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    South Asia
     Jun 23, 2007
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 shots.

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



been 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.

If Shetty's 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," Lakdawala warned.

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.

A similar 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.

The 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.

In 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 leash.

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.

In a 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."

An 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.

Intelligence 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 business.

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 the underworld.

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.

The sharp spurt in gangland activity could be signaling the dawn of a new era in Mumbai's underworld.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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