India can't keep a good don
down By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - Mumbai's gangsters are back in
action. A sharp spurt in shootouts and extortion
demands in recent months has triggered concern
that the underworld, which was on the decline over
the past few years, is making a comeback. What is
more, a new crop of dons seem to be calling the
Mumbai police arrested at least
five assassins on contract-killing missions in
recent months. There has also been an increase in
the number of complaints regarding extortion
demands, which had
on the decline since 2000
It was the
killing last month of a 32-year-old police
informer, Sukesh Shetty, in a crowded Mumbai bar
that set alarm bells ringing through the city's
police force. Shetty was the fourth informer to be
gunned down in the city since October. An
associate until recently of Hemant Pujari, one of
the new generation of gangsters in the city,
Shetty was apparently leaking information about
Pujari's operations to the police and this
incurred the don's wrath.
killing drew attention to the return of gang
warfare to the streets of Mumbai, a brazen
announcement made on television by another don,
Ejaz Lakdawala, heralded the resurgence of
extortion. In a phone-in interview on a television
program, Lakdawala announced that Bollywood
personalities were in his crosshairs. Singer
Himesh Reshammiya and filmmakers Feroze Nadiadwala
and Rajkumar Santoshi, he said, were on his hit
list, as they had refused to pay him protection
money. "Those who won't pay will be killed,"
The very public
reassertion of Mumbai's dons has sent their
favorite victims - Bollywood, property developers
and diamond merchants - scurrying for cover.
According to Suketu Mehta, author of
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, the
relationship between Mumbai's underworld and
Bollywood is a "curious symbiosis". "The Hindi
filmmakers", he said, "are fascinated by the lives
of the gangsters and draw upon them for material.
The gangsters, from the shooter on the ground to
the don-in-exile at the top, watch Hindi movies
keenly, and model themselves - their dialogue, the
way they carry themselves - on their screen
equivalents." Indeed, reel life and underworld
real life have drawn heavily on each other.
Several movies have been financed by mob
money. Underworld investment in Bollywood meant
that gangsters could make or break stars. They
would call stars to perform at their parties. They
began to call the shots. They demanded protection
money and wanted a share in the profits and
overseas distribution rights.
relationship has existed between Mumbai's property
developers and the mob. Builders would use
gangsters to evict people from prime property.
Subsequently, the dons would squeeze money out of
the builders. As with Bollywood, when extortion
demands went unheeded, blood flowed.
1980s and the 1990s were heady years for Mumbai's
underworld. And then it came under pressure. After
the 1993 serial bomb blasts in the city, which
were allegedly orchestrated by mafia don Dawood
Ibrahim, the police cracked the whip. Scores of
gangsters were arrested or killed in encounters in
the late 1990s.
According to one estimate,
350 gangsters were eliminated. Top dons Arun
Gawli, Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan lost
several of their lieutenants. Two of Dawood's
close associates, Babloo Srivastav from Delhi and
Muthappa Rai from Bangalore, were arrested.
Portuguese police nabbed a top member of his gang,
Abu Salem, with girlfriend Monica Bedi. The duo
were subsequently extradited to India. Dawood's
right-hand man Sharad Shetty was shot dead by
Rajan's men in Dubai in January 2003.
1998, the number of extortion cases registered
with Mumbai police stood at 367; it was brought
down to half that number by 2004. Mumbai's police
gloated that they had put the underworld on a
Indeed, it did seem that even
Dawood Ibrahim's fortunes were fading. The don,
who had been running his multinational empire
"D-Company" from Karachi and Dubai, was apparently
losing his position as numero uno of the
underworld to former associate and now bitter
enemy Chhota Rajan. He was declared a global
terrorist by the United States. More recently,
several of his close associates have been
convicted and sentenced for their role in the 1993
blasts. The don, the Mumbai police insisted, was
on the decline.
But such hopes have been
dashed by the recent spurt in gangland activity.
The underworld appears to be bouncing back. Media
reports say that the boom in Bollywood and
Mumbai's real-estate business has stirred the
interest of the underworld again.
recent Bollywood movie, Don (a remake of
the 1970s hit by the same name), the don, played
by Shah Rukh Khan, boasts that "Don ko pakadna
mushkil hi nahin, namumkin hain" (capturing
Don is not just difficult, it is impossible).
"It does seem that he was referring to the
Mumbai police's efforts to curb the gangsters," a
retired top cop from Mumbai said with a laugh. "It
is impossible to keep them down."
intelligence official dismissed reports that
Mumbai's dons are back. "They have always been
here," he told Asia Times Online. "When they
didn't go away in the first place, how can we say
they have returned?"
This is a line of
thinking that Y C Pawar, former joint commissioner
of the Mumbai police, echoed. "The underworld
never vanished, it was just not visible," he said,
pointing to "vested interests of all involved to
keep things under wraps".
The retired cop
said, "Officers in the police force had claimed
they were on top of the situation and had cleaned
out the underworld in order to justify the
hundreds of encounter killings that took place
through the 1990s."
He said the current
claim by Mumbai police that the mob is back is to
create public and government support for encounter
killings, which has come under the scanner after
revelations of Dirty Harry-style "encounter
specialist" Daya Nayak's close links with Dawood
Ibrahim and his alleged misuse of encounter
killings to eliminate Dawood's enemies.
Mumbai police have been blaming the recent
spurt in underworld activity on the government's
imposition of restrictions on eliminating
criminals in encounters. That this has emboldened
the underworld is a refrain that Mumbai police are
increasingly chanting. For instance, "encounter
specialist" Pradeep Sharma, whose informer Amjad
Khan was killed last year by alleged gunmen of the
Chhota Rajan gang, told the Hindustan Times that
the sidelining of encounter specialists in the
police force had encouraged the underworld to
target police informers.
officials say Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan are
still active but are maintaining a low profile.
The former received a shot in the arm recently
when a Mumbai court failed to convict Iqbal
Kaskar, his brother, in the Sara-Sahara case.
Kaskar had been accused of acquiring public land
using his connections and clout to build a
sprawling mall in the city's bustling Crawford
Market area. He is now free to run the family
If the underworld seemed quiet
in recent years, it was not because the dons were
not active but because new boys were behind the
extortions, smuggling and prostitution rackets.
"The underworld was virtually invisible until some
time back because it had acquired new faces and
new techniques," Nikhil Wagle, editor of the
Mumbai-based Marathi daily Mahanagar, has said. A
new generation of gangsters is making its mark in
GenNext in Mumbai's world
is said to be younger, deadlier, and more
ambitious and tech savvy. The new dons' molls seem
to share little with "Mona darling", the
quintessential vamp in Hindu movies of the 1970s
and '80s, who did little beyond dance for the don
and pour his whiskey. Now they are the dons'
partners in crime, actively involved in the
business of extortion and trafficking.
Intelligence officials say the new dons are
keen to make their presence felt and want to carve
a name for themselves. They are seeking to wrest
control over turf from their older associates.
This will mean an increase in intra-gang warfare
and bloodletting in the coming years.
sharp spurt in gangland activity could be
signaling the dawn of a new era in Mumbai's
is an independent journalist/researcher based in