Mumbai: Just a few hours before he was to drop his promised “hydrogen bomb” Wednesday, Nationalist Congress Party leader and Maharashtra minister Nawab Malik tweeted: “Unki neend kho gayi hai. Ab chain khone ka waqt aa gaya hai (They have lost sleep. Now it is time for them to lose their peace).”
At 10 am, he accused former CM and current Leader of the Opposition Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP of brushing a fake currency racket under the carpet, and patronising people such as Riyaz Bhati, who have suspected underworld links.
Malik’s allegations came a day after Fadnavis accused his family members of buying land at throwaway prices from persons with links to the underworld.
BJP leader Ashish Shelar also held a press conference Wednesday, and said Malik has lost his mental balance, while Fadnavis chose the proverbial high road, quoting Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw in a ‘Thought of the Day’ on Twitter.
“I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and besides the pig likes it!” Fadnavis said.
Thought of the day 👇🏼 pic.twitter.com/PkLiHS3GVW
— Devendra Fadnavis (@Dev_Fadnavis) November 10, 2021
The Malik-Fadnavis potboiler, with its dramatic script involving Mumbai’s dark underworld and supposedly murky politics, is hardly the first in Maharashtra politics. In fact, the underworld has been part of the political narrative for more than three decades — politicians have made a bevy of allegations and counter-allegations of linkages, while people accused of being ‘dons’ have also entered active electoral politics.
“Allegations of linkages with the underworld were made by political leaders against their rivals from time to time to polarise and play on communal politics. But, no one ever took these accusations to any logical conclusion,” political analyst Hemant Desai told ThePrint.
Desai said some of the earliest such allegations were made in the late 1980s by Chhagan Bhujbal, who was then with the Shiv Sena. Bhujbal, who is now an NCP minister in the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra government, had alleged that Sharad Pawar (now NCP president) was allowing the interference of the underworld in the development of Vasai and Virar, sleepy hamlets of the time that have now become important towns in Mumbai’s periphery.
“Bhujbal had targeted Sharad Pawar, calling the whole issue ‘bhukhanda cha shrikhanda’ (the sweet strained yogurt of land),” Desai said.
‘Haji Mastan, Karim Lala meeting politicians’
In January 2020, Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut riled up many Congress leaders when he said former prime minister Indira Gandhi used to visit a don like Karim Lala, and smuggler Haji Mastan would be treated like “an honoured guest” at Mantralaya, the Maharashtra administrative headquarters.
Speaking at a function of the Lokmat Group, he also said dons such as Dawood Ibrahim, Chhota Shakeel and Sharad Shetty used to decide matters such as who would be the next Mumbai Police chief.
Raut’s comments drew sharp criticism from Maharashtra Congress leaders, especially as the Shiv Sena is now ruling Maharashtra in an alliance with the Congress and the NCP, under the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) umbrella. The comments gave the opposition BJP some ammunition to target the ruling alliance, with Fadnavis asking if the underworld funded the Congress.
Raut retracted his statement, saying “those unaware of history had twisted his words”. He added he had always praised Indira Gandhi publicly, and clarified that she had met Lala only in the latter’s capacity as a Pathan community leader.
The controversy, however, did not end there. Raut’s words opened a lens into history, and Lala and Mastan’s family members too gave their versions of what had transpired.
Salim Khan, Lala’s grandson, said it wasn’t just Indira Gandhi who would meet his grandfather; politicians such as Bal Thackeray, Rajiv Gandhi and Sharad Pawar had also met him in either Mumbai or Delhi.
But he too agreed that Raut’s statements had been taken out of context, and insisted that his grandfather was just a businessman and was “too modest to finance any politician or political party”.
Sundar Shekhar, who claims to be the adopted son of Haji Mastan, said the latter was a “pucca Congressi”, and many senior Congress leaders such as Vasantdada Patil, Murli Deora and Sushilkumar Shinde would meet him.
“There were never any direct allegations of any substance against any Congress leader. During the late 1980s and 1990s, an atmosphere was created by certain people that Congress is close to the underworld, simply to fan anti-Muslim sentiments,” senior Congress leader Anant Gadgil told ThePrint.
Another Congress leader, who did not wish to be named, said in some pockets of Mumbai where certain gangsters held sway, politicians used to be in touch with them ahead of elections.
“Not just for the Congress, it was true for other parties as well. For example, Rajendra Nikhalje (Chhota Rajan) was influential in the Chembur area,” this leader said.
‘Your Dawood, our Gawli’
The alleged association between politics, politicians and the underworld became stronger in the 1990s, especially after the 1992-93 riots and the Mumbai serial blasts that followed. Shiv Sena members actively participated in the riots on the streets of Mumbai, and the state and its politics stood divided by communal colours.
Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray chose to back the Marathi gangster Arun Gawli and his men as “aamchi mule” (our children). In a rally before the 1995 assembly polls, Thackeray declared, “If you (Muslims) have Dawood, we have Gawli”.
Gawli eventually fell out with the Shiv Sena in the late 1990s, formed his own party — the Akhil Bharatiya Sena — and became an MLA in the Maharashtra assembly in 2004.
