IT'S an unusually warm July for Europe with the day temperature soaring up to 34 degrees. I am in Vienna attending the fourth session of the ad hoc Committee of the UN on the Elaboration of a Convention against Transnational Organised Crime. Delegates from over 100 countries are deli-berating on how to evolve a consensus on measures to combat organised crime in its transnational manifestation.
The world community is finally waking up to this menace to unitedly take steps to neutralise the havoc it has wreaked on the politics and economies of nations and most importantly on the lives of ordinary people. By next June the convention should be in place as a guidebook for international cooperation in dealing with transnational organised crime. Sitting at the Vienna International Centre, I cannot help but ruminate over the phenomenon of organised crime and its implications back home.
Though there cannot be a single all-encompassing definition, organised crime could be looked upon as the unlawful activities of the members of a highly organised, disciplined association engaged in supplying illegal goods and services. Its essence is continuing illegal activities for generating illegal profits, the collective result of the commitment, knowledge and actions of three components – criminal groups, the protectors and specialist supporters.
Organised crime is characterised by a strong and ruthless leader, a hierarchy, a strong code of conduct for its members and, above all, the goal of power and profit. Corrupt police and public officials, attorneys and judicial officers, political leaders and businessmen comprise the protectors. The specialist support is provided by sharp-shooters, telecom experts, casino operators, computer wizards and so on. What makes organised crime organised is its ability to serve as a government for the underworld, providing services, allocating resources and territories and settling disputes.
Contrary to popular belief, organised crime is not a recent phenomenon in India. The zamindars of yore maintained private armies of lathaits and paiks. With their help rents were collected and lands of the poor grabbed. They perpetrated untold atrocities and crimes on the hapless have-nots of society. Gangs of robbers and dacoits, some of whom acquired a Robinhood like image, have also existed for centuries. In Bombay, Governor Aungier formed a militia of local Bhandari youth to deal with organised street-level gangs that robbed sailors in 1669.
Thugee flourished in central India till the 19th century with armed gangs of thugs, masquerading as pilgrims or wayfarers, winning the confidence of unsuspecting travellers and then looting and murdering them. The British government deputed their most celebrated police officer, William Sleeman, subsequently knighted, to tackle this menace. Sleeman launched his legendary campaign between 1831 and 1837 and virtually crushed thugee forever.
However, organised crime in its current form emerged in Bombay after Independence with the introduction of prohibition which gave rise to a thriving and lucrative clandestine trade in illicit liquor. Bootlegging not only attracted the covetous attention of hitherto loosely organised street level gangs but also gave rise to syndicate type of illicit activity. It was only a matter of time before the gangs which took to bootlegging became larger, more powerful and affluent, as well as influential. The seeds of organised criminal activity had been sown in Bombay city for others to emulate in different parts of the country.
The first noteworthy gang to emerge in Bombay was that of Vardharaj Mudaliar, popularly known as Vardha Bhai. He ruled the roost for over a decade beginning in the early ’60s. He organised bootlegging in a systematic manner, spreading an umbrella of protection to several lesser gangs dealing in illicit liquor. Without Vardha Bhai’s support and without paying him a cut, it was not possible for anyone to distil, store, transport or sell hooch in the city. He soon diversified his illegal activities into gold smuggling, matka gambling, extortion and supari killings. Eventually he had to flee Bombay when he was relentlessly pursued by DCP Pawar of the Bombay police.
Almost contemporaneously emerged the gangs of Haji Mastan, Yusuf Patel and Karim Lala. While Mastan and Patel made their millions in gold smuggling, Lala, a Pathan don, dealt in drugs. At this time Dawood Ibrahim and his elder brother Shabir, sons of a Bombay police constable, worked as musclemen for smugglers. When during the Emergency there was a crackdown on Mastan et al., Dawood filled the vacuum by emerging as a gang leader himself. He came into confrontation with the Pathan gangs of Alamzeb and Amirzada which led to bitter internecine gang warfare. Dawood emerged supreme after systematically liquidating all his Pathan rivals. However, he had to flee Bombay in 1985 in the wake of increasing police pressure and threat from new enemies.
