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For gangsters of Porbandar, power is constant. It used to be guns, now its politics

The gang wars of Porbandar forever attached the coastal town to an irony that has become a cliche now– Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace has a violent saga to tell.

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A giant of a man enters the room with a three-foot sword dangling from his waist. His name synonymous with his physic — Bhima Dula.

But don’t be afraid. Sure, he was convicted in a double-murder case and is named accused in 44 cases, but the feared gangster from Gujarat’s Porbandar claims he is a reformed man now. He says he is spending his sunset years as a god-fearing man, though he has his fingers in many pies, including the upcoming assembly election in Gujarat.

Dula is one of the few gangsters still alive in Porbandar, which during the ’80s and ’90s, was a battleground for gangs that had primarily emerged out of a caste conflict between the Vaghers (from Kutch) and Mers (Rajputs). And while bullets are no longer flying around in the coastal city, erstwhile crime families do hold sway over every election. It is a high-stakes game, one that Dula with his rudraksh mala around his neck and his claims of devotion to Ram and Krishna, is very much part of.

Dula isn’t the only ‘retired’ gangster that has a stake in the outcome of the elections. Kandal Jadeja, the son of Sarman Munja — one of the men who established the ‘gangster culture’ in Porbandar — is an MLA from Kutiyana with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The Kutiyana seat was earlier held by Dula’s brother from 1998 to 2008. Dula’s family is associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Former cabinet minister in the BJP government and current Porbandar MLA Babubhai Bokhiria is Dula’s relative. Both Bokhiria and Dula faced a case of illegal limestone mining, but were later acquitted by the Porbandar district court.

In Porbandar, the guns may have been silenced, but rivalries remain fierce and play out in the political and public arena. The former gangsters, however, lack the hustle of politicians.

“I have already taken care of all issues in Porbandar, nothing needs to be addressed,” Bokhiria told ThePrint over the phone.

In Kandhal Jadeja’s Kutiyana constituency lies Gosabara, a Muslim-dominated village where residents allege that religious discrimination, faith and fish are clashing. Muslim villagers say they haven’t been allowed to go fishing. Jadeja says he has spoken to village representatives but has taken his hands off the issue – “You should be asking the DM these questions, what can I do?”

These frictions will be back come election season and Porbandar’s gangster-turned-politicians will face something stronger than muscle – votes.

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Gangsters and landmarks

In Porbandar, the residences of former dons are local landmarks. Surrounded by coconut trees in his secluded house, Dula sips on a glass of freshly made mango milkshake as he recounts his days as a gangster when he trafficked illicit liquor and settled land disputes. Since his ‘retirement and reformation’, however, he has re-invented himself as the benevolent elder that people from the Mer community come to for advice. He’s a bit like Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone, the godfather who can be trusted to do right by his people—but without the cat.

In his heyday, Dula recalls, Porbandar was a hotbed of smugglers dealing in limestone, gold and coal, among other items, which local gangs overlooked and facilitated.

The gang wars of Porbandar forever attached the coastal town to an irony that has become a cliché now– Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace has a violent saga to tell.

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Gang wars of Porbandar

The gang wars began with a caste conflict that can be traced back to the 1960s, when Nanjibhai Kalidas Mehta, proprietor of Maharana Mills, hired two brothers, Devu and Karsan Vagher, to bring the labour class, which was staging an uprising in Porbandar, under control. The two migrant brothers from the Kutchi Vagher community concentrated in Dwarka and Ocha, were despised by the resident Mer community that made up Porbandar’s labour force.

The situation was so bad that one Sarman Munja, a transport worker and milkman, was ready to leave the violent Porbandar for good. But fate had something else decided for him. Ge got into a fight with Devu and killed him with the help of his uncle. A few days later, the other brother, Karsan, was found hanging from a tree.

Munja’s metamorphosis from milkman to a don was complete. He reigned supreme, ran a parallel justice system in Porbandar and was hailed as a Robinhood among the Mer community. He had allegedly murdered 47 people.

