Excerpt | Byculla to Bangkok
In his new book, the author returns to the Mumbai underworld and the issues that still draw young men to crime
6 May 1993
The police cruiser was racing along at breakneck speed. The plainclothes men from crime branch unit VII were anxious, uncertain as they were about this operation.
They were chasing three occupants of a Neptune-blue Maruti-Suzuki 800, the car of choice for most Indians from the moment it hit the roads in 1983. The Mumbai mafia loved the little car; it was easy to manoeuvre when the police were hot on their heels.
In the back was a man called Chandrakant Talwalekar. The two men in the front seat were considered to be Mumbai’s most ferocious hitmen: Subhash and Ganesh Kunchikurve. Together, they were known as the Makadwala brothers. Their community is known for broom- and basket-making and training monkeys for roadside shows, hence the moniker Makadwala. The Makadwala compound in Dharavi, in south-central Mumbai, is inhabited by the Kunchikurves, a simple community considered incapable of doing what these renegades were about to do. The notorious Subhash Kunchikurve wielded not a broom but an AK-56. This at a time when Mumbai had not even heard of automatic machine guns; the Mumbai police were still struggling with their outdated self-loading rifles (SLRs) from the 1940s....
The terror the Makadwala brothers evoked had spread amongst Mumbai’s business community. Builders, hoteliers, share brokers, film producers, distributors and even actors were threatened, tortured and exploited by them. Subhash was especially notorious. A buxom Pakistani actress who sang with a nasal twang was the hapless recipient of his attentions—and the victim of his baser instincts. The gangster sexually exploited the Bollywood diva for a considerable period, and it is said that he made her sing each time before raping her. She was so terrified that she could not even muster up the courage to lodge a formal police complaint against him.
The Mumbai police were reduced to mere spectators in the face of Makadwala’s terror spree. The impotence of the police and their adherence to the basic police credo of ‘qayeda mein fayeda’ (the benefits of following the law) had so emboldened Subhash Makadwala that he boasted that no one but the Special Operations Squad (SOS) could touch him, let alone arrest or kill him.
And this was one such attempt. The Bandra unit of the crime branch had received information that Subhash and his men were about to exit a flat at Amrut Nagar in Ghatkopar, in the north-eastern suburbs of Mumbai—and had sprung into action.
Within seconds, Inspector Shankar Kamble was on the phone with Additional Commissioner of Police (ACP) Hasan Ghafoor, who was with the crime branch, for consent to raid the flat. Ghafoor’s response, full of grit and purpose, was: ‘Get Makadwala, dead or alive’. It was 6 May 1993, the city was still reeling from the serial blasts of 12 March and Ghafoor had sworn to uproot the mafia menace from the city. The directive was to cost him dearly.
But the order was a shot in the arm for the disparate group of seasoned plainclothes officers who immediately left for Amrut Nagar. Kamble had shown great presence of mind by assembling a rag-tag team of officers who were willing to take risks. Eventually, this team went on to become Mumbai’s top encounter specialists.
Sub-inspectors Vijay Salaskar and Pradeep Sharma were part of the team. Salaskar took the wheel and Sharma cradled a .9 mm carbine on his lap as he took the seat next to Salaskar.
Bravado aside, they were unsure whether they would come back on their feet or on a stretcher. Before leaving their offices, they all called home nervously and spoke to their wives and children, without letting on anything about their destination or explaining the sudden burst of affection.
As the police cruiser arrived at the building, they saw the blue Maruti leaving the building premises. Caught at last!
Salaskar recognized Subhash immediately and tried to block his exit, though wary of Subhash’s infamous AK-56. The driver of the Maruti 800 gave the police the dipper. Salaskar ignored it.
The driver immediately reversed the car, turned and straightened it with amazing dexterity, wheels screeching loudly in protest, and began to climb the steep slope of Amrut Nagar, in the opposite direction.
It was Salaskar’s turn to display his skill as a driver. He revved the engine, almost standing on the accelerator, and jumped ahead of the other car. Both vehicles were now racing, sides bumping against each other in the dark night. Amrut Nagar was yet to be developed at the time, and the infrastructure was still in a shambles. The roads did not even have streetlights, so both vehicles kept grinding up against each other.
Salaskar shouted to Pradeep Sharma to shoot through the windscreen, instructing him not to lean out of the window as he did so. Sometimes a delay of nanoseconds at a time like this could drastically influence the outcome of an operation.