The Bombay underworld dons have over time become role models for other mafia leaders in the country. We now have similar mafias in most Indian states and what is most worrying is their ability to network with each other. However, what jolted the nation and brought the underworld in sharp focus were the serial blasts in Bombay in March ’93 which left 257 dead, 713 maimed and property worth hundreds of crores damaged. Investigation showed that the ISI had used three mafia dons of Bombay, namely Dawood Ibrahim, Tiger Memon and Mohd. Dossa and their resources to execute their dastardly plan to cripple the economy, create communal divide and spread terror in India’s commercial capital. It was for the first time that the country realised the immense potential of organised criminal groups to jeopardise the internal security of the country.
Even though Dawood, Tiger and Dossa are on the run, they continue to remote operate from Dubai and Karachi. Their henchmen still extort huge sums of money from builders and film producers, resort to supari killings and settle disputes for a consideration. It is commonplace for Bombayites who buy expensive cars or throw lavish parties to receive calls from the underworld to cough up ‘their share’ or face the consequences. Particularly affected are the filmi crowd who have been regularly targeted by the mafia.
Safely ensconced in enemy territory, the dons provide a classic example of transnational organised criminal groups for whom boundaries between nations have ceased to matter as far as operational requirements are concerned, given advances in communication technology now widely available. They have been quick to capitalise on estranged or hostile diplomatic relations between countries to their advantage to escape the reach of law.
Organised crime in India is on the rise. Extortions, kidnappings for ransom, gun running, illicit trafficking in women and children, narcotics trade, money laundering using the hawala network, every conceivable kind of cheating and fraud, bank scams and so on, not only spread a sense of insecurity in the common man but also drain the country of thousands of crores of rupees. What gets reported to and investigated by the law enforcement agencies is only a minuscule percentage of the overall quantum of organised criminal activity.
Cases which do go up to the courts generally drag on for years during which witnesses are won over or terrorised into submission. In the absence of a witness protection programme, it is too much to expect common folk to stand up to these goons and testify against them. The end result is a lack of fear of the legal system in the minds of the mafiosi.
Even legitimate business activities are being criminalised. The tentacles of the underworld have infiltrated trade and industry in a big way. Mafia gangs entered trade unionism in the late ’60s. Union leaders like Datta Samant, who in 1998 was himself gunned down in gang warfare, pioneered the path of collective bargaining through the use of criminal force. The captains of industry are known to use rival gangs to neutralise the militant trade unions and sometimes for their own personal security.
Occasionally, business disputes are settled using the intervention of dons. Investigations into the affairs of Romesh Sharma, a Dawood front man based in Delhi, revealed that two leading stockbrokers of Bombay had approached Abu Salem, based in Dubai, to settle their trade differences. Romesh Sharma himself took cuts by settling disputes between various business houses. The underworld is also adept at investing its ill-gotten wealth in front businesses run by seemingly ‘respectable’ entrepreneurs.
Sometimes, the proximity of trade and industry with the underworld has led to tragic consequences. The murder of Thaquiuddin Wahid of East West Airlines in 1996, Sunil Khatau of Khatau Mills in ’94, Om Prakash Kukreja of Kukreja Builders in ’95, Ramnath Payyade, a prominent hotelier the same year, are cases in point. They were gunned down because of a perceived proximity to one or another mafia group. In recent months the pressure of organised criminal groups has become so intense that business houses have been forced to relocate themselves and foreign investors have had to flee. Such reports have come from Bihar, Mumbai and Gurgaon in the recent past.
Mafia activity is finding greener pastures and virgin territory everyday. We regularly hear of the coal mafia, timber mafia, sandalwood mafia, lottery mafia, tender mafia and so on. But what is most disturbing is the inroads organised crime has made into the politics of the country. There was a time when anyone with a criminal background would not dare to seek a ticket for elections from any party. Today, politicians not only hire anti-social elements to assist them in elections but also to kill their rivals. The murder of Ajit Sarkar, a CPI MLA from Purnea, by his political rival in recent months is indicative.
