Porbandar/Kutiyana (Gujarat): Kirti Mandir in Porbandar, Gujarat, is an invariable stop in almost every tourist’s itinerary visiting the temple circuit of Somnath and Dwarka in adjoining Junagadh and Dwarka districts.
Hundreds of tourists flock everyday to this memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, situated in the old part of Porbandar town. Gandhi was born in Porbandar 1869, and his ancestral home is right next to Kirti Mandir. It is among the few legacies of Gandhi, an epitome of non-violence, that remains in this old coastal town.
Much has been written about Porbandar’s transformation since then. In fact, no story on Porbandar is complete without the mention of the city’s descent into crime. The land of Gandhi became notorious as the ‘Chicago of Gujarat’ in the late 1960’s, and clung to that moniker till about the mid-90’s, as gang wars made frequent headlines and mafia dons ruled the roost.
From Santokben Jadeja, the undisputed mafia queen from Kutiyana, Porbandar, to gangsters like Iku Gagan, Naren Sudha and Bhima Dula Odedara — made life in Gandhi’s birthplace in those decades what is often described as a “nightmare”.
It was Santokben’s husband Sarman Munja Jadeja, who first took up arms in the 1960’s to defend people from his Mer community from local strongmen. He formed a gang comprising men from his community who unleashed terror in the area, extorting money and indulging in illegal mining.
Munja was eventually killed by members of a rival gang in 1986. It was to avenge his death that Santokben took over reigns of her husband’s gang with the help of Munja’s brother, Bhura. She expanded Munja’s illegal business and soon became the undisputed mafia queen of Porbandar.
During this time several other gangs proliferated in Porbandar and killing members of opposite gangs became the order of the day.
The gang wars might have subsided now, but some of the descendants and close relatives of the former gangsters have forayed into politics, in a bid to retain their clout and remain relevant.
One such strongman contesting from Kutiyana assembly seat is Kandhalbhai Jadeja. Son of Santokhben, Kandhalbhai is contesting next month’s Gujarat assembly elections on a Samajwadi Party ticket from Kutiyana, which is part of the Porbandar parliamentary constituency. Six assembly seats come under the Porbandar parliamentary constituency — Gondal, Jetpur, Dhoraji, Porbandar, Manavadar and Keshod.
Santokhben, who inspired the Shabana Azmi starrer Godmother in 1999, was also an MLA from Kutiyana. She died in 2011. Now, her son Kandhalbhai, who has had multiple criminal charges, including murder, registered against him, has taken over her legacy.
Kandhalbhai had fought the last two assembly elections in 2012 and 2017 from Kutiyana on a Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) ticket and won both times. However, the NCP did not give him a ticket this time, prompting him to contest on a Samajwadi Party ticket.
Talking to ThePrint while campaigning in Devda, a remote village in Kutiyana, Jadeja said, “This is my third election. There are 102 villages in my area and my priority is to ensure their development. My main agenda is to get roads built, provide electricity and water to my constituents.”
On the multiple criminal cases that have been registered against him, Jadeja told ThePrint, “The High Court and sessions court have given me clean chits in all the cases. I had some problems, but now everything is sorted. I have never committed any crime and that is why the courts have given me clean chit.”
According to him, while Porbander had a criminal history, things have changed now.
“In Porbandar there was a lot of crime earlier. During my mother’s time also. But all of it was before my birth. I don’t know what happened back then. But now, I have a clean chit from the courts. I don’t know anything else,” Jadeja said.
Pitted against Jadeja is Dheliben Odedara of the BJP. Jadeja’s close associates told ThePrint that Odedara is Jadeja’s relative and was also close to his mother, Santokhben. Odedara has been the chairman of the Porbandar municipal corporation for the past 27 years.
The Congress has fielded Nathbhai Bhurabhai from Kutiyana, while the Aam Aadmi Party candidate here is Bhimabhai Makwana.
Not just in Kutiyana, other assembly seats in the district too have contestants linked to former gangsters.
While both the public and police admit that the days of the gangsters in Porbandar are over, they share other concerns — the shifting of former gangsters to organised crime, inflation, lack of public amenities.
In fact, development is a common campaign theme for both the Congress and BJP contestants in this year’s elections.
The Porbandar assembly constituency too is headed for an interesting contest between two arch rivals — the BJP’s Babubhai Bokhiriya and Congress’ Arjun Modhvadiya.