Suddenly, the wheels of the Maruti 800 screeched loudly and the vehicle crashed into a tree. Subhash grabbed his AK-56 and his bullets shattered the windscreen of the police jeep. This was the decisive moment.
The night was rent with the sound of incessant gunfire as Sharma acted swiftly and fired his carbine. It was a do-or-die moment for the police team.
Salaskar and Kamble drew their .38 weapons and fired round upon round on the sharpshooters, praying that they would find their mark before the gangsters did. Soon, silence reigned in the other camp. At long last, victory! The crime branch cops had managed to eliminate Mumbai’s most wanted gangsters.
Though the skirmish was over in a matter of seconds, it seemed like an eternity for the police party. Two AK-56 guns and an abundance of magazines, pistols and grenades were found in the boot of the car.
The police department heaved a collective sigh of relief. The worst was over. Or, was it?
The killing of the Makadwalas had drawn the curtains on another chapter in the history of the mafia in Mumbai. Members of the business community burst crackers and organized a feast. The newspapers were full of panegyric reports the next day and the media hailed Sharma and Salaskar as heroes.
Hasan Ghafoor was elated at the success of his men and wanted to felicitate the bravehearts who had risked their lives in such a fashion. The next day, he summoned them to the police headquarters so that he could present them to the police commissioner for due praise.
For the officers of sub-inspector rank, appreciation and encouraging words from the police commissioner are no less than a gold medal in the Olympics. So, when Ghafoor called to say he wanted them to meet Police Commissioner Amarjeet Singh Samra, the police party was charged with anticipation.
Samra was an upright cop and his tenure in the IPS had witnessed zero controversy. During the communal riots of 1992-93, when the whole country burnt and blood was spilt on the streets, Thane had remained peaceful and registered no incidents of communal discontent. It was this sterling track record that had earned him the job of Mumbai police chief. Within days of taking charge, however, he had come up against the enemy force in an unprecedented manner: the city suffered one of the most horrific attacks on it, on 12 March.
Muslim police officers in the force, regardless of their rank, were demoralized by the blasts. They were embarrassed and ashamed of the handiwork of the terrorists who masqueraded as good Muslims. Ghafoor, a Muslim himself, had gone through personal hell and was at a loss to explain the heinous acts that stigmatized a whole community.
Ghafoor hoped the Makadwala encounter would bolster the sagging confidence of the police force. But he did not know what lay in store for him when he led the police team to the commissioner’s office on the first floor of the main building.
He knocked and entered the cabin, followed by his team of police officers, who formed a row and gave Samra a stiff salute. The turbaned Sikh cop looked up at Ghafoor curiously, asking who the men were and what had brought them there. Ghafoor said, with a mixture of pride and diffidence, ‘Sir, these officers were successful in getting Makadwala. I thought you would want to see them and commend them on their good work.’
What happened next had Ghafoor reeling. The usually coolheaded Samra sprang to his feet and shouted, ‘What the hell! Why have you brought them here? I don’t want to meet these killers. Ask them to get out of here. Out!’
Kamble, Salaskar, Sharma and the others looked at each other and rushed to the door. They stopped only at the reception, where they waited for Ghafoor to join them. None of them uttered a word until they saw a flustered Ghafoor emerging from the office of the police commissioner, beads of sweat and worry lines on his face.
‘The commissioner said one of the three men killed in the encounter had no criminal record. He is upset about his death,’ Ghafoor tried to explain his boss’s fury.
Kamble, considered to be one of the most blunt and outspoken officers of the Mumbai police force, showed remarkable patience when he told Ghafoor, ‘Sir, when someone opens fire at us and we are in danger of being killed, we cannot wait to check the person’s criminal record. We retaliate to save our lives. And these men were with Makadwala. For us, each of them was as dangerous as Makadwala was.’
Ghafoor nodded. But as he turned to leave, he said, ‘He does not want any more encounters.’
He walked away. The much anticipated success party had ended in an anticlimax, throwing another pall of gloom over the crime branch.
Soon, Hasan Ghafoor was shunted out of the crime branch, apparently for administrative reasons, and posted at the nondescript Anti-Corruption Bureau.
Two police officers, though, were unperturbed by these developments: Vijay Salaskar and Pradeep Sharma. They continued to work in the crime branch and nursed other plans—known only to the two of them.
Edited excerpts, with permission from HarperCollins India.