As the Karachi sun slowly sinks into the Arabian Sea, the heavily-guarded house in Clifton, the city’s most upmarket residential district, comes alive. Swank chauffeur-driven cars escorted by armed guards start converging on what is perhaps one of the most talked about addresses in town. Among the hangers-on and the junkies at the nearby shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the owner of the palatial house is known as the "Gold Man". For the neighbours, he is Iqbal Seth. But for the Karachi underworld, the "Gold Man" is none other than the notorious Mumbai don, Dawood Ibrahim, ‘Bhai’ to his associates.
On the run from Indian authorities for well over a decade, and one of the key accused in the 1993 Mumbai blasts, Dawood has found a safe haven in Karachi. For, operating out of Dubai had become rather tricky after an Interpol alert for his arrest soon after the blasts and the signing of an extradition treaty between India and the UAE. Prior to all this, he was a much sought-after man in Dubai's social circuit and would often be picked up by TV cameras while watching cricket at Sharjah. Now Dawood doubles up as an ISI-backed don in exile in Karachi who remote controls an empire spread across Mumbai-Gujarat-UP-Delhi-Dubai. In return, he's the ISI's main source of information from India and helps in espionage operations. While this has helped him exploit the Pakistani system to his advantage, his money power (Indian agencies estimate he's worth about Rs 2,000 crore) has catapulted him into Karachi's social circuit.
Dawood and his family and colleagues now carry Pakistani passports. And whenever there's a problem in Pakistan, the ISI bails him out—whether it's a news report exposing his relationship with actress Reema or the construction of an illegal high-rise building in Karachi, the ISI pulls the right strings. No wonder most editors refrain from publishing anything on Dawood. Nor do Pakistan's law enforcers hound him. Says a close aide, "The ISI is thankful to Bhai for all that he has been doing for Pakistan. Let me tell you, Bhai has delivered to Pakistan what it could never dream of having. Bhai says there is nothing over there (in India) for us, so why shouldn't we do everything for the country which has given us protection."
Other close aides say that the Karachi sojourn hasn't changed Dawood's lifestyle or habits. Mr D still wakes up in the early afternoon, lazes around till 2 pm when he goes for a swim and some exercise. Sometimes he plays a game of cricket or snooker with associates who've called on him early. The 6,000 square yard plot on which Dawood has built his house—billed as the most expensive mansion in the city—has a swimming pool, tennis courts, snooker table and a state-of-the-art health club. All this for Dawood, his wife, three daughters and a son. When he finally surfaces for the day, it's evening, and he kicks off with a meeting with his aides. Key members of the local underworld as well as his own henchmen take turns to brief him on the day's happenings in Karachi, Dubai and Mumbai. The don is always nattily dressed in designer shirts and trousers. His trademark is a leather belt with a diamond-studded ‘D' on the buckle. It's estimated the buckle alone costs Pakistani Rs 2.5 million, which works out to about 20.75 lakh in Indian currency.
This laidback life doesn't mean that Dawood isn't busy. Insiders claim that he has invested billions of Pakistani rupees in real estate in Karachi and Islamabad. He virtually controls the stock-market and, if business circles are to believed, even helped out Pakistan's Central Bank with a dollar loan to tide over a crisis.He also controls the parallel credit system, called hundi, in Pakistan and India. And he still dominates the gold smuggling into India.
It's a tight-knit group that lives in Clifton. In Dawood's neighbourhood are the houses of his other infamous comrades. One of them is his trusted lieutenant, Chotta Shakeel, said to be the mastermind of many extortion and contract killings in Mumbai. Then there's Tiger Memon, who engineered the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai. That Dawood and his friends operate with impunity is common knowledge in Karachi. The case of Kashif Crown—a high-rise on Karachi's main boulevard of Shahrah-e-Faisal—is just one example. When Shehri, an NGO, raised its voice against the illegal construction, undercover agents were quick to ask the NGO to lay off. Recalls a Shehri activist, "The structure violates all the town and building planning laws. The ISI told us it's a Dawood Ibrahim building. They said: ‘This is a man who has done a lot for Pakistan', so we should not raise our voice against it."
