Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mumbai's Underworld

Post-Independent India was a land of golden opportunity. And one of the many hands that grabbed that opportunity was a man who toiled for 12 hours a day at the docks in Bombay. The man we grew up to know as Haji Mastan. In the early 70s, dons like Haji Mastan ruled the roost with the pure intent of making money. It was a profitable era devoid of supari killings, gang wars and shoot-outs.Born to a humble family of farmers in Tamil Nadu, Mastan Haider Mirza first came to the city in 1954 in search of greener pastures. He joined as a daily wager at the docks earning a paltry sum of Rs 5 per day.Frustrated at the hand-to-mouth existence and his inability to earn money, Mastan turned to smuggling imported watches, radios and gold biscuits from the docks. The money started flowing in and soon he began roping in more coolies to handle his operations.

In the late 50s, the state government imposed a prohibition on alcohol and that created the perfect opportunity for Mastan to cash in. Rampant smuggling of liquor ensured profits for everyone involved in the process, right from the hands that smuggled the bottles to the hands that poured it in glasses across the city. Mastan was a peaceful person and never advocated violence in his business. He believed in the concept of making money and sharing the spoils with the chain of people involved in the game.It was a smooth ride for the smugglers as there were no murders or shoot-outs and therefore no criminal cases were registered. The cops were happy with the weekly under-the-table arrangement and never came knocking at their doors.However, that era of thriving business was soon replaced by a bloodbath on the streets with the advent of dons like Dawood Ibrahim, Sayed Batla, Amirzada, Rama Naik and Babu Reshim.

One particular incident that sounds right out of a Bollywood masala flick was when Sayed Batla, a dreaded gangster stormed into Mastan's office and threatened the ageing businessman."Batla kisi ka ghulam nahin hai, ke uske galey mein patta dal do," he screamed from Dongri at Mastan. Mastan understood that the time had come for his business to move ahead and needed the likes of Batla. The end of the 'business' era was here. There were other businessmen who specialised in supplying smuggled goods to traders at Musafirkhana -- a hub of smuggled goods. Smugglers like Karim Lala hired Batla's nemesis Dawood Ibrahim and his elder brother Sabir. Most of these toughies were used as recovery agents to collect money from defaulting traders at Shuklaji street and other pockets where smuggling goods were sold in large quantities.

However, events took a nasty turn when Dawood crossed swords with members of the Pathan faction led by Amirzada over a recovery from a Customs agent. The tiff resulted in the Pathan brothers killing Dawood's brother Sabir in 1981.The murder launched a bloodbath that resulted in over 20 high-profile gangsters being gunned down, including Amirzada inside the Sessions Court in September 1983.While Dawood had the support of gangsters like Rama Naik and Babu Reshim, the Pathans formed their own group. It was a war between the Konkanis and Pathans.The killings marked the end of the smuggler's era, most of whom had never fired a round or stabbed an adversary. Soon after Dawood took over the smuggling business, most of the businessmen went into hibernation.Mastan began dabbling with film production and distribution. He also floated a political party Dalit Muslim Surakhsha Maha Sangh in 1985. He continued to be a social worker until his death in 1994.

One of the shrewdest real estate dons in the Mumbai underworld, Yusuf Patel had mastered the art of creating construction space out of thin air. While slumlords extended their empire horizontally, Patel has the dubious distinction of pioneering the acquisition of illegal Floor Space Index (FSI), to send his buildings skyrocketing into space.By the 1980s, the underworld was settling into the city's landscape, modifying it in subtle ways. Gangs began to feed on the growth of slums, using them to find new recruits, new proving grounds and to wriggle their way into politics. The explosive growth of slums coincided with the alarming rise of organised syndicates. Gangs were offered Rs 3,000 per hut -- money which was shared by the underworld, police and civic authorities.Patel's contemporary Vardharajan Mudaliar alias Vardhabhai collected around Rs 2 crore from the slumlords in and around Dharavi and Sion-Koliwada. Most of the collector's land along the creek was encroached upon by the don's henchmen.

While most of the gangs were providing protection to the slumlords, Patel went one step ahead and performed the feat of grabbing additional FSI illegally. The art has, since, been perfected by other dons and even builders.Patel's FSI scam was perpetrated so subtly that it took the civic authorities 16 long years to find out that the don had tampered with land records.Born Abdul Majid Abdul Patel, a Memon Muslim, he got involved in smuggling textiles and silver with Haji Mastan around 1963. However, the alliance did not last long because of financial disputes with the syndicate.In 1977, Janta Dal leader Jai Prakash Narayan offered amnesty to all smugglers. Patel jumped on to the bandwagon and everybody in the underworld thought he had shunned the life of a criminal, that the docks and the goons were things of the past for him. While others forgot his dubious past, Patel launched his own construction company and began operating from Pydhonie. And, while the other dons were still dealing with the police, Patel began grabbing additional FSI, fetching himself multi-crore deals. A few buildings, including a hotel near Nagpada junction, were part of his deals in South Mumbai.Everything seemed normal on the surface until an upright BMC official discovered that a large number of land records from several ward offices had been tampered with Prima facie, investigating officials discovered that Patel had manipulated the deals of two buildings in Tardeo and three in Byculla. They would soon discover that there were 50 other cases of gross manipulation of land records, which were carried out in connivance with civic officials.By the mid-80s, Dawood Ibrahim had also learnt the art of FSI grabbing. He brought in a team of 'white collar' associates to specialise in tampering with land records and corner the lion's share of income from real estate in South Mumbai.Patel's keeping away from the docks and goons proved to be a blessing in disguise because when things started to get ugly in the Mumbai underworld, he managed to avoid direct confrontation with Karim Lala's nephew Samad and gangsters owing allegiance to Dawood.

