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 terrorized 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.
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 now.’
‘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, other’s 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 urbanization: ‘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, however struck, allegedly murdering Wahid Alam, Shabir’s brother, a while after Wahid had organized 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 at 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.’
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 Among the Violence
‘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.’
‘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, Javed Bhai, 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
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 organizing, or would hire goons to deal violently with the organizers and strikes.
‘We must’ve lost around 25 to 30 comrades in the 70’s.’ Said Comrade Ramlal, once a miner, than an organizer. He sits back to recall a story that started long before liberalization, long before nationalization, 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.’
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 unionization. However there are still no signs of health benefits or for 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 liberalization. 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 mechanization and less 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.
‘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 the film Gangs of Wasseypur. ‘I think the mind of this filmmaker was also globalized.’ 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 organize 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.
Earlier this year, assigned to do a piece on ‘Gangs of Wasseypur: Reality vs. Movie’ for a magazine who agreed to fund a trip to Jharkand, the author took the chance to ask what the gangsters and mafia were really doing in Dhanbad over the last fifty years. However, the piece was re-written and published late by the magazine and WordPress has been blocked by certain internet connections. So, the author released an unedited version as a note on Facebook.
Javed Iqbal is a freelance journalist and photographer who blogs at moon chasing.wordpress.com
Other articles by him on chai kadai-
A Short History of Death and Madness in Bastar. 09 July 2012
“Even if they don’t let us settle here…” 04 May 2012
The Last of The Asbestos Miners of Roro 23 January 2012
The War Dogma 19 October 2011.
When Individuality means Waging War Against the State. 11 October 2011