In Mumbai’s parallel world of big underground crime networks and the elusive bhais, the jokers in the pack are the men the public knows as the ‘Encounter Cops’. Manjula Sen enters a shadowy world of quick ‘justice’.

 

Early 1974. The young worker in the canteen of the Bombay-Goa steamer service was happy. He was going home to get married. Bombay would no longer be lonely. He smiled at the thought of the 10 tolas of gold he had laboured to buy on his mother’s instructions. Back in a remote village, a mother awaited her eldest born but the day of the wedding came and went. Her son never returned and she never saw him again.

It is a team now in disarray. A team of highly visible, highly competitive and select policemen, whose mission is to ferret out the vermin gnawing at the moorings of civil society.

Praful Bhosale. Daya Nayak. Pradeep Sharma. Vijay Salaskar. Hemant Desai. Prakash Bhandari are the ‘encounter cops’ of the Mumbai police force, licensed to kill.

Their targets set them a notch higher than their colleagues, high on the flak-catcher’s tightrope. Elite corps or vigilantes—take your pick depending on your moral tilt—they inhabit the twilight zone of crime fighters. They wage war in the shadowlands of the underworld, collecting scalps, keeping secrets and blandly rewriting the rules along the way.

The survival code of these cop cells is Dumasian; modern musketeers with grim jobs, they may live by the motto of “All for one and one for all” but it’s all gory guts and little glory.

These are men who were once engineers, bank clerks and unskilled labourers. They are the children of mill workers, English literature professors and railway officers. To venture into their mindspace requires one to put one’s own moral and ethical judgments on hold, to suspend personal conviction as it were. For the men who inhabit this world are convinced that there is just one way to run gangsters to ground: get them dead if not alive.

As the article unspooled, there were administrative changes that saw some of the cells formally discontinued and reconstituted, departmental enquiries into and transfer of some of the members of ‘encounter club’. Indicative of this is Police Commissioner M N Singh who wants the word ‘encounter’ replaced by the word ‘operation’. The semantics may change but in the shadow world of dons and deaths, the cut and thrust continues.

Subhash Kanchi Makarwala hailed from Solapur. He was involved in 36 gang-war murders. He had even terrorised a Bollywood actress by forcibly living in her house. He had been arrested just once in 1984, so there were no pictures of him. His drunken boast was that only the special operations squad could nab him, not cops from the Crime Branch. On 6 May 1993 I was tipped off that with his brother, he was visiting a particular place. At 6.45 pm, we waited for him at the end of the alley. I was carrying a carbine, he an AK-56. As their car nosed down the alley, we switched on our headlights blinding them. They reversed at full speed. I sprayed 13 bullets in him. Bahut danger aadmi tha par usko fire karne ka chance nahin diya.  Till date they don’t know who the police informant was—Inspector Pradeep Sharma, M Sc (Organic Chemistry). Encounter deaths: 70.

Encounter Cops: Licensed to Kill, MW archives
Prakash Bhandari, Asst. Inspector and Pradeep Sharma, Senior Inspector, Andheri. Encounter deaths: 70

The special task force of Mumbai’s Crime Branch inhabits a world of its own. With a different lingo, a different perch, and often different moral and functional yardsticks. What the rest of the police call a khabri, what you and I define as an informer, the encounter cops call a dost. They never kill, they ‘neutralize’. An operation is not what happens in a hospital but is a bloody shoot-out between cops and gangsters in the crowded streets of the metropolis. In this life, bhai is not a sibling but a mafia don. ‘Shooters’ are the gunmen on the other side. And ‘encounter cops’ is a self-explanatory tag earned by policemen who don’t mingle with the rest of the force but compete among themselves. They work in the Crime Branch through Central Intelligence Units (CIUs), attached to various police stations spread around Mumbai. Drawn from the common police pool, these detectives have caught the attention of their seniors by their track record, daring and intelligence. The CIU network thus covers the entire city of Mumbai and deals specifically with high-risk areas such as organised crime, shoot-outs and high-profile cases. A nervy cop can refuse to join because the key quality looked for is an inherent relish for this particular kind of sleuthing. (The story is told of a constable who developed cold feet after the initial thrill on being invited to join the Crime Branch wore off. His wife also gave him a earful for agreeing.) They are not formally given special training but it is their job to do their homework, know their targets and hone their detection skills. Although part of a police station, these units are likely to keep to themselves and during an operation, few people know anything not even the other cops in the police station.

