The afternoon of January 10, 1982, there was feverish activity in the office of the detection crime branch, an elite wing of the Mumbai police, inside the police headquarters at Crawford Market.
Sub-inspector Issac Bagwan, one of the branch’s ace detectives, had received a tip-off from one of his ‘khabris’ (informers) that gangster Manya Surve, who had eluded the cops for long, was likely to show up near Ambedkar College at Wadala in north-central Mumbai the next morning.
Little did Bagwan know, as he discussed the details of the tip-off with his colleagues, that their plan to trap Surve would lead to the first ever police encounter, a term that spawned a culture of its own in the Mumbai police force.
Bagwan told his colleagues that Manya had instructed the informer, a vehicle thief who had once spent a year with the gangster in Arthur Road jail, to leave a stolen car for him in the parking lot at Ambedkar College. “Manya wanted to use the car to rob a bank in Navi Mumbai,” Bagwan, who retired in 2011 as assistant commissioner of police (ACP), recalled.
The ‘khabri’ did what he was told to; he also left the car’s doors unlocked, and placed the ignition key below the front seat. Manya was to pick it up at 11.30 am.
After senior inspector Pandurang Seth had chaired a meeting to draw up the strategy for the morning – Manya was good at giving cops the slip, so the plan had to be perfect, said Bagwan – the sub-inspector picked up a Hillman Classic, a car that was a fashion statement in the city then, from a garage in south Mumbai. “Our plan was to pose as college students from affluent backgrounds and mount surveillance before Manya arrived,” Bagwan said.
Bagwan and four of his colleagues reached the bus depot adjacent to the college parking lot before 11 am. The sub-inspector was wearing a black shirt with white polka dots, white trousers, gum boots and aviator sun-glasses and stood leaning against the Hillman Classic, apparently busy reading a book, while his colleagues, also in casuals, hung around the place.
After a while, a taxi drove past Bagwan before pulling up at a distance. “I could see Manya sitting inside with an unidentified woman. Soon as the cab halted, the 20-something woman came out and walked past me,” Bagwan said. “She had been sent to do a recce and find the stolen car. She looked around to see if there was anything suspicious, and having spotted the car, went back to the taxi,” he said.
Manya then emerged, in a white terylene shirt and white trousers. “He had a Mauser pistol in his right hand. As the wind lifted his shirt a little, I could see bullets tucked in leather cases in a strap around his waist,” Bagwan said. Manya did not recognise Bagwan and walked past him, in the direction of the car.
As Bagwan, following him, called out to him loudly, a BEST bus halted behind the policeman. “Manya turned back and suddenly opened fire at me. I ducked, only 6 feet away from him, but the bullet grazed past the BEST conductor’s chest, and he fell,” Bagwan said.
By then, Bagwan’s colleagues had taken position and returned fire. “A couple of bullets from PSI Raja Tambat’s revolver hit Manya first. I too hit him twice, while a couple of more bullets from other cops found their target. Manya slumped, while the taxi carrying the woman drove off.” The bus conductor was later found to be out of danger.
Bagwan said they did not set out to kill. “We wanted to arrest Manya and bring him to justice. But circumstances forced us to fire back in self-defence.”
There was not only no criticism of the encounter then, it was welcomed as a fitting response to the city’s underworld which was then finding new avenues for entrenching itself.
Criminals in the city had earlier been content with the smuggling of imported cloth from Japan/Korea or of electronic items made in Japan, or with bootlegging and the matka (illegal lottery) business. The real estate boom of the early 1980s, the smuggling of gold and silver, and the arrival of expensive goods in the docks brought new opportunities, and Manya was among those who seized the chance. He targeted developers for extortion and ensured that a substantial cut from projects in central Mumbai, Byculla, Prabhadevi and Dadar fell into his kitty, veteran journalist S Balakrishnan, who has extensively covered the underworld over three decades, said. He also got mill owners and steel merchants to cough up money. All this helped him to maintain a large gang.
Another senior journalist, Ram Pawar, who was crime bureau chief for the Marathi daily Loksatta, said, “Those days, when the likes of Dawood and Vardarajan were scouting for boys, Manya had a 50-member-strong gang.”
Manya was also a feared man, Pawar said, because he had hacked three of his extortion victims in Agar Bazaar, Prabhadevi, and he always moved about with a loaded weapon.
Bagwan said what set Manya apart from other gangsters was his educational background and an ability to hold the gang together. “He was a science graduate,” Bagwan said.
Manya belonged to a respectable family from the Konkan which had settled down in Agar Bazar, the retired police officer said. However, after his elder brother took to crime, Manya too went down that route. His first criminal act was to throw acid on the face of a small-time criminal who ran a matka business. Manya took over the business and went on to commit many more crimes.
The nature of Manya’s activities, and the activities of other criminals of the time, made the then Mumbai police commissioner Julio Ribeiro adopt a stern policy against mafia gangs.
Manya’s killing was followed by another encounter – by sub-inspector Suresh Walli Shetty in December ’82 at Antop Hill.
Some of Bagwan’s juniors from the 1983 batch went on to first become famous, and then infamous, as encounter specialists.