Print edition : November 10, 2001

Abu Salem's escape from detention in Sharjah was seemingly easy, facilitated as it was by an inconsequential India-UAE extradition treaty coupled with India's inadequate diplomatic muscle.

EXTRADITION treaties, it would appear, are sometimes not worth even the paper they are written on. On October 24, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) sent out a request to the United Arab Emirates, asking for the arrest of top gangster Salem Qayoom Ansari, alias Abu Salem. The CBI believed that Abu Salem, who was in Sharjah, held a Pakistani passport issued in the name of Mohammad Ali. Although India and the UAE had signed an extradition treaty last year, Abu Salem was set free just 48 hours after his detention. Acrimonious exchanges have since taken place among the UAE, the Union government and the Government of Maharashtra; but so far few facts on the fiasco have been made public.

Abu Salem.-

News of Abu Salem's arrest reached New Delhi and Mumbai just hours after he was picked up in Sharjah on the basis of an Interpol red corner alert - requiring member-countries of the International Police organisation to arrest him on sight.

Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal promptly let it be known that he was willing to provide any assistance that would be required to secure the don's extradition. However, New Delhi maintained a stoic silence on the issue. The reason was simple. Ambassador K.C. Singh's first requests for information from UAE officials met with the response that nothing had in fact happened. Later, he was informed that some United Kingdom nationals had been raided, and then he was told that some Pakistani nationals had been picked up for immigration offences. Only 48 hours later was K.C. Singh told that a person by name Mohammad Ali had indeed been picked up - but he had been allowed to leave for Lagos, Nigeria, via Muscat.

UAE officials have not given any cogent account of just what happened, either. Speaking to an Indian newspaper on October 27, Ahmad Musali, the UAE's Ambassador to New Delhi, confirmed that Mohammad Ali had indeed been picked up. Musali was quoted as having said: "So we arrested him, waited for the Indians to provide proof that he was indeed Salem, and when this didn't happen for 48 hours, we had to set him free as per our laws." Subsequently, sources in the External Affairs Ministry told Frontline that Musali claimed to have been misquoted. If, however, the account in the newspaper is accurate, the position taken by the UAE is preposterous. No further proof of Abu Salem's identity was needed, because in 1997 the CBI had sent his photographs and fingerprints to the UAE, along with an extradition request that still awaits execution.

Indeed, considerable confusion has been caused by reports suggesting, variously, that Maharashtra failed to produce Abu Salem's fingerprints, and that in Lucknow an effort to trace them had failed. Abu Salem's fingerprints, secured when the gangster made his two legitimate passports, are available at the Passport Office in Mumbai. Later the CBI sent these prints to the UAE. As such, there was no search for fingerprints or photographs. While some officials in the Union Home Ministry have claimed that the Maharastra government created problems by speaking out of turn on Abu Salem's arrest, the fact is that Bhujbal had no real role in the matter. New Delhi, it would appear, simply did not have the diplomatic muscle to secure Abu Salem's extradition from a country where he has powerful friends. "It is probable," says an intelligence official, "that he is still in the UAE, waiting until he can move to a third country quietly."

ABU SALEM was born in 1968 at Sarai Mir village, in Uttar Pradesh's Azamgarh district, as the son of a poor tailor. When he was still a child, Abu Salem's parents moved to Mumbai in search of work. The fast-and-loose capitalism of Mumbai in the late 1970s and 1980s concentrated riches in the hands of a few and generated enormous unemployment and economic desperation. By the time he was a teenager, Abu Salem made his living the same way many children of the urban poor did in the city. As an apprentice for Dawood Ibrahim's brother Anees Ibrahim, he tranported guns across the city. In the years to come, Abu Salem was to become Anees Ibrahim's trusted confidant, running his vast film industry-focussed extortion empire.

It is not surprising, then, that Abu Salem was put in charge of a key operation in the 1993 serial bombings of Mumbai, organised by the Dawood Ibrahim gang. Abu Salem's job was to liaise with two top Karachi-based smugglers, Mustafa Majnu and Mohammad Dosa, who would ferry the explosives used in the bombings. Two major consignments of plastic explosives and assault rifles were landed at Dighi and Shekhadi on the Raigad coast in Maharashtra, from where, hidden in cardboard boxes and sackcloth, they were moved to Mumbai by Abu Salem's aides. The group's mafia connections were central to the project. Indian customs officials knew of the landings, but believed they were 'normal' consignments of smuggled gold.