Somewhere along this violent road, he met Pandurang Shastri, founder of the Swadhyay Parivaar. Munja resolved to give up violence but was gunned down shortly after in 1986.

But before his almost Ashoka-like enlightenment, Munja’s actions birthed the rise of another ganglord, Mammumiyan Panjumiyan, who was later convicted and sentenced to twelve-and-a-half years in jail for smuggling RDX and weapons at the Porbandar port, which were used to carry out the 1993 Mumbai (then Bombay) serial bomb blast.

“Sarman Munja had my brother killed. I wanted revenge for what happened to my brother, but Allah works in funny ways. Sarman was shot at before I could get to him,” he smiles.

Shortly after his foray into gangster life, he reportedly came in touch with Dawood Ibrahim and began trafficking alcohol at the don’s behest, says Panjumiyan.

Having completed his sentence in the RDx case—he claims he was framed—the now 68-year-old Panjumiyan, too, says he has renounced violence. It’s bad for his blood pressure. Instead, he observes namaz five times a day and visits the police station for daily attendance.

Munja’s murder did not end the cycle of revenge in Porbandar. It was the spark that saw Porbandar go up in flames. His wife, Santokben took up the mantle and ran the crime syndicate. Thirty people were killed. Revenge fueled the fire and within a decade, all six accused of her husband’s murder, including rival ganglord Kala Keshav, were killed by Santokben’s men.

Santokben, whose life was dramatised in the 1999 biopic Godmother (played by Shabana Azmi) was no meek widow. She was an astute administrator who even entered politics as an independent candidate. Under her reign in the ’90s, her gang was wanted in over 900 cases. She was named accused in nine cases.

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What happened in 1995

The year 1995 was the turning point for Porbandar’s underworld. There was a change of power in Gujarat after successive Congress and Janata Party governments. The state got a BJP chief minister.

As political patronage waned, Santokben moved her business to Rajkot. The void she left behind was filled by Bhima Dula who had the support of the BJP. He rose to power as the BJP looked for an antidote to the ‘godmother’, Santokben.

Sarman Munja’s son Kandhal Jadeja, too, did well for himself. He lives in a grand house guarded by rifle-wielding men, and has been the MLA of Kutiyana since 2012 with the Nationalist Congress Party. “Mine was a normal family,” he maintains when asked about his family’s legacy.

Dula is one of the handful of gangsters to have survived old age with no visible scars. Many of his peers are in jail or are battling the ravages of age. Naren Sudha Vagher, another former ganglord, is partially paralysed. Today, he lives with family and two dogs, just a stone’s throw away from Kirti Mandir, Mahatma Gandhi’s home.

His family currently takes care of loading and unloading of minerals, especially limestone, at Porbandar harbour. Naran Suda, along with his uncle had set up the first Kharava gangs in Porbandar, trafficking bootleg alcohol in wake of prohibition.

Weakened by age, it’s hard to imagine Suda as the leader of one of the most ferocious gangs in the area. He was even elected the municipal councillor, and all his men are said to have monopolised the local governance body in Porbandar. Clad in crisp white shirts and bell-bottom pants, he ruled his men with an iron fist. His sartorial style is inspired by Vinod Khanna.

Today, Suda is fighting a case of custodial torture against former IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt, the man who filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court alleging then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi’s complicity in 2002 riots. Suda had been arrested in 1998 for allegedly possessing smuggled RDX and weapons, but was acquitted. “My son and I were picked up by the police and tortured for information. They beat us bare-bodied and administered high-voltage electric shocks,” he told ThePrint.

Memories run deep among the gangster families in Porbandar, and while there is peace in the coastal town, those who can afford it, ensure that they are well-protected and seek political patronage.

Mahashweta Jani, Gujarat State coordinator with Lokniti CSDS, is convinced that the mafia is only dormant, and not erased. The police, too, are wary of the peace. “In a town like this, with its violent history and trade-friendly location, I am not convinced it can be this calm. Maybe a storm is coming,” the official said.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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