The irony is that bonding is the way to besting one’s peers. Bonding with informers, in this case.  Informers are the eyes and ears of the police for whom quite often an ‘encounter’ is the first meeting where a corpse is put to a wanted name. “It’s a competitive field, informers must approach you. To get some benefit, you must bond. The key is secrecy about their identities,” explains Inspector Praful Bhosale. “It’s a long process. You must inspire confidence in them, treat them like family members. Sometimes information comes by fluke. Like cricketers who cannot always deliver on the field, no informant can always deliver information. Even if there is no information from a person for two months, you must help him. If they need money around Diwali or Id, we give them money from our Secret Service Fund.” Identities of informants are kept secret even from the top brass. So, too, are the details of an operation. Most of the cops don’t use new informers preferring to depend on the tried and tested.

As they marshal their information and resources, teams are built up. Competition between the tough-nosed cops is intense. Not just gangsters, these cops know each other’s styles of functioning, their quirks and strengths. “Who have you met so far?” asks the spiffily dressed Inspector Pradeep Sharma. As I list his colleagues, he curls his lip and proceeds, deadpan, to match each name to a particular style with wicked accuracy. Prakash Bhandari, assistant inspector, guffaws appreciatively.

Bhosale elaborates, “We know our sources, our teams are very secretive, very professional. We get to know the cops who would be a risk to us. We don’t let them get into our groups. The sneaky ones also keep their distance from us. If they try, there are supervisors to control them,” says Bhosale. The cops work as separate cells. Even participating officers don’t know the who, how and where of an operation till the very last moment. Instead they beaver away in their own little burrows, storing away data, lying low. While the rest of the world might carry one mobile phone each, these men are usually armed with three, one for normal use and the other two meant only for calls from their informants which could come any time of the day or night.  Only when they’re flush with information, they strike.

Information is knowledge and Bhosale’s junior, sub-inspector Hemant Desai, makes frequent forays to the five-storey police lock-up in Ghatkopar. “It is a constant process, to identify faces, accumulate data and store them away for future reference. Knowledge is power so we keep adding knowledge. And we keep analysing it.”

My first shoot-out happened during my first posting. It was New Year’s Eve 1996. I was with the Juhu Police Station. Most of the police were on bandobast duty. There was a robbery in Juhu that night. I rushed there, fired at two robbers and saw blood. I thought I would lose my job. I had only been there six months. But DCP Satyapal Singh appreciated it and I also got good headlines. Kehte hain dhoondne se Bhagwan milega, to criminal kyon nahin? My greatest success was when I killed Sadiq Kalia, one of the best shooters of Chhota Shakeel. He killed his own brother-in-law to pass the entrance test to the gang. I cornered him in the Dadar flower market. I was shot in the left thigh, he fired 6 bullets but I got him finally. I have killed so many now I don’t remember—ek baar jo neutralise karna shuru kiya ab tak ruka nahin.”—Sub-inspector Daya Nayak. Encounter deaths: 59.

It is the ordinariness of their backgrounds that makes these men unnerving. Most of the cops I met are Mumbai boys the kind who went to colleges in middle class strongholds like Ruia College or Somaiya. Of these, Praful Bhosale is perhaps the one who was most slated to be a cop. Although his father worked with the railways and Bhosale did a stint as clerk in Bank of Baroda, his family is Maratha, a clan that traditionally sends many to the police force.

Encounter deaths  has its origin  in the changing crime scene in Mumbai in the 1980s, when various local gangsters began fighting each other in their effort to fill the vacuum left behind by the death/retirement of the old time gangsters like Karim Lala, Haji Mastan and Yusuf Patel. The nature of the crime itself was changing. While the old timers smuggled gold and electronic goods, the new men found the easy way out—extortion, real estate and film financing, activities where cash transaction was key. While the old time gangster was no threat to the residents of the city, the new variety was proving to be dangerous to the average Mumbaikar. The cops were able to arrest many of them, but to no avail. Even new laws like TADA proved to be ineffective in keeping these men in jail. Dawood Ibrahim, Chhota Rajan and Arun Gawli employed the best lawyers to get their men out and they were successful. The men who were arrested after painstaking investigation would be out of  jail  on bail in no time, back in the same neighbourhood, doing the same thing. They would be arrested again after another long investigation, and they would be bailed out again.

