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A quiet man's murder

The brutal slaying of an autorickshaw-driver-turned-politician on a Bangalore street reveals how a Nether India is rising with New India, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Jun 12, 2011 21:12 IST
Samar Halarnkar

For 11 years, 37-year-old Haji Mohammed Ali survived the anger of fellow criminals and frequent police arrest before being elected last year to the municipal corporation of India's pre-eminent globalised city, Bangalore. As a corporator elected on a ticket of the Janata Dal (Secular), the party of former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, Ali seemed to have finally left behind his nether life - running mafias that controlled the trade in scrap and sand, the byproducts and raw materials respectively of Bangalore.

For most of 2010, before the municipal elections in May, Ali tried hard to stay out of trouble - and stay alive. Though he got bail in one of the 36 criminal cases registered against him, he stayed in jail, fearing murderous attacks from rivals.

Ali's luck ran out five days ago. As he stepped out of a hair saloon, seven men shot him down. When he fell, bleeding, they rammed a crowbar through his chest to make sure he would not rise again.

The rise of someone like Ali in Bangalore's murky politics is not unusual. He was what the Bangalore police call a 'rowdy', a habitual offender who flitted in and out of jail and criminal records. Each rowdy is known by a nickname, the most famous of whom have been 'Murgi' Fiyaz and 'Oil' Kumar, revealing the economies they controlled in the old Bangalore.

Ali was known as 'Diwan Ali'. Many believed he got the name because he was known to be a reserved, courteous man who shared his new-found fortune with the poor in his constituency, the Banashankari temple ward. But 'Diwan' was the modification Ali made to the original 'Deewana', a reflection of his wilder days, a name that he's still known by in local police records.

A reasonably devout Muslim (the name 'Haji' signifies someone who has been to Mecca and done the Haj), Ali was cosmopolitan enough - as many politicians in diverse Bangalore must be - to comfortably fit in with his Hindu constituents. When he won his electoral battle in a constituency named after a 95-year-old temple, his first declaration was that he triumphed because he had the blessings of goddesses Banashankari Amma, a lion-riding, demon-killing, eight-armed avatar of Parvati, the consort of the destroyer, Shiva.

Like Ali, many rowdies have made the transition from the old Bangalore to the new Bengaluru, expanding their empires by plugging into the infotech-fuelled economy, which hires about 200,000 people but provides employment to five times that number in diverse support sectors, from taxi services to real estate to the sand used to construct these new buildings.

Rowdies and their political supporters are often separated by a fine line in Karnataka, a state run by various mafias, who have aided the institutionalisation of corruption. This, after all, is the state where the BJP chief minister BS Yeddyurappa refused to step down despite an admission that he let his family profit by misusing his official position to change land-use laws. Yeddyurappa is only the latest to destroy probity in Karnataka's public life. Corruption took root under successive Congress regimes before and during Bangalore's technology boom. It was just made more blatant by the Janata Dal(S) and the BJP.

The rise of the Karnataka rowdy-politician era has created new avenues for those who do not have the education or skills to join the legitimate economy. This is so across the nation. It could explain why so many scams sweep the land; why so many of our leaders have criminal records; why, as one section of society rages and pleads for a cleaner, more honest India, the other lives by other values.

The nether India is quietly at work alongside the new India, rising in tandem with it. This is an India where muscle, money and manipulation work as well as education, endless striving and talent do in the other India.

It may appear hard for someone from the nether India to crossover but many do. 'Agni (fire)' Sridhar now runs a tabloid and is a film producer; his autobiographical movie Aa Dinagalu (Those Days) was a 2010 hit. Ali's mentor in crime, Tanveer, now runs a small business serving clients who feed off the tech boom.

Ali's political mentor, someone who also made the transition - of sorts - says things shouldn't be black and white. "If they (rowdies) change, isn't it better, isn't it an achievement and better for society?" asked former chief minister and party chief HD Kumaraswamy, after nominating Ali for elections. Kumaraswamy's party, a regional power, benefited greatly from the globalisation of Bangalore. Many of its ill-educated members live on the thin, red line between the two Indias.

Ali's party colleague shows how the twain can meet.

After being arrested by anti-corruption police for taking a bribe, Janata Dal (S) corporator Katta Jagadish, son of a former minister, posted his new life plans on Facebook last week. "I am planning to set up a consultancy firm which will devise campaign strategies for political parties in the run-up to elections," said Jagadish, who will work with five friends, all software professionals. "Good luck dude… any help needed, pls feel free to ask," said one Facebooker. "Bro, I feel people like u should initiate steps to get the right people from all walks of life to participate in nation building…" said another.

The prime suspect in Ali's murder is a former friend, Asgar Ali, or 'Mahim', who also tried to be legit but failed. Mahim prospered by grabbing land on Bangalore's outskirts. An Anil Kapoor fan, he tried to jettison his life in the nether India by first acting in a Kannada movie and then unsuccessfully contesting last year's municipal elections. When he failed, the slide back was murderously easy.