Fans of modern noir classic, L.A. Confidential, will be familiar with the name Rollo Tomassi, a made-up name that Guy Pearce’s detective gives to his father’s killer who has never been caught, and which leads to the film’s big reveal at the end. The period film, exposing the rot in the Los Angeles Police Department of the 1950s, was released in 1997, and became an instant favourite with Bollywood directors because it also cut so close to home.
In the decade spanning 1993 to 2003 when there was fear in the air and blood on the streets of Mumbai, a specially-created encounter squad eliminated about six hundred underworld operatives of the Dawood Ibrahim, Chhota Rajan and Arun Gawli gangs. Assistant police inspector Sachin Waze, under arrest in the recovery of an explosives-laden car outside Mukesh Ambani’s home, was part of the much-storied squad comprising Pradeep Sharma, Vijay Salaskar, Arun Borude, Ravindra Angre, Prafulla Bhosle, and Daya Nayak. Unlike L.A. Confidential, a layered film full of moral ambivalence, Indian popular culture and the media lionized these men imbuing them with heft and heroism while flattening out the problematic aspects of a law-enforcing unit operating beyond the law.
Left unquestioned, these low-level encounter cops enjoyed disproportionate power and fame. In an act of self-perpetuating mythology, Pradeep Sharma took to haunting his quarries with one-liners like, “Cooper ya ooper?” (Cooper being a civic hospital in Mumbai). It wasn’t long before these men operating in the shadows were co-opted into politics. Vijay Salaskar, killed on the night of 26/11, was a Shiv Sainik before he joined the force and retained an informal allegiance with the party throughout. Ravindra Angre was a member of the BJP; Pradeep Sharma flirted with the BJP before contesting 2019 elections on a Sena ticket; AA Khan who led the famous Lokhandwala shootout contested on a Janata Dal ticket in 1998; and Sachin Waze joined the Shiv Sena during his suspension from service though the party has since distanced itself.
Nearly everyone in this encounter brigade has faced either suspension or jail term on charges varying from disproportionate assets, extortion, custodial torture and killing to rape. That they should find political patronage says much about how tinny public life in Mumbai is. A city that once framed the narrative of Indian politics, whether it was the freedom movement, the linguistic movement or the labour movement, is now served by politics of dalali. Freshly-transferred CP Parambir Singh’s letter publicly calling out his boss is likely a first in India from a serving officer, and sets a terrible precedent. Like the Russian matryoshkas, politics and the police force operate on the nesting-dolls principle: mini-me versions cosseted with one another.
In a 1993 report on the nexus between criminals, politicians and bureaucrats, union home secretary NN Vohra made a reference to the vertiginous career of Iqbal Mirchi who rose from a cigarette seller to become possibly the biggest drug lord in India—all under the benign gaze of Bombay police. A DCP with the anti-narcotics cell, Rahul Rai Sur, who worked closely with Pradeep Sharma and Vijay Salaskar, famously went ‘AWOL’ in the late ’90s. He left for a stint with the UN and refused to return to India despite several government warnings over his continued absence. It was left to Sur’s successor at the anti-narcotics cell, Hemant Karkare, also killed on the night of 26/11, to discover that all the evidence and papers in the multiple cases against Iqbal Mirchi had disappeared in the time Sur headed the anti-narcotics cell. Mirchi fled to London via Dubai after 1993, and could never be extradited for lack of sufficient formal evidence against him.
Later, intercepted messages, part of an ED chargesheet against Mirchi suggested the drug lord had wanted to kill Sur.
When he was police commissioner, Ronnie Mendonca had sent a report to DGP Arvind Inamdar —who had created this master list of encounter specialists in the first place — naming seventeen officers with suspected links to the underworld.
By the early 2000s the underworld was effaced. The encounter cops, a band of ageing men who had been to the dark side, now struggled to find purpose and relevance in the ordinariness of normal policing. This was the time for their rehabilitation, instead, Crime Intelligence Unit, an ad-hoc cell created by Pradeep Sharma and Daya Nayak from a two-room office in Andheri, morphed into a power centre within the police force, answerable for all practical purposes only to the Police Commissioner of the day.
Sachin Waze, brought back from a 16-year gap last year following a recommendation by the then police commissioner Parambir Singh, was heading the CIU and handling politically sensitive cases when the explosives-laden Scorpio was recovered from outside Antilia. A low tide that washed up the Scorpio owner Mansukh Hiren’s body in a marshy Mumbra creek has also enveloped Mumbai police in its sulfurous stink.
While we wait for the NIA to complete its investigations–more damning revelations are likely—it’s now evident that the shooting stars of the encounter brigade have truly burned out.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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