The under, the over, and the middle world
THE films and the print media would have one believe that Mumbai is the crime capital of the country, what with shootouts, gang wars, murders, assassinations, kidnappings for ransom, and bomb blasts as routine daily occurrences all over the city. The television serials – never to lag too far behind the films – would have it that almost every resident of Mumbai knows at least one don or the other, major or minor. On the other hand Mumbai is popularly considered a safe city – safer than most others for the ordinary person – even for women. An overwhelming majority of the residents would admit that they have never encountered a member of the criminal underworld face to face.
The paradox is not too difficult to understand. The media is ruled by whatever is newsworthy, sensational, spectacular, and different from the ordinary everyday experience. The underworld has in the none too distant past provided outrageously colourful, though often frightening, spectacles. Consider a few scenes. A tenement house considered to be the hideout and headquarters of a criminal gang is attacked by alleged members of a rival gang who all wear identical uniforms, not to masquerade as a security force but as a marker of distinct identity. The uniform is quite unlike that of any security force and quite distinctive.
A custodial cell in a prominent police station is attacked with bombs, its walls breached, and a notorious leader of a dreaded criminal gang lodged in a cell is attacked with firearms and swords. He is ultimately killed. A killer in a sailor’s uniform shoots a criminal leader at point blank range in a court of law. The criminal is under police custody and surrounded by armed policemen when the killing takes place. The car of an alleged mastermind of a criminal gang – their ‘planner’ – is overtaken by other vehicles and stopped. Assailants break the windshield and window panes of the allegedly bullet proof car with sledge hammers and pump bullets into the occupants of the vehicle.
The car of a prominent textile mill owner is chased by other cars. At a traffic signal it is boxed in by the pursuing vehicles and the mill owner shot dead. Yet another mill owner is coolly called out of his office, taken to a waiting vehicle on the road, and shot dead. The most prominent trade unionist in the city is shot dead right outside his house as he leaves in his vehicle. A notorious gangster is shot in a court of law and crippled for life. The tenement house where yet another notorious gang leader resides is so well fortified with an electric fence and so on that the police have to mount an operation to storm it with special equipment.
Amajor don is attacked in Bangkok by rival Indian gangsters and critically wounded in an action that reads like some special forces operation from a thriller novel. A don just out of jail actually launches a socio-political organisation and for its first demonstration manages to mobilise nearly 50,000 people. The gangs are run in the fashion of transnational corporations by CEOs located far away from India, reportedly based in Nepal, Pakistan, UAE, Europe, or even in international waters off the coast of Malaysia.
If these incidents are not enough take the hyperbolic statements attached to the gangsters. Political leaders talk of ‘their’ dons and ‘our’ dons. The dons have also been described as ‘Hindu’ dons – in the same vein as the ‘Hindu bomb’. Stunningly, one of them was also described as a ‘patriotic don’. To top it all, authoritative sources within the intelligence agencies admitted to the media (after the Bangkok shoot out mentioned above) that if some of the gangs cooperated with the Pakistan intelligence agency, ISI, their rivals cooperated and acted along with the Indian intelligence agency! The alleged involvement of the underworld with the film industry and notable personalities from films lends it even greater glamour.
This indeed is heady stuff for the media. What more can you expect in terms of colour or spectacle than these gems from real life? The films and television serials have in fact rarely portrayed a drama as fantastic or gaudy as this. Even the most successful of them have only depicted in a slightly altered fashion real life characters and incidents.
The common person on the other hand has no reason to ever come across the underworld except through newspaper columns or television news. He only encounters petty crimes. Organised crime – the underworld – has no real or direct involvement in these. It may at best provide some patronage and protection and solve jurisdictional problems. That is precisely why organised crime does not evoke immediate personal anxiety or fear as far as the ordinary residents of the city are concerned.
The only activities of the underworld that they may witness are the so called victimless crimes concerning illicit liquor and illegal gambling. These, to the ordinary residents of the city, particularly those who belong to the working class and related strata, are only technical infringements of the law and not major moral issues. The activities of the underworld and their victims are too far removed from the life world of these people to produce strong reactions. Local lieutenants of the dons may collect protection money from retail shopkeepers. It was once reported that in a bid to extend the net (or expand the market in a manner of speaking) they collected a ‘tax’ or levy from anyone who bought a car. Such charges on property are again not considered illegitimate by the toiling masses. The underworld figures, in fact, filled the vacuum left by the official social security and welfare apparatus. The dons then had a Robin Hood image.
