The Dhanbad Mafia

Submitted by Django on July 31, 2011

In India the name Dhanbad is synonymous with coal mafia. Together with the ‘nationalised command’ over the mines appeared a ‘mafia mode of production’, which was both part and outcome of the re-structuring process. The mafia is an economical and political network, which reaches from money-lending, illegal liquor shops, paid goons to illegal mining and transport contracts, which are connected to the high ranks of CIL management department. The Dhanbad mafia controlled the main trade unions, bought off the police and local administration and was well represented in the Bihar state parliament. The ‘individual components’ of the mafia, e.g. money-lending, gangs of musclemen or individual corruption within companies, existed before the 1960s and 1970s and they still exist – so why and under which conditions did these ‘individual components’ form into a cohesive structure, into ‘clans’ which would auction police stations between themselves and who had hundreds killed ‘on demand’? In the following we want to give a short summary of the development of the mafia, in particular of its relation to workers reproduction and class conflict.

First of all there is a specific quality to the mining industry, in terms of the product, production process and class relations, which tends towards organised violence. The mining product is a located raw material, mining requires ‘struggle over and with land’ and its property form. Mining can be done on very different scales: from a single person with primitive tools to large industrial enterprises. In this way mining allows ‘extra-legal’ appropriation and a wide range of ‘modes of production’. Mining work in its form is brutal, compared to other industries the command over living labour required a higher degree of direct violence. Once performed on an industrial level mining concentrates a mass of workers, often migrant workers, who tend to depend more on middlemen. Historically and globally class struggles in the coal fields have always been characterised by its violent forms. The 1960s and 1970s have been particularly unruly decades. The fact that the main trade unions like Congress affiliated INTUC – already connected to the political class – became an organised and institutionalised form of violence used by mining capital in order to discipline workers can be seen as the material base for the development of ‘the mafia’. As early as 1958 many violent attacks of INTUC cadres on AITUC (Communist Party union) were reported from Dhanbad. At that point INTUC and the coal mine owners formed a united front demanding higher guaranteed coal prices from the government. By the late 1960s and the emergence of ‘Naxalite’-influenced unions like A.K. Roy’s Bihar Colliery Kamgar Union (BCKU) the repression intensified and became more systematic. Here we find blatant parallels in time and space. B. P. Sinha or Suraj Deo Singh, prominent union and mafia leaders in Dhanbad in the 1970s match the brutality of a W. A. Boyle of the United Mining Workers in the US. The brutality of workers’ struggle in the mines of Harlan County in the mid-1970s, the paid thugs, corrupt local police and the class collaboration of the UMWA developed similar forms to those in Dhanbad.

But brutalised, extra-legal forms of class struggle and a collaborationist trade union apparatus do not yet form a mafia. The mafia formed part of the economic cycle and production process and had a populist paternalistic element. The roots reached right into the individual reproduction of the mining workers. Quite early on the main trade union apparatus converged with moneylenders and labour contractors, who in turn were often foremen in the mines or former ‘village-leaders’ who now trafficked labour-power between villages and mining areas. In the early 1970s it was reported that around 40 to 50 per cent of all mining workers were indebted to moneylenders, who often extorted money on payday, with the help of the upper-hierarchy. This network reached into the ‘reproduction sphere’ in form of gambling dens, illegal distilleries and into the sphere of unofficial mining.

The re-structuring during the nationalisation process opened various gaps between the centralised command and workers reproduction, between different groups of workers, between different sectors and departments of the emerging ‘state-run company’. The ‘mafia’ mediated between these gaps both economically – in form of contractors or managers of illegalised mines – and politically, as part of the trade unions and within the political burocracy. The ‘mafia’ emerged as a quasi outsourced economical and political department of the now centralised state-industry. With the large-scale replacement of work-force during the first weeks of nationalisation, the so-called ‘ghost-workers’ appeared on the pay-roll. People with ‘connections’ managed to get a salaried job in CIL without actually working there. With the vast merger of nationalisation lot of contracts has to be re-shifted, the ‘mafia’ took over most of the transport contracts, which also functioned as interfaces to the now more drastically illegalised mines. From foremen to medium management, the new contractual conditions enabled many to yield some ‘extra-income’. By 1981 it was said that the CIL subsidiary Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL) in Dhanbad had about 5,000 paid ‘elements’ on their pay-roll, people who could also be used as thugs against unruly workers. [11]

By the late 1970s after the end of the Emergency the Congress, the ‘Party of Independence’ became contested for the first time and lost elections in 1977. From now on the trade unions became even more important factors in the faction fights within the political class. The ‘mafia dons’, who had started their careers as transport contractors and union leaders, became politicians. In 1978 B.P. Sinha, who had been a mafia/union leader close to the INTUC/Congress was killed, Suraj Deo Singh formed a new union Janata Mazdoor Sangh (JMS) close to the now ruling Janata Dal and became elected as an MLA from Jharia. The ‘mafia/party’-infight reached a peak and dozens were killed within a few weeks time. The Government of India set up a special cell (Dhanbad) in the Home Ministry. The officer chosen to head the Special Cell was K. N. Prasad, a well-known Emergency hawk. He warned that “stringent action will be taken to stop forcible collection from the workers by moneylenders and trade union leaders … Action will also be taken to stop gherao, wildcat strikes and violent demonstration”. One of the first measures suggested by the Home Ministry official was the arrest of key BCKU leaders – the BKCU was a fairly militant working class organisation and probably one of the few official forces not attached to the mafia.

While it is not surprising that both INTUC/RCMS union and JMS union saw workers, at best, as union-due paying foot-soldiers for the political power fight and based their main influence on the collaboration with the CIL management, the development of the BCKU seems more complex. The BCKU’s dominating figure was A.K. Roy, who was expelled from the CPI(M) for Naxalite deviations in the late 1960s. He went to the Dhanbad mining area and organised mainly contract mining workers. Like Shankar Niyogi in the Rajhera mining area he had to face violent attacks by both the mining management and the main trade unions cum mafia. The combination of these violent confrontations and Maoist ideology lead the BCKU to mobilise the mining workers not only as ‘workers’, but they joined the regionalist and ‘indigenous’ propaganda of the emerging Jharkhand Movement – see next section. Like the mafia trade unions the BCKU leadership tried to enter the political arena in the form of the Marxist Coordination Committee (MCC), A.K. Roy was elected as a MLA while being imprisoned during Emergency.

In some ways the murder of Gurudas Chatterjee, the MCC MLA in April 2000 by remnants of the Dhanbad Mafia was the sad end of an era. We can say that by the mid 1990s the ‘neoliberal reforms’ (formal outsourcing of mining activities, general casualisation of labour and decline of trade unions), the new economic and political opportunities (real estate bubble and ‘success’ of the regionalist Jharkhand Movement) dissolved the ‘mafia’. The ‘gaps’ between state, capitalist command and wider (re-)production process which had been opened during the process of nationalisation were closed by ‘neoliberal liquidity’ or could now be filled by ‘normal’ economical and political business. The mafia had shaped the class relations in Dhanbad for two decades. Workers had to deal with the mafia in form of various (money-lending, job-trafficking) middlemen and collectively in form of repressive trade unions – and the mafia had offered ‘career and business opportunities’ to workers of a certain strata. The Jharkhand Movement was the other main social-political factor in the mining areas of the 1970s to 1990s, which mobilised sections of the working class on the bases of its segmented existence and promised a better future through regional class collaboration.