The spicy scent of stewing meat wafts down the winding alleyways of Wasseypur, where a fine frenzy of daily life jars with its reel image of a decrepit ghetto of Muslim gangsters chopping and blasting each other to bits over the rich resources of a tiny coal town.
True, blind ambition and vengeance oil the wheels of a long-running blood feud between two criminal dynasties in Wasseypur but such rivalries only play out on the margins of a locality which sees no winner in a gang life.
For most of its 200,000 inhabitants, the struggle is for a better life, hoping that clean, honest politicians will help alter its squalid veneer and image of a shadowy slum of petty thieves and armed adolescent fighters.
Like much of life in this town, the coal mafia controls the politics of this mineral-rich region, a bane for people like Feroze Khan who feel criminal-politicians have a vested interest in keeping Wasseypur down.
“That’s the only way their shadowy businesses will survive,” says the 43-year-old owner of a diagnostic centre, wearing a baseball cap turned around.
Dhanbad votes on December 14. Two of the six top candidates here face criminal charges, including those of kidnapping and murder.
Winds of change
Virtually bypassed by the economic prosperity around it, Wasseypur is a 2-sq km patch of open sewers, alleyways and bric-a-brac houses in the heart of Dhanbad. A main street lined with tiny shops cuts through the crammed colony.
Until six months ago, the only government presence in Wasseypur was a post office and a state-funded madrasa. Now, a new branch of State Bank of India, the first bank for the locality ever, is being seen as symbol of the coming change.
Now, almost everyone insists prosperity is slowly trickling down. Even so, there is not one hospital here and a lack of enough toilets still forces some to suspend their dignity and squat without privacy on the roadside.
If the winds of awareness are blowing through Wasseypur then it is because today more parents are insisting on sending their children to school and colleges.
Here, Qamar Maqdoomi Road is a slice of a lane too narrow for even a car to pass through. On it are the houses of Faheem Khan and Sabir Alam, dreaded gang lords whose families have fought for three-generations, a blood-soaked rivalry that inspired Anurag Kashyap’s 2-part film, ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’. Faheem, now in jail for murder, runs his gang from the prison. Alam too is facing murder charges but is out on bail and on the run from Faheem’s men.
It was on this road that Abu Imran grew up. With a festering stew of poverty, exploitation and crime his only inspiration, Imran cleared the civil services in 2007 and is now posted as the district collector of neighbouring Ramgarh. Since then, more youngsters have followed suit.
Across Dhanbad, decades of lawless coal trading have left their mark, with coal dust casting a thick film of decay on just about everything from rutted roads to trees and houses. Poor families dig coal in unregulated pits; thousands of people carry sacks of illegally mined coal on their heads or by bicycle to mafia-run depots.
More organised rackets control unions and transport, manipulate coal auctions, extort and bribe or outright steal the resource.
In this murky intertwining of the mafia, police, politicians, unions and coal companies, gangland killings are common between rival coal clans, both with the surname Singh.
The two clans are relatives of crime boss Suraj Deo Singh who came here from Uttar Pradesh in the 1970s and rose from coal worker to union boss and then MLA. He counted the late Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar as a friend, who once spent a weekend at the ‘Singh Mansion’, a feared symbol of mafia power.
For the gangs, enjoying the spoils of their sinister trade comes with the pretence of respect for each other’s territory. The Singhs control the coal trade; the Muslim gangs find rich pickings from railway contracts and the scrap iron business, all worth around Rs 3,000 crore annually.
Local say, over the past years, the Singhs’ control over coal trade has been challenged by a rising star in Dhanbad underworld – Dhulu Mahto who too, like Suraj Deo, rose from a coal worker to a union leader and then became an MLA.
In Wasseypur, an army of uneducated, unemployed youth ensure a steady supply of recruits for the gangs.
“About 25% of the youth here join the gangs because there are no alternative options for them,” says Bilquis Khanum, the Congress district general secretary.
Still, she says it’s unfair to paint Wasseypur as a crimetown and blames Kashyap’s film for its infamy.
“The crime rate here is no worse than any other part of Dhanbad,” Khanum says.
“Just as others, for our people too it’s about jobs and development. We too want a good future for our children.”