How Liquor and Crime Shaped Bengaluru: An Excerpt from TJS George’s “Askew”

By TJS GEORGE | 3 November 2016

In his 2016 book Askew: A Short Biography of Bangalore, the senior journalist and author TJS George writes about the growth of Bengaluru, before and after it became known throughout the world as a hub for India’s burgeoning information technology sector. George writes about the different avatars Bengaluru has taken since Independence—a pensioner’s haven until the early 1980s, a hub for entrepreneurs after, and, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, home to a software revolution, all the while growing at an alarming rate and without proper urban planning, riddled with crime and corruption. “Looked at the through the lens of a Wordsworth poem,” George writes, “Bangalore in its youth began in gladness but therof came in the end despondency and madness.” In the following excerpt from the book, George describes how Bengaluru’s other major industry—liquor—shaped the city, and the atypical relationship it shared with both politics and crime.

The abundance of coconut and palm trees made the old Mysore state a major manufacturer and consumer of local drinks—toddy and the more fiery arrack. Invisible money was always part of this business. Even the British rulers had confessed that while they were committed to “preventing the sale of deleterious liquors in the Cantonment…sale of spirits secretly exists through unlawful channels.” Independence made no difference to the remarkable resilience of the liquor business. Its ability to avoid inconveniences such as excise duty remained unrivalled, giving it more camouflaged cash than any other industry.

The excise contract business enjoyed additional clout in Karnataka because it was in the hands of the influential and progressive Idiga community. These were the power wielders Raghu Karnad possibly had in mind when, in a remarkably detailed study, he wrote with a touch of justified flourish: “Alcohol was the city’s defining industry… Alcohol printed the city’s newspapers, produced its movies, put down hospitals and schools and sports teams—and ruled the men who ruled its people.”

There was no change in that basic arrangement after toddy and arrack were overtaken by beer and whisky and rum. The British engineered that switch in order to save the men in their barracks from going to the Pete, the native quarters of old Bangalore, for cheap liquor and cheap entertainment. To wean them away, the authorities allowed, in 1889, the first industrial enterprise in the Cantonment, a factory set up by Bangalore Breweries to produce beer.

When the time came for Britain to withdraw from India, a young accountant running United Breweries in Madras bought up the shares of BB, eventually merging it with UB. Vittal Mallya, the low-profile owner of UB, who went on to make whisky, brandy and rum is credited with coining the classic term Indian Made Foreign Liquor, IMFL. Apocryphal or not, Mallya’s IMFL enterprise grew into the largest liquor company in India.

The House of Khodays, despite controversies about its corporate style, joined the league in 1965 and is today among the largest liquor makers in the country. UB and Khodays together made Bangalore the IMFL capital of India.

The equations that prevailed when toddy was king continued undisturbed. The ground where Bangalore Breweries stood was reborn as UB City and it became the quiet Vittal Mallya’s unquiet son Vijay Mallya’s turn to run newspapers and magazines, put up hospitals and schools, flaunt sports teams as they had never been flaunted before and fly airlines until the good times turned bad. IMFL, through its unique ways of collecting spare cash, continued to rule the rulers; there are many Bangaloreans who will tell you which liquor baron built the private home of which cabinet minister.

It is of some interest that if Cantonment’s first industry was liquor, its second was cigarettes. Twenty-three years after Bangalore Breweries opened at one end of Cantonment, Imperial Tobacco Company opened at another end, presumably to save the troopers from the tawdry pleasures of the bidi. The colonialists in their ignorance did not know that “the consumption of alcohol is injurious to health” and that “smoking kills.”

Bangalore prospered as a consequence of that ignorance even after Imperial Tobacco Company transmuted Imperial to Indian and Tobacco to T to become ITC, and Vijay Mallya, like Alice, fell down a rabbit hole.

*

Unlike Chicago and Bombay where prohibition gave birth to criminal syndicates, Bangalore never experienced prohibition and therefore never saw the liquor industry giving rise to organised crime. But criminal syndicates did come up, from the most unlikely quarters, college campuses, making it reasonable for the city to claim that its gangsters were the world’s most educated. Kotwal Ramachandra, the dreaded master killer, was described by a professor who taught him at Seshadripuram College as “such a nice man who would never tease a woman or take alcohol. He knew Dharma.” Agni Sreedhar arrived to study law with a suitcase full of books by Sartre and Kafka. In no time he, too, became a ruthless murderer.

