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The Unreality of Wasseypur: Javed Iqbal

September 17, 2012

Guest post by JAVED IQBAL

Posters for ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ in Dhanbad. All photographs by Javed Iqbal.

‘The ending of the film was shown properly,’ speak unanimous voices, the well-known folklore of Wasseypur, Dhanbad, ‘Gangster Shafiq Khan was really gunned down at the Topchachi petrol pump like it was shown in the first part of the film.’

‘That’s how it’s done in Dhanbad.’

And there are long lists of assassinations and murders in Dhanbad. MLA Gurdas Chaterjee of the Marxist Co-ordination Committee was gunned down on the highway. Superintendent of Police Randhir Verma was murdered by dacoits during a botched bank robbery. Santosen Gupta of the Forward Bloc was gunned down. Mukul Dev of the RJD was murdered. S K Rai, a union leader is murdered. Samin Khan, a gangster, gets bail and leaves court and is shot to death, while still in the custody of the police. Sakel Dev Singh of the coal mafia is killed at the bypass; his brother who works with him, is killed at Shakti chowk, gunned down by an AK47. Manoj Singh alias Dabloo from Matkuria village, who allegedly terrorised the Muslims of Wasseypur was gunned down. Chottna Khan, 18 years old, the son of Shafiq Khan was gunned down. Mohd. Irfan a railway contractor was killed by a gang. Najeer Ahmed, a ward commissioner, is murdered. A woman home guard who once shared a love with a police officer, who would eventually take him on after their affair turned bitter, would find the dead body of her cut-up nephew in a well at the Dhanbad Polytechnic.

These are just a few high profile murder cases, say the locals, who on one level shy away from the violence that represented their city and on another level take pride in the knowledge of who was gunning down who at what point.

Wasseypur, now a part of Dhanbad district in Jharkhand, has grown, over the decades from a culture of violence and gang warfare, parts of which are depicted in the film Gangs of Wasseypur.

Magrib namaaz breaks in a mosque right next to Faheem Khan’s home.

The film tells the story of three generations of a family, starting with a backdrop to mining in Dhanbad, with the murder of Shahid Khan in the hands of coal mafia leader Ramadhir Singh, and the revenge promised by his son Sardar Khan (in reality Shafiq Khan), and his sons Faisal Khan (in reality Faheem Khan).

‘There was never any revenge story,’ said Iqbal (24), the son of Faheem Khan (50), grandson of Shafiq, sitting in the very room where a rival gang had attacked late at night, and even fired onto a police check post as shown in the opening sequence of the film. ‘My great grandfather died of natural causes, he was never murdered by any Singh. And there was another thing, a twist. I had a grand uncle Hanif, who had wanted my father Faheem dead and who had hired a man called Sagir.’

‘And it’s for the murder of Sagir that my father is in Hazaribagh jail.’

‘None of this is in the film,’ continued Iqbal, who adds that the sequence where Sardar Khan would call for the rescue of an abducted woman, fictitious, as well as one-time affair of Sardar Khan’s wife, or the Romeo-Juliet type inter-gang marriages, or the arbitrariness of names of characters such as ‘Perpendicular’ and ‘Definite’. There are instead, Prince Khans and Goodwin Khans.

‘There are two kinds of laws in Dhanbad. There’s the law to arrest for the Faheem Khan Family and there’s the law to investigate for the Singh Mansion,’ says Iqbal, himself just released on bail for murder, referring to the fact that the Singh family is still at large.

