Table of Contents
Mumbai's mafia wars
The battles between and among Mumbai's mafia groups appear to have taken
on a communal character as they seek to gain legitimacy on communal terms.
MUMBAI is no stranger to mafia wars. However, for the first time in the city,
the mafia's battlefront has become nakedly communal. The attempt to kill
former Mumbai Mayor Milind Vaidya on March 4, the second such attempt since
December, is believed to have been the outcome of efforts by top mafia groups
to gain legitimacy of sorts on communal terms. The attacks on Vaidya, a Shiv
Sena leader who played a key role in the anti-Muslim pogroms of 1992-1993,
were carried out by members of a Dubai-based group led by Shakeel Ahmad Babu,
better known as Chhota Shakeel. The Chhota Shakeel group says that its actions
are aimed at avenging the murders of some persons accused of a role in the
Mumbai serial blasts of 1993 and that behind these actions are members of
the gang led by the Malaysia-based Rajendra Nikhalje, or Chhota Rajan.
The March 4 attempt was carried out with precision. At 10-15 p.m., Vaidya
was sitting with six other people in the porch of his Mori Road residence
in the Mahim area. A van pulled up outside the gate and gunmen opened fire
from inside the van with Kalashnikov assault rifles. (These rifles are believed
to be among the 150-odd that were brought into the country before the Mumbai
serial blasts and that remain to be recovered.) Vilas Akre and Milind Chowdhury,
who had come to visit Vaidya, died instantly. Vaidya, Deepak Akre, Nischal
Chowdhury, Vinay Akre and Babu Mangale were seriously injured. A wall riddled
with bullets and splattered with blood illustrates the intensity of the firing.
Police guards who were stationed there were apparently unable to respond
to the attack.
Vaidya had survived an earlier assassination attempt. On the afternoon of
December 17, 1998, his station wagon was intercepted on the Bandra-Mahim
Causeway by two gunmen, who disappeared into the crowd after the attack.
He was hit by a bullet, which lodged itself in his neck, after shattering
his jaw. The attack was too sudden for Vaidya's bodyguard Romesh Londhe,
a police constable, to respond. This attempt was initially attributed to
a property dispute in the Mahim area. Four persons, allegedly members of
the Arun Gawli gang, were arrested on the basis of Vaidya's claims that they
had threatened him for protecting a builder who faced extortion demands.
However, intelligence, along with the arrest of Zakir Mohammad Siddiqui for
his role in the December 17 assassination attempt, brought to light the fact
that it was Chhota Shakeel who ordered the attacks in response to earlier
actions by the Chhota Rajan gang. (In 1998, the Chhota Rajan gang began wreaking
summary vengeance on persons who were charged with a role in the Mumbai blasts.
Ninety-seven such persons were released on bail. Many people were worried
that the trial could come unstuck. In an evident bid to harvest Hindu communal
sentiment on the issue and to secure the tacit support of the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya
Janata Party alliance Government, Chhota Rajan is alleged to have ordered
the killings of those who were out on bail.)
Salim Kurla was the first to be killed. Kurla, who was charged with having
played a central role in the landing of the weapons and explosives that enabled
the serial blasts, was killed on April 21, 1998. Mohammad Jindran, a Mumbai
construction tycoon, was shot dead on June 29. Majid Khan, another important
figure in the construction industry, was killed by the Chhota Rajan gang
on March 1 this year. Majid Khan, along with his Dubai-based brother Yakub
Khan, was accused of having harboured in a Mumbai factory a quantity of Research
Department Explosive (RDX) for the gang of the Dubai-based underworld leader
Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar.
Chhota Rajan's decision to appropriate the courts' duty proved fateful. Sources
told Frontline that the Chhota Shakeel gang came under pressure from
its backers in Mumbai to force an end to the killings. Reprisal seemed to
be the only way in which Chhota Rajan could be pressured, since the targeting
of figures close to the Government was expected to goad the Mumbai Police
and the political establishment to rein in the Malaysia-based mafia leader.
Chhota Shakeel says that he signalled his opposition to Chhota Rajan's enterprise
by ordering the elimination of Shiv Sena shakha pramukh Mohammad Salim
Badgujar in March 1998. Whatever the truth, the killings stopped after June
1998, until Chhota Rajan decided to revive his campaign by killing Majid
In Dubai, Chhota Shakeel too decided to raise the stakes. It is not clear
why Vaidya was chosen as the target from among the many Shiv Sena and BJP
figures alleged to have been involved in the Mumbai riots of 1992-93. Vaidya's
complicity in the violence is, however, undisputed. Paragraph 19.20 of the
Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry describes the events on Mori
Road on January 7, 1993, where Vaidya, along with a police constable, Sanjay
Gawande, "was instigating and inciting the mob to loot, burn and set fire
to the Muslim shops." The Commission recorded that Vaidya was arrested for
leading the violent mob. However, Manohar Joshi, as Chief Minister, subsequently
demanded Vaidya's release, claiming that his Shiv Sena colleague was innocent.