Also, gone are the days when gangsters were pawns in the hands of politicians. Today, gangsters are them-selves fighting elections and getting elected as MPs or MLAs, sometimes even from the confines of jail. It is no longer a case of the dog wagging its tail but the reverse. Gangsters know only too well that if khaki has to be kept at bay, the simplest way is to don khadi. A democracy, where elections are fought with the support of gangsters and guns and where large numbers of sitting MPs and MLAs have criminal records, must stop in its tracks and reflect on what needs to be done to rectify the situation.
We can take heart from the fact that we are not the only country faced with this situation. Even in the U.S., organised criminal groups like the La Cosa Nostra (‘Our Thing’ in Italian) were ruling the roost till the American government decided to appoint the Kefauver Committee whose hearings in 1950-51 awakened the public to the scale of the ‘mob’ problem. The committee concluded that there was a nationwide network of criminal syndicates in the U.S., fundamentally based on ‘muscle’ and ‘murder’.
A series of measures followed. The FBI, which till then had no involvement in organised crime, assumed a significant role. With bugs and wiretaps, they developed extraordinary information on La Cosa Nostra families throughout the U.S.A. The organised crime and racketeering section of the Justice Department was revitalised. This unit, comprised of the best and brightest prosecutors of the day, undertook the first serious federal anti-organised crime effort.
A Presidential Task Force on Organised Crime was created. In 1968, the U.S. Congress enacted the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. This was followed by the Organised Crime Control Act (OCCA) in 1970. This act was to revolutionise law enforcement’s approach to organised crime. Witness protection programmes, testimonial immunity, enhanced sentencing and most significantly, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act (RICO) were introduced. RICO was a radically new legal approach to the investigation and prosecution of organised crime with emphasis on criminal syndicates rather than individuals.
Through all these measures, spread over two decades, American law enforcement was able to achieve dramatic successes against the mafia and put in place a legal system capable of fighting organised crime from a position of strength. The U.S. experience has been a role model for many European countries and there is no harm in drawing from it in the Indian context as well.
Our first step should be to study the phenomenon of organised crime in India in its entirety. A high level expert committee should be appointed for this purpose. It should hold hearings in which all those connected with the problem can testify in-camera. The hearings should be held in all state capitals. The committee should have well spelt out terms of reference, e.g., identification of types of organised crimes prevalent in the country, the various gangs operating, their modus operandi, networking, inadequacies in law enforcement and the legal system, and measures to be taken in the future. This study should provide an overall picture of the organised crime scenario in the country so as to enable the government to take a holistic view of the problem.
It has to be understood that organised crime cannot be fought by run-of- the-mill police officers. Unfortunately today, for a majority of police personnel, police work is just another job. It is only a handful who have the talent, commitment and will to take risks and fight crime. Fortunately, every state has its share of talented policemen. Every state will have to bring together such police officers and create an organised crime unit, at least at the state if not district level. These could be a part of the existing crime branches or set up as new independent units. Officers and men manning these units would require special training, the latest equipment and other resources to make them into effective fighting outfits. They could also be given special allowances and other incentives, including adequate insurance cover.
However, these state units cannot function in isolation. There has to be a central nodal agency to coordinate their efforts and to act as an interface between them. It would be the job of this agency to collect information from all state units, analyse it and then pass it on for operational purposes. A wide area network on organised crime and criminals should be put in place connecting the central nodal agency and state units. This could be made a part of the ongoing computerisation plan of the police to cut on costs and avoid unnecessary duplication.
Regrettably, experience has shown that since police and law and order is a state subject, the stranglehold of state-level politics continues on local police officials. It is not uncommon for state police chiefs to approach central agencies to take over cases where a local MLA or MP or a relative of a minister is involved. It is pathetic to watch the helplessness of senior police officers.
In a recent case, where a police officer was murdered and the culprits identified, the state government wanted the case to be taken over by the CBI. The local police had done no follow-up investigation, leave alone effecting any arrests, even though the killers were known. This inaction was only because a prominent local politician was involved. So much for police camaraderie and the rule of law! The point I am driving at is that there may be situations where state level organised crime units, if part of the state police, may not prove effective. In that case, it may become necessary to have a full-fledged organised crime division in a central agency like the CBI with branches in every state to handle cases which the state units are unable to investigate for unforeseen reasons.
