Gangs of Porbandar: How Gujarat polls are the latest act in old mafia rivalries
Any report on crime in Porbandar is incomplete without the clichéd comment that violence is endemic in the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, the icon of non-violence. In the late 1980s it was said that the area around Gandhiji’s birthplace Kirti Mandir was among the most unsafe parts of the city, where even the police feared to tread.
However, this black-and-white comparison prevents us from understanding the inextricable link between politics, business, caste and crime in Porbandar district. It is a harsh terrain where violence began as a result of caste rivalries and a fight over meager resources. But over the decades it grew into a battle for political supremacy and control over the area’s rich mineral resources. The electoral contests in Porbandar and Kutiyana in the 2017 Assembly elections are only the latest chapter in this entire tale.
Sarman Munja and Santokben Jadeja
Gang violence in Porbandar is said to have begun in the late 1960s when Nanjibhai Kalidas Mehta, the proprietor of Maharana Mills, hired two brothers Devu and Karsan Vagher to break a strike by mill workers. Devu and Karsan were themselves migrants to Porbandar, belonging to the Kutchi origin Vagher community that is concentrated around Dwarka and Okha.
The Vagher brothers took control of much of the extortion and black-marketing in the port city. In particular, they became a terror for workers and hawkers in Porbandar, many of whom belonged to the Mer community from nearby Talukas of Ranavav and Kutiyana.
One such Mer they harassed was Sarman Munja Jadeja, the husband of Santokben Jadeja – who inspired the Shabana Azmi-starrer film Godmother.
During one of his marauding visits to a Mer settlement, Devu got into a confrontation with Sarman who killed him with the help of his uncles.
A few days after Devu’s murder, Karsan Vagher’s body was found hanging from the gate of Maharana Mills. The slaying of the Vagher brothers made Sarman Munja the messiah of the Mer community in Porbandar and hundreds of Mers moved to the city under his protection. As is the case with many mafia figures, Munja ran a parallel system of justice and social welfare for the poor.
Despite his Robin Hood image, he never hesitated in meting out brutal punishments. An incident that is depicted in great detail in Godmother, is of Sarman Munja tying two people to his jeep and dragging them over a long distance, killing one of them in the process.
However, he got influenced by Pandurang Athawale of the Swadhyay movement and gave up the path of violence. Soon after that he was gunned down by a gang led by his one-time protégé Kala Keshav. Sarman Munja’s gang, comprising over a hundred loyal Mers, came under the authority of his soft-spoken widow Santokben Jadeja.
Santokben, along with Sarman’s brother Bhura who came back from the UK, began exacting revenge. But Santokben proved to be a far more astute operator than her husband. She understood the power of money and politics much better and is said to have expanded her empire into Porbandar’s real estate, mining and transport businesses.
The revenge for her husband’s murder was served cold. Within a decade of his assassination, six of his suspected killers, including Kala Keshav, had been eliminated. Keshu Odedra, a BJP councilor who allegedly armed Munja’s killers, was shot dead on 1 March 2005. Santokben and her sons Kandhal and Karan Jadeja were arrested in that case. The blood feud didn’t end there. On May 20, 2006, Kandhal Jadeja’s wife Rekha was killed in broad daylight, in violation of one of the rules of the mafia of not killing women and children.
Santokben’s ascent as Porbandar’s ‘Godmother’ coincided with a period of instability in Gujarat’s politics in the late eighties and early nineties. In a fractured polity, she proved to be useful for the Machiavellian Janata Dal chief minister of Gujarat Chimanbhai Patel. She contested the 1990 Assembly elections from Kutiyana on a Janata Dal ticket and won by a huge margin. She got 41,909 votes while her nearest rival belonging to the Congress could manage just 5,359 votes. Under Chimanbhai’s rule, Santokben emerged as an important power figure in Gujarat.
However, his successor Chhabildas Mehta went on a drive against crime and bootlegging across the state and Santokben was forced to shift part of her operations away from Porbandar to Rajkot. In 1995, her brother-in-law Bhura Munja won the seat contesting as an independent but after a few years he retired from public life.
Rise of BJP, Babu Bokhiriya and Bhima Dula Odedara
The vacuum left by Santokben was occupied by another Mer ganglord Bhima Dula Odedara. The BJP, which came to power in the state in 1995, found Odedara as a useful counterweight to Santokben and began promoting him actively. From 1998 to 2007, Bhima Dula Odedara’s brother Karsan Dula Odedara won from Kutiyana on a BJP ticket.
Odedara’s rise in the mafia coincided with the rise of his cousin in the politics of Porbandar: Babu Bokhiriya. Bokhiriya first won from Porbandar on a BJP ticket in 1995 and was re-elected with an even bigger margin in 1998.
Gradually Bhima Dula Odedara and Babu Bokhiriya grabbed control of the profitable limestone, bauxite and chalk mining industry in Porbandar, Kutiyana and Ranavav. The limestone and chalk from Porbandar is used by industrial giants like Tata, Birla and Nirma for their production of cement and soda ash. Bauxite is exported in huge quantities to Gulf countries and South-East Asia.