It got so frustrating for these cops, according to local folklore, sometime in the mid 1980s, the Mumbai cops made a decision that these gangsters are better off killed than in jail. And so began the city’s long affair with ‘encounter’ deaths of the underworld. While in the early days  the ‘encounters’ made front page  news in the daily newspapers, slowly they began occurring with such regularity that  it is now  dismissed  off in a para in the inside pages. Nobody pays attention to it anymore.

Bhosale, one of the first detection officers to tackle organized crime, is slight and deceptively soft-spoken. “The only problem in this job is that one has to shout a lot,” he says, then smiles at the incongruity of the statement. His office is a cul-de-sac in the quaint Ghatkopar police station that squats plum on the edge of the arterial LBS Marg which in turn threads Vikhroli and Ghatkopar, in the eastern suburbs, where he grew up.

These pockets of Mumbai were also the heartland of the underworld in the ’80s and ’90s and Bhosale could very well be the gangland historian. What are faceless names to you and me are familiar adversaries to him. There was Chhota Rajan in Chembur, Ashok Joshi in Kanjur Marg, K.T. Thapa in Bhandup, Lalsingh Chavan in Vikhroli—the last two were also corporators with the Shiv Sena and Republican Party of India who were later gunned down by rivals. Moreover, these suburbs were where the shooters were concentrated. From there, the Dawood gang provided the financial impetus while Chhota Rajan led with muscle power. Bhosale’s first posting, at the Vikhroli police station, was thus opportune. That year ganglord Chintya, alias Chintamani Shivshankar, became a morgue statistic after an encounter led by Bhosale. 

Bhosale is quick to share the limelight with his protégé, Desai. Desai shared the same suburb as Bhosale but took a seven-year detour as engineer at Mahindra& Mahindra and Air India before taking the competitive examinations and joining the police. He worked at the TADA court for three years till 1996 and then was sent to Nagpada police station in central Mumbai, where he participated in his first encounter operations led by Inspector Vijay Salaskar. Next, a deputy commissioner recommended him for the Crime Branch and he became part of Bhosale’s team at Ghatkopar.

Desai’s English is fluent, his sentences run like entries in a logbook, as he describes some of the 20 encounters he has been in. In Desai’s view, even an intelligent criminal is only a bully. Bullies because they attack from behind, bullies who hit easy targets, who never take risks. “Why be afraid of bullies?” he asks. The most difficult case he worked on was the Ram Agale case, of gangland shootings involving Chhota Shakeel’s shooters, that ended with a police encounter in broad daylight at a busy junction that led to the shooters being killed, the back-up guys arrested and the seizure of the murder weapon. “We worked very hard. The first shoot-out was at 10 am; by 12 noon the next day, the entire case was solved.”

What thrills him most about the job is recovering rare handguns, pistols and stenguns. “They are rare, sometimes they cost as much as Rs 1.5 lakhs,” he says. He himself is always armed. “There are stenguns and AK-56 in our vehicles, but we are also exposed for the handguns are tucked into our holsters.”

When I met Vijay Salaskar he had the best office of the lot, with a sea-view. His room was compact but he was officer enough to get an assistant to take out his diary from his briefcase next to his chair. Son of a professor, Salaskar’s mentor was a former deputy commissioner of police Arvind Patwardhan. Salaskar sailed through the interview and joined as zonal sub-inspector. He has been through the Narcotics Cell, to Crime Branch, to Anti-Extortion.

“The ordinary police look at criminals. We concentrate on organized crime and go after the gangs all over India.” His score is  22 encounters, 32 people dead, according to the last page of a red diary he keeps. “I go on adding the details. I have been asked so often I have started writing them down,” he says.  So does the encounter become a habit? “Every encounter is an experience to remember, can’t be routine.”

