Print edition : December 16, 2005

Abu Salem steps out of a police van at a Special Court in Mumbai. - SABESTIAN D'SOUZA/AFP

Abu Salem was a terrorist, a mafia baron - and a true Mumbai insider. Extradited from Portugal to stand trial for his role in the Mumbai serial bombings, Abu Salem was not a rebel against India - just an offspring of its corrupt economic and political system.

VISITORS have, as custom demands, taken off their shoes at the threshold of the home where Abu Salem Abdul Qayoom Ansari grew up. Nobody responds to the doorbell, though; a neighbour insists no one is at home. When her attention is drawn to the shoes, she slams her door shut in response. Half a world away in Mumbai, where Abu Salem made his life, his many friends in the city have turned off their mobile phones or have told their staff to say they are indisposed. At the shopping complex where he began his adult life, people who must have met him each morning insist their paths never, ever crossed.

At some point in his life, it seems reasonable to speculate, Abu Salem must have had that most seminal of Mumbai working-class experiences: of gazing out at the bright lights of the big city, and wanting to step out of the darkness where he stood. In a curious way, the trial of the terrorist, murderer and mafia baron Abu Salem, conducted out not just in Mumbai courtrooms but on television and newspaper frontpages, concerns not just his crimes. It is also a trial of a city and its values; of a system of wealth and the ways in which it is sustained. Abu Salem's story offers an opportunity to examine the dark spaces between Mumbai's bright lights: to learn about crimes committed by people who will never see the inside of a courtroom.

AFP

The photographs on the passport application made by Abu Salem and Monica Bedi in September 2002.

Born in November 1971 to Abdul Qayoom Ansari, a lower-court lawyer in the western Uttar Pradesh town of Azamgarh, Abu Salem grew up in circumstances of great hardship. His father died in a road accident in the mid-1970s, and villagers say that his mother was reduced to supporting her several children by rolling beedis. Abu Salem's subsequent career needs to be read against the cultural climate of Azamgarh. Home to a radical literary tradition - the great poet Kaifi Azmi was born in a village just a few minutes drive from Sarai Meer - Azamgarh was also the site of intense criminality.

Unlike much of Uttar Pradesh, Azamgarh has no real history of serious communal violence. It is, however, at the centre of a region where violence is an integral part of political and social life. Bamhaur, near Azamgarh, is one of the major hubs of illegal handgun manufacture in western Uttar Pradesh, a cottage industry which feeds the demand created by murderous land feuds and armed robberies. In just the last 16 months, police records show, Azamgarh has 35 gangsters killed in shootouts with the police - a record that far exceeds that of most big cities.

In the mid-1980s, Abu Salem moved to Mumbai, where he set up a labour recruitment service that operated out of the Arasa Shopping Centre in the western suburb of Andheri. His choice of profession is instructive. Ever since the late 1970s, Azamgarh had supplied growing number of workers to West Asia, an enterprise for which Mumbai had emerged as a major hub. "The Gulf worker boom", says Azamgarh Senior Superintendent of Police S.K. Bhagat, "played a major role in the rise of a culture of crime in this region. Workers needed passports, sometimes fake ones, which led to corruption. Hawala remittances from the Gulf also meant there was cash lying around, which in turn fuelled violent crime."

Abu Salem was first introduced to the Mumbai mafia of Dawood Ibrahim Kaksar after the failure of his first business by a small-time gangster named Abdul Aziz `Tingoo'. By the late 1980s, crime was his principal occupation. It brought with it a profound personal transformation. Known to his peers as a religious conservative, Abu Salem bucked the tradition by eloping with a 17-year-old college student, Samira Jumani, in 1991. Jumani's parents filed a police complaint. However, Jumani and Abu Salem married; the charges were dropped. Soon after, though, Abu Salem met Monica Bedi, an actress who had moved to Mumbai from the small Punjab town of Hoshiarpur to begin what proved to be a nondescript film career. The two became lovers. Jumani was relocated to the United States with funds provided by Abu Salem. In a recent television interview to the journalist Sheela Raval, she described him as a "terrible husband" and a "bad father".

Abu Salem was, however, well on his way to becoming the kind of person he had wanted to be when he left Azamgarh: a man whose mother did not have to roll beedis for a living; a man who could send money home; a man who had things that other men desired. In the mafia, he had found a means to become the kind of person who had that most valuable of things: respect. It is easy to think of Abu Salem's choice as sordid, but it is unlikely to have appeared so to a young man in Mumbai at the time. Although Dawood Ibrahim had fled Mumbai in 1986, to avoid criminal prosecution, he remained a central figure in Mumbai society. Film stars, cricket players and politicians all met him at his Dubai home; Dawood Ibrahim was in practice just another affluent expatriate, not a fugitive from justice.

