Thursday, May 30, 2024

Underworld Redux

The old dons are gone, marginalized and on the run. But Mumbai’s gangs have acquired fresher feet and changed their methods. Some would say it is business as usual.
By Neeta Kolhatkar in Mumbai

Should we write the obituary of Mumbai’s underworld? Those who have been monitoring the gangs of the city for the last three decades may be tempted to say it’s all over. The old order has surely given way to a new one that’s not as flashy and flamboyant. But one could say in a manner of speaking that business is usual although the methods employed today have metamorphosed into a new form and the old gangs have inducted fresh recruits.

MUMBAI, DEC 21 (UNI):- Gangster Ashwin Naik arrested in extortion case being produced at the Dadar Court in Mumbai on Monday. UNI PHOTO-105U
MUMBAI, DEC 21 (UNI):- Gangster Ashwin Naik arrested in extortion case being produced at the Dadar Court in Mumbai on Monday. UNI PHOTO-105U

The godfathers or the famed bhai log have either bid adieu to the world (read Haji Mastan, Karim Lala, Varadarajan Mudaliar) or have been arrested and serving jail terms (Chhota Rajan, Arun Gawli). Still others are on the run — Dawood Ibrahim, Anees Ibrahim, Chhota Shakeel. Gangster Ashwin Naik who spent ten years behind bars was released in 2009 but has now been re-arrested.

The exit or the marginalization of the big dads surely is a relief for a city which witnessed a shoot-out or an encounter with frightening regularity from the mid 1980s-2000. But to think that Mumbai is today a peaceful city would be to accord too much credence to the police PR spiel that all is well.

Exit the Old Guard: Dawood is on the wanted list.
Exit the Old Guard: Dawood is on the wanted list.

However, the reality is a little different. In the last two months’ extortions and threat calls have increased. As some police officers say, “When did they ever stop?” Ashwin Naik was arrested on December 20, 2015, for making extortion calls to a builder. A trap was laid and Naik was promptly nabbed.

Two weeks prior to this, journalist-turned-activist S Balakrishnan complained to the police of being threatened on behalf of Dawood’s henchman Chhota Shakeel in the run-up to the auction of the don’s property in Mumbai under the Smugglers and Foreign Exchange Manipulators (Forfeiture of Proper-ties) Act, 1976. Balakrishnan was among the very few bidders, with some reports suggesting he was the “sole” bidder.

In this case, 47-year-old Sayyed Abbas Tublani was arrested by the Anti-Extortion Cell (AEC) of the crime branch under various sections of the IPC for criminal intimidation and hatching a criminal conspiracy. Police also recovered two mobile phones and some SIM cards which were allegedly used by Tublani to speak with Shakeel. He also made the calls to Balakrishnan to dissuade him from bidding for Dawood’s properties that have been seized by the authorities many years ago.

Balakrishnan, who has reported extensively on the crime scene in the city for The Times Of India, sums up Mumbai’s underworld today in these words: “Crime plays an important role in Mumbai’s economy. And the fact is the gangsters capitalize on the fear factor among the public. It is shameful that a fugitive person sitting thousands of miles away can still wield threats in our country.” This view is echoed by criminal lawyers who say that activities of the dons have not been discontinued. They operate from foreign shores or even from inside jail.

Criminal advocate Rajendra Shirodkar said: “They are very much active, though their activities may have changed. It is not tough to run businesses or wield threats from within the jail premises. We have seen it time and again. Relatives, lawyers and accomplices convey messages. They take cell phones inside the jail premises or sometimes even pass them on through the jail staff. Threats, extortions and murders are still taking place.”

The exit of the big dads is a relief for a city that saw encounters with frightening regularity. But to think that Mumbai is peaceful would be to give too much credence to the police PR spiel. 

Members of the business community and Bollywood stars have also been receiving threat calls. There also have been news reports of gangs being recruited for recovering loans and payments to brokers. Hawala transactions are still routed through the underworld which is also involved in cricket betting and related activities. The gangs obviously seem to enjoy patronage from several quarters. Said Shirodkar: “It is important to note that without political patronage it is not possible for gangsters to flourish with their activities.”

Many attribute the seemingly calm perception of the city to the encounter policy that was implemented by the Mumbai Police in the 1990s. The critics of the force called it “extrajudicial killings”. These were undertaken to break down a rampant extortion racket. Police officers tasked for this were called “encounter specialists”. It was the view of the top brass in the police that gangsters who exploited loopholes in the law to go scot-free could only be neutralized through encounters.

MUMBAI, DEC 09 (UNI) - A Property of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim which will be auctioned in Mumbai on Wednesday. UNI PHOTO-111U
MUMBAI, DEC 09 (UNI) – A Property of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim which will be auctioned in Mumbai on Wednesday. UNI PHOTO-111U

Lawyer Abha Singh defends the encounters and reiterates that it has helped. She said: “Mumbai has been freed of supari killings, extortion has decreased and we are rather peaceful because our police has taken action against the gangs.”

Interestingly, the inter-gang rivalry between old-friends-turned-foes, Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan has exposed their links to the Mumbai police. Rajan, in his statement to the CBI, said he will not go to Mumbai to be tried in the courts because he believes that certain police officers are close to Dawood. “You can’t understand Mumbai city if you don’t understand the underworld. The police play a major role in it, particularly the encounter specialists (who allegedly target one gang at the behest of the other),” asserted Balakrishnan.

The recruitment of the young unemployed by the gangs still goes on. Many youngsters wanting fast cash and fame are easily lured. Moreover, platforms for political activities provide a ready-made opportunity to these aspiring gangsters to turn leaders while indulging in criminal activities.

Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime), Mumbai, AC Kulkarni who was newly promoted as Additional Director General of Police (ADG) has a different take. “Mumbai police has complete control over underworld activities. The gangsters have been kept in check. It is the job of the police to keep round-the-clock vigil on them,” he said.

However, a senior IPS officer counters the claims made by the Mumbai Crime Branch. “The presence of gangsters is seen even today in all anti-social and illegal activities like gambling, cricket betting, narcotics and killings. The same Chhota Rajan is an accused in killing your fellow journalist J Dey. The fact is that crimes are taking place, although the focus today is on to terrorists and cyber criminals,” he stressed.


Kulkarni said that prompt action and taking cognizance of crime serves as a strong message to the underworld that it is being watched. This, ironically, proves the point that gangsters are still around and crime pays.


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