It is the 'don' of a new era as the underworld is abuzz with who will be the next kingpin to rule the high seas, a coveted area of operation which is not only lucrative but also dangerous across the seven islands. The daylight murder of Chand Sayed Madar in September was an indicator that he had outlived his utility. Chand was also involved in paani ka kaam or working on the high seas. The booking of Mohammed Ali for Chand's murder was like killing two birds with one stone. Ali had become too big for his boots and crossed swords with some local politicians and senior police officers.

New Kingpin

Even as the Crime Branch's investigations revolve around the murder, the motive could be linked to taking over the business from Madar or Chandbhai, as he is known. It could also mean installing a new kingpin, which often happens with the blessings of some corrupt cops. The new kingpin could be Paaniwalla Sadru. There are others like Rafiq, Battiwala, Munna Maldar, Murugan, Santosh and Sadiq who are all trying to corner the lion's share of income from diesel smuggling. Then again, the next man could be a D Company nominee. The gang not only wants to control the Rs. 1,000-crore diesel business, but also the smuggling of contraband to the grey market hubs at Manish Market and Musafirkhana. Tonnes of goods are transported across the Carnac Bunder Bridge to hundreds of dingy kiosks.Pivotal armPaani ka kaam is one of the most important arms of Mumbai's underworld. For the gangs, it means controlling the littoral waters and landing of contraband into the city. A stark reminder is the arms and ammunition, which was dumped by Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon's associates along the Raigad coast resulting in the serial blasts in 1993. Paani ka kaam or smuggling on the high seas is a very lucrative business estimated at Rs. 1,000 crore annually, but, like anything with high returns, the risks are high too. It is also one of the most dangerous areas for the underworld to operate within.

One of the earliest paani ka kaam wallahs was Haji Mastan in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was soon ousted by Dawood Ibrahim who was launched by Mastan in the smuggling business. Another case in point is Yusuf Kasargod alias Yusuf Handsome. He was forced to leave Mumbai and head for his village in Kerala. The list is long. Paani ka kaam on the high seas has always attracted members of the Dawood Ibrahim gang. Even the explosives used in the 1993 serial blasts were smuggled through the sea route in Raigad district.Deadly duoA new theory gaining ground in Mumbai's underworld is that a pair called Tingubhai and Langdabhai is interested in paani ka kaam. The duo was considered close to Dawood Ibrahim's right-hand-man, Chhota Shakeel. The Tingu-Langda duo decided to take over paani ka kaam from most of the small timers. They want to buy up all the redundant boats and barges needed for paani ka kaam. Slain Chand was an obstacle. Despite the mounting police raids, he did succumb to pressure tactics of the thugs Tingu and Langda, both white-collar lieutenants. The majority of the paani ka kaam wallahs found favour with Dawood's younger brother Anis. Tingu and Langda were aligned to the Shakeel faction.Marking territoryEven as various gangs were marking their territories, Additional Commissioner of Police (south region) R K Padmanabhan stepped up patrolling along the coast. This seriously affected the paani ka kaam in the Mumbai harbour. As a fallout of this increased patrolling, business shrunk. Chand though, continued to hold on to his alleged shipping business with the help of his cronies. "We are checking all possible angles," Padmanabhan told MiD DAY when asked about the murder.Changing fortunesThough the seas are tinged with blood, paani ka kaam has changed the fortunes of many. While some involved were hardcore underworld operatives, others operated from the fringes without getting dragged into sinister crime. It is the proverbial rags to riches story for most. People who started as 'apprentice' killers (a gory label but necessary to understand the hierarchy of the crime world) have ended up as rich owners of 200 or more tankers.

For more than three decades, the walls of the Mumbai docks have witnessed the rise and fall of Mumbai's mafia kingpins. If docks could speak, they would whisper about dubious triumphs and downfalls, truth and betrayal, life and death... Cartons to containersIn the early 1970s, when the tonnage of goods in the Bombay Port was steadily rising, there was enough work for the 1,000 odd workers as well as enough overtime, to keep port workers happy. It was common to see about 100 coolies eating snacks together after work. Hectic work and the extra money was a windfall to the dozen restaurateurs operating in the Carnac Bunder area. Unknown to the port workers though, a motley group became active those days, after the workers had returned home. First, they jumped over the walls and broke into petty consignments, beginning with lifting small parcels, and then slowly getting more ambitious. Soon, the thieves were looting cartons and later, entire containers.Restaurant watchPolice sources say that Haji Mastan and his trusted lieutenants headed the group.