The underworld – at least a section of it – became infamous and dreaded when it was implicated in the serial bomb blasts of March 1993. The occasional bomb blasts thereafter have been the handiwork of extremist and terrorist elements, not generally of the underworld. That one catastrophic day was enough to change the image. There was of course the genuine anger and fear at the sudden delivery of indiscriminately meted out death. The act also evoked strong nationalist and communal feelings. In fact the media, political commentators and even spokespersons of security agencies if not the government ensured that the communal and nationalist elements remained prominently etched in memory.
The operations of the underworld are romantic and glamorous only in film and television portrayals. The violence in reality is brutal, not justifiable on any grounds. The sole purpose of the crime and violence is making money – more money than honest labour can provide, from rather nefarious activities. The element of social banditry is more found, if at all, in localised smaller gangs than in the activities of the organised criminal underworld which has never displayed any social consciousness even out of a distorted sense of social justice. The ‘good deeds’ of the criminals were never anything other than marginal acts of charity, comparable to the distribution of alms by ‘pious’ traders and other varieties of business persons outside any major temple in the city. The apparent popularity some of the gang leaders enjoyed (and there are instances of funerals of slain gang lords attracting crowds in thousands) was based on the employment generation function the underworld performed in some areas of the city, particularly in periods when jobs and occupations were disappearing in the over-world. In its organised form the underworld is an economic operation and to a lesser extent an administrative set-up.
The evolution of the underworld in Mumbai will illustrate the point much better. The underworld is characterised by its organisation. Some people allege that petty crime and criminals – including pickpockets, chain snatchers, thefts, housebreaking, robberies – are all organised in Mumbai and under some kind of central control. It is likely that some of the criminals, particularly robbers may team up and function as more or less well-knit groups. However, the grand organisation and control of all crime seems to be a fanciful idea. Crime reporters and police officers certainly do not support this notion. (The suspicion of grand organisation extends in popular fancy to many activities, including ticketless travel on local trains.)
The roots of gang organisation can be traced back many decades. Interestingly, in the earliest phase the organisation was connected with industrial labour and political activity. Gangs of determined persons, usually from specific gymnasia in the city, were often employed by employers and anti-strike ‘official or recognised’ unions to protect strike breakers as they entered the mills, defying pickets to criminally intimidate strikers, disrupt meetings of strike leaders, and assault activists and leaders of the striking workers. Traditionally, such activity was most common in the textile industry since the strikes here were usually industry-wide and carried serious social and political implications. The stakes hence were the highest.
Employment of criminals to intimidate belligerent unions and unionists was not unknown in other industrial establishments either. This had to necessarily be an organised activity given the required numbers and the needed coordination of toughies. Some of the leaders of such gymnasia-based gangs later became recognised political activists and at times even occupied elected posts at the local level. The maintenance of ‘troops’, forever in readiness and professionally devoted to these activities, itself gave these groups a criminal character – whether or not they were involved in any other infringement of the law. There is enough evidence to suggest that they were involved at least in extortion and collection of ‘protection money’ from business persons of all varieties. The link of crime with industry and politics thus seem to exist ever since crime got organised. The criminalisation of politics and politicisation of crime is not a phenomenon only of the recent decades as popularly trumpeted.
The policy of prohibition – a total ban on all manufacture and sale of alcoholic liquor/beverages including even palm wine – is credited by most observers including police officers with the true organisation of crime in the city. The criminal activity now acquired structures of production, of transport, of ‘wholesale’ and ‘retail’ trade. It now needed many more workers at every stage of operation. It also required equipment for manufacture and transport as well as stable outlets. Obviously this needed investment, patronage and protection. This created the basic organisation of criminal activity on an unprecedented scale. Illicit gambling, particularly the numbers rackets, too was organised in a similar fashion; a centrally controlled city wide and state wide organised activity. Territorial disputes, their resolution, implementation of decisions along with enforcement of financial discipline introduced a violent element into these crimes. The criminal gangs now owned and controlled the means of organised violence, useful in industrial disputes, show of political strength and even for electoral manipulation.
Gold has always been a cherished commodity in the country. Its international price was usually lower than the domestic price while the price of silver showed a reverse trend. The restrictions on official import and export of these commodities created an ideal environment for contraband trade – smuggling. The smuggling of gold became intense during the years of ‘gold control’. The operation required greater organisational sophistication than that involved in the illicit liquor ‘trade’ or the numbers rackets. Higher levels of investment, more sophisticated equipment for cross-border (often maritime) as well as intra country transport and international contacts – all became necessary.
The smugglers obviously could not sell gold in the form it was smuggled in to the ordinary consumer. Consequently links were forged between the underworld and the overworld that are not difficult to imagine. The international dimension and the high stakes further augmented the apparatus of violence; the equipment alone had to match the arsenals of international security and criminal agencies. The ‘installed’ capacity for violence was often ‘spare’ and thus could be ‘leased’ to others who required it. After all, smuggling was not confined to gold. Other commodities too were smuggled, including currency.
