Gangsters spread terror in Bombay

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The Independent Online
BOMBAY IS losing its nerve and its charm. India's most dynamic city has fallen prey to a wave of crime that has left 88 people dead this year.

Bombay's gangsters, their normal sources of revenue shut down or drastically curtailed, are resorting to extorting money from deeply respectable city businesses and professionals of all sorts. Terrified of being murdered for refusing their demands, businessmen have already begun moving out of the city.

Bombay has always had its share of gangster activity, but formerly they knew their place. Gangsters involved in gold smuggling or prostitution occasionally rubbed out their rivals. In the Eighties they climbed aboard the property gravy train and grew rich that way. But today, with property prices as much as 40 per cent down from their peak, and with gold smuggling no longer glittery thanks to import liberalisation, the goondas are getting desperate.

There is nothing sleazy about Kemps Corner: it is one of the more glitzy shopping sections of south Bombay. Sunil Sharma (not his real name, for obvious reasons) has run a restaurant here for many years, and has long been resigned to the fact that to stay peacefully in business he must pay baksheesh both to the police and the local dada, or crime boss.

But in the past six months the situation has got completely out of hand: gangsters claiming allegiance to as many as 26 different outfits have telephoned or visited, demanding money. So far he has refused to pay any of them, knowing that if he pays one, the rest will find out and he will end up having to pay all of them.

But it is a game of nerves, and each brutal death in the city adds to the pressure. A month ago Deepak Shetty, who ran a private clinic in the suburb of Kalyan, was shot dead in daylight outside his clinic.

Like Mr Sharma, Dr Shetty had faced many extortion demands, but had refused to comply. Finally one of the gangs chose to demonstrate the consequences. Other professionals are under similar threat, including architects, accountants and lawyers.

Since Dr Shetty's murder, Bombay has been racked by a dozen other shootings. Victims have included a jeweller, another doctor, builders and several hoteliers.

For every man gunned down, dozens or hundreds of co-professionals are quaking in their boots, and scrabbling for the wherewithal to pay off the gangsters. Bombay is paying the price for a long history of corrupt politics and brutal but erratic policing. The most powerful man in the city, the boss of the extreme nationalistic Shiv Sena party, the former cartoonist Bal Thackeray, comports himself like a gang leader: last week, when a play in which he was depicted was about to have its inaugural performance in the city, he arranged to have it banned. Though he holds no elective post, his word has long been law in the city.

Conversely, the man said by the police and the media to be the most powerful gangster in the city, Arun Gawli, recently re-branded himself as a purer- than-driven-snow politician. Mr Gawli has more than a dozen serious criminal charges pending against him, but is out on bail because no one will testify against him.

Even while on remand in jail a year ago, he continued to run his gang with an iron hand, sometimes even forcing his extortion victims to come to see him in his cell.

But recently he has taken a different tack, donning the Nehru cap and the homespun Gandhian cotton of the political class, and floating his own political party, ostensibly to fight the corruption of Mr Thackeray's Shiv Sena.

He also claims to have become deeply religious. "This part of my life I have dedicated to God," he solemnly told a foreign journalist last week. The police, however, say he is a cold-blooded killer and that he continues to carry out his extortionary activities as ruthlessly as ever.

As the gunshots echo and the police, who in the past have been criticised for killing gangsters in cold blood and passing off the killings as "encounter" deaths, decline to take effective action, Bombay's traders are threatening to take matters into their own hands. The Federation of Associations of Maharashtra, an organisation that embraces 750 traders' bodies in the state of which Bombay is the capital, has decided to fund and organise its own defence groups.

The alternative, it seems, is to get out of town. Two hotels and 10 private hospitals are said to have shut up shop in the past few weeks.

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