While Bhosale could be the gangland historian and Salaskar the finicky hunter, Inspector Pradeep Sharma is the smooth sharpshooter in the 007 mould. Lithe with thick hair, he sports a thick gold watch and a gold kada and wears a navy shirt showing some chest. His large office is more like a doctor’s waiting room in its neatness. The office has an aircooler and photographs of Shirdi Sai Baba and the goddess Lakshmi. The youngest child of an English professor in Dhulia, Sharma entered the Nashik Police Training College in 1983. He was a detection officer in 1990 when he shot dead two gangsters on the job. “I wanted to apprehend them. I was the only one carrying a gun and I shot them when my constable was attacked.  There was a lot of publicity, my seniors like Ramamoorthy and A A Khan, then commissioner and deputy commissioner, expressed their appreciation. I was transferred to the Crime Branch immediately.”

Of all the men I met, Daya Nayak had the most dramatic background.  Born to a family of modest means in Karnataka, Nayak never owned a pair of shoes till he was in the 10th class. His education in the local municipal school went as far as its classes, seventh in this case. His widowed mother worked in people’s homes but despite her doggedness she could not afford to send him to high school, which was in the next village. Instead he was sent to what was then Bombay on a half-ticket of Rs 90. Nayak worked at an eatery in Versova whose owner was known to his family. The Sahu family who stayed upstairs, noticed the young boy was always reserved, always alone. They asked him why he did not study. When he said he did not know the local language they told him about a Kannada-medium school in Goregaon, two local stations away. The hotel owner gave him time off for classes. In all the years he went to Goregaon, he never bought a ticket.

Encounter Cops: Licensed to Kill, MW archives
Hemant Desai, Sub Inspector and Praful Bhosale, Inspector, Ghatkopar. Encounter/Encounter Deaths: 50

“I used to earn Rs 700 plus tips. I had to send Rs 500 to the village,” he remembers. Nayak got 88 per cent in his 12th Standard examination. In the Koli basti where he stayed at Versova, the corporator gave out prizes to all those who had done well in school. For the first time, he felt that there was an advantage to studying. By this time his brother had also joined him in Bombay and the two used to run a tea and vada-pau cart. Today when he goes back to the basti, they still call him the chaiwala sahib.

In  1991 he learnt of competitive exams and sat for as many as he could, passing in six of them including the State Bank of Hyderabad, inspector of sales tax, traffic inspector for Air India and Mantralaya.  The last exam was a call for interview and physicals for the police force. His brother was sure it was pointless to attend, as they would want money. Instead, he got through with flying colours (194/200 in the interview and 100 marks in running). He lost a few marks in the shot put. “Tum 100 per cent sub-inspector ho gaya,” his PE examiner told him, even before the interview.

In their collective careers, these men have averaged 50 deaths each. They don’t hang the scalps on their belts but notch them up in little diaries and large notebooks. Their contempt for their adversaries pumps them up like a testosterone cocktail and choice expletives are not far away. “Look at how Chhota Shakeel dresses”, says Sharma. He gets up and curves his arm to his chest. “He does not even come to my shoulder. Have you seen what he wears? A shiny maroon shirt, red trousers, shoes with six-inch heels! How one can fear them?” This is not an honourable feud. Their adversaries neither earn their respect nor their fear.

“We are not scared of dying, then why should we be scared of Dawood?” shrugs Sharma’s lieutenant, Prakash Bhandari.

In graphic detail, Nayak recalls the afternoon when Chhota Shakeel called on his mobile. “He began to abuse me. I listened for a minute and then cut in saying, Sahib nahin hai. I am the constable speaking. Call after 10 minutes. I went and told my boss, Pradeep Sharma, Shakeel is calling up. He said, speak to him. And so I did. Shakeel abused me. For the next 10 minutes, I abused him back two-fold: It is my job to abuse, I told him. You have not killed anyone personally; you get others to do that. I have killed 60 people.  I know how people die, I taunted him, and you call yourself a bhai, a don!” 

Bhosale smiles and shows some of his scars earned in the battle zone. The ones on his shoulders and arms are from an operation he led in 1992 against the Sikh Commando Force of Khalistan. Nearly 40 cops were involved in a four-hour long gun battle with the ‘terrorists’ who had AK-56 rifles but were finally killed.  Only one cop died.  Bhosale was injured by hand-grenades that the Khalistanis hurled when cornered.  “Fikar nahin karneka, dhyan nahin deneka,” he responds to questions about safety, political pressures, bad cops. Instead, it is the support of mentors like then DCP Satyapal Singh, who is obviously everyone’s favourite poster-boy, that galvanizes them. Praise from their seniors is a heady stimulant.

