“The streets are a marketplace where permissible consumables, regular pleasures and illegitimate services are made available within the same milieu. Crammed together in this cardboard space, both the labouring poor and the poor criminals look to each other for help and sustenance. The borders between crime and backbreaking toil get blurred among the city’s underclass. Crime is quite often seen as a one-shot activity to make a little money on the sly – a moonlighting of sorts.”
“The street shanties and slums have their own CEOs – sardars and dadas – to run the day-to-day administration, like the allotment of space to families, governing the entry of new arrivals, adjudicating in disputes, distribution of assignments to the inhabitants, and so on. They also have a parallel cultural lifestyle that vies with that of their upper class neighbours.”
"The only point of convergence for these two parts of the divided city is Kolkata’s underworld, where sections of the upper class and underclass collaborate in mutual need. A new type of Bengali upper class has emerged over the last few decades, comprised of businessmen, building contractors, land mafia, politicians and bureaucrats. Their easy access to, and exploitation of, financial, administrative and political power has to a large extent determined the growth of organized crime in Kolkata society today. The excess of resources and opportunities – rather than the lack of both as in the case of the city’s poor – has led some among them to seek new ambits of business ventures which are usually bereft of legal rules, and thus favour the proliferation of new forms of crime by the rich."
“Thus, Kolkata offers an interesting example of causality of contraries. The causes of crime in one situation may find their contrary in another environment. On the one hand we find that despite signs of urban prosperity, the lack of legitimate means for earning enough to lead a decent life continues to drive the poor citizens to the conventional forms of petty crime. On the other hand, the abundance of wealth in the hands of a section of the rich is inducing them to invest it in newer and newer illegitimate avenues to accumulate more wealth that is displayed in conspicuous consumption. The disparity reflects the asymmetric distribution of socio-economic freedom and opportunities in today’s Kolkata. The high degree of freedom enjoyed by the criminals among the nouveau riche – in the shape of availability of financial resources and access to political mediators who ensure their immunity against legal prosecution – stands out in sharp contrast with the limited options available in a constricted space that is the lot of the underclass criminals of the traditional type like thieves or pickpockets.”
"But a new generation of criminals has emerged from among this under-class, who have learnt to make use of a political system that has to depend on crime and corruption for its maintenance. They have found opportunities in the vast network of hidden, parallel, and semi-legal economies that had sprung up as appendages to political skullduggery, corporate crime, and administrative corruption of the upper echelons of Bengali society... Unlike the conventional gangs of house-breakers or purse snatchers of the traditional Kolkata underworld, these new gangs have found different occupations by establishing links with the political machinery that engineers the present ‘economic boom’ in Kolkata.
During elections for instance, they lend themselves for hiring by political parties to capture booths and prevent voters from casting votes for the candidates of opposition parties. Once they get the electoral verdict delivered in favour of their patrons, they rest assured that they will be protected by their political bosses, and then move into other areas of operations. If for instance, anyone wants to buy or sell a house in any of the constituencies controlled by them, they extort a certain amount of commission from both – and then, keeping their own share, deliver a percentage to the fund of the party of their political patrons. If a promoter wants to clear a prime area of slums to construct a housing estate, the gang lord is available for rendering the necessary service. Well-trained in the techniques to spread fear, they soon become kings of protection rackets in Kolkata’s middle class neighbourhoods and bazaars, where they collect money from shopkeepers and households by threats of violence. They can get away with anything with total impunity, thanks to the patronage that they receive from their political bosses. One of the city’s notorious gangsters, known as haat kata Dilip, or one-armed Dilip, is a protégé of an important minister of the state. A police officer who dared to arrest him sometime ago earned the ire of the minister who had him shunted out to a low-profile job.
These gangsters of Kolkata today straddle both the underworld of the criminals and the world of the respectable gentry – forging a kinship of intrigue that has become very much a part of the city’s socio-political milieu. The borders between the new upper crust and the new underworld are fast getting blurred. Crime has finally come out of the sewers to gain acceptance in Kolkata’s bhadralok society, and bring together the two divisions once known as the White and Black Towns."
Extracted from: "The underside of a city divided", by Sumanta Banerjee, Seminar, No 559, March 2006, SOUL CITY: a symposium on the many facets of Calcutta.