November 12, 1998
As Bombay Piles Up Wealth, Gangsters Get Their Cut, Too
By CELIA W. DUGGER
OMBAY, India, -- The man this city's top crime fighters
call a mafia chieftain and
a cold-blooded killer was decorously receiving
supplicants at his tenement
headquarters here one recent afternoon. Each of them
reverently touched his feet
before addressing him.
Arun Gawali, self-consciously costumed in the homespun
cotton that was the trademark of
India's great pacifist, Mohandas K. Gandhi, admitted in an
interview to a criminal past that
he now deplores, but denied any part in the audacious blazes
of gunfire that have
rat-a-tat-tatted a message of fear across this city of more
than 10 million.
"This part of my life I have dedicated to God," he said
solemnly, "and to my guru, Brahama
But the police say this sinner's declared reformation is a
hoax. Though he has never been
convicted of a crime, they say Gawali is one of the
gangsters responsible for a recent spate
of violence and a mounting furor over what is widely seen as
a breakdown of law and order
here in India's financial capital, a place where many people
are making piles of money that
criminal gangs covet.
There have been a dozen gory shootouts here in just the last
five weeks and 81 of them so
far this year, leaving 88 people dead. One of the most
sensational hit jobs took place directly
across the street from police headquarters in broad
Days later, young men roared up to a cafe on motorcycles and
shot the owners dead at the
cash counter in front of terrified customers.
Last week, gunmen sprayed bullets at a real estate agent
reading his newspaper on a
crowded train platform and hit two bystanders as well. The
next day, the pool of blood
remained, an object of horror and curiosity to commuters.
The victims have included
businessmen who refused to submit to extortion, as well as
some who were involved with
the mafia, the police say.
The impunity with which big-time gangsters seem to operate
in Bombay has fed corrosive
public suspicions, common across India, that politicians
protect criminals in exchange for a
steady flow of illegal money to pay for their election
For months moviegoers have packed the cavernous Eros Theater
downtown to watch the
film, "Sat ya," a gritty saga of crime, political corruption
and betrayal in Bombay.
One recent night, the audience howled at the vulgar jokes of
the gangsters but left the theater
grim-faced after the police commissioner, the crooked
politician and all of the main
gangsters were murdered.
To many in the audience it seemed that real life was right
up there on the movie screen.
The fear of the city's businessmen is palpable. In one of
Bombay's most luxurious financial
districts, a rich builder and hotelier described the work of
the extortionists. His sister applied
for a bank loan, he said, and soon got a call from a thug
who told her that if her balance
sheet was so good she had better give him money.
"Someone at the bank had leaked her financial statement,"
her brother said, speaking on
condition that own name not be used. "I've also received
threats. I don't want to get in
But it is not just the city's wealthiest magnates who are
targets. Increasingly, its
run-of-the-mill merchants are getting squeezed too. The
police and business leaders
speculate that an economic recession in Bombay and
plummeting real estate values here have
reduced the money available from the biggest businessmen,
forcing gangsters to turn their
sights on smaller prey.
A jeweler in the city's teeming wholesale bazaar in South
Bombay said his brother-in-law,
also a jewelry shop owner, had said he had received a
telephone call recently. "'Give us 11
lakh rupees" -- $26,442 -- "or we will kill you," the caller
"He was so terrified that he shut down his shop and he's
gone into hiding," the jeweler said,
adding that he was too frightened to give his name.
The spreading threats and the murders of several prominent
businessmen have galvanized
the city's business community to lobby for action. The man
gunned down last month across
from the police station, after all, was the son of Raichand
K. Shah, a department store owner
and president of the Federation of Retail Trade
Shah said he believed that his eldest son, Bharat, 39, had
been killed because he had
encouraged other businessmen to seek police protection
rather than pay extortion.
The father said he had been threatened since his son's
murder, adding that a caller had told
him, "Don't talk about us, or your fate will be like your
son's and your other children will
Citing the Shah case, Mohan Gurnani, president of the
Federation of Associations of
Maharashtra, an umbrella group of business organizations in
the state of which Bombay is
the capital, said he had informed state and city officials
that if crime was not under control by
December, his members would stop paying their taxes.
"If you can't protect our lives and property, why should we
pay you taxes?" he told the
The city's top elected officials are promising a tough
crackdown. And the police are feeling
D. Sivanandhan, the joint commissioner of police for crime,
is working nights and
weekends to battle the gangsters. On Saturday, the jaunty,
mustachioed officer strode down
the palm-shaded veranda of the colonial-era police
headquarters and into his office. He
sketched out the Sisyphean task his officers face -- one he
is convinced will require a
public courageous enough to resist the demands of
More than half of the city's residents live in slums,
creating an ever ready army of alienated,
unemployed young men for the gangsters' ends. Most of his
front-line officers earn a
pittance of $65 a month, a situation that he acknowledged
made them tempting targets for
His officers are also demoralized by a judicial inquiry
report released in September that
accused the police of claiming self-defense in cases in
which it appeared that they had
summarily executed gangsters.
"We've arrested hundreds of gangsters," the police
commissioner said. "We haven't killed
all of them. The human rights people should look at such
But even when his officers do arrest the goondas -- as
gangsters here are often called -- it
is very difficult to convict them, he said. "The mafia can
scare the wits out of witnesses," he
said. "We have no witness protection program like the United
States. It's unaffordable."
Sivanandhan regards Gawali -- the self-declared reformed
criminal who now presents
himself as a man of peace -- as one of the criminals who has
gotten away with murder.
Gawali was recently released from jail after being held for
a year under a state law that
allows the detention of suspects for that period of time,
police officials say. Earlier he was
held for six years in jail on various charges including
murder and extortion, police officials
say, but has so far always been acquitted.
"He's a cold-blooded killer," the police commissioner said.
"But he's donning a new role.
Overnight, he wants to become a political leader and a
philanthropist. But his money is
extortionist." From his headquarters in a millworkers'
tenement, Gawali retorted, "He has no
A member of the lowly vegetable sellers' caste and son of a
milkman, Gawali, 48, says he is
a changed man. It was the politicians who made him a
criminal, he said. "I used to provide
them with muscle power," he explained.
But he said he had since fallen out with his former
political patrons and was now active in a
new political party.
A thin, intense man in wire-rimmed spectacles, Gawali looks
more like an intellectual than a
He spoke proudly of his offer to give any widow of a slain
policeman 100,000 rupees --
about $2,400 -- an offer that has outraged the police brass
who see it as a brazen attempt by
the wolf to pose as a lamb.
But Gawali insists he is just trying to be a good citizen.
Three women have accepted so far,
he said. "It was all white money," he said. "I gave it by
Before he began shaking hands with a long line of waiting
visitors who know him by the pet
name Daddy, Gawali described himself as man in the process
of becoming a political leader.
A portrait of Gandhi chatting with Jawaharlal Nehru, India's
first Prime Minister, hung just
over his shoulder.
"I was a rebel," Gawali said. "And if you are a rebel, one
way leads to politics and the other
to jail. In jail they call you a goonda. In politics they
call you a minister."
Rohit Khare -- UC Irvine -- 4K Associates -- +1-(626) 806-7574 http://www.ics.uci.edu/~rohit -- http://xent.ics.uci.edu/~FoRK