In Mumbai itself, the mafia was tolerated. To understand just how respectable it was, consider this fact: bar his brief encounter with the police after he eloped with Jumani, and despite his frequent run-ins with the law because of his growing extortion and protection opertions, Abu Salem was never charged with one single crime until 1994. "To understand Abu Salem," says a senior Mumbai Police officer, "you have to think of Mumbai as a badly-built circuit board made of poor quality wire, serving users who draw on the system without caring what it can take. Every now and then, it threatens to go up in flames. So, someone has put in a whole set of circuit-breakers. Mumbai's political system is one circuit-breaker. Its police is another. And there is a third that is hidden away: the mafia."

It more closely resembles a unique north Indian vision of hell than a temple of justice. Tis Hazari, a sprawling court complex in north New Delhi, is a Kafkaesque maze of dank rooms and dark corridors, the walls stained with paan-spit, where lawyers, litigants, touts, policemen, and vendors of soft drinks and snacks all fight for space and air. Amidst the chaos, no one pays much attention to the diminutive man who, clad in spotless white, arrives every so often at the court of additional sub-judge Deepak Jagotra, for trial in what the sheet of untidily-typed paper outside the room informs the curious is case number 1S-98. His name is Romesh Sharma, and he looks exactly like what he was: a politician, businessman, and fixer of deals, a species commonplace in New Delhi.

Although no one in the Tis Hazari complex seems to think he merits a second glance, Sharma became, for a while in 1998, India's best known criminal, an emblem of the corruption and decay of its political system. What is less well known, though, is that he was Abu Salem's first mentor in the world of crime, a long-standing business associate and a close friend. Sharma's story, and his curious relationship with Dawood Ibrahim's empire, cast fascinating light on the history of Abu Salem. It makes clear, as perhaps nothing else can, that Abu Salem was a part of the system, not outside of it; that his ambition was to wield power and influence within society, not over it. In short, Abu Salem was no terrorist bent on murder and destruction: he was, instead, an aspiring insider.

Sharma was Abu Salem's ticket to building an empire of his own. Like the Azamgarh lawyer's son, Sharma had began his adult life as a migrant to Mumbai. Having started out as a worker at a textile concern, he began operating his own air-conditioning business, which was funded by a city businessman in return for a 75 per cent share of the profits. Soon, the business was providing Sharma with an income of Rs.30,000 a month, no small amount of money in the late 1970s. At some point during this time, he met Dawood Ibrahim, then a rising star on Mumbai's crime landscape, through common friends in the city congress. The mafioso soon had a proposition for his new contact: joint investments in property, through which the underworld could turn its illegitimate cash into solid assets.

Abu Salem's life intersected with Sharma's at this point. Desperate for opportunity after the failure of his early business operations, Abu Salem took an offer to work as Sharma's driver, gaining close insights into the workings of power in the process. In the event, the job proved shortlived. In 1981, Sharma had made the first of his acquisitions for Dawood Ibrahim, a large property adjoining the Sun and Sand Hotel on Mumbai's upmarket Juhu seafront. Soon after, however, the building burnt down - the consequence of Sharma having attempted to usurp the property from Dawood Ibrahim. Sharma was provided security in Mumbai, allegedly on the say-so of senior Congress politicians, but decided to take the prudent step of moving base to New Delhi.

By all accounts, Sharma's efforts to join the circle of Youth Congress figures around Rajiv Gandhi, soon to be Prime Minister, yielded few results. It was only in 1991 that fresh opportunities began to present themselves, at least on a scale of real significance. One of the young politicians Sharma had become close to in New Delhi was Yashwant Kumar Ranjan, a Jawaharlal Nehru University student who worked with Subodh Kant Sahay, a Congress politician from Bihar who is now Union Minister of State for Food Processing. At the time Union Minister of State for Home in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, Sahay was fighting for election to the Lok Sabha from Punjab, a State where he had played a key role in covert dialogue with Khalistan terrorists.

Armed with renewed political patronage - or, rather, the appearance of it, since Sahay did not know of his new-found supporters' activities - Sharma again made contact with Abu Salem. One part of their operations focussed on property racketeering, often centred around the needs of Punjabi Hindu businessmen who were desperate to hit the terror-hit State at the time. More important, though, Sharma's home in New Delhi became a major transit point for the mafia's north-Indian operations. In 1992, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) seized two tonnes of silver from the premises, but Sharma managed to remain free as the case wound its way through the courts. Interestingly, Ranjan subsequently claimed to have informed the CBI about the silver consignment - but stayed on with Sharma nonetheless.