Illicit liquor, numbers rackets, and smuggling created ‘employment opportunities’ for numerous ‘workers’ at different levels of operations carrying varying degrees of personal risk. In distribution specifically, large numbers were involved. This probably lent a ‘social’ character to organised crime in the decades of the ’70s and ’80s. The character was always dual – as strike breakers the criminal gangs directly assaulted the toilers, acting as discipline and peace enforces in situations where the official security agencies could not. They also created innumerable victims in the toiling masses through liquor, gambling and associated loan sharking, ruining numerous lives.
On the other hand the colourful gang leaders provided employment, some social welfare, some guarantees of security, and an instant as well as transparent if brutal mechanism for solution of disputes and delivery of justice. They also provided illusions of a thrilling, colourful, high-spending lifestyle outside the pale of law and routine concepts of morality.
It will be clear from the above description that the activities and organisation of the underworld had some connections with the happenings in the legitimate world. The economic and social happenings as well as particular policies shaped the agenda of the underworld. The easing of the policy of prohibition and liberalisation of imports, for example, rendered criminal activities such as bootlegging and smuggling irrelevant or marginal. The narcotics trade for some time attracted the underworld. For various reasons it did not become a major activity though some smuggling of banned substances, including ‘industrial’ manufactured narcotics, continues to date. The probable ease of alternate routes of transport perhaps never made India a major centre in the narcotics web.
The sphere of organised crime – the underworld – exhibits flexibility in choice of operations and activities that should be the envy of any astute business person. It abandons enterprises as soon as they become irrelevant and then picks up new ones just as possibilities emerge on the horizon. Real estate and construction is one area that has remained fairly common for a long time. This also has a lot to do with the paucity of space and high price of real estate in the city of Mumbai as well as with the nature of the construction industry.
Eviction of tenants from old buildings, repossession of flats for owners, eviction of squatters from plots of land invariably takes a long time if pursued via proper channels in the proper legal forums. The criminals, petty and organised, specialise in ‘vacation and repossession’ of properties. Single flats probably invite local toughs while entire buildings or blocks of buildings attract larger gangs.
Real estate in Mumbai is also officially highly undervalued. This means that large amounts of black money are involved in the deals – whether that be just the sale or purchase of tenancy rights (not legally permissible) or of large plots of land or the actual construction of buildings and sale of flats. All black money dealings involve risks, particularly that one of the parties may renege or default on payments. There is no legal redress for this grievance. The legal machinery moreover can punish the defaulter but may not be able to recover the money. The underworld in such situations performs the role of the enforcer.
In periods when the construction activity shows signs of boom, the interest rates on loans for the purpose rise. The collection of the principal and interest is generally entrusted to the underworld in case of disputes. This inside knowledge of the construction industry has also taught the underworld that builders are a prime target for extortion and can pay hefty sums for ‘protection’. Those who refuse are made examples of through elimination. Their one option is probably to seek police protection. This, however, entails disclosure of the nature and cause of the threat leading to unwelcome attention from other wings of the government machinery. A businessman who receives a threat consequently either prefers to settle the matter by paying the tribute or seeks protection from a rival gangster. Numerous assaults and killings in the city are related to the extortion/protection racket. It is also interesting that top police officials have repeatedly complained that the victims of extortion do not cooperate with the police!
The black money dealings are equally a feature of a number of otherwise legitimate business activity, definitely of most speculative activities. The underworld again plays the role of protector, enforcer, and/or collector in such deals. The larger the deal and more prominent the businessman involved, the bigger the gangster. Recent actions by the police have revealed numerous linkages between legitimate business persons and the underworld. At the root of the links are financial deals.
The film industry attracts attention not only through its glamour but also from the peculiar nature of its financial dealings. It has become a target for various types of extortion. Again, the film trade is an activity where institutionalisation particularly in financial matters is weak, the component of black money high and the nature of many deals dubious. Unsurprisingly it creates space for enforcers and collectors who may then overstep their brief and begin to operate for own interest and gain.
A few marginal notes are needed to conclude this cursory survey. The nature of crime and of criminal organisation has changed. The logic of contemporary capitalism does not leave even the world of crime alone. The underworld too by all accounts acquires a corporate structure and logic. It becomes impersonal and professional. The violence becomes clinical, to be used as a means almost without passion.