What about their security when not on the job? Aren’t they scared of their own lives, or the security of their families? They are, and all of them are armed to the teeth and are constantly protected by even better armed bodyguards.  They take the usual precautions of not frequenting public places, or travelling by the same vehicle very often. Their families are also provided extra protection, though there seems to be some kind of understanding among criminals that targeting a cop’s family would result in instant retaliation. “Our families are here, so are theirs,” says a cop, “Where will they go?”

It was 1987. Chintya aka Chintamani Shivshankar was a big-time operator in Vikhroli. I was chasing him with 3 or four of my constables. It happened so very naturally. He was alone, there was a long chase, cross-fire and he was shot. It was my first encounter death. In those days encounters were not so frequent. There was a mixed reaction even among my colleagues.  Some even said I was inviting trouble for myself by taking on organized gangs. Other officers, and the people of Vikhroli whom Chintya had troubled a lot, appreciated my actions. —Inspector Praful  Bhosale, former clerk in Bank of Baroda. Encounters/Encounter deaths: 50-plus.

There are unanticipated encounters sometimes but usually every operation is the culmination of much planning. They go after the shooters, often uneducated, who are brought in from the northern states after a spate of encounters dampened local recruitment in Mumbai and who barter life for throwaway prices. They are the arms and legs of the bhais.  Chhota Rajan and Chhota Shakeel don’t kill each other’s shooters apparently. Salaskar speaks clinically, “Gangs operate through shooters. They can only create fear through them. Once you arrest the shooters you weaken the gang.”

The stake-out begins. Apparently, patience is a virtue in this business. Salaskar maps out his approach to an operation. “Gathering information and planning is the most important part. Laying the trap the most exciting. To find out Dawood’s staying in the ground floor is most important. I believe in targeting gangs. So Naik and Gawli in South Mumbai, CR and CS in Bandra—ek ek aadmi ko kaun dekhne baithega, gang ko thokna chahiye.”

His strategy: go after the big criminals, patiently, consistently. Work slowly.  Study their associates, family background, habits, prospective hideouts, weak links. “We send our informants to identify, confirm, then we decide which situation is less risky. The situation should be in our favour, no catch is worth police casualties.”

Execution, he says, is not half as exciting as planning. After months of planning, there is the chase. “We sometimes know the face. An encounter is often the first meeting with that person. We try to confirm it is the same person with our sources, our informants. Yes, there is a danger that we might get the wrong man for  I don’t know if the target is reaching for a hanky or a revolver.” The hanky is a reference to the death of an innocent businessman killed by the Delhi police who thought he carried a gun. “They did not identify him properly,” Salaskar shrugs. “We always confirm; the whole team is dependent on me, how I work. Three officers and 10 men.”

Innocent people killed? Well, too bad. Sometimes it is the company you keep that is the end of you. “When we act on a tip that XYZ gangster will be at a particular spot and things get out of control, we don’t have time to find out if the guy he was talking to was just an acquaintance or an accomplice,” is their chorus. They are awfully sorry if indeed an innocent person died, but, excuse me, there is little time for politeness here. In the melee of an operation, sometimes it is the company you keep that is the end of you.

Cold-blooded? All in a day’s work. And apocryphal stories abound. There was the mobster who refused to die after the cops riddled him with bullets. His persistent rattling breath had a rookie cop throwing up till, a seasoned cop stepped back into the room and with one shot at pointblank range put the gangster out of his misery. Or the ‘good cop’ who cajoled a gangster into spilling all his information, then chatted with him about his girlfriend. And shot him mid-sentence.

Talk to the cops about these and other tales of summary killings that are shown on Chandni Bar or television’s Bhanwar, and their reactions range from denial to dismissive to derision.

