Op-Ed: The Gangster As The Messiah

By Sandeep Sahu

Last night, a friend from Kendrapara was narrating how a section of the people in his town look up to Syed Usman Ali, the man the world knows as gangster Tito, as a messiah of sorts. If the friend is to be believed, Tito has done a lot for his people, giving them jobs, providing all possible help in times of emergency, building Masjids and making generous donations to charity and other worthy causes in town. Recipients of his generosity would give their right hand if called upon to do so by the don, the friend averred.

Tito, who earned a living by selling potatoes in Kendrapara town not long ago, is only the latest example of the ‘Gangster as Messiah’ phenomenon. The earliest known gangster held as a demigod by the people was perhaps the Mumbai underworld don Haji Mastan, who achieved iconic status in the 1970s. Such was his charisma that top politicians and Bollywood celebrities courted him. He was seen in B Town parties dressed in his trademark white trousers and shirt with the most expensive brand of cigarette tucked between his fingers. His legend inspired several Bollywood movies, the most prominent among them being the Amitabh starrer smash hit ‘Deewaar’ in 1975 and ‘Once Upon a Time in Mumbai’ in 2010. His legend grew big enough in his lifetime for the gangster to make a foray into politics by forming a party. That it proved a no-starter, however, was another matter.

But the gangster who achieved what Haji Mastan could not in terms of political success was Mohammad Shahabuddin, the ‘badshah’ of Siwan (Bihar). He was elected to the Lok Sabha four times and the Vidhan Sabha twice between 1996 and 2008 on RJD ticket before being barred from contesting elections in 2009 on being convicted in an abduction and murder case. Accused in a series of heinous crimes, he spent the better part of his time as a ‘people’s representative’ in jail. But such was his clout that he had a hospital built by him converted to a makeshift jail – and that too when his party was not in his power. He even had a ‘mujra’ performance arranged for him inside the ‘jail’ with his rifle-toting men in attendance!

Compared to the likes of Mastan and Shahabuddin, Tito is a ‘small fry’. But then Kendrapara or, for that matter, even Odisha is not Mumbai or Siwan. Gangsters who run organized crime syndicates here are too few and too recent for the state to have a proper ‘gangster culture’. But that doesn’t prevent legends being built around them. How this small time potato seller became a dreaded don and his famous rivalry with Haider, another gangster from the same town who rose from humble origins like him, are the stuff of underworld folklore and juicy gossip at roadside tea stalls.

It is only natural that people are in awe of gangsters like Tito and Haider. It is also perfectly understandable when people fail to lodge a complaint against them or depose against them in a court even when they are witness to a crime committed by these gangsters. But why do people revere men who have committed heinous crimes, including murder? Why are they so keen to render any help to these gangsters and even give them shelter, often at great risk to themselves? Why are they so gullible as to believe in cock and bull stories about how ‘circumstances’ forced such people to choose a life of crime? Why can’t they see that their acts of charity and chivalry are but a façade to hide their real face?

The answer perhaps lies in the peculiar Indian mindset that sees no wrong in a man who has been of some help. “How does it matter if he killed someone? He came to my help when no one else did” appears to be the general refrain. And this is what these gangsters use to the hilt to build their empires. The dreaded Dhalasamant brothers of Cuttack used the same tactic of buying respectability with their acts of charity before the law caught up with them. Monetary inducements are indeed used to purchase loyalty of people, but it is the Robinhood image that helps perpetuate the legend of such gangsters.

Tito is not the first ‘hero’ among gangsters nor will he be the last. These messiahs would keep emerging every now and then as long as the people fail to see through their game.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same).