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India election - crime and corruption

Profile of a gangster turned politician

by Tony Cross

Article published on the 2009-04-29 Latest update 2009-05-01 13:32 TU

Armed police protect a boy carrying voting material in Mumbai in 2009(Photo: Reuters)

Armed police protect a boy carrying voting material in Mumbai in 2009
(Photo: Reuters)

Anti-corruption campaigners complain that of the 545 members of the Lok Sabha, 117 are under investigation for murder, rape, assault, extortion and/or robbery. Nineteen MPs have over three criminal cases pending, while 29 have been accused of spouse abuse. Indian politics are notorious for their underworld connections. But the line between gangster and community representative is not always clearly drawn, as I found out when I visited a Mumbai "don" during the 2004 election.

Arun Gawli used to work in Mumbai’s textile mills, along with tens of thousands of others. A vast area of the city depended on the mills for work and, often, for homes, which were made available to mill workers’ families.

But, as workers will, they organised trade unions, went on strike, and improved their wages and conditions. So, the employers closed the mills and moved the work out of Mumbai to smaller workplaces and even to home-workers, who were likely to be more compliant.

The way to get rich in Mumbai is through real estate. The land where the mill workers’ houses stand can be valuable, if they are replaced by cinemas, car parks and shopping malls for Mumbai’s developing middle class.

Therefore evictions are widespread – malls eat men.

The workers’ strikes were long and sometimes violent. Employers would subsidise scab unions which sometimes took on a certain independence, and imposed conditions on the bosses, for example, the promotion of the union leader to senior management.

Some of the young unemployed joined gangs and the gangsters then became embroiled in the industrial disputes. As the organised work sector declined, organised crime grew.

Gangster of the people

Hundreds of people are gathered in the fortified compound outside Arun Gawli’s home. Apparently it is the same every day. They want help, maybe in fighting an eviction, maybe to get a job, maybe for some other problem.

Perhaps some want to help Gawli in his campaign to be elected for Mumbai South Central constituency.

Meeting the Daddy

To interview Daddy, as the don likes to be called, local journalist Dnyanesh Jathar and I are ushered into his multi-storey home, told to remove our shoes and put in a lift, which takes us to the roof. We wait in a roof-garden, with a small temple for the use of the household, a painted cement elephant and a garishly coloured effigy of the monkey-god Hanuman on the wall.

As we wait, a man places his hands on Hanuman’s bright pink legs and appears to say a silent prayer. Then Gawli appears in kurta-pyjama, and Nehru-cap.

He says that he has helped slum-dwellers improve their living conditions, cleaned up stinking toilets, some of which leaked so badly that tenants had to take umbrellas in with them, and provided water and drainage.

Gawli entered politics to work in an unspecified capacity for the Shiv Sena party, the far-right Hindu-chauvinists who helped break the millworkers’ strikes and now control the city council.

At one time, they reportedly backed Gawli against Muslim gangster Daoud Ibrahim, on the grounds of his religious and communal affiliation.

Daoud is now in hiding, allegedly in Pakistan. He is thought to have worked with the secret services and is wanted for his alleged part in the 1993 bombings which killed 317 people, in reprisal for the massacre of thousands of Muslims in the previous months.

Shiv Sena ditched Gawli when he was jailed, detained under the National Security Act. He claims that they joined in a chorus of those making false accusations about violent crime committed by some of his associates.

‘‘How could I have done them while I was in jail?’’ he asks, with a logic that seems faultless, but for the fact that his prison-guards are accused of allowing him to hold a durbar, or court, while under their supervision.

Anyway, an offended Gawli set up his own party, Akhil Bharatiya Sena, eight years ago, and is now fighting for Mumbai South Central against Shiv Sena incumbent Mohan Rawale.

Another candidate is Sachin Ahir, for the Nationalist Congress Party, a Maharashtra-based split-off from Congress. He’s Gawli’s nephew.

Rich ex-millworker

I point out that Gawli seems pretty wealthy for a redundant millworker, which he claims to be.

He says that his family had a number of cows (the Gawlis are apparently a caste of cow herders) and sold milk before the government took over milk distribution, when they invested their earnings in property.

The real estate boom is believed to have made many dubious characters wealthy, but gangsters also apparently protected some of the poor against other land sharks.

Some people see them as Robin Hoods, although their criminal repertoire seems more extensive, and perhaps more ruthless, than that of the hero of Sherwood Forest.

They entered politics when election candidates decided to add muscle to more traditional means of campaigning and seem to have felt at home in the political environment.

The politics of crime

India’s Election Commission declared that 700 members of the upper or lower houses of parliament have criminal records and the election looks set to add to their ranks.

The front page of the Asian Age newspaper features mug shots of 24 candidates, “accused of serious offences” - extortion, rape, banditry and communal violence.

Gawli is among them - accused of murder, abetting murder and rioting with a deadly weapon.

Who else is raising eyebrows?

Other interesting candidates include two eunuchs: Sonia Ajmeri, standing against Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, and Sanjude Nayak, fighting Defence Minister Harin Pathak.

Plus, a record number of film stars, including Govinda, the star of 125 Bollywood greats, who’s standing for Congress in Mumbai North-west.

The Economic Times tells us he has foresaken his trademark white shoes and purple shirts for the garb of white shirt and white trousers, which is apparently the uniform of the political caste.

‘‘My dancing has been compared with John Travolta and Elvis Presley and my films have offered entertainment to the lower middle classes,’’ Govinda tells the paper. ‘‘I am a common man, and in my new avatar, people can identify with me.”