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Datta Samant shot dead!

Savera R Someshwar in Bombay

There was one thing that set January 16, 1997, apart from other days in the new year -- the temperature had dropped appreciably and Bombay was experiencing what, in her residents's dictionary, would be defined as winter.

Until 11.10 am, that is. When a cyclist obstructed Dr Datta Samant's Tata Sumo 50 metres away from his bungalow near the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Powai, north-east Bombay.

As the Sumo slowed down, four as yet unidentified men in an autorickshaw alighted. Samant, on the assumption that they were workers, lowered the window of his automobile. He would often do that, one of his sons said later, to speak to workers from his unions. No sooner had he done that, the men fired a hail of bullets -- 17, the police say-- at the trade union leader. Two pistols -- a 9mm and a 7.65mm -- were used in the attack.

On hearing ths shots, his son Bhushan raced out of the bungalow and rushed his father to the Aniket Hospital -- which is run by another of the labour leader's sons, Prakash, an orthopaedic surgeon -- at Kanjurmarg, a nearby suburb, where the 64-year-old Samant was declared dead on arrival. He had been shot in the head, chest and stomach.

Samant's driver, Bhimrao Sonkamble, is recovering from an operation at the municipal Rajawadi hospital. He sustained four bullet injuries in the attack.

As soon as news of the killing spread, senior police officers -- Joint Commissioner of Police (crime) Ranjit Singh Sharma and Additional Commissioner of Police, north east region, V N Deshmukh, rushed to Powai and ordered road blocks to be set up in the area.

Though the police are not expecting any trouble, they have strengthened patrolling around the city. The increased number of policemen on Bombay's streets is the only sign that Samant, once one of Bombay's most feared men, has been assassinated.

"We are expecting some kind of reaction," Joint Commissioner of Police (law and order) Charan Singh Azad told Rediff On The NeT. "But we are prepared. So far, the city has been calm and I don't think anything untoward will happen."

Samant's schedule, his brother Dada Samant told reporters, was well established. Every morning at 11, he would leave his home for the union office in Pantnagar, six kilometres away.

Even though he was feared for his militancy and had made many enemies during his 32-year-old career as a labour leader, Samant did not have a retinue of bodyguards nor did he have any police protection. In fact, there was just Samant and his driver in the Sumo when the killers struck.

Such executions have long been the trademark of Bombay's gangsters. Some high-profile killings:

In 1993, Prem Kumar Sharma, one of the Bharatiya Janata Party's top leaders in the city, was killed by a man on a bicycle.

In May 1994, textile mill owner Sunit Khatau's Mercedes was halted on a busy road near the Mahalaxmi railway station by motorcycle-borne assassins who then fired several rounds at him.

In August that year, BJP municipal corporator Ramdas Nayak was mowed down on crowded Hill Road in suburban Bandra by killers who then walked away from the scene of the crime.

In December 1995, gangsters waylaid Thakiuddin Wahid, the managing director of East West Airlines, again in Bandra, and mowed him down in cold blood.

Last year, killers on a motorcycle fired at Jayant Jadhav, who was considered Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray's fourth 'son', as he was entering his car near the popular Siddhi Vinayak temple.

All the murders involved vehicles and occurred on crowded streets, almost in defiance of the law enforcement agencies. None of the killers have ever been identified.

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