There is already a strange dispersal and yet centralisation in terms of control of the underworld. The reigning dons and their most valued lieutenants are outside India. Rather, secondary and transitory ‘under-bosses’ control and execute the operations in the city, but according to a central plan. The shooters are new recruits who know nothing about the key operations, key operatives or even the dimensions of the particular operation they are involved in. They are primarily ancillaries or independent functionaries contracted for particular activity with a full element of deniability and of loss of connecting threads.
The activity and modus operandi change rapidly. The underworld becomes transnationalised and yet it operates through stand-alone subsidiaries that will not produce any domino effect in their fall, should one occur. The underworld in a way mimics the global corporation – it becomes as predatory, as penetrating, and yet as invisible. This very global corporate character also takes away the individual machismo, the social bandit sentiment, the search for justice.
The dons of the Mumbai underworld are different from the daredevil desperados in some other areas of the country. The underworld no longer has a home country, no metropolis that it is inseparably tied to. Like speculative capital it shifts areas of operation. Reversals or even bankruptcies in one place do not mean a total global collapse. The firm merely cuts losses and shifts its area of operation.
The transnational nature of the operations brings the underworld in contact with intelligence agencies. The underworld represents the perfect private agency for state sponsored terrorist activities in another country. The ‘spare’ capacity for transporting contraband for mindless violence, for intimidation or terrorisation, is leased out or subcontracted to the highest bidder. The payment need not always be in hard cash. It can be in safe havens, in studied ignorance of certain activities, in information, in equipment, in protection. The fanatic elements in the terrorist networks can be ably supplemented by the apolitical professional operatives of the crime corporation. It should be no surprise at all to have two more clients with diametrically opposed motives and goals. It would still fulfil the contracts with almost no conflict of interest.
The ground reality may be more complicated. It involves the working of social pressures that local subsidiaries are subject to as well as the local links they have to build for sheer survival. It is true worldwide that marginalised communities and ethnic groups provide the human power – usually the cannon fodder and sometimes even the leadership of the organised criminal underworld. The same situation exists in India and in Mumbai. Planned economic ruination like the one attempted in Gujarat recently, combined with the anger and disillusionment with the rule of law such pogroms evoke, provides foot soldiers in even larger numbers for the criminal and the disruptive and/or terrorist activities.
The ‘nexus’ between criminals – particularly organised crime, the underworld – and the police force as well as the politicians has repeatedly featured in discussions. There is of course the element of corruption as far as connections with the police force are concerned. There are other considerations too. It would seem that there is an implicit (rabbit garden) law enforcement policy that ‘tolerates’ certain levels and types of crime.
This is at one level a pragmatic measure. A city of 12 million cannot be effectively policed by less than 50,000 law enforcement officers. Not every crime can be prevented, detected, prosecuted or punished. Some kinds of priorities have to be set. Moreover, officially too some connections have to be maintained to gather information and intelligence. Additionally the policy at the higher level is to go easy on certain gangs at certain times. The reasons for this are various. It now seems that some gangsters are used as unofficial intelligence assets. It would be naďve to expect that there are no contacts whatsoever between the underworld and law enforcement agencies anywhere in the world.
The relationship between the political sphere and the underworld, by no means recent, is a more complex issue. It has perhaps become more overt now. Again corruption is definitely one factor in the relationship, as is illegal services sought and rendered. In the days when crime had a social banditry component to it, the contacts and connections were natural and unavoidable. The gangsters then also enjoyed social backing and social bases with a capacity to mobilise the masses. This made contacts, cooperative or adversarial, inevitable.
Subsequently, the criminals lost the social banditry element and certain political organisations made systematic intimidation and terrorisation of both supporters and opponents their permanent method and style of operation. This introduced systematic use of violence, sometimes against specific political trends and sometimes against specific sections of people. The dependence on criminal gangs for weapons and perpetrators of professional violence became common.
Such organisations openly patronised particular gangs and gangsters, at times awarding them peculiar sobriquets – the son of the soil gangster, the Hindu don, the patriotic don, and so on. This is a deterioration of politics itself – the nexus with criminals is only a part of this alteration. When political policies include pogroms, dependence on professional perpetrators of brutal inhumanity becomes necessary. Strangely the denunciation has been only of individual corrupt contacts not of the systematic relationships.
This is perhaps not very surprising. The fear and apparent or feigned revulsion that the criminal underworld evokes is because of its overt use of violence. A Big Bull scamster perhaps harmed the economy far more and ruined more lives and institutions only a few years ago. Till incarceration he was lionised by the ‘over-world’ even after the details of his crimes became public. He graced many a publication with columns as also business schools as guest faculty. He also addressed numerous chaste and respectable gatherings. His world was never considered to be the ‘underworld’. It was perhaps too close to the elite ‘over-world’.