According to conservative estimates, the annual turnover from illegal mining in Porbandar is Rs 180 crore. However, some put it as high as Rs 1000 crore per year.
It is a self-sustaining circle. The profits help fund parties’ election campaigns. The industry employs over 15,000 people in the area and these votes can swing any election.
Bokhiriya, Bhima Dula Odedara, his son Laxman Odedara and a former Congress MP Bharat Odedara were accused of a massive illegal mining scam worth hundreds of crores in Porbandar. They are alleged to have illegally mined 1.50 crore tones of limestone, worth Rs 500 crore, over a period of a decade. This matter was exposed by a brave IAS officer HN Chhibber, who estimated that the state exchequer lost Rs 600 crore due to the illegal mining of limestone without the payment of royalty to the government.
However, Bokhiriya, Odedara and the other accused got away scot free. But the whistleblower Chhibber was chargesheeted in a decade old case just one day before he retired in 2011. It is alleged that this was done just because he had taken on Bokhiriya and Odedara.
Bokhiriya and Odedara were also accused in the murder of Congress leader Mulu Modhwadia in 2005. The deceased leader’s son had alleged that his father feared a threat to his life from Bokhiriya. In 2008, the trial court passed an order making Bokhiriya a co-accused in the case. But he was acquitted by the Gujarat High Court in 2014. Congress leader Arjun Modhwadia even sat on a fast demanding justice for Mulu Modhwadia’s family. He is known to have been close to the latter.
Babu Bokhiriya and Arjun Modhwadia’s political rivalry is legendary. Modhwadia defeated Bokhiriya from Porbandar in the middle of a BJP wave in 2002 and again in 2007. However, he lost to Bokhiriya in 2012. The two rivals are facing off once again in these Assembly elections.
Both of them belong to the Mer community, who form 35% of the electorate in the Porbandar constituency. However, the links between crime and politics in Porbandar aren’t restricted to Mers.
In the 1980s, gangsters belonging to the Kharva fishing community like Iku Gagan and Naren Sudha, fought a bloody gang war on the streets of Porbandar. The rival gangs grabbed control of the Porbandar municipality at that time. Both Naren Sudha and Iku Gagan’s brother Ranchhod became heads of the Porbandar municipality. At one point, over half of the councilors in Porbandar had criminal charges against them.
However, Kharvas are concentrated in the port city and weren’t as organised or well-trained as the Mer-dominated mafia. And with the mining boom in the rural areas in Kutiyana and Ranavav, the supremacy of Mers became unchallenged.
Kharvas, who form over 20% of the population in the Porbandar seat, became loyal supporters of Babu Bokhirya. This time, however, he is facing anger from the fishing community, who complain that he has done nothing for them despite being the fisheries minister. The quantum of subsidised fuel they get has been reduced substantially. They complain that due to absence of dredging and the use of sea shores for exploration, the fishermen have to go deeper into the seas, increasing fuel consumption as well as logistical difficulties. There have also been cases of fishermen straying beyond India’s waters and getting caught by the Pakistani navy.
Adding insult to the fishermen’s injury was the BJP’s decision to suspend its former district president Bharatbhai Modi for speaking to Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi on issues concerning them. Modi spoke to Gandhi in his capacity as the president of the Porbandar Machhimaar Board Association. Even though BJP revoked his suspension, the damage was done.
Like Porbandar, an old rivalry is being played out in the Kutiyana constituency as well. Kandhal Jadeja, the son of Santokben Jadeja and Sarman Munja, is contesting on an NCP ticket for his second term in the Assembly. A sitting MLA, Jadeja is up against BJP’s Laxman Odedara, son of Bhima Dula Odedara . Also in the fray is Vejabhai Modedara, who has a stake in mining as well. Jadeja tried to reach out to the BJP by voting for its candidate in the Rajya Sabha poll in August, but in the BJP didn’t pay heed. Now he faces a lonely battle without the support of either Congress or BJP.
On October 14, 2017, one chapter of Porbandar’s history of crime appears to have come to an end with the Gujarat High Court convicting Bhima Dula Odedara for a double murder he committed in 2004. He has been given life imprisonment.
On May 27, 2004, Bhima Dula's workers were digging near the shop of one Ismail Hussain to lay down a water pipeline. When Hussain requested them not to do it, Bhima Dula and his associate Chagan Karavadara reached the spot and opened fire, killing Ismail and his son Yusuf.
This is the first murder case in which Odedara has been convicted.
Odedara’s conviction has made matters worse for Bokhiriya in Porbandar and Laxman Odedara in Kutiyana. The election is a do-or-die battle for them. If they lose their seats and BJP loses Gujarat, several cases could get reopened. On the other hand, if BJP wins in Gujarat and Kutiyana, it would be curtains for Kandhal Jadeja.