Though both the BJP and Congress candidates do not have criminal background, Bokhiriya is a relative of gangster Bhima Dula Odedara, who is currently serving life imprisonment in a double murder case.
Bokhiriya, who has also been a cabinet minister in the Gujarat government, has won from the Porbandar seat four times in the past, and Modhvadiya has won twice from the seat.
While Modhvadiya accuses his opponent Bokhiriya of involvement in illegal mining, the latter blames the previous Congress governments in Gujarat for failing to reign in the mafiosi in Porbandar.
“It’s unfortunate that we keep Mahatma Gandhi’s photo in Porbandar, but his thinking has been thrown into the sea by the BJP,” Modhvadiya told ThePrint.
He added: “Gangsters got patronage from BJP. They thought they could loot more if they joined politics. So they joined politics. The candidate in front of me has links to the mineral mafia.”
Bokhiriya meanwhile, holds the Congress responsible for Porbandar’s past notoriety. The BJP has been in power in the state since 1995.
“Smuggling was prevalent here before 1995. Now it is no longer an issue. There was a time when the Porbandar jail had to be closed because the gangsters were easily moving in and out. This goes on to show that the government too had bowed in front of the gangsters,” Bokhiriya told ThePrint.
According to him the Congress took support from the same gangsters.
“It was my government (the BJP government) that eradicated the mafia from this city. It was the whole ecosystem, the support of the political dispensation and the administration that mobsters thrived on in Porbandar. I disbanded this ecosystem a long time back. Once called the Chicago of India, today Porbandar has the lowest crime rate in the state. It is now truly Gandhi’s home.”
In their election campaign in Porbandar, both the Congress and BJP candidates are now talking of bringing development to the old coastal city if elected to power.
“In Gujarat for the past 27 years the BJP has been in power, they have not made a single government school, high school, medical college, hospital, new port or airport in Porbandar. Their leaders have built farmhouses and big houses for themselves. The poor have become poorer,” Modhvadiya alleged.
Modhvadiya promises free electricity of up to 330 units, Rs 300 pension for old women and free education for the girl child, among a host of other populist measures.
But Bokhiriya too said he was seeking votes for development.
“Before ’95, the mafia ruled the roost and rural areas did not have facilities like roads, drinking water, electricity. We have now provided drains. While the government has made roads connecting villages, it is my job now to make roads within the villages,” he said.
‘Gang wars ended, but gangsters moved to organised crimes’
A former police officer who had been posted in Porbandar, told ThePrint that it was in mid-1995 that the then Janata Dal-Congress coalition government under Chhabildas Mehta decided to take tough action against gangsters and gave a free reign to the police to curb the deteriorating law and order situation in Porbandar. And the administration and police delivered, the retired IPS officer told ThePrint.
Mehta had become the chief minister following the death of incumbent CM, Congress leader Chimanbhai Patel.
“There was a time when one of Santokhben Jadeja’s sons was getting married and almost the entire Gujarat cabinet attended the marriage function. The nexus between politicians and gangsters was that strong. The gangsters thrived because of political patronage,” the officer alleged.
A serving officer in the district administration admitted that gangsters have been emasculated, but claimed some of them have moved to organised crimes such as illegal limestone mining, handling contracts in ports, transport contracts, stevedoring licences, among others.
“We do keep raiding illegal mines and penalising those involved,” the officer added.
‘Porbandar peaceful now but inflation, unemployment pinching’
While residents of Porbandar no longer have to think twice before venturing out at night, they do worry about issues like high inflation and lack of jobs in the port city, they said.
Jagdish Patel, a third generation businessman in the Manek Chowk area of Porbandar told ThePrint that businessmen in the port city were safe now.
“Gangsters do not exist anymore. But inflation is pinching us,” Patel, who owns a gas stove repairing shop said.
Sanjay Bamaniya, a flower seller in the Manek Chowk area felt that the inflation was there to stay. “But the government needs to levy taxes instead of giving freebies. We saw what happened in Sri lanka. Why did the President there run away?” he asked.
Old timers in Porbandar agree that the Porbandar of now is very different from that of yesteryears.
“The gangsters were mostly from the two communities — the Mers, who belong to the farming community, and Kharvas, who are fishermen. It was after the BJP came to power that slowly the gang wars were eliminated. The law and order situation in the city is very good now. One can freely move around during late evening hours without any fear,” noted Gujarati author Narottambhai Palan, who lives in Porbandar, told ThePrint.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)