Mumbai was known as the Manchester of India and, more recently, the erstwhile “cottonopolis”. But by the mid-1990s, there were only 54 mills left, most taken over by the central government’s National Textile Corporation after falling irretrievably “sick”.
Shakti (silk) Mills followed a somewhat similar trajectory and was ordered by the high court to close in 1981. All owners did not plough back their profits into modernising mills, and diverted profits to other industries.
By the early 1980s, following the crippling strike led by Datta Samant, many mills were in their death throes; their land became more valuable as real estate.
The Congress party had nurtured its “chamcha” union, the Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh (RMMS), and mill owners colluded with it to engineer the sale of their land.
This was made possible by an amendment to the state’s Development Control (DC) rules in 1991, coinciding with the liberalisation of the economy, for the first time permitting the sale of land provided two-thirds of the area was surrendered for public use.
As I documented in my book, Ripping the Fabric: The Decline of Mumbai and its Mills (OUP, 2002), it was the Khatau saga that had “all the ingredients of a ‘Mollywood’ blockbuster, replete with guns, gangland killings and the subversion of unions.
As it happens, the Khataus are one of the earliest mill-owning families in Mumbai. Their mill in Byculla was 125 years old in 1994, which means that it was established barely a dozen years after the first mill in the city. It occupies 13 acres of very valuable land”.
Chairman Sunit Khatau wanted to sell his Byculla land and move the mill to his 40-acre plot in Borivli. But, RMMS president Haribhau Naik opposed the sale. However, vested interests fixed the elections to bring in someone more pliant, with the active connivance of gangster Arun Gawli, who lived in Dagdi chawl in Byculla.
Again the vested interests are believed to have connived with Gawli to sell his Byculla land, with the don’s henchmen infiltrating the mill as security guards who would “persuade” workers to agree to the sale of land.
Gawli is variously alleged to have been promised Rs5 crore or 5% of the sale value the land was estimated to fetch anything between Rs250 and Rs400 crore, considering it was at the height of Mumbai’s real estate bonanza.
In 1994, Khatau was shot dead by two gangsters when his white Mercedes stopped at the Mahalaxmi race course traffic lights. He was alleged to have been murdered by the rival Amar Naik gang.
Had the Byculla land deal gone through, Naik feared that Gawli would be able to eliminate rivals. It was also said to be in retaliation for the near-fatal attack on Ashwin Naik, Amar’s brother, on April 18 at the sessions court in Mumbai, when he was shot in the head at point-blank range, which reduced him to partial paralysis.
A second “mill murder” that shook the commercial capital of the country took place in 1997 only three months after Samant himself was shot dead, allegedly by a rival union at Premier Automobiles.
Vallabhbhai Thakkar, the owner of Raghuvanshi Mills was killed by two assassins at point-blank range. According to the police, the gangsters were allegedly sent by Sada Pawle, a close associate of Arun Gawli who was running the gang’s operations during the latter’s imprisonment, to demand some money from the mill owner as payment for coercing some of Thakkar’s tenants to vacate their premises.
The criminalisation of mills was complete and it drove mill workers to penury. This was once the biggest union in one industry in any city in the world around 2,50,000 workers.
The underworld found it easy to recruit some workers in this situation.