Saturday, 20 September 2014

Book Review: Byculla to Bangkok – Mumbai’s Maharashtrian Mobsters by S. Hussain Zaidi


Following the success of Dongri to Dubai, India’s best known expert on the Mumbai mafia, Hussain Zaidi, is back with a new book on Mumbai’s Maharashtrian mobsters. Just as in the case of Dongri to Dubai, Byculla to Bangkok is characterised by Zaidi’s Bollywood-style dialogues and an endless flow of anecdotes about Mumbai’s dons. To be honest, after a promising start, Byculla to Bangkok briefly goes through a tedious phase as Zaidi traces the background of gangsters who later made it big. However, the tedium soon gives way to excitement as men such as Amar Naik, Chhota Rajan (real name Rajan Nikalje) and Arun Gawli start the blood-letting and commence empire building.

As usual, one of the best things about Zaidi’s Byculla to Bangkok is the sheer number of interesting anecdotes he comes up with, all of which relate to the main narrative. For example, we are told that after gangster Ashwin Naik was shot in court, a few alert police officers managed to capture the hit men and took them to the Cuffe Parade police station. There, instead of being received and given assistance, they were turned away and sent off to the Colaba police station with Mumbai’s police’s signature line – Aamchya haddit nahi aahe! This is not under our jurisdiction!

Another interesting story is how, after the police arrested the killers who had assassinated the famous builder Sunit Kahtau and put them on trial, the case against them fell apart when his widow Panna Khatau refused to assist the prosecution. Zaidi does not tell us why Panna would do that. Was she or her immediate family threatened by the mafia or was there something else at play?

It’s not just the stories which are fascinating. Zaidi’s language is also a Bollywood-ish treat. For example, while describing India’s biggest druglord, Nareyi Khan’s lady-love, we are told that 'Ayesha Qandahari was a woman of indescribable beauty, an Aghani with flawless skin, big dark eyes, long eyelashes, a mesmerizing smile and a perfect-ten figure. Men would kill to possess her. But it seemed that those who made love to her were destined for certain death.'

It is well-known that Mumbai’s gangsters have a presence in places like Dubai and Bangkok. Well, Zaidi follows them there. In particular, we are given a blow by blow account of two hits carried out in Dubai by Chhota Rajan’s men. Sunil Sawant alias Sautya was Dawood’s chief lieutenant. After Dawood left Mumbai in the aftermath of the 1993 blasts, Sautya followed him and ultimately ended up in Dubai (in the wake of other lieutenants like Sharad Shetty and Anil Parab) where he converted to Islam and re-named himself Suleman. In 1995, three hit men shot him in broad daylight after which there was a chase. Sautya was cornered and his throat slit. Interestingly all the assailants were caught. It was then that Chhota Rajan’s ingenuity came to the fore. When interrogated, the killers confessed to have been sent by Sharad Shetty and Anil Parab, all of which led to some confusion within the Dawood camp, since Sharad Shetty and Anil Parab too worked for Dawood Ibrahim, though Dawood did not really fall for that ruse. I will not divulge how Chhota Rajan managed to fix all that, but do please read this remarkable book to find out for yourself. Dubai’s police chief, Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan al Tameem, made sure all three shooters received the death sentence after a fast track trial.

In January 2003, Sharad Shetty too was killed in Dubai by Chhota Rajan’s men. Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan tracked down the shooters and caught them just before they could escape to India. Four men were awarded the death sentence by Dubai’s authorities who wanted to teach Indian gangsters a lesson and make sure that Dubai did not become a crime capital.

After the 1993 Mumbai blasts, Chhota Rajan did not immediately turn against Dawood Ibrahim. Rather he stood by him and even took the stand that Dawood was not involved in the blasts. However, this changed slowly as Dawood continued to sideline Rajan. Chhota Rajan and Dawood’s key lieutenant Chhota Shakeel started warring. Chhota Shakeel killed Omprakash Kukreja, a Chembur based builder, who was a Rajan sympathiser. Rajan retaliated by killing the managing director of East West Airlines, Thakiyudeen Wahid, since Dawood was reputed to have invested in East West, India’s first private airline.

Zaidi tells us (more than once) that the turning point in the life of Mumbai’s gangsters came about in 1994, after the 1993 Mumbai riots and the ensuing bomb-blasts, when Bal Thackeray anointed Arun Gawli and Amar Naik as aamchi muley (our boys), Mumbai’s answer to Dawood and other Muslim dons during his annual rally at Shivaji Park. However, the events which unfolded after that, as described by Zaidi, left me confused, with more questions than answers.

We are told that in the rivalry amongst the “Hindu” gangsters, Shiv Sena gave Gawli “the royal ignore”. Ashwin Naik’s wife Neeta Naik was given a ticket for Mumbai corporation elections while Gawli’s wife Asha received nothing. Why did that happen? The answers are not too clear.