Back in 1992, then, everything seemed to be going well for Abu Salem. In Romesh Sharma, he had a political partner, much like the Mumbai Congress heavyweights who had enabled Dawood Ibrahim to build his empire a decade earlier. Although the liberalisation of the Indian economy had hit the mafia hard, destroying its traditional trade in gold and silver, new opportunities were opening up in property racketeering, extortion and the settlement of business disputes between businessmen. Subsequent investigations into Sharma's career showed he had developed a formidable network of associates and contacts, which included several politicians, police officials, stock-market figures and even the former Reliance Industries official V. Balasubramaniam.

A storm was brewing, though, that would sweep Abu Salem's empire-in-the-making away. In December 1992, Hindu fundamentalists destroyed the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, provoking the most widespread communal violence India has seen since Independence. Soon after, in January 1993, a state-backed Hindu chauvinist communal pogrom against Muslims claimed hundreds of lives in Mumbai. Pushed against his own better judgment by his lieutenants to avenge the mass killings, Dawood Ibrahim eventually agreed to the use of his mafia as an instrument of communal counter-terror. On March 12, 1993, using explosives and detonators provided by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Dawood Ibrahim's mafia carried out serial bombings in Mumbai which claimed 257 lives and injured over 1,400 persons.

What was Abu Salem's role in these events? Contrary to some media accounts, he had no direct role in the bombings. Dawood Ibrahim presided over the meeting in Dubai where the mafia decided to execute the terrorist action; Anees Ibrahim, Mohammad Dossa, Taufiq Jallianwalla and Abdul Razzak `Tiger' Memon were the other key figures in the decision-making process. All the mafia's top leaders were ethnic-Konkani or Gujarati Muslims, bound together by ties of language, culture and long association. While Abu Salem was a trusted lieutenant, he was nonetheless just a servant. Never did the mafia trust a north Indian, Muslim or otherwise, with a leadership position, something which was to become a growing cause of friction between Abu Salem and his masters.

Just how much Abu Salem knew about the bombings conspiracy - and when he came to know it - will become clear as his trial winds on. CBI officials say that in early 1993, acting on Anees Ibrahim's instructions, he brought 14-AK 47 assault rifles to Mumbai from a landing point in Gujarat's Bharuch region. Investigators believe the assault rifles, part of the larger consignments of explosives and arms smuggled in for the Mumbai bombings by Dossa and another smuggler, Mustafa Majnu, were intended to defend Mumbai Muslims from attack. In the event, they were never actually fired. Nor did Abu Salem actually deliver any of the bombs used on March 12 to their targets, that job having been entrusted to `Tiger' Memon's most trusted lieutenants.

In the summer of 1993, as the CBI closed in on the perpetrators of the bombings, Abu Salem fled India, using a passport issued to a fictitious Akil Ahmed Azmi. Although the passport application form bears a stamp recording the approval of the Azamgarh administration, it was never actually sent to the district for verification. In coming years, immigration authorities in Europe, North America and Africa came to know Abu Salem as an Indian named Danish Baig and Ramil Malik, a Pakistani called Arsalan Ali, and a Portuguese citizen of Indian origin, Ramesh Kumar. His lover Monica Bedi, too, had a large number of what spies call `legends', or fictitious identities: Sabina Azmi, Rubina Begum, Fauzia Usman and Sana Malik Kamal are four Indian police authorities came to be familiar with.

From late 1993, Abu Salem and Monica Bedi set up home on Yusuf Baker Road in Dubai. Although Dawood Ibrahim chose to base himself in Karachi, where he had the patronage of the ISI, the mafia's powerful business associates in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ensured that Indian attempts to have those involved in the Mumbai bombings went nowhere. It was, however, a hard time for the mafia. Most of their contacts in Mumbai had severed their links; no one wanted to deal with an organisation wanted for a major terrorist act. `Tiger' Memon's decision to flirt with dedicated terrorist groups, notably the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), ruled out any possibility of a quiet rapprochement. For the next three years, the mafia would wait, hoping that one day, its one great crime would be forgiven.

Every high-rise apartment block, multiplex and shopping mall that has risen from where the homes of the working poor of Mumbai used to exist, is evidence of the larger crime of which Abu Salem's life was just a part.-SHASHI ASHIWAL

Mumbai soon realised it actually missed the mafia. Someone had to evict troublesome tenants from multi-crore properties that were crying out for redevelopment. Someone had to ensure that the unaccounted, untaxed hard-cash loans that underpin much of Mumbai's business were repaid, with interest and on time. Someone had to ensure that film stars showed up for shooting on the dates they had committed to when they received their multi-million rupee advances. In the mid-1990s, as the second phase of Indian liberalisation enriched the elite on an unprecedented scale, the city needed an enforcer as never before. India's notoriously inefficient criminal justice system just did not meet the needs of Mumbai capitalists.