College hostels turned into breeding grounds for criminals as political parties started organizing students into caste-based combatants. No other state had witnessed such blatant misuse of students for political ends. That chapter went out of public memory because it remained visible only for about a decade after which the godfathers blended seamlessly into politics, making it impossible to tell one profession from the other and indeed eliminating the need to do so.

“Things came to a head after Devaraj Urs became chief minister in 1972,” said a well-placed police officer of the time, now retired but unwilling to be named. Devaraj Urs, a Congressman and close to Indira Gandhi at the time, carved for himself a niche in history by breaking the established Vokkaliga-Lingayat caste equation. He became known as a social reformer for promulgating laws that benefited the lower castes. This won him passionate supporters and equally passionate opponents. As he set out to deal with the sometimes stormy campaigns mounted by opponents, Devaraj Urs revealed an unexpected side of his persona; he accepted support from the underworld.

Circumstances may have conspired to push him in that direction. Urs’s daughter Nagaratna, a medical student, fell in love with a fellow student, M. D. Nataraj, and insisted on marrying him. Urs was unhappy. The social reformer in him might not have attached too much importance to Nataraj belonging to the lower Kuruba caste. “But,” said the police officer, “he was genuinely worried that his daughter might be unable to adjust to Nataraj’s family. He also thought that Nataraj,already an ambitious activist, was less interested in becoming Nagaratna’s husband than Devaraj Urs’ son-in-law so as to gain political mileage. Soon after their marriage, Nagaratna died in suspicious circumstances. That should have been the end of Nataraj’s political ambitions, but it wasn’t. His power continued.”

Probably he was innocent, I suggested. Probably the enquiry found nothing incriminating against him.

The officer raised one end of his mouth in a wry smile and said: “There was no enquiry. There was nothing. To this day there is nothing on record beyond the fact that Nagaratna fell into a well and died.”

Nataraj’s career boomed. He ingratiated himself to the Congress leadership by gathering around him a bunch of young desperados and making one of them, MP Jayaraj, head of the “Indira Brigade,” a youth wing of the Congress. Jayaraj emerged virtually overnight as Bangalore’s first gangster boss with Kotwal Ramachandra and Oil Kumar flowering right behind him.

“For the first time,” the police officer said, his mouth still aslant, “mafia groups became active participants in Karnataka’s politics, enjoying the protection and promoting the interests of political leaders. The gang wars of the 1970s and 1980s shaped modern Bangalore.”

In order to understand the impact of crime on everyday life in Bangalore, I was directed to an account of those days by CH Hanumantharaya, a criminal lawyer. Writing in the 12 January 2013 issue of Talk, a tabloid now defunct, he described how the Nataraj gang used the “ruling party tag” as a licence to do anything with immunity. It would run parallel police stations and courts in Bangalore. It would kidnap people to get their work done. “The Urs government passed the Rent Control Act to save tenants from avaricious landlords. The rowdies of Nataraj-Jayaraj teamed up with the landlords to terrorise tenants and to appropriate to themselves many properties under litigation.”

Inevitably history was written in blood. Jayaraj sent his boys to eliminate Kotwal Ramachandra for usurping his territory. Jayaraj was eliminated by a gang apparently encouraged by the police. That gang also got rid of Oil Kumar.

The police officer said with a kind of resignation: “Agni Sreedhar was the main player in the Jayaraj gang that murdered Kotwal Ramachandra.”

People like Sreedhar have survived in style, no doubt by arrangement with the authorities. The homes where they live are fortified mansions. Sreedhar, the Sartre Kafka fan who can quote from Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, runs a tabloid called Agni, writes books and produces movies. His My Days in the Underworld: Rise of the Bangalore Mafia (Tranquebar, 2013) gives a blow by blow account of how Kotwal Ramachandra was hacked to death while sleeping. The original in Kannada won the state’s Sahitya Akademi Award in 2011. His movie Tamassu on communal intolerance also won an award.

The freedom with which men like Sreedhar were able to conduct public activities in Bangalore was a reminder that politics continued to be influenced by codes established by the gangsters of just a couple of generations ago although methods could vary; who would want to flash the machete when the call “Show Me Suitcases” was enough to achieve the same end?

The intellectual in Agni Sreedhar put it clearly. “In the old days,” he said, “politicians used gangsters to do their dirty work. Now the underworld is in the seats of power.”

This is an excerpt from Askew: A Short Biography of Bangalore, by TJS George, published by Aleph Book Company.

TJS George is the author of biographies on figures such as MS Subbulakshmi, Nargis and Krishna Menon. Founder-editor of Asiaweek (Hong Kong), he is currently Editorial Advisor at The New Indian Express.

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