Some observers believe that Vaidya was targeted by the Chhota Shakeel gang
because of property disputes and not the findings in the Srikrishna Commission
report. The proposition that there may be motives other than the stated ones
for the attacks is rendered plausible by the fact that the first attempt
on Vaidya's life was made on December 17, well before Chhota Rajan's gang
members killed Majid Khan. Nor does Badgujar's assassination have a clear
causal link with Jindran's murder. Clearly, the Chhota Shakeel gang was seeking
to regain its somewhat fragile support base in Mumbai by projecting itself
as the guardian of the city's Muslim community. In this, its political objectives
mirrored those of the Chhota Rajan gang.
examine a wall riddled with bullets and splattered with blood at former Mumbai
Mayor Milind Vaidya's home in Mumbai. The attempt to kill Vaidya, a Shiv
Sena leader who played a key role in the anti-Muslim pogrom of 1992-93, was
made by members of a Dubai-based group led by Chhota Shakeel.
HOW did these groups come to structure their conflicts along communal lines?
One of the many ironies of the confrontation between them is that both Chhota
Rajan and Chhota Shakeel were Dawood Ibrahim's lieutenants - allies in what
was a firmly 'secular', though criminal, enterprise. Both affiliated themselves
with Dawood Ibrahim early in his career. The processes that tore apart Chhota
Rajan and Chhota Shakeel are rooted in the communalisation of Mumbai itself,
a process which crystallised after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, with
the anti-Muslim riots of 1992-93 and the subsequent serial blasts.
Born on December 31, 1955, Dawood Ibrahim is the son of a former Criminal
Investigation Department (CID) havaldar, Ibrahim Kaskar. The collapse of
the Mumbai textile industry in the 1980s and the urban despair that it caused
provided the backdrop for Dawood Ibrahim's spectacular rise. After falling
out with Amirzada Pathan and his brother Alamzeb Pathan, two major figures
in Mumbai's underworld who associated themselves with the Karim Lala gang,
Dawood Ibrahim set out on his own. In 1981, his eldest brother, Sabir, was
shot dead by the Pathan brothers. Dawood Ibrahim promptly had Amirzada
assassinated. In 1984, under pressure from both the police and Karim Lala's
gang, Dawood moved to Dubai.
However, 41-year-old Chhota Shakeel, who grew up in Mumbai's Nagpada ghetto,
stayed on in India to manage Dawood Ibrahim's interests. By the late 1980s,
these interests were indeed vast. Despite his criminal record, Dawood Ibrahim
had acquired a curious respectability. Prominent film stars were among his
guests in Dubai, and his circle of political contacts in Mumbai was legendary.
Mumbai serial blasts accused Hanif Kadawala and Samir Hingora are alleged
to have helped plough back Dawood Ibrahim's money into the film industry
through their company. These film interests were believed to have been managed
by one of Dawood Ibrahim's five surviving brothers. Smuggling, extortion
and land racketeering were his other major enterprises.
By 1987, however, Mumbai had become too hot for Chhota Shakeel. First arrested
in 1983 on charges of kidnapping and illegal possession of weapons, he faced
by 1987 additional charges in a spectrum of other crimes, including extortion.
Shakeel, who was arrested on December 1, 1988 at Dongri in Mumbai under the
National Security Act, received bail from the Mumbai High Court on March
28, 1989. Not surprisingly, he moved to Dubai soon afterwards. Dawood Ibrahim's
enterprises in Mumbai continued to flourish with the help of other key figures
in his gang, including Chhota Rajan.
As is the case with his colleagues in the underworld, Chhota Rajan too was
the product of urban despair. A Dalit from Mumbai's eastern suburb of Chembur,
Chhota Rajan started out with extortion rackets centred on the Sahyadri Krida
Mandal, which organises the annual Ganesh festival at Tilak Nagar. Mumbai
Police intelligence dossiers list several prominent property business houses
as having contributed to the festival. At that time, the Ganesh festival
served as a platform for mafia groups to project their social power and
Chhota Rajan broke away from his partners after the Mumbai serial blasts,
which are believed to have been organised by Dawood Ibrahim's gang under
pressure from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The mafia's economic
interests were apparently under pressure for at least a year before the blasts.
Intelligence estimates suggest that until 1991, smugglers brought around
198 tonnes of gold into India each year. However, with the liberalisation
of gold imports in 1992, gold prices crashed, squeezing the smuggling trade.
The ISI, which controlled shipping routes from the Gulf to India's west coast,
demanded that the mafia transport weapons and explosives into India in return
for the use of Pakistan's waters.
BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT
left) Dubai-based underworld leader Dawood Ibrahim; Dawood's key aide Chhota
Shakeel and Dawood's one-time lieutenant Chhota Rajan.
