The killing of journalist J Dey brought many names from the sordid past of Mumbai on to the front pages once again. Chhota Rajan, Chhota Shakeel, even Dawood Ibrahim, names that came into prominence in the late 1980s and after but then gradually got lost in the shadows, were once again invoked.
For the past decade and more, these dreaded gangsters have operated from outside India and although they continue to hold sway in the city’s underworld — so the police say — they no longer command public attention like they used to.
This tells us two things. First, it appears that no new major figure has emerged as the undisputed leader of gangland in Mumbai for a long time. Second, organised crime, though very much part of the city’s landscape, is no longer part of our quotidian imagination, like it was during the 1990s.
The first stirrings of organised crime in Mumbai were felt in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The dons of the time — Varadarajan Mudaliar, Haji Mastan, Yusuf Patel, Karim Lala, Ratan Khatri — came into prominence around that period and each had his own area — literally — of speciality. They ruled over specific regions within the city and while clashes were not unknown, these happened without the ordinary citizen being affected.
Protection rackets, prostitution, smuggling (gold, liquor, electronics and even items such as pens and textiles) and money lending were the main criminal activities, and each stuck to his specialisation. The government’s prohibition policy had created small-time dadas and racketeers in the 1960s, but the bigger players really emerged after India closed its economy in the 1960s and 1970s.
For the average Mumbaiite, however, the only interaction with gangs was when he wanted to play matka — a kind of gambling — or buy smuggled goods. It was simple — one went to the Fort area and bought it from any of the dozens of vendors who had stalls there. If it was a big item — a VCR, for example — you got it the next day. The supply chain was smooth and efficient and the ordinary citizen never had to meet even a low-rung goonda. They firmly stayed in their ghettos.
In 1977, after the Emergency ended, many smugglers renounced their activities at the behest of Jaiprakash Narayan. I recall meeting Haji Mastan — who never admitted he was a smuggler anyway — to discuss his political plans in the late 1970s. He had proposed a joint front between Muslims and Dalits, which eventually faded away, though he had become a bit of a legend when Deewar, said to be based on him, was released.
By the late 1980s the old order was dying, and the younger generation was impatient to expand into new business areas. Behind the scenes, gang leaders were slowly making their way into mainstream society. Underworld money was percolating into Bollywood, landlords were allegedly using toughies to oust troublesome tenants and, during the mill strike, there were allegations of owners hiring muscle to deal with union leaders. The dirty secret behind the wheels of Bombay’s economy was becoming apparent, and the shadowy netherworld was coming out into the sunlight.
This exploded on to the street, with big businessmen getting killed by shooters and film people getting calls from extortionists. As real estate became lucrative, gangsters wanted in, first for protection money, then as investors and eventually — if rumours are to be believed — as full-fledged players.
With the economic pie expanding, competition increased. Rival gangs began killing each other’s men. Citizens became alarmed and the police stepped in to dispense summary justice. A frustrated city welcomed each encounter and felicitated cops who did not hesitate picking up their gun and disposing off gang members, long-winded judicial processes be damned.
The Rajans and the Shakeels and the Salems became household names; the most notorious among them was a policeman’s son who was seen hobnobbing with film stars and cricketers. Then, he diversified into terrorism, assuming a larger-than-life role as the man at the centre of an enterprise running into billions of dollars.
For a city of Mumbai’s size and economy, there is no surprise that organised crime thrives. India’s economic liberalisation hit smuggling badly, but that does not mean illicit activities have stopped. Instead of gold, the hot commodities are drugs, electronic chips, cell phones and the like. Ill-gotten wealth has found its way into legitimate business activity (including the stock market) as criminals realise that is where the real big bucks are.
But the gangsters themselves have faded away from public consciousness. They have dispersed, decamped or simply disappeared. Their internecine battles go on, but rarely in public view.
Sometimes such events make news, such as the killing of Dawood’s brother’s driver. But J Dey’s murder has led to the most intense speculation, and as citizens watch blood being spilled in the streets, the question on their minds is, is Big Crime back in the city?
Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and old-time Mumbaiwallah.