candidature of Shrikant Shinde for the Kalyan parliamentary constituency. Ganpat’s Kalyan East Assembly constituency falls within this parliamentary constituency.

Also Read | Maharashtra Speaker’s verdict in Shiv Sena MLA disqualification case stirs up political controversy

The signs of political pressure on the police force are obvious. The Anti-Corruption Bureau, which comes under the State police force, recently gave Ajit Pawar a clean chit in the multi-crore Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank scam. But the same ACB has made continuous raids on Shiv Sena (UBT) MLAs Rajan Salvi and Vaibhav Naik. This has raised questions over the police force’s impartiality. “It is an open secret that the Central investigative agencies or the State’s forces are no longer impartial. They do what their political bosses tell them to do,” said senior journalist Jaydev Dole.

A senior Mumbai Police officer told Frontline on condition of anonymity that political interference in police investigations had increased recently. “These days, the police get calls even for trivial matters such as disputes between a small-time builder and a common man, and even for decisions regarding granting permission for a pandal for local festivals. This was not the case even a few years ago. As a result, the image of the police force has gone down drastically in people’s minds,” said the officer.

DGP Rashmi Shukla’s letter to citizens after assuming office substantiates this: “It seems vital to recognise that at some level the public faith in the police force has diminished.” She goes on to assure citizens that the police force will work diligently to protect them and win back their trust. However, that seems a daunting task in the prevailing circumstances.

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