The ISI's overtures to Dawood Ibrahim to secure his help in terrorist activity
in India are believed to have been made through Pakistani smugglers Yusuf
Godrawala and Taufiq Jallianwala. By most accounts, initially Dawood Ibrahim
resisted the pressure. After the anti-Muslim pogroms of 1992-93, however,
his position is believed to have become vulnerable. Members of his gang,
including his brother Anees and Mumbai builder Abdul Razzak 'Tiger' Memon,
are believed to have demanded retaliation. In the second week of January
1993, at a late night meeting in Dubai, Dawood Ibrahim finally endorsed the
serial blasts idea. Within a fortnight, explosives landed on the west coast,
marking the beginning of the preparation for the worst act of terrorism in
Subsequent events are well known, but their motivations are not. By 1994,
Chhota Rajan, having fled to Dubai after the serial blasts, left for Kuala
Lumpur, taking with him a large chunk of Dawood Ibrahim's leadership-level
Hindu aides, including Sadhu Shetty, Jaspal Singh and Mohan Kotiyan. Chhota
Rajan claimed that he had split with his mentor because of the serial blasts.
However, in an interview to Frontline (featured separately), Chhota
Shakeel pointed out that his one-time ally's decision to leave Dubai came
well after the Mumbai blasts. Whatever the truth of the matter, Chhota Rajan's
departure sparked one of the bloodiest gang wars in Mumbai's history.
Chhota Rajan's campaign, sought to be legitimised on the grounds that it
represented vengeance for the Mumbai blasts, claimed the lives of several
members of Dawood Ibrahim's gang. Top leader Sunil 'Sawtya' Sawant, one of
Dawood's few remaining team-members who are Hindu, was shot dead three years
ago by Chhota Rajan's hit men in Dubai. Alleged financiers and fronts of
both the groups were also hit. After Dawood Ibrahim's gunmen Salim Haddi
and Raju Egre shot Omprakash Kukreja, a builder, in September 1995, Chhota
Rajan retaliated by eliminating Taquiddin Waheed, head of the now-inoperative
East-West Airlines, in November 1995. Gang warfare claimed 52 lives in 1996,
and the figure has continued to rise since then.
Chhota Rajan also targeted Dawood Ibrahim's ISI links. On June 29, 1998,
Chhota Rajan's operatives killed Mirza Dilshad Beg, a Nepalese politician
who was believed to be operating what is perhaps best described as a "one-stop
shop" for the ISI - providing to terrorists safehouses, cover identities
and storage for weapons and explosives. Indian intelligence agencies were
charged with having engineered the assassination: the body of Chhota Rajan's
aide Vikram Wahi had been discovered in October 1997 in the basement of a
property owned by Beg.
Significantly, the war that began with the serial blasts seems to have led
to a transfiguration of the Mumbai-centred underworld's alliances. Chhota
Rajan appears to have entered into what might be described as a strategic
partnership with Uttar Pradesh mafia leader Om Prakash 'Babloo' Shrivastav.
Although lodged in Allahabad's Naini Jail after his extradition from Singapore,
Shrivastav has succeeded in holding together his formidable criminal apparatus.
People targeted by Chhota Rajan on Shrivastav's behalf include Romesh Sharma,
Dawood Ibrahim's alleged point man in Delhi. Romesh Sharma is believed to
have conspired with Dawood Ibrahim's aide Abu Salem Ansari to have Shrivastav
assassinated right inside the Naini Jail.
Above all, Dawood Ibrahim's own empire appears to be in a state of chaos.
The rise of his brother Anees Ibrahim, who is described by associates as
an aggressive and temperamental person, has sparked new feuds. Anees Ibrahim
is believed to have ordered the 1998 assassinations of Firoz Sadguru 'Konkani',
Dawood Ibrahim's confidant in Mumbai, and Irfan Goga. Goga, who split from
the Dawood Ibrahim group along with Pakistani smuggler Shoaib Khan, Ijaz
Pathan and Ali Budesh, is believed to have entered into an alliance with
Shrivastav. His disappearance led the Dubai police to arrest Anees Ibrahim
in November 1998. He was, however, released because no concrete evidence
that Goga had indeed been murdered, was found.
ENTROPY in the underworld perhaps best explains the narrative, of which the
attempt on Vaidya's life marks just one brief episode. Chhota Rajan's efforts
to project himself as an enemy of the ISI, determined to avenge terrorism
in India, clearly seeks to gain the support of both the Indian state and
politicians who believe that a "Hindu" underworld is somehow better than
a "Muslim" underworld. For his part, Chhota Shakeel is driven by the need
to find legitimacy as the protector of Mumbai's Muslims.
So far, the Mumbai Police have, to its credit, shown no signs of taking sides
in the battle. But the fact that such a war is actually taking place shows
that the forces unleashed in 1992 are still far from spent.