“Why should we deliberately kill someone?” asks Bhosale. A dead gangster is no use to them. “Fake encounters would be murder,” explains Nayak patiently. “If we jail him, we get information about their plans, their gang members. The public does not understand that. There are a lot of people we have successfully arrested and got convictions too. Why doesn’t anyone talk about that?” Salaskar admits there is apprehension. “When someone runs from the police, I tell him to surrender.  Many don’t listen, don’t believe me. They think, ‘Saheb aisa kyon bolte hain – zaroor is ke peeche koi raaz hoga’.”

In a move that may appear rather morbid to you or me, Salaskar often calls on the families of those he has killed. “I always feel bad for these criminals, even hardened criminals. I often visit their wives and parents. I have even helped a criminal’s family after he’s dead. While they are alive, the families have power, money, everything. After death, no one even turns up for the funeral. The gangsters leave money with friends who don’t go and give it to the bereaved family. Sometimes the families don’t even know about what their sons or husbands were up to,” says Salaskar Like the gangster from Mira Road who would take a briefcase and leave for office every morning at 9.30: his wife thought he was an executive. Another wife confessed she knew her husband was a gangster.  He had approached the gangsters for help in a property deal and then got sucked into that world.

One does not know who is borrowing a leaf from whose book, but in the twilight zone where the warring sides are sometimes mirror images distinguished only by state sanction. It is rumoured that the Dawoods also extend welfare to families of cops killed in encounters.

Yet one fact that does emerge is the bid to wean followers on both sides of the firing line.

The cops recount how young boys are lured by gang loyalty, affiliation, the mantra of more-murders-more respect and finally, the assurance that the gang will look after the family if he is killed. Recruitment is through the gang angle and communal angle.  The dons, they say, can be honey-tongued talkers. “Chhota Shakeel very sweetly calls his boys ‘beta’ and Chhota Rajan calls his boys ‘raja’. The boys never so much as see their faces but offer them so much loyalty. That and money gets the boys in. Once they commit the first crime, they’re hooked,” sighs Bhosale.

My first independent encounter death was Virendra Singh, a chakki owner from Jaunpur, UP who had turned dacoit. He had 20 murders to his name. In 1986, he came to Bombay and began extorting money.  One day, we found out he was holed up in Malad. With two constables, I went and knocked on the door. He started firing unexpectedly, we were too stunned to even dodge. Only luck protected us. We fired back and killed him. I got the President’s Gallantry Medal.—Inspector Vijay Salaskar, M A (Statistics). Encounter deaths: 32.

Several of the cops can recall their early fascination for the uniform, the regulation dark glasses, the bikes, the media headlines. The glamour of it has long since dimmed though. Continually looking at death in the face, always living life on the draw and being preached to by squeamish standard cops and indignant human rights activists, the moral prism of encounter cops are dictated almost entirely by the end game. Job satisfaction. That is what spurs them on when they are taken off the front pages.

“It is not a job for the faint of heart. Real life is 100 times worse than Satya,” says a cop.  “You must want to do it. The pay is the same, the risk is far greater,” says another. Wanting to do it must be the key. Because ambition couldn’t be. The interesting thing is that since most of the ‘encounter cops’ come through the sub-inspector route, they can never dream of becoming police commissioners. “It is not possible. In our police system, there are no out-of-turn promotions. Promotions are seniority-based, not performance based,” one of the police inspectors says. There aren’t even internal exams that will clear the way. Instead, the highest one can hope to go is the rank of assistant police commissioner and deputy police commissioner.

No wonder then, that the chase becomes all-consuming. “What motivates me is zidd,” says Bhosale. The stubbornness to see that the backbone of the mafia is broken has its rewards in the shape of government honours, media recognition, public support and prize money. Fully aware of their vulnerability to vested interests who seek to use and discard them, these cops know how to manoeuvre their way about their job. Ultimately, they know their targets so intimately that their war on the mafia almost becomes personal, each with his own catch-list.

Encounter Cops: Licensed to Kill, MW archives
Vijay Salaskar, Senior Inspector, Dahisar. Encounter/Encounter deaths: 32

Bhosale recently won the prestigious Deepak Jog Trophy for Best Detection. Daya Nayak has built a school, named after his mother, in his village in Karnataka, which was inaugurated by the chief minister, S M Krishna and the ceremony attended by Amitabh Bachchan. Mumbai police commissioner M N Singh has ordered an inquiry into where the funds for the school came from but Nayak says the funds for his school were raised from his reward money.