The Violent Landscape of Dhanbad

Dhanbad is an unreal place. A small mining town with extreme poverty and a rich labour history. A small town with a bustling middle class bursting through the one main road. You can expect to be stuck in an hour long traffic jam in Dhanbad over Wasseypur, you can find shopping complexes, or remnants of a burnt truck where four people were killed in police firing last year on the 27th of April, or you can find the dead body of a lawaris young man in a seedy hotel near the bus stop. It’s a city of myths, half-truths, and blatant lies. A city where a man called Suraj Deo Singh is also Suryadev Singh, or A K Rai, is also A K Roy. Now an old mansion of a private mine owner who owned 85 mines lay in ruin while the police still continues to extort money from the poorest who pick off scraps of coal to sell. A district partially affected by Maoists, two blocks – Topchachi and Tundi, have been sights of arrests and ambushes. It’s a town with massive migration, massive amounts of pollution owing to the coal mines, many left abandoned and unfilled, others now open-cast, and massive amounts of exploitation by the mafia that literally sells labour across the district border.

Dhanbad is where the Chasnala mining accident took place in December 1975 that claimed over 380 lives. A lake vanished into the mines. No one survived. Kala Patthar was made and still remembered. And in September of 1995, the Gazlitang mining accident claimed 96 lives.

Yet what also followed the mining, were the mafias.

‘There are many gangs here,’ says a lawyer, ‘If you want to tell the story of Dhanbad, you’d need to spend three months here.’

A lot of gangs simply fight over scraps of urbanisation: ‘Agenty’ the term for extortion from private bus services was apparently a cause of conflict between the son of Sardar/Shafiq Khan and another gangster called Babla (this was all denied by the home of Sardar/Shafiq/Faheem Khan). Eventually, Faheem Khan, the son of Sardar/Shafiq Khan allegedly instigated a conflict with a businessman Shabir who refused to be extorted and Shabir found himself on common ground with Babla. Faheem struck, allegedly murdering Wahid Alam, Shabir’s brother, a while after Wahid had organised an attack on his home that left one dead and another injured. And Shabir was allegedly responsible, convicted and now out on bail for the murders of Faheem Khan’s mother, or Shafiq Khan’s widow, the aged Nazama Khatoon, who at one point was a known leader in Wasseypur.

‘The rivalry of Shafiq Khan and Faheem Khan with the ‘Singh Mansion’ is not so much,’ said the Superintendent of Police RK Dhan, ‘It’s really them fighting themselves.’

Iqbal and Goodwin, the third generation after Shafi Khan.

The ‘Singh Mansion’ is really a collection of different Singhs who often share public office, especially standing on BJP tickets in contemporary times. They include Suryadev Singh (apparently Ramadhir Singh in the film), Baccha Singh, Ramadhin Singh, Shashi Singh and Khunti Singh. Suryadev was alleged responsible for the murder of one of the biggest mine owners V P Sinha decades ago, and he died of natural causes in 1991. The Mansion had called for the banning of the film due to the negative portrayal they had received. Yet it is commonly known that the Singh Mansion had their own conflict with Suresh Singh who was murdered in December last year. The conflict between the Singhs was over the coal mines while it is generally known in Dhanbad that Shafiq Khan and his sons were never involved in the mines.

‘Shashi Singh murdered Suresh Singh, according to many witnesses,’ continues the Superintendent of Police.

Yet at the home of Faheem Khan, in Wasseypur, antagonism against the Singh Mansion exists, as it had become no secret that they were involved in providing assistance to the enemies of the family. Sultan, who lived close to Naya Bazaar was in open conflict with Shafiq and had the support of the Singh Mansion. Shabir who lived a mere ten seconds from Faheem Khan, had the support of the Singh Mansion. And spoken in whispers, the ambition of the Khans, led them onto a direct conflict course with the Singh Mansion.

A Dissenter Amongst The Violence

A pump-action shotgun and a carbine rifle were confiscated from the Faheem Gang after a tip-off from an informer on the 19th of July, 2012.

‘When I was young, a man was hacked up in front of us,’ says W, a family member of one of the gangs of Dhanbad.

‘In front of you?’

‘Not really in front of me, but we saw the body parts in different bags.’

‘And?’

‘After that all of us were called later to talk to uncle. And uncle, was talking to us about something else, we never gave eye contact, and somehow we pretended nothing had happened.  The thing is, we really like to keep ourselves different from them, we know how they might use us, for this or that.’