After the 1993 Mumbai blasts, Chhota Rajan, newly anointed as a Hindu don, killed six Muslims who were accused in the blasts. Dawood’s Lieutenant Chhota Shakeel (based in Dubai) declared war on the Shiv Sena in the late 1990s. Their first victim was former Mumbai Mayor Milind Vaidya who had been indicated by the Justice B. N. Srikrishna Commission inquiring into the 1993 Mumbai riots for unleashing violence against Muslims in Mahim. However, Milind Vaidya survived two attempts on his life. Many other Shiv Sena shaka pramukhs fell victim to Chhota Shakeel’s men. The police tried booking the gangsters under the draconian and non-bailable MCOCA, but when that didn’t work, they resorted to extra-judicial killings. Zaidi questions the real reason for the attacks on Shiv Sainiks. Were the killings being orchestrated by the Congress – NCP alliance, as alleged by former Shiv Sainik Narayan Rane? No, the killings had started even when the Shiv – Sena BJP combine was in power. Zaidi does not give a clear answer to this question. Instead, he talks of how Chhota Shakeel had unleased a similar attack against Gawli’s ABS which was becoming a serious threat to the Shiv Sena. Zaidi actually suggests that a political party (who could it be?) might have outsourced such killings to Chhota Shakeel. I found this part of this book very interesting, but equally rambling and hence, frustrating.

The growth of Mumbai’s Maharashtrian gangsters is intertwined with that of the exploitation of its mill-lands, leading to the development of malls and luxury apartments, none of which could have been achieved without the silencing of Mumbai’s trade-unions. In January 1997, trade union leader Datta Samant was gunned down near IIT Powai, most probably by Chhota Rajan’s men. Do read this exceptional book for more on this killing and the politics behind it.

One of the most interesting topics covered by Zaidi is that of encounter killings. As we all have come to know, an encounter killing is usually the cold-blooded murder of a man previously detained by the police or of someone whom the police could have arrested, an instance of law-keepers turning law-breakers by taking on the roles of judge, jury and executioner. We are told that in 1997, after Vijay Salaskar killed Amar Naik in an encounter, he held a celebratory press conference where he explained how his team had cornered Amar who fired at the police team, forcing them to fire back and kill him. Then an Indian Express reporter asked Salaskar, ‘How is it that Amar Naik who was using a Glock, could not even injure you or any of your team members while you with an ordinary revolver could kill him and escape unhurt?' Salaskar responded with a disdainful laugh and his explanation was hollow.

In many cases when the police are under pressure to catch a murderer, they tend to arbitrarily arrest an innocent man, kill him and claim to have killed the murderer in an encounter. When was what happened in August 1997, after music magnate Gulshan Kumar was killed by the mafia. Six days after Gulshan Kumar’s murder, a builder named Natwarlal Desai was also killed by the mafia in Nariman Point, not far from the State Legislative Assembly and the Secretariat. Ten days later as Ronald Mendonca took over as police commissioner of Mumbai, Assistant Police Inspector Vasant Dhoble and his team killed a man named Javed Fawda in an encounter and claimed that they had killed Gulshan Kumar’s killer. It turned out that the man killed in the encounter was a peanut seller named Abu Sayama who had gone missing earlier. The autopsy showed that Sayama had been riddled with bullets at close range and also run over with a vehicle. Encounter deaths came under a cloud.

One of Chhota Rajan’s lieutenants who went by the moniker D. K. Rao survived two police encounters. In one encounter, D. K. Rao and others were in a Maruti Esteem. The police arrived in a Maruti Gypsy van and fired without any warning. The bodies were riddled with bullets and dumped in a van. One of gangsters cried out in pain and police fired more shots. D. K. Rao took four more bullets in his feet. When the bodies were taken to a morgue at KEM Hospital in Parel, D. K. Rao got up and screamed.

Zaidi does not hide his blushes as he talks of corruption within the police and the scale of the corruption amazed me. When Chhota Rajan accepted a 20 crore supari (contract) to kill a two-timing drug dealer named Amjad Khan, he paid 5 crores to an encounter specialist serving with the Anti-Narcotics Cell of the crime branch to help him identify his target. The encounter specialist got a sub-inspector to point out Amjad Khan to the hit men.

For the mafia, it seems that everything is available for a price in Mumbai. For example, when drug-lord Nareyi Khan was undergoing trial at the City Civil and Sessions Court in South Mumbai’s Fort area (after being booked under the Narcotics Drugs and Pyschotropic Substances Act by by the Narcotics Control Bureau), he bribed the police to give his access to lady-love Ayesha. Whenever Nareyi Khan was brought to the court for trial, the cops apparently allowed him to use an unused court room to have sex with Ayesha!

However, what got me seriously thinking is Zaidi’s insinuation that Mumbai police specifically targeted certain gangs and decimated them, while allowing others to survive. For example, we are told that between 2006 and 2009, encounter specialists of the Mumbai police specifically chased down Chhota Rajan’s men and more than thirty were killed. The fear psychosis created was such that no new shooters join Rajan’s gang and many left. The police also warned builders from paying any money to Rajan. Rajan suffered big losses and was crippled. Wasn’t Rajan one of Thackeray’s Hindu dons, I wondered?

These days it is well-known that India nurses a dream of killing Dawood Ibrahim who is holed up in Pakistan. Zaidi tells us that in the summer of 1998, three of Chhota Rajan's men - Farid Tanasha, Vicky Malhotra and Bunty Pandey – were trained by India’s intelligence bureau and sent to Karachi to assassinate Dawood Ibrahim at a mosque. They failed because the weapons were not delivered on time. However, they managed to safely return to India.

I could go on and on, but I am going to stop here and repeat my recommendation that Byculla to Bangkok is a must-read book for anyone interested in Mumbai’s mafia.

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