“Lafde ka kaam hai par mazaa aata hai,” Bhandari, assistant police inspector working with Sharma, says with relish. “There is no saturation point in this job. In any case, one is not going to live for 150 years. Death is certain, so why fear death. People fear God because they can’t see him. It is the same with Abu Salem and other gangsters: they operate from so far, you can’t see them. Let them come here…” he trails off wistfully.

Yet, fame of this kind is a double-edged sword. “Sometimes, I get called by other police stations to scare an accused into talking. They are told “yeh goli marta hai”. It may work but I don’t like that label,” says Nayak. But with names like Chhota Shakeel’s  Sadiq Kaliya and Simon; Chhota Rajan’s  Vinod Madkar and Parvez Siddiqui; Abu Salem’s Aslam Panchhi and Pappu Pathan; Babloo Shrivastav’s Rafiq Dabbwalla aka Subhash Singh on his score card, it is a reputation that can come in handy.

The tally of encounter deaths in the last four years is nearly 300. The officers feel their efforts have paid off. Extortion has gone down; the scale of crime has come down. In fact, the results would have been even better, were it not for the interference from seniors. Says a high-ranking officer at police headquarters, speaking on the condition of anonymity, “Our biggest headache are the seniors. They want results but then whine ‘these encounter deaths are not good’. Yet, they can’t replace us for who will take our place? For there are no takers for detection work.” He disdains former cops like Julio Ribeiro. “He started encounter deaths but now he sits and talks from the other side (as a human rights activist).”

Warming up to his theme, he continues, “According to me, arresting gangsters doesn’t work. In a city of one crore people, how many gangsters will you lock up? Arresting them, seizing their weapons, detaining them—all these are temporary measures. Also, there is acceptance from society now for these deaths. People have begun to feel that it is okay for the police to fight fire with fire. There is moral support now. Even crime reporters ask what’s up if there are no deaths.”

Isn’t that tantamount to vigilante-ism by trigger-happy cops? “I wouldn’t know about that,” he says.

The moral dilemma is sometimes acknowledged, mostly skirted. Morality is fuzzy logic in the world of law.  Mumbai has its own peculiar rhythm, its own peculiar underworld problem which calls for its own peculiar solution is the perceptions of these cops. What works for the rest of the country does not work here, they echo separately. Generalized laws such as IPC that are uniform don’t meet the special needs of Mumbai. They all want POTO, they all want special laws.

“If a judge like J W Singh can use Chhota Shakeel to intimidate Abbas Tyrewala to make a settlement, then law mein kya dum hai?,” one of the cops demands to know.  “Lawmakers live in a different world. They have no idea of Dharavi or Sion. The lawmakers’ world has cars, clubs, advocates, committees. Try taking someone out of the congested maze of a basti without handcuffing him, as these lawmakers want us to do,” says another bitterly.  “Human rights is for gangsters, is for Dawood, and Abu Salem, and Chhota Rajan, “Sharma says coldly. “The modest hotelier who was killed by gangsters, I don’t see any human rights activist visit his family. We see what happens to the common citizen.”

What about lawlessness and mob violence that often go unchecked by the police? Or political terrorism? Or those who get off with the help of fancy lawyers or legal loopholes?

It makes no difference. They wage their own war, and sometimes they have to bow down to VIP pressure till the heat dies down. They know which political party is backing which gangster or if indeed the government wants to use Chhota Rajan to neutralize the ISI’s Chhota Shakeel or Dawood. They know who is playing the communal card and why. It does not affect their scheme of things. They stick with the chase. They wait for the right time. They know it will come.

As they see it, morality is an exotic dish to be sampled gingerly.  Death is everyday fare in a world where shooters and lives are cheap, weapons expensive. They are in the firing line every day and the fastest one on the draw is the one still left standing.

And still, a mother holds on to a thread of hope that some day her eldest son will be found.  “He just vanished. We think he may have been murdered for the gold,” says her youngest son, sub-inspector Daya Nayak. “That is one case I can’t solve. Where do I look for my brother? I don’t even know where to begin.”

 

This article was first published in the May 2002 issue

Photos by Aditya Basu Bhattacharya