Since the Dawood Ibrahim mafia had fled Mumbai in 1993, the role of city enforcer had been met, in some part, by a new breed of political operators flying the banner of the Shiv Sena. Rajendra `Chhota Rajan' Nikhalje, a Dawood Ibrahim lieutenant who had broken ranks with the organisation after the serial bombings, also provided what services he could. Inevitably, as the volume of illegal transactions and commerce grew in Mumbai, so did the services of more mafia groups. By 1996, Mumbai's establishment showed it was willing to forgive the Dawood Ibrahim mafia's old sins. `Chhota' Shakeel Ahmad Babu and Abu Salem now emerged as the mafia's two major contractors in Mumbai: the overlords of a brutal system of extortion and enforcement.

Mumbai police records accessed by Frontline document what happened: ten criminal cases naming Abu Salem were filed in 1996, up from just two the previous year. In 1997, he carried out two major hits, both involving film personalities. In July 1997, hit-men despatched by Abu Salem attempted to assassinate the film producer Rajiv Rai, a consequence, it is believed, of a dispute involving the overseas sales of movies. Just over a month later, Abu Salem was charged with having played a key role in the murder of music and film magnate Gulshan Kumar. Abu Salem was charged by the Mumbai Police with involvement in eight mafia-related crimes in 1998, nine in 1999, and another five in 2000: like Mumbai itself, the mafia was witnessing a boom.

By 1998, we know, Abu Salem was enthused enough by his prospects to begin expanding outside of Mumbai. That year, a Punjab Police signals intelligence operation led to wiretap evidence of Abu Salem's involvement in a property-related extortion operation in Ludhiana. Investigators soon discovered that the mafioso had renewed his contacts with Romesh Sharma. Sharma, it turned out, had overreached, targeting politically influential figures like a former Punjab Minister for extortion. In the summer of 1998, Sharma first faced action for income tax evasion, and then a police raid. Inside his home, officials found 15 cars, including three Mercedes-Benz vehicles, shares worth Rs.100 million, and bullion valued at Rs.5 million.

Sharma's arrest put an end to Abu Salem's ambitions of building his own empire. His success had until then, however, led to growing friction with Anees Ibrahim. Designated as Dawood Ibrahim's successor, Anees Ibrahim had taken charge of many of the mafia's operations. Considered dull-witted by most of the organisation's key lieutenants, Anees Ibrahim did not command Abu Salem's respect. While Shakeel was willing to accept the fact that the leadership of the mafia would be inherited, not won on merit, Abu Salem rebelled. Increasingly, his operations against film industry and property targets in Mumbai were carried out independently of the Dawood Ibrahim group. Anees Ibrahim was, predictably enough, incensed.

His vengeance was prompt. On at least two occasions, Indian authorities had half-chances of securing his arrest. In 1997, following his arrest in a case involving a cheque that had bounced, Indian authorities took several days to deliver fingerprints and affidavits of identification to the UAE. As a result, UAE authorities, in any case reluctant to take on the mafia, allowed Abu Salem to leave the country. Again, following the events of September 11, 2001, Sharjah authorities responded to pressure from the United States by throwing out figures linked with organised crimes. Abu Salem again managed to purchase his release before the Indian extradition demand was processed.

To even the most obtuse, though, it was apparent Abu Salem's end was nearing: he no longer had the support of Dawood Ibrahim, or the mafioso's powerful friends within the Pakistani establishment, nor even of politicians of consequence within India. Just a year after their escape from Sharjah, Abu Salem and Monica Bedi were arrested in Portugal, and charged with the possession of illegal travel documents. Under the terms of his extradition deal, Abu Salem will be tried for just nine major crimes. Monica Bedi, against whom most experts believe conspiracy charges may not stick, could find herself convicted only of the possession of an illegal passport, which carries a maximum sentence of six months.

Like the figure of Greek myth, Abu Salem flew close to the sun; his wings, too, were made from wax. He will spend his 35th birthday in prison, as all aficionados of Hindi popular film know all villains must do. The lawyer's son is no hero, and will pay perhaps less than he ought to for his crimes. Every high-rise apartment block, multiplex and shopping mall that has risen from where the homes of the working poor of Mumbai used to exist, is evidence of the larger crime of which his life was just a part. Its perpetrators have just as much blood on their hands as Abu Salem - it is for their wealth that he killed, after all, just as much as for his own.

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