There's more. Dawood's financial liquidity is stupendous. Property developers in Islamabad were amazed when he paid over Pakistani Rs 250 million (Rs 20.75 crore) in cash in just a few days to acquire a huge plot in Islamabad's commercial Blue Area. The plot is registered in the name of his wife. "He made the down payment of Pakistani Rs 50 million (Rs 4.15 crore) and then paid the rest in just a few days. People were shocked," boasts one of his men. Dawood's men are upbeat about the way their boss has entrenched himself in Pakistan. They claim that when they came to Pakistan they were dependent on that country, but now the roles have been reversed. "Now Pakistan is dependent on us. Bhai knows too many secrets of this country. Every influential Pakistani, whether he is a politician or a military man, is indebted to Bhai," says an associate.
But despite his flourishing empire, Dawood contributes little to the Pakistani exchequer. Like in India, he doesn't pay any taxes here. His friends jocularly remark that when Pakistan announced the tax amnesty scheme, it was thought Dawood would contribute. But not a single paisa was forthcoming. Nobody dared question his wealth. His men claim that Dawood also attempted to introduce the wasooli (‘hafta' or extortion) system in Pakistan. But it failed to take off. Laments a close aide, "Here everyone is a goonda. Even a teenager carries a gun. You approach a thelewalla (vendor) and you'll find him ready to fight. It's difficult here. In India, all it takes is one phone call and our boys get the payment. In fact, on several occasions other people have collected money in our name. We only came to know about it later."
Soon after last year's military coup in Pakistan and the subsequent crackdown on corrupt businessmen, Dawood apparently had spread the word that he could—for a price—solve the problems of businessmen with the police and the army. His men claim that the army got wind of that. "Bhai was disturbed for few days. But then things settled down," says one of them. But Dawood and his men reportedly still miss Mumbai. This despite being perfectly aware of the fact that they have burnt all their boats in India and there is no going back. And quite often, many of them blame Tiger Memon for all their troubles.
Recalls an associate who was in Mumbai at the time of the blasts: "Bhai and Shakeel were in Dubai when the blasts occurred. Tiger was too emotional. Pathakey phor diye. Sara blue-print kharab kar diya. Warna pata bhi nahi chalta (The bombs were set off without much planning. It upset all our plans. If he hadn't jumped the gun, no one would have known who was behind it)."
Dawood's men also claim that a sizeable majority of Indian politicians have a soft corner for Bhai but don't admit it. And amazingly, for these close aides, Bal Thackeray is just another politician and not an ‘enemy of Muslims'. As for the alleged involvement of the D Company in the cricket match-fixing scandal, his men aver that Dawood is not personally involved, but he does have many friends among Indian and Pakistani cricketers. They say that since Dawood took a keen interest in cricket and was part of the expatriate social circuit in Dubai, touring cricketers from the subcontinent would usually be introduced to him. Senior Indian players have enjoyed his hospitality and have even been photographed with him. But his reach extends beyond mere socialising. According to a former Pakistan cricket captain, Dawood has actually influenced team selection decisions of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and has also helped out many cricketers when they had some problems with the board. Rashid Latif, who spearheaded the campaign to cleanse cricket in Pakistan, admits that he had to seek Bhai's help when confronted with threats. However, Dawood's men claim that he did not directly run any betting syndicate. Police officials in Mumbai think otherwise. They point out that the syndicates could not function without the blessings of Chotta Rajan and Dawood. There have been instances when bookies representing one syndicate were set upon by rivals with the help of the underworld. In fact, Chotta Shakeel has even admitted in a press interview that he had sorted out problems between bookies.
Though he's now quite firmly entrenched in Karachi, Dawood reportedly still fears for his life. His aides say the possibility of a strike by RAW agents is never far from his mind. That's why he hasn't stepped out of Karachi for the last several weeks. Afraid of a retaliatory strike by Chotta Rajan's men—who he thinks work for the RAW—Dawood has even cancelled visits to Dubai.
So the son of a Mumbai police constable who used to stalk the bylanes of Mohammed Ali Road with a flick knife is now apprehensive about his future. But death is not new to the family: one of Dawood's daughters fell prey to malaria in 1998—she's buried in a graveyard near his residence. According to his associates, one of Dawood's frequent lines is: "I've done and achieved everything in life. There are no more dreams. So I tell you, enjoy life, eat well and wear good clothes. Who knows when death will strike us." Who knows indeed.