Criminals use Bombay riots to settle scores

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The Independent Online
WHILE Bombay is engulfed in religious fighting between Hindus and Muslims, the city's politicians and its powerful underworld gangs have been using the mayhem to settle old grudges against their rivals.

During the week-long riots, an army patrol at Nirmal Nagar crossroads stopped a jeep with an unusual collection of passengers. The driver was Madhukar Sarpotdar, a politician of Shiv Sena, a Hindu extremist organisation that has stirred up Bombay's communal rioting. Riding with him were three wanted gangsters, all Hindus. They were armed with pistols and butchers' knives, which have been used to great effect over the past week of mob violence to deprive people of their tongues. So far, more than 500 people have died in the communal frenzy and another 40,000, mainly Muslims, have fled the city.

Once the army turned its captives over to a Bombay police station, the Shiv Sena assemblyman and the gangsters were inexplicably released. It was interpreted as a sign that the supremacy of the Muslim underworld gangs in Bombay is waning.

Over the past 20 years, the Muslim criminal gangs ran their organisations like the Sicilian Mafia, operating with close-knit family clans. Their business is the same as the Mafia's: extortion, protection rackets, prostitution, and smuggling gold and heroin from Karachi or the Golden Triangle in south-east Asia. From Bombay large quantities of heroin are shipped out to European countries, including Britain.

Traditionally, it had been Afghan tribesmen known as Pathans, who bankrolled the purchase of women for the city's thousands of brothels and then branched into extortion. The gangs mushroomed in power and influence around Bombay and by the 1970s, politicians of the big Indian parties were using the hoodlums to shake votes out of the slums, factories and dockyards.

The Muslims' control of the underworld is often cited as an excuse by right-wing Hindus for the often brutal treatment meted out to Muslims, who at 120 million are a minority in India, by the predominantly Hindu police force during communal strife in the city.

It would be false to blame the latest outbreak of communal violence in Bombay entirely on criminals. Hindus and Muslims were split by suspicion and fear after Hindu extremists wrecked the Ayodhya mosque on 6 December in northern India.

But last week, while shantytowns, timberyards and shops blazed, and while mobs of frenzied Muslims and Hindus raided each others' neighbourhoods, the smoke provided a useful cover for criminality in Bombay. The state's chief minister, Sudharrao Naik, took advantage of the chaos to arrest supporters of his nemesis, Sharad Pawar, the Defence Minister, even though they both belong to the ruling Congress party.

The Hindu gangs were helped, during this week of violence, by more than 200,000 militants belonging to the neo-fascist Shiv Sena. They set fire to slum colonies so that once the dwellers had either been killed or chased away, their land could be seized by property developers.

Even the wealthy living in Bombay's skyscrapers are vulnerable. One resident was quoted in the Indian papers as saying that a mob demanded 500,000 rupees ( pounds 11,350) from the 30 families in one building. 'Who's going to protect us? Not the police,' said one resident who refused to be identified.