Particularly promising amongst them was one Paul Patrick Newman. Slowly, stealthily but surely Mumbai's underworld was being nurtured. Mastan's men operated out of the Crescent House, off the docks. The cluster of the buildings in the area became an ideal spot for handling stolen goods and loading them onto tempos to be dispatched onward to their destinations across the city. Most of the activities were monitored from a local restaurant in the area.Textiles & tape recordersIncrease in the tonnage in the port operations saw adequate underworld recruitment too. Small-time thieves and hooligans joined Mastan's team, almost gaining a free run in the 720-hectare land in the port zone. But the 1980s tonnage in the port shot up to more than 1,70,000 dead weight tonnes per annum. The volume of pilferage rose too and truckloads of contraband were being delivered across Carnac Bunder to Musafirkhana and Manish Market. The smuggled cargo mostly comprised beer cans, textiles, tape recorders, cigarettes, perfumes and automatic watches. The goods could be easily traced to Musafirkhana, some shops in Heera Panna and many customs notified shops across the city.Dons line upThe money from the docks' prosperity saw the once sleepy business district of Ballard Pier in South Mumbai morph and get a dubious vivacity. It became an area where hotels did brisk business and nightlife grew, with prostitutes lining up at the corner.

Soon, a strong competitor to Mastan emerged in the form of Afghan national, Karim Lala. After the duo divided their business, Mirchi Seth joined Lala. There was huge money in drugs smuggling and Dawood Ibrahim then made an attempt to corner a lion's share of the income. Lala had the backing of the Pathan brothers, Amirzada and Alamzeb. Dawood had to seek the help of the Byculla Company, particularly Babu Reshim. Dharavi-based don Vardharajan Mudaliar alias Vardhabhai and his henchmen also threw their hats into the ring. Urban dacoit Manya Surve also joined the fray.Switch neededBy the '90s, smugglers found safe landing sites in the mangroves of Sewri-Wadala, Worli and Mahim. Some of the contraband was loaded onto small ships and ferried to distant jetties like Versova, Gorai and even Ratnagiri. With the opening of the economy, foreign goods were easily available in Indian markets. The demand for branded goods diminished. Cloth from the state-of-the-art textile mills replaced Boski and Stretchlon fabrics, which were in great demand till the late 1980s. Dawood Ibrahim and his cronies were left with very little choice but to shift their business to new areas like diesel smuggling.

New operators like Chand and Sadru and jumped on to the bandwagon.Now, dieselMerchant vessels plying in and around Mumbai bring in a windfall to the smugglers in the city. Diesel from merchant vessels is smuggled in connivance with the ship's master (captain) and other senior officers. The agent clinches the deal even before the ship reaches Mumbai harbour. Some shipping companies from countries like Indonesia and Philippines have agents in Mumbai. The agent acts as a point man and also helps in negotiating with the racketeers. They work on commission. Austerity driveWhat is worrisome is the fact all the payments are made in dollars and this gives a fillip to the burgeoning hawala trade in the city. Ship owners usually sanction a specified quantity of diesel for running the engine and other auxiliary machinery while sailing. The captain of the ship and a few senior officers go on an austerity drive to save fuel. Marine logbooks on the ships are fudged by crewmembers to show a high consumption pattern. Generally, air conditioners and other machines are switched off to save fuel. The purloined diesel is bought at around Rs. 12 per litre and sold at profits between Rs. 6 to Rs. 8 per litre. Towards LonavalaInvestigations carried out by MiD DAY indicated that consignments are smuggled to makeshift jetties in Navi Mumbai. Diesel is immediately loaded on to waiting tankers which head towards Lonavala, Pune, Kolhapur and up to Belgaum. The drivers of the tankers are provided with fake bills, a precaution if intercepted along the route. In most cases a sizeable hafta is ensured for officials of the channels through which the consignment is passing.Mafioso linksThe mafia has strong links with dubious petrol pump owners. The stolen diesel is dumped into the tanks of the petrol pump under cover of darkness. "Since diesel is sold clandestinely at cheap rates, it is a great loss to the state exchequer," said an excise officer, who did not want to be named. The routeThe sea-going tugs used for smuggling diesel sail out of the harbour in darkness and head for 'Bravo' anchorage, about 20 nautical miles off Mumbai harbour. The consignment is offloaded in less than an hour. The diesel-laden tugs and similar vessel head for sensitive Raigad coast through Murud-Janjira. The consignment is transferred in 200 litre cans, which is later filled into dredger and small crafts. Thus, goes on the most dangerous, coveted and lucrative businesses of the underworld where human life is cheap, the crash of waves drown out the gunshots and ghosts of the dead stay buried 20,000 leagues under the sea.