Global experience has shown that organised crime groups use the most hi-tech facilities available in communication equipments, computers, transport, arms and so on. Law enforcement agencies should not only match them, but ideally be several steps ahead. Even in our country, the police have achieved dramatic successes against organised criminals in recent years because of the expertise developed in technical surveillance like phone-tapping, telephone call analysis and so on. However, this needs to be further upgraded in a systematic manner. It is time that they are permitted by law to use bugs and wire-tapping devices to bring the mafiosi to book.
That brings me to the need for effective laws to combat organised crime. Needless to say, existing laws are inadequate to deal with the situation which did not exist in this magnitude at the time the Indian Penal Code was written. An Organised Crime Control Act has been on the anvil for several years now. Meanwhile, Maharashtra has done well to introduce a new act to fight organised crime. This is indeed a revolutionary step.
This act has not only incorporated all the positive features of the TADA(p) Act, since scrapped, but has gone several steps ahead, making evidence collected through technical surveillance admissible, possession of wealth on behalf of organised criminals punishable and so on. Significantly, it is for the first time that organised crime has been defined in the Indian statute. However, there is still a crying need for a central act in our country which would set the pace for anti-organised crime efforts at the national level. Even bolder measures like a witness protection programme should be introduced in the central act.
Assuming that the new central act would provide for special courts, exclusively trying cases under the new act, as has been done in Maharashtra, it should also be possible to have a committed band of competent prosecutors as part of the organised crime unit of every state. They need not be regular government prosecutors, but could be drawn from the bar after careful screening for the purpose. A panel of such prosecutors could be made available in each state. Even the presiding officers for the specials courts need to be specially chosen. They have to be men of calibre, integrity and most importantly of courage, because it is not uncommon for judges to wilt against a fear of the underworld. A particularly important case involving the mafia has been crawling at a snail’s pace, even though it is being tried in a special court, as the presiding officer is mortally terrified of the accused facing trial. He has even requested the public prosecutor to have him transferred!
No law enforcement effort can succeed without creating public awareness against organised crime. However, this has to be done deftly, using the media to create public opinion against organised crime and particularly their increasing influence in electoral politics. In this regard some of the recent initiatives by the courts and the Election Commission are laudable. Our political parties must find common ground to eschew fraternizing with criminal elements.
Persons with criminal backgrounds should be denied tickets for elections. Politicians found to have links with communal and criminal elements should be expelled from political parties. All this can happen only if a strong public opinion is built up by the intellectuals and media. As awareness spreads, organised criminals would be marginalised from the political scene and hopefully more people will come forward to assist law enforcement efforts. A tall order indeed but we have no other option.
Some of the most wanted and active mafia dons are based abroad from where they continue to operate with impunity – Dawood Ibrahim, Tiger Memon, Mohd. Dossa, Iqbal Mirchi, Abu Salem, Chota Shakeel, Chota Rajan, to name a few. Many are either in Dubai or Karachi. Chota Rajan lives on board a yacht off the coast of Malaysia. They all have their networks of ground level operatives in India with whom they are in constant touch using state of the art equipment. While we have achieved many breakthroughs in nabbing the foot soldiers, it has had little or no impact on the dons.
Kidnappings for ransom, extortions, supari and political killings continue. Most alarming is the continuing nexus of these ganglords with enemy intelligence agencies and their role in anti-India activities. We require a sustained and aggressive diplomatic effort to bring them to India to face trial, an exercise which has so far not been attempted in right earnest. Those who are holed up in enemy territory should be treated as enemies and a no-holds-barred approach should be adopted against them.
Coming back to the Vienna International Centre, it is heartening to note that under the aegis of the United Nations, law enforcement officials, legal experts, Interpol, NGOs and representatives of governments are unanimous in their opinion that urgent steps are necessary to fight transnational organised crime. A UN convention in this regard is on its way which could pave the path for proactive cooperation among member countries. A similar realisation is required within our own country among all the state governments. A beginning has to be made by involving all state chief ministers by an initiative of the central government. This should be followed by a series of rapid measures, some of which may be as suggested above.
We are at the threshold of a new millennium. The latter part of this century has seen organised criminal activity rising to somewhat alarming proportions in our country. What better time than now to start the process of a well thought out, planned and systematic fightback, lest the hydra of organised crime completely ensnares our society.