Underworld gangs in Mumbai acquired sophisticated firearms in the early 1980s, forcing the police to respond to their shootouts in public places and their extortion activities and threats by staging encounters.
In the 1970s, the activities of these gangs had revolved around smuggling and the distribution and sale of illicit liquor. As these activities grew, so did the need for providing ‘protection’ to smuggled goods during transit.
Initially, those who provided protection carried Rampuris (knives), daggers or swords. In the early ’80s, they were given firearms. Soon, the ‘boys’ who helped Karim Lala’s Pathan gang to transport consignments of gold, silver, textiles, imported watches etc – among them Ayub Lala, Alamzeb, Saeed Batla, Jaffar Siddiqui and Mehmood Kalya – got into a conflict with Dawood Ibrahim and his brother Shabbir, who would transport goods for Haji Mastan.
The chief reason for this conflict was the smuggling of a new item: heroin. “Dawood had taken to smuggling drugs despite Haji Mastan’s opposition to it, and Ayub Lala of the Pathan gang had disregarded Karim Lala’s disapproval of the narcotics trade,” a former crime branch officer who did not wish to be named said.
The gang war
The first victim of their rivalry, late in 1981, was a journalist with an Urdu daily, Iqbal Natiq. Suspecting that Natiq, acting at the behest of Dawood, had tipped off the police about carrom clubs clandestinely run by Saeed Batla, a key member of the Pathan gang, Karim Lala’s men kidnapped him from a spot near JJ Hospital, tortured him and killed him.
Dawood retaliated by maiming Saeed Batla and Ayub Lala, among the top members of the Pathan gang. Karim Lala’s nephew Alamzeb and Amirzada then took control of the gang and in 1982 shot Dawood’s brother Shabbir dead at a petrol pump in Prabhadevi, just a week after his marriage.
The gang war soon spilled on the city’s streets, with Dawood avenging his brother’s killing. Alamzeb was killed by Dawood’s men in the Sessions court premises; and Amirzada was killed in a police encounter in Gujarat (there were allegations that Dawood had tipped off the police).
The 1983 batch
Julio Ribeiro, who took over as Mumbai police commissioner in 1982, advocated a tough policy against gangland, and Manya Surve became the first gangster to be shot in a police encounter in 1983. Young police officers such as Issac Bagwan (who shot Surve), Suresh Walli Shetty, Raja Tambhat, Rajan Katdhare, Emmanuel Amolik, Rajan Talpade and Keshav Sahasrabuddhe rigorously implemented Ribeiro’s strategy, and after a few more, rather sporadic, encounters, gangster Rama Naik was shot dead in a high-profile encounter in 1984 (see ‘Some of the big encounters’).
The encounter policy was not only not questioned at the time, it was warmly welcomed as a necessary step in breaking the back of the underworld.
A new crop of police officers recruited in 1983 were witness to these developments. This ’83 batch, comprising officers such as Vijay Salaskar, Pradeep Sharma, Praful Bhosle, Ravindra Angre and Vinayak Saude, was to rise to prominence in the mid- and late 1990s. Most of them were to become known as “encounter specialists.”
“Their posting in the Bombay police force coincided with the unofficial encounter policy. Naturally, they followed in their seniors’ footsteps,” said veteran journalist S Balakrishnan.
However, Shankar Kamble, former assistant commissioner of police, crime branch, said the batch rose to prominence because it comprised some of the best detection officers. The added advantage, he said, was that these officers were trained at the Police Training School, Nashik, by former director-general of police Arvind Inamdar, “who was known not only for his regimen but also for being a teacher par excellence.”
Besides, officers such as Salaskar, Sharma, Bhosle and Angre got early postings in sensitive branches and police stations, which helped them develop informer networks and made them good at collating intelligence. That they were ahead of others in operational excellence or intelligence-gathering was the result of this experience, sources said.
Before 1993 and after
This batch also saw the transformation that occurred in Mumbai in the mid- and late 1980s with the growth of construction activities, the resultant expansion in gangland activities such as extortion and the intensifying of inter-gang rivalry (see ‘Dawood versus Gawli’).
The transformation made the Mumbai police initiate a crackdown on the underworld in the early 90s.
The first major encounter in the 1990s, the decade which saw the maximum number of encounters, led to the death of Mahindra Dolas alias Maya Dolas, a trusted Dawood aide. The then additional commissioner of police (west region), AA Khan, ambushed a flat in Lokhandwala Complex in Andheri (W) in which Dolas and his four associates were holed up and shot all of them.
But it was after the 1993 serial blasts that the encounter policy really took off.
ACP Kamble said, “After the blasts, the underworld, which earlier operated clandestinely, became overt in its activities.” Acts of extortion became rampant, as did contract killings. After Chhota Rajan split with Dawood and formed his own gang, the problem became more acute.
“The police response earlier used to be selective and isolated. But the 1993 blasts and rise in extortions/gang wars hastened a calibrated response,” said former top cop M N Singh.
Given the go-ahead, encounter specialists spread across various crime branch units across the city. While a particular unit went after the Dawood-Shakeel gang, another went after Arun Gawli and yet another after a third gang. Some of the juniors of the 1983 batch — Hemant Desai, Sachin Waze, Sanjiv Gawde, Ashok Borkar, Daya Nayak, Nitin Alaknure, Praful Phadke, and Mayakar — teamed up with the seniors to form formidable squads that went about targeting gangland members in Mumbai.
By the time the new millennium dawned, the crime branch had eliminated around 500 gangsters, and by 2004-05, most of Mumbai’s underworld had been wiped out.