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The mob rules

"Its booming guns may have fallen silent, but who says Mumbai's underworld is not active in the city?" asked a former police officer of the city's crime branch. Debasish Panigrahi writes. Down the decades | Cinema inferno

india Updated: Jun 26, 2011 01:57 IST
Debasish Panigrahi
Debasish Panigrahi
Hindustan Times

"Its booming guns may have fallen silent, but who says Mumbai's underworld is not active in the city?" asked a former police officer of the city's crime branch.

"On the contrary, it is now everywhere, from the house in which you live to the vegetables you eat, even if you don't see it," said the man, who belonged to a group of now discredited 'encounter specialists', policemen who killed gangsters in open confrontations.

As India's and Mumbai's economies underwent dramatic changes after the start of liberalisation in 1991, the city's underworld also adapted and evolved.

But to understand how this happened, we need a little history.

The first generation, dominated by a quartet of colourful gangsters, operating in the 1970s during the licence raj, made most of their money smuggling items that attracted high duties: gold, silver, electronics and textiles.

They no doubt became hugely wealthy by pre-liberalisation standards, but remained in sectors that were on the economy's periphery. Having made money, Haji Mastan and his cohorts were more interested in using their ill-gotten wealth to live it up.

"In retrospect, they were small-time operators, with few arms and men," explained Shankar Kamble, former assistant commissioner of Mumbai police, who served in the force for three decades and has been credited with exposing Bollywood's links with the mafia in the early part of this millennium - links that partly drive the Hindi film industry's continuing fascination with the underworld. "Those gangs were scared of the police," Kamble said.

Second phase
But led by Dawood Ibrahim, who masterminded the 1993 serial bomb blasts in Mumbai, the mafia entered its second phase in the 1980s, when it began trading drugs.

Then, after 1991, when the Indian government opened up several sectors and lowered duties, there was no money to be made in smuggling. So the mafia began extorting money from new, rapidly expanding markets, led by real estate and Bollywood. "The stakes became higher," said Kamble. "The situation demanded an expansion of the gangs' operations."

As gangs started recruiting more men to support this expansion, rivalries intensified, alliances kept shifting and dons became altogether more vicious. Moreover, from being content with getting a cut of the money, the more ambitious minions wanted to run empires of their own - Chhota Rajan breaking free from Dawood being one of the more momentous decisions in the history of Mumbai's underworld.

But as the mafia began operating more flagrantly, the authorities were also under pressure to crack down. After 1994, the city saw more than 600 encounter killings and more than 1,000 arrests. In 1999, the government even enacted a separate law to curb the underworld - the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act.

Eventually, the three most powerful gangsters of the underworld's second era fled the country: Dawood and Chhota Rajan before the 1993 serial blasts and Chhota Shakeel afterwards.

Extortionists to Investors
After the dons moved abroad, the intensity of street-fighting visibly decreased. This is why two recent shootouts in Mumbai have stunned its residents, who thought the era of overt violence was over.

The first took place last month on Pakmodia Street, where Dawood grew up and where his family still lives. It claimed the life of his brother's driver.

Then, this month, J Dey, a crime reporter with the tabloid Mid-Day, was killed in a daylight shooting. The police have presented little convincing evidence of the underworld's involvement, but the fact that the journalist had extensive mafia contacts has put the spotlight on it again.

Yet, the real action, over the past decade, has been taking place behind the scenes, as the dons silently moved from the margins to the mainstream, say both Kamble and others policemen. Numerous tapped telephonic conversations, many executed by Kamble himself, and confessions of arrested criminals, indicate that the underworld is active in several key sectors of Mumbai's economy, such as real estate, films, vegetable markets, water and the public distribution system. Having made money through extortion, the dons are investing their surpluses.

"They are covert investors and run business empires like any other big company," said Kamble. "They are no longer the quintessential bhais, ruling the alleys with their rampuris (knives) or extorting businessmen and producers from their overseas hideouts."

Said YC Pawar, former joint commissioner of police for law and order: "Like any other sector, the underworld too has changed its strategy to cope with the new economic demands."

The nexus
Although no developer will admit it, the police say they have a fairly clear picture of how these dons have carved up Mumbai's real estate sector, to cite one sector. For example, Chhota Rajan holds sway over the city's eastern suburbs, Navi Mumbai and Pune, while Dawood has a stranglehold over the western suburbs. One police estimate puts Dawood's property investments across India at more than Rs 20,000 crore; Chhota Rajan's wife controls two registered real estate consortia that have a big share in the lucrative slum redevelopment sector, the police say.

These dons operate through front men, who run offices and whose faces are well known to the police and businessmen.

Moreover, given that the police have all this information but the rackets continue to thrive, it follows that not a few of them have been co-opted. In the first era, they infiltrated the mafia's ranks to gain intelligence, but the relationship gradually began changing. "It became a mutually beneficial one," said Pawar. "While the underworld needed the police's help to expand its operations, badly paid policemen drooled at the money the mafia was dangling."

(With inputs from Presley Thomas)

First Published: Jun 25, 2011 22:48 IST