The Dark Face of Mumbai
By Prabhat Sharan
25 October, 2010
The Verdict Weekly
Blood stained brown gold and mean streets of Mumbai housing mafia and Mumbai underworld
It was business as usual in the infamous Kamathipura lane - prostitutes were busy preparing for the long night that laid ahead, the pimps were luring customers to the buildings, and the lanes thronged with people on sundry errands. On that June evening Kamathipura had an unusual visitor: Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Prem Kumar Sharma and his family, who had come to celebrate his daughter’s success at the intermediate examination with a dinner at the famous Delhi Durbar restaurant.
Scarcely had Sharma got down from the car that the waiting assailants pumped bullets into him. The din of the street drowned out the pistol shots, and it was only after his wife and daughter started screaming hysterically that the passers-by came to the rescue of the family. By then it was already too late: the BJP MLA was dead and the assailants had escaped in the ensuing confusion. Subsequent police investigations traced the cause of the murder to dubious land deals in south-central Mumbai. The murder shook the city, even as the police after the serial bomb blasts had claimed to have broken the spine of the criminal syndicates. This was in 1993.
Three years later in April, the picture of respectability that the Kukrejas had created for themselves was suddenly torn apart, much to the dismay and bewilderment of the real estate developers in Mumbai. On that hot sultry afternoon the tinted glass walls of the Kukrejas’ Chembur office in north-east Mumbai was spattered with blood as three visitors took out their guns and sprayed a sleeping Om Prakash Kukreja with bullets.
Om Prakash had only joined the elite circle of real estate developers and builders, men who fashion their dreams in steel and cement, raising skyscrapers to accommodate a growing population and pocketing millions in the process. The killing of Om Prakash Kukreja did indeed send a ripple of shock in the city.
Eight years later: Land developer and builder - Suresh Wadhwa in the rain drenched satellite town Navi Mumbai was sitting in his office and three persons sauntered in his office and saturated his plush office walls with bullet holes. Wadhwa escaped by ducking under his mahogany table. After a long respite, the builders lobby has once again been shocked out of its stupor. The down in the dumps real estate business, is once more looking up optimistically and the organised criminal syndicates ever on a lookout has slowly started uncoiling its tentacles once more in the city. But despite the shock waves unleashed by a series of attacks on developers in the city coupled with a grim realisation that very soon they are going to be the main targets the business goes on as usual for the developers. And why not?
Mumbai is a city where the land is scarce, the resources unlimited, the greed simply insatiable - a few dead bodies is considered worth the money raked in by those involved in land grabbing and illegal constructions - both in and around the city.
However, transgressions of laws means the network must be spread far and wide. Unscrupulous real estate developers could only work in the shadow of the gun, and the link with the underworld was gradually formed. Soon the dividing line between the two became blurred. They needed protection from the police and politicians were drafted in, obviously in exchange for a substantial cut.
It was sooner or later bound to blow up in the face of the politician. And it did with the alleged murder of Ramesh Kini whose dead body was left behind in an empty cinema hall. A wailing widow’s allegation of foul play saw the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) pick up Bal Thackeray’s nephew, Raj Thackeray, for questioning. The show in the city of dreams had truly begun.
The one worrisome question perpetually dogging those sloshed with slush funds is: Where and how to launder the ill-gotten wealth so as to convert black into white? Export-import businesses and films are the obvious avenues. The films with their overseas rights, during the late nineties and early 21st century cleaned a substantial chunk of tainted money, which saw the film stars and film producers grabbing headlines not for their celluloid impact but for their links with criminal syndicates.
However, both films as well as import-export businesses simply lack the one unique property real estate in Mumbai boasts of - the losses are rare and minimum, and the initial investment multiplies at an astonishing rate, every year, even during the economic crashes.
This factor saw the convergence of interests of both the criminal syndicates and the real estate developers, and the connection forged between the two in the Fifties and Sixties gradually tilted in favour of the city’s dreaded gangsters. In the Eighties, the new generation of criminals began to use their formidable muscle power to grab prime plots of land for themselves. This had two distinct advantages: Not could they launder money profitably but also sport the veneer of ‘respectable’ land developers.
Earlier, in the Fifties and Sixties, smugglers like Walcott, Gawandi Ram, Gafoor Supariwalla, Ibrahim Patel, Haji Mastan, and Sukur Narain Bakhia had a profile and lifestyle completely different from their ambitious successors of today. They were swashbuckling adventurers who lived their lives, as if there was no tomorrow. Their dreams had limits, their desire for wealth a certain proportion.