The Man Who Wore Recycled Tires

The names of 380 dead miners fade from the memorial made for them at Chasnala.

A frail old man with glasses, sits quietly holding his arms at the ICU in Dhanbad Central Hospital – he can barely speak yet there was a time that his name was synonymous with the name of Dhanbad. A K Rai, was a chemical engineer, turned trade unionist who helped organize a majority of the mine workers on private mines in Dhanbad, who would be elected three times to office – and would be in open conflict with the state machinery, the coal mafia and the private mine owners who’d dismiss workers on the slightest hint of organising, or would hire goons to deal violently with the organisers and strikes.

‘We must’ve lost around 25 to 30 comrades in the 70’s,’ said Comrade Ramlal, once a miner, then an organiser. He sits back to recall a story that started long before liberalisation, long before nationalisation, long before Naxalbari and the thousands of days of violence.

‘Before 1962, there were two central government collieries that had some wage structure, but there were some 60-65 private collieries where there was no minimum wages system.’

‘Back then, the bosses never even gave money in some of the collieries, they just had booze shops and their own ration shops. The message to the workers was to just work, and take what you get. And the workers were kept in camps, so they won’t run away. And there was no safety, nothing. There were a lot of movements then also, but the workers were often beaten into submission and there were many murders.’

‘It was during this time that A K Rai had come as a chemical engineer in some company. By day he used to work, by night he would teach in a school in one of the nearby villages.’

The open cast mine of Dhansar at Dhanbad.

Strike after strike, beatings after beatings, the workers would even find themselves in a war of attrition with the coal mafia, especially against Suryadev Singh, who had workers killed and would find that the workers could also defend themselves. At one point A K Rai was convinced by the mine workers to stand for election. He would win for the first time in 1967 on an Assembly seat, then in 1969 to the Vidhan Sabha, again in 1972, then in 1977 after being arrested during the Emergency and only started to lose after 1991. The status of the three-time MP and the MLA stayed intact as a minister would be seen around Dhanbad standing in line to pay his electricity bill, or travel by train, standing in general compartment. Even today miners speak of a time in the 1970’s during the apex of the power of the unions and there is a legacy of the work that was done. Just this year, a one-day strike had helped increase the wages for the miners from Rs. 17,000 to Rs. 21,000 – this from virtual slave labour before unionisation. However there are still no signs of health benefits or pensions.

‘A K Rai was probably the only minister who said that ministers should not take pensions,’ said Divan, a colleague, and it was well known that the battle for pensions amongst the miners was never won. Today, an older generation of unionists speak of failures and the inability to combat the cultural hegemony that came with liberalisation. Their children work as managers or in the private sector, a growing middle class has controlled elections, and they’ve slowly seen the diminishing of the power of the unions due to mechanisation and decreasing prominence of the Bharat Coking Coal Limited, who were the voting bank of A K Rai, who finally lost the elections in a landslide to the widow of a murdered Superintendent of Police in 1991.

There is even a well known story in Dhanbad of the assassins who had gone to kill A K Rai over a decade ago. They found a frail old man, who was elected to office three times, sweeping a party office early in the morning. They saw his shoes, made of recycled tire rubber, his meager demeanor and walked across a shop to confirm who is A K Rai. When they were sure they knew who it was, they entered the office, drank water, turned around and walked away.

The home of Faheem Khan that was attacked by a rival gang, the Shabir gang, just a decade ago.

‘Something about that man affected them,’ said Divan, who also says that the board ‘Bihar Colliery Kamgar Union’ on their office, was the only thing about AK Rai and the labour movement visible in Gangs of Wasseypur. ‘I think the mind of this filmmaker was also globalised,’ he laughs.

The coal mafia was born the minute the coal started to leave earth with colliery after colliery owned by private individuals with their own private armies who’d all find themselves in conflict with the miners who began to organise themselves, and there seems to be a reason why every man above the age of forty who has lived in Dhanbad all his life seems to know the name of A K Rai, yet his name is even known amongst the youth.