After the Mumbai bombings, Abu Salem fled to Karachi with the remaining members of the Dawood Ibrahim's organisation. Soon afterwards, in 1994, he is believed to have supervised the assassinations of Maharashtra Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Ramdas Naik and Prem Singh. For the next three years he remained a key figure in Anees Ibrahim's operations working from safehouses in Nairobi, Lagos, Bahrain and Dubai, under false identities. In December 1997 he was picked up by the Dubai Police in connection with charges of fraud against a car import firm run on his behalf by his brothers Salim and Nayeem.

He was later released on bail with a UAE resident as guarantor, but escaped from the country using a Pakistani passport. In the meantime, the CBI had moved its first extradition request, but the UAE authorities chose to ignore this as well as warnings that Abu Salem was likely to escape.

According to informed sources, sometime in 1998 Abu Salem broke up with Anees Ibrahim, angry at being denied a fair share of the underworld's earnings from the Mumbai film industry. He then set about asserting his own sphere of influence in earnest. On August 12, 1998, the Abu Salem group shot music magnate Gulshan Kumar, allegedly to help a rival music producer, Nadeem Akhtar Saifi. On September 25, prosecution witness Arif Lakdawala told Mumbai Sessions Judge M.L. Tahilyani that Saifi and Ramesh Taurani, Director, TIPS music company, had paid him Rs.25 lakhs, which was passed on to the contract killers. Saifi denies the allegations, and has succeeded in blocking India's efforts to extradite him from the U.K.

WITHOUT dispute, Abu Salem's reign of terror succeeded. Those film world figures who refused to share their earnings and profits faced death. In January 2000, Abu Salem's operatives opened fire on film producer Rakesh Roshan at point-blank range, almost killing him. Roshan, father of top star Hritik Roshan, is believed to have ignored demands to share the overseas rights of the blockbuster Kaho Na Pyaar Hai. Other film world figures targeted for extortion demands are believed to include J.P. Dutta, Shah Rukh Khan and Amrish Puri.

Among the most recent victims was actress Manisha Koirala's secretary Ajit Dewani, who, Mumbai Police officials say, was killed because he failed to deliver on promises made to the Abu Salem gang.

Not everyone was delighted with Abu Salem's rise. Anees Ibrahim, in particular, is incensed that Abu Salem has more or less taken over his film world operations. Tariq Parveen, one of Anees Ibrahim's closest aides, is believed to have argued on several occasions in favour of eliminating Abu Salem, his one-time friend. However, Dawood Ibrahim has counselled restraint. Informed sources say that the mafia baron admired Abu Salem for his efficiency and enterprise, and believes that Dawood's brother's business problems are largely the result of laziness. Abu Salem is also believed to have the support of influential political figures in the UAE, where he has invested some of his earnings from extortion in legitimate businesses.

Much of Abu Salem's earnings depend on securing a portion of the valuable overseas rights of Mumbai-made films. Rights to films are sold on a "territory" basis, and for the past two years, revenues from the U.K. and the United States have far exceeded those from any region in India. Growing revivalism among Hindu communities abroad has brought about a renewed interest in Hindi movies. It is for this reason that several blockbusters, such as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Kaho Na Pyaar Hai or Dil Chahta Hai have tended to focus on socially-conservative and religiously-coloured themes, featuring non-resident Indian characters in lead roles. In fact, now most films are made specifically to cater to this overseas market and to India's upper middle class, rather than the working class, who, two decades ago, constituted the major audience for popular films.

Fear is not the only reason why Mumbai's producers and stars succumb to extortion demands. Much of the industry revolves around funds of a markedly dubious nature. Also, at times the absence of clearly-defined star contracts necessitates underworld intervention. The arrest of diamond merchant and film financier Bharat Shah in January this year blew the lid off the sordid story of the underworld's role in the film industry. Investigators allegedly found that Shah had been laundering funds for the Dawood Ibrahim-affiliated gang of Shakeel Ahmad Babu, or Chhota Shakeel. Shah's arrest may have ended one particular underworld-film world racket, but the mafia continues to be tapped as a source of funds, and to secure shooting dates from difficult stars. Until the industry puts its house in order, Abu Salem and his kind will continue to thrive.

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