But soon the situation changed rapidly: The world of crime became more organised, the technology of killing more sophisticated and modern, the structure of the underworld decidedly more corporate and the inter-gang relationship chillingly more interpersonal. They were now eager to compete and, as it is true of the corporate world, each perceived the other as potential rival. More significantly, the crime syndicates were prowling about the bustling city in search of new and profitable ventures.
Paucity of land goaded the syndicates into eyeing the Congress Government’s decision to reclaim Backbay, and the nexus between gang leaders and the political class soon came to the fore. The then Opposition leader Mrinal Gore moved the court against the VP Naik Government’s proposal to sell plots in Backbay at a price in excess of the prevailing market rates. Gore won the case, but lost the war, the politicians and gangsters were now willing to strike a deal.
The hegemony of the Congress obviously meant the Congressmen had the largest share of the booty. But the Shiv Sena, hitherto lagging behind was taking a different route: it decided to exploit the grassroots terrorism and fight the civic elections to control the bureaucracy. And it did this with enviable success.
The nexus between the political class and the criminal syndicates changed the profile of land developers and builders. The pipe-smoking real estate speculators and developers were replaced by a new crop of builders like Lokhandwala, Raheja, Dr Maker and Rizvi. To this list could be added the names of dreaded smugglers like Umar Malbari, Manu Narang, Gafoor and Ibrahim Supariwalla.
These men had only one thing in common - political patronage. If Dr Maker had the support of the Congress, then Yusuf Patel, Manu Narang, Gafoor Supariwalla could bank on Rajni Patel. Thus, both the political class and the underworld were neatly split, every camp attempting to carve out its own turf and guard it zealously against poaching. This laid the foundation for a gang war that was to shake the city more than a decade later.
The syndicate entered the arena dramatically. On a wintry December night of 1979, the congested Belassis road was suddenly engulfed in fire; high flames leapt out of the stables that lined the road: hundreds of horses neighed to death, and the fire brigade mysteriously failed to reach the spot in time.
Yusuf Patel later erected buildings on the ashes.
He was not alone. Smuggler Manu Narang was already going haywire with constructing buildings and hotels. The message had gone home loud and clear, and scores of small-time builders and contractors were making a beeline for the offices of smugglers like Manu Narang, Vardrajan Mudaliar—seeking investment as well as help for grabbing land and evicting legitimate tenants.
Vardrajan Mudaliar, though a wharf king, taught the embryonic world of criminal syndicates the importance of grabbing the land, housing the mushrooming slums. Even though his reign period was small, he also drove home the importance of developing contacts with influential men and use of the police force through tipping them on the whereabouts of small-time lackeys of the crime world as well as the use of the media.
One of these small-timers learnt the lesson well and soon emerged as the most dreaded person in the construction business. He was Arvind Dholakia, a scrap cloth dealer and errand boy for smuggler Supariwalla. The latter helped his disciple to parachute into the building industry. Arvind Dholakia emerged as the city’s most sought after builder.
But Arvind and his bother Mahesh went a step further: They moved into the hotel business and effectively used the cover to start pick-up joints. Slip Disc, Hotel Ceasar’s Palace and Fishermen’s Wharf entitled the Dholakias to establish their monopoly over the flesh trade and develop contacts among the city’s bigwigs hungry for exciting night outs on the sly.
In the early Eighties, with Vardarajan Mudaliar’s power on wane, the Dholakias were no doubt firmly entrenched, but were gradually feeling the heat in the underworld rivalry. Dawood Ibrahim had arrived; he was the new contender who wanted the mantle of the undisputed Godfather.
In the political arena a fresh alignment was being worked out between the then Chief Minister AR Antulay and Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray who was soon to realise that charismatic power could match, or even be deadlier than the formidable clout of the underworld.
The new phase in the war was inaugurated with Chief Minister Sharad Pawar’s decision to de-reserve land in the western suburbs of the city. A mad rush ensued, but the first to establish his sway over the new turf was Sharad Shetty alias Anna. Once, a ‘stockist,’ of Dawood’s contraband, Shetty was receiving huge amounts from builders, wishing to enter the construction business there.
This only escalated the rivalry between the Dholakias and Dawood, and blood spill was inevitable. Mahesh Dholakia was the first victim of the war; he was shot dead on the neon-lit swanky Peddar Road. There could now be no hope of truce.
But so strong is the lure of land in Mumbai that is has the potential of driving a wedge in even the powerful and tightly knit gang empire. Thus, Dawood’s most trusted hit man Rama Naik, who controlled the eastern side of Central Mumbai, staked his claim to a plot in the far-flung Jogeshwari area. His problem was that Sharad Shetty too had similar designs. The Jogeshwari slums were cleared off in just 12 hours, but the gunmen of neither of the dons were willing to back out.