A senior Shiv Sena leader who has been associated with the party for over four decades told ThePrint, requesting anonymity, that while Bal Thackeray did say ‘if you have Dawood, we have Gawli’, it was just a strong statement made in a public speech, with the intention to show the fear that a Marathi man can also unleash.
“Gawli and Dawood had fallen out by then. Certain Congress leaders seemed to be patronising Dawood. Balasaheb made the statement from that angle,” the leader said. “It is not that Balasaheb was close to Gawli or ever sheltered him.”
After the 1993 Mumbai blasts, the Union government formed a committee under then-home secretary N.N. Vohra to study the activities of crime syndicates and their links with political personalities and government authorities. Eleven pages of the report, dated 5 October 1993, were released in public domain.
While the part released to the public did not name anyone in particular, the report said: “The various crime syndicates/mafia organisations have developed significant muscle and money power and established linkages with governmental functionaries, political leaders and others to be able to operate with impunity (as recently exemplified by the activities of the Memon brothers and Dawood Ibrahim).”
In 2020, the Supreme Court rejected a petition demanding a Lokpal-monitored investigation into the Vohra report, saying it was “utopian” and that the court “does not encourage petitions which are for publicity”.
Allegations against Sharad Pawar
In 1993, an assistant municipal commissioner in the Mumbai civic body, G.R. Khairnar, accused Sharad Pawar, who was Maharashtra CM at the time, of shielding criminals and having links with the underworld.
Khairnar, known as Mumbai’s “demolition man”, was aggressive in his action against illegal structures, and had openly spoken about how politicians call him with requests to avoid action against properties associated with the underworld, multiple sources familiar with the politics of the 1990s told ThePrint.
They also recalled how Pawar had in the 1990s faced flak for allegedly allowing two persons linked to the underworld to travel in his airplane when he was Union defence minister (1991-93). The BJP still uses the issue to target Pawar from time to time.
Soon after Khairnar’s allegations, Ulhas Joshi, a police officer, submitted an affidavit in the Bombay High Court saying Pawar, as Union defence minister and then later Maharashtra CM, constantly tried to protect three “gangsters associated with the underworld”. These were Pappu Kalani, Hitendra Thakur and Jayendra (Bhai) Thakur. He alleged that the Thakurs and Kalani were inducted as Congress members in legislative committees, though they were incarcerated under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) for criminal offences. He also claimed that Pawar had, in February 1993, instructed then-Maharashtra CM Sudhakarrao Naik to be lenient with Kalani in police custody.
Joshi’s petition came after he was transferred out of Thane district following what was said to be a controversial tenure.
As published in India Today, Pawar had at the time responded saying, “It is easy to establish that the allegations are false. He (Joshi) is trying to save himself from the Anti-Corruption Bureau inquiry (probing the cop’s disproportionate assets). This (Joshi’s affidavit) is a desperate action.”
Pawar had added that every elected representative is put on some consultative committee or the other, and denied allegations of having instructed Sudhakarrao Naik to go easy on Kalani in jail.
Close to the 1995 elections, the BJP had capitalised on these allegations, with then-leader of the opposition Gopinath Munde running a full-fledged campaign against the Congress for the alleged criminalisation of politics.
“This issue was already bothering the electorate. Munde saheb started a campaign against criminalisation of politics and gave voice to people’s concerns. The results could be seen as in 1995 the Congress lost and the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance government came to power,” senior BJP leader Vinod Tawde told ThePrint.
A second senior BJP leader who did not wish to be named said in the next decade or so, first with Munde as home minister and then NCP’s R.R. Patil, the underworld was thwarted bit by bit, and its influence diminished.
However, Sharad Pawar has had to battle charges of patronising the underworld even in the 2000s. In 2015, senior advocate Ram Jethmalani said Dawood Ibrahim was willing to return to India after the 1993 blasts, but Pawar, who was then Maharashtra CM, did not respond to the offer.
Responding to the charge, Pawar had said: “It is true that Ram Jethmalani had given a proposal. But there was a condition that Dawood should not be kept in jail; rather, he be allowed to remain in a house. This was not acceptable. We said he had to face the law.”
However, none of these allegations against Pawar or any other leader have stuck.
‘Political tendencies change’
Hitendra Thakur has his own political outfit, the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi, which has consistently won most elections in the Vasai-Virar belt and created a fiefdom of sorts. In November 2019, when the MVA came to power, Thakur decided to back the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance.
The lone corporator of Arun Gawli’s Akhil Bharatiya Sena, his daughter Geeta, had pledged her support to the BJP after the 2017 Mumbai civic election.
Meanwhile, Pappu Kalani’s family members joined the BJP in 2017 before moving to the NCP last month.
“Political tendencies change. There are political adjustments to be made, and that’s why no allegation (related to underworld links) has ever reached its logical conclusion,” a BJP leader who did not wish to be named told ThePrint.
A Shiv Sena leader added: “It is more like teri bhi chup, meri bhi chup (You stay silent and so will I).”
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)