‘There was probably no man who had done so much for the poor in Dhanbad,’ said 24 year old  Iqbal Khan, gangster or student, who would even say: ‘Krantikari’.

Yet the gang war seems to never end, as Shabir who was released from prison on bail still vows for revenge against the family of Faheem Khan, and local newspapers report that Iqbal, who had a ‘supari’ on his name when he was in the 12th, and is now merely 24, promising to continue the fight.

Meanwhile, a quiet old man who shook the earth is living the last of his days at Dhanbad Central Hospital, while the names of the miners who died in Chasnala fade from the memorial built for them.

The lake that sank and killed 380 miners at Chasnala on the 27th of December, 1975. All the miners who had worked underground perished on the day, after management refused to heed to their calls for safety and insisted that they continue mining.

(Javed Iqbal is a journalist and photographer based in Mumbai. An edited version of this article first appeared in India Today.)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Anuradha Singh permalink
    September 18, 2012 12:25 PM

    First of all, Thank you so much for bringing to light the name of A.K.Rai. Being from Dhanbad I have heard his name from my parents but did not know he was in his last days of life at the Central Hospital. Apart from this I would also want to mention that the clashes in Dhanbad, the high profile murders and the violence it unleashes causes a general sense of fear among common people. The goons from ‘Singh Mansion’ (and yes they are goons) cause a ruckus on the streets. they drive their way,not caring one bit about fellow drivers. They do not let you take tenders from PWD. Its all predecided and dare not anybody say anything against it. If you dare to, you are shot within a week. You better pay them huge ransom amount if you are one of the better business people in Dhanbad, or else you are shot right on the Grand Trunk (GT) Road. One of my friend’s father was shot dead because he refused to pay them the amount they demanded. They park their cars as and where they want to without any consideration for the parking space (which already is very limited in that town). And dare you ask them for the parking charges.. ! I am told stories that A decade back they would fill their cars with petrol at the filling station and never paid the money for it. No filling station owner had the guts to ask for it either. They would harass women on the streets but she could not raise an objection or else either her father or her brother would be beaten up the next day… This is ‘Singh Mansion ‘ for you. Even today one of their relatives named Neeraj Singh is the Deputy Mayor of Dhanbad.. Another named Indu Singh from their family is the Mayor of Dhanbad. Official Power+ money + muscle power+ gundagardi+ murderers = Singh Mansion.

  2. September 18, 2012 1:43 PM

    Grew up hearing the names of Sakal Deo Singh and AK Rai!!! Haven’t watched the movies because I am skeptical. Not that easy to grasp the stories of this coal belt!

  3. nadi permalink
    September 23, 2012 8:49 PM

    Javed Iqbal, this is such good and thorough writing

  4. akoijam permalink
    October 5, 2012 7:39 PM

    brilliant! it’s almost like watching a better and more realistic gangs of wasseypur. very well-researched and well-written

  5. Amit Ashtekar permalink
    December 18, 2012 11:19 PM

    Story is very eerily similar to other true stories of real life dons or gang wars like a certain Ganesh Naik of Navi Mumbai (Sand Mines) or the gang wars in Kalyan Dombivili area (Coal handling contracts) of Thane District.

  6. jannat permalink
    January 9, 2013 12:21 AM

    inke liye kanon ko agae ana chahiye taki aise logo ko kadi se kadi sajaa mile

  7. Vinod permalink
    January 22, 2013 9:21 PM

    Some bigg idiot has written this…
    Dhanbad is among 35 cities in India / among fastest growing cities of world / Safest with respect to crime (ranked 34th in 35 cities)..
    About the list of murders given here – these are during many years, even decades. TELL me dear, where murders are not occuring. Its happening much much more in all cities; and even in so called safe places like Hyderabad, Kochhi, Mumbai etc
    This idiot mentions of SP Randhir Verma killed by robbers during his daring crossfire at a bank robbery. Now how does it malign Dhanbad. Delhi Faridabad Noida has 100 times these type of crimes.

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