The Dirty Harrys of Mumbai are a vanishing breed
They were once considered the Dirty Harrys of Mumbai police. When encounters were common in the late nineties to the mid-2000s, in the vast Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), they were in the limelight, becoming the poster boys of the elite Crime Branch. But now they lie scattered.
In this period, the 'encounter specialists' killed more than 800 criminals, and broke the backbone of the underworld. However, there were allegations of cops acting in an extra-judicial manner to dispense justice. Fake encounters were rampant in the MMR region, comprising Mumbai City, Mumbai Suburban, Thane, Palghar and Raigad districts. Now, things have changed as the gangland operations have seen a shift.
Gangsters owing allegiance to Dawood Ibrahim, Chhota Rajan, Arun Gawli, Abu Salem were gunned down. Several robbers and some Lashkar-e-Taiba militants too were eliminated. 'Whosoever were killed were dreaded criminals and the police officers fired in self-defence,' says a former top police officer, under whom the encounter squads functioned.
The focal points of these encounters were the officers from the 1983-batch of Maharashtra State Police Service - and these include Pradeep Sharma, Vijay Salaskar, Prafulla Bhosale, Ravindranath Angre, Arun Borude and Aslam Momin. Sharma's protege Daya Nayak, who hails from Karnataka, too made it big.
Sharma, with over 110 encounters to his credit, leads the pack. He is currently the head of Thane Anti-Extortion Cell but has opted for voluntary retirement from service and is expected to contest the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly polls from Nalasopara on a Shiv Sena ticket. One of his batchmates and a predecessor, Angre, had joined the Nationalist Congress Party a few years ago.
Bhosale's name came up in the alleged custodial death of Khwaja Yunus and he has now taken retirement. Khwaja Yunus was a suspect who was picked up by a team of police in connection with a blast in a bus in Ghatkopar. It is alleged that he died of third-degree punishment and his body was buried. However, members of Bhosale's team claimed that he escaped from a police jeep that met with an accident while he was being escorted for investigations.
In fact, all of them assumed a larger-than-life image and inspired several Bollywood films like Satya, Ab Tak Chhappan, Shootout at Lokhandwala, Shootout at Wadala, Aan, Shagird and Department.
The first encounter in Mumbai took place on October 14, 1980, when a robber Louis D'Souza was killed in Malvani. The most recent encounter was on July 24, 2018, when a history-sheeter Joginder Rana was eliminated by constables Manoj Sakpal and Mangesh Chavan in Nalasoapara.
The first big encounter was that of Manya Surve on January 11, 1982, who was killed by a team led by Inspector Isaque Bagwan. In 1990, Aftab Ahmed Khan, who later opted for retirement as Additional Director General of Police, set up special police force called the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS). Now many states have this squad. Aftab took on several Khalistani militants and eliminated the notorious criminal Maya Dolas.
The shootout resulted in the death of seven gangsters but also caused grief to the ATS as they were suspected of staging a fake encounter. A magisterial inquiry was ordered as questions were raised on the use of 450 rounds of ammunition and the need for a 'daylight' encounter. However, the trial ended with the acquittal Khan and other ATS officers involved in the encounter.
'A lot of water has flowed under the bridge in the last 30 years. The foot soldiers of the gangs have been eliminated,' says veteran journalist and columnist Sunil Mehrotra, who has been closely following the developments.
'In the late nineties, shootouts were common, businessmen used to receive extortion calls, builders feared for their life,' he said.
According to a top officer, who had worked in the Mumbai Crime Branch-CID and ATS, the scenario has changed.
'Dawood Ibrahim's operations has reduced. Abu Salem and Arun Gawli are in jail. Chhota Rajan is extradited. Several big gangsters have been deported to the Middle East, Gulf and South-East Asia. Police have an upper hand now,' he said.
'The encounter specialists engaged in corrupt practices. They did contract killing by taking money from rival gang or top gangland bosses sitting abroad. They settled financial deals. In fact, some of them also influenced transfers,' a top intelligence department official who wished to remain anonymous said.
Besides, there was an intra-squad and inter-squad professional rivalry. 'This was an unhealthy trend. The encounter specialists had to be eliminated administratively, bureaucratically,' said a senior official.
The 2006 Lakhan Bhaiya fake encounter case seemed to be the last nail in the coffin. Lakhan Bhaiya was considered to be underworld don Chhota Rajan's close aide. Four days after his killing on November 11, 2006, his brother moved the Bombay High Court alleging that Bhaiya was killed in cold blood by the Mumbai Police.
A special investigation team, which was formed on orders of the HC, arrested 22 accused, including senior police inspector Pradeep Sharma. He was summarily dismissed for alleged links with crime syndicates but the Maharashtra Administratively Tribunal reversed the order.
'Several policemen were convicted in this case,' an official said, adding that the government too decided to follow a cautionary approach.
Encounters could not have continued as a part of the 'state policy' and bypass justice dispensation system, and hence — Dirty Harrys are now a vanishing breed.