In his Saturday column in The Indian Express, editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta recounts his encounter with India’s most wanted man, the Bombay-born underworld don, Dawood Ibrahim, when he was at India Today:
“I had had one long, and partly on-record conversation on the phone with Dawood Ibrahim before the Bombay blasts, set up through my colleague [rediff.com editorial director] Sheela Bhatt, who edited the Gujarati edition of India Today and was a veteran on the underworld beat in Bombay.
“This was in 1992, just after Dr Manmohan Singh, as finance minister, was freeing up the economy and opening up imports, even of gold. I called Dawood (in Dubai) and asked if this had not harmed his smuggling business. He said what we called smuggling in India was a legitimate business activity in Dubai, so he was breaking no law.
“He also said he welcomed what “Manmohan ji” had done, except that somebody should have done that much earlier. He did not regret losing some business, he said, as “my country benefited from such reform.” He was at pains to underline his patriotism.
“Even in cricket, he said, he always supported and betted on India and was so distraught (he spoke in language more colourful than this, but unpublishable) that India had lost to the West Indies in the World Cup that morning — that is why we know that the conversation took place on March 10, 1992, when the West Indies walloped India by five wickets at Wellington.
“He said any time I wanted a more proper interview, I only had to let him know….
“He spoke to Sheela Bhatt again after the bombings (published alongside my story in India Today, April 15, 1993) and said he was being victimised by Bombay Police. He fulminated over how badly Muslims were targeted in the Bombay riots, how their women had been humiliated and children burnt, but denied any role in the serial bombings whatsoever. If the government set up an inquiry consisting of RAW and the CBI in Delhi, but excluding Bombay Police, he would even present himself before it. Of course, no such thing was to happen as his gang’s role in the conspiracy became clearer by the day.
I decided now to take him up on his earlier offer of a more “proper” interview, and called him. He said he couldn’t promise that “right now”. But after some cajoling, he agreed to see me if I came to Dubai, though only if I agreed to keep the meeting off the record unless he agreed to come on record.
“I did visit Dubai in the first week of April, 1993 and presented myself at his “workplace”, the 17-storey Pearl Building housing many airline offices in the buzzing Al Fahidi Street, a kind of subcontinental shopping paradise then.
“Dawood and his brother Anees were at their 12th floor office, decorated with gold-inlaid paintings of Ajmer Sharif and Quranic verses. It was just around noon, but I was struck by the fact that the morning’s Times of India (Bombay edition) lay on his table — the don stayed in touch with the latest!
“He was in the news then and, of course, all references to him and Dubai in a front-page story had been blackened out by Dubai censors.
“Dawood was not willing to give an interview now. Not even to acknowledge that he was in Dubai. “When we do the interview, bhai,” he said, “you won’t come to Dubai just like this.” He would call me back again, he said, and then “my car will go and receive you at the tarmac and bring you to me… you will be my guest… and my people will also take you shopping” etc, etc. But for now, he said, please do not even mention that you met me here, “as it creates problems for my hosts”.
“I persisted, nagged and talked around him as reporters usually do, and all he would concede was that I mention I visited his office, without quoting any conversations. And then, as I turned around to leave, making no secret of my dismay and even reluctance, he sensed something.
“Ai bhai,” he said, as I turned around, hoping somehow that he had changed his mind.
“Dekhna bhai, likhna nahin maine jo kaha (see, brother, do not report what I said)”, “dekho na, achcha nahin hoga (see, it won’t be nice)”.
It felt as if the temperature had suddenly dropped 30 degrees below zero, and yet I was sweating on the forehead. That memory isn’t selective, nor is it convenient. And it hasn’t faded even a bit after two full decades.”
Photograph: courtesy Outlook
Read the full story: Lest we forget