This war was a classic case for the intervention of the Godfather. Dawood interceded on behalf of Sharad Shetty, and his monolith empire split vertically. The subsequent gunning down of Rama Naik in a police ‘encounter,’ saw Arvind Dholakia who had started developing Mahakali, Andheri and Jogeshwari change his allegiance; he began financing the Arun Gawli mob to keep Dawood at bay.
The first big blow in this new round was delivered by Gawli; his trusted aide Ashok Joshi intercepted Satish Raje’s car in the busy Byculla crossing, smashed his head with a hammer mowing him down with bullets.
The murder of Raje infuriated most members of the Dawood gang for an important reason: He was their finance man who kept the account of benami transactions as well as investments in the real estate and other lucrative ventures for laundering black money.
The reaction of Raje’s murder drew the battle lines afresh - Amar Naik and Arun Gawli struck a deal, promised not poach on each other’s territories, and joined hands to strike at Dawood’s empire. The builders as well as the small fries of the organized crime world thought it prudent to jump on the Dawood’s bandwagon.
What about the political class? Changing political equations saw the political parties revise their strategies. A major chunk of Shiv Sena took the side of Dawood Ibrahim. But in the underworld, allegiance to money and turf predominates, and Shiv Sena MLA Vithal Chavan was gunned down precisely for this reason - he fell out with Dawood’s mobster, Guru Satam (who later left the folds of Dawood), over the issue of sharing the spoils of the protection racket that they were running together in eastern-central Mumbai.
The Dawood-Sena link, firmly established in the early Nineties, came under the increasing strain of Hindutva politics of Bal Thackeray. His diatribes against the Muslims needed a visible symbol and Dawood, who had fled to the safer confines of Dubai, was one easy target he could easily exploit. Indeed, charisma could be pitted against gun-power and capture of the State machinery could provide a clout sufficient enough to match the arsenal of the dreaded underworld don as well as challenge the hegemony of the Congress.
Thackeray could be reckless, never mind the fact that a substantial chunk of Sena corporators owed allegiance to Dawood. For one, the Amar Naik-Gawli pact had weakened Dawood, who found that ruling the crime world through remote control was not quite the same as being there on the scene. And then came the serial bomb blasts, the disclosure of Dawood’s role the planning of it, overnight changed the scenario for the mafia king dramatically. The Dubai-based don was now a liability whom only a foolhardy politician would court.
It was probably the new political equation that saw some of the Sena corporators assert their independence---and pay dearly for it. So BJP MLA Prem Kumar Sharma was bumped off because he allegedly tried to take a lion’s share in the spoils of illegal constructions. Soon Shiv Sena MLC Ramesh More was killed by Chhota Rajan’s (a long-time Dawood’s crony who later branched out into a formidable independent branch) men who wanted to establish their own protection racket in the discos and pubs located in the western suburbs of the city.
The Shiv Sena, once the wind started blowing in its favour, openly patronized Amar Naik and even gave tickets to its relatives to fight the municipal corporation elections. It probably had little option. For, with Gawli leaving the Shiv Sena fold after Chhagan Bhujbal joined the Congress, the Shiv Sena had to woo Amar Naik lest it was deprived of firepower and support of the lumpen elements who ruled the roost in the central Mumbai.
It was due to this nexus that the Shiv Sena-BJP Government maintained a deafening silence over the killing of industrialist Sumit Khatau, which was linked to the controversy over the multi-crore Khatau mill land. Nothing could be more eloquent testimony to the political patronage extended to the underworld - and all for a land in a city teeming with millions.
The collapse of the smuggling rackets, due to the liberalization policies juxtaposed with the crunch in the real estate business and serial bomb blasts, brought the chinks in the monolithic empire to fore and gangsters desperately seeking legitimacy by hobnobbing with film stars, doling out interviews to the media to keep their clout alive.
Notwithstanding the oft-repeated claims of the Mumbai police of destroying the mafia through encounters of small-time hoodlums, the organized criminal syndicates itself had gone into hibernation. The law-enforcing agencies know this fact very well, and several of them used this as a cover to their own nefarious activities.
And the wheel continues to rotate. Wherever and whenever elections are round the corner and political parties need campaign funds, builders, developers and land grabbers all poise themselves to extract concessions from the political parties.
The result: A boom in the real estate. With substantial tainted money floating in the city needing to be cleaned, the hydra-headed organized criminal syndicates, rear its head spitting blood and fire. And since in the organized crime chessboard, names and personalities do not matter, the turf-war clashes continue. No peace, no lasting truce for the players. And Mumbai continues to grope in the darkness of an endless night.
The author is a senior journalist, writing on environment, issues, labour and human rights, politics and crime. He may be contacted at email@example.com