"We are the messengers of death,” a well-known encounter specialist, posted in a key Mumbai police crime branch unit, boasted to a reporter ten years ago after he and his junior had killed alleged Pakistani terrorists in an encounter that made the headlines.
The terrorists’ bullets too had found their target, but the encounter cops’ bullet-proof vests had saved them. After making their tall claim, the two policemen, clad in designer T-shirts and flashy sports shoes, posed for pictures, their clothes bearing an indication of how far they had moved away from khaki and become a law unto themselves.
Today, the senior cop stands dismissed for alleged links with the underworld and is lodged in jail following his arrest in a fake encounter case. The elite unit he headed has been disbanded after a series of allegations against almost every member of the unit, and his junior, suspended pending an inquiry into a corruption case, is struggling to find his way back into the police force.
Other encounter specialists too are in a bad way. While some of them have been dismissed and some others suspended, the others who have escaped stringent action have given up their trigger-happy ways and try to stay away from public glare to the extent possible.
Rampant and uncontrolled
At about the same time that Manohar alias Manya Surve was killed in a police encounter in 1983, a rape accused was killed by the police in a manner which highlighted what the near future held. He was an accused in 20 rape cases; every time he would come out on bail, he would assault a woman near the public toilet in a Govandi slum. He was taken to the old Mumbai-Pune road in a taxi by a sub-inspector and a couple of constables, dragged into the bushes and shot point-blank.
The officer who sanctioned that encounter said on condition of anonymity, “We had hardly any option, as the man took full advantage of weak laws and had become a menace. We had to take the law into our hands in order to ensure the safety of citizens.”
In the mid-1990s, as gang wars escalated and extortion cases shot up, this same argument was used to justify encounters, and a set of policemen were given sanction for eliminating gangsters.
As encounters became rampant and almost uncontrolled, allegations were made that the various encounter specialists were acting on behalf of certain gangs and targeting members of other gangs.
“Initially, they (encounter specialists) did their job seriously and honestly. However, when Chhota Rajan broke away from Dawood following the 1993 serial blasts, gangs were divided on communal lines. Flush with cash, they virtually bought off encounter specialists who began to work in the interest of underworld groups rather than the police force,” veteran journalist Ram Pawar said.
The sanction from the police department for their actions and media attention further corrupted them, he added.
A former IPS officer said, “They did not know where to draw the line. They hobnobbed with underworld elements under the pretext of maintaining the network of khabris (informants) but in fact were motivated by the urge to hog the limelight. All of this even triggered infighting among encounter specialists.”
The turning point
While complaints of alleged criminals being killed in cold blood mounted after 1995, the one encounter that turned the tide against policemen was that of alleged Abu Salem gangster Javed Fawda in August 1997.
His family and human rights groups moved court, saying the man killed as Fawda was actually Abu Sayma, a peanut vendor at Charni Road. He was picked up by a crime branch team as he emerged from a mosque and killed at Ballard Pier, they alleged.
This petition resulted in a series of other petitions challenging encounter killings from 1995, and the Bombay High Court ordered an investigation into 100 encounters, including the one of Gawli gang members Sada Pawle and Vijay Tandel in Ghatkopar in June ’97.
Though the high court later ruled in favour of Mumbai police, human rights groups challenged the order in the Supreme Court, where the matter is pending.
Human rights groups became even more vociferous in their protests in the late ’90s, and the courts did not ignore the plight of families of encounter victims as questions were raised over the extra-judicial killings.
So stung were the police by the criticism at one time that a police commissioner made an appeal to the media to replace the term ‘encounter’ with ‘operation’ in their reports.
The promulgation of the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) in July 1999 also denied the police the weak-law argument they had used to justify encounters.
There was also a change of guard in the Mumbai police administration, with the new dispensation no longer supporting the specialists. And even the ways of the underworld had changed in the new millennium: instead of making extortion calls, which called for police action, gangland operatives had become “investors” in real estate projects – that is, partners of the developers they once terrorised.
Police encounters whipped up considerable controversy in the late 1990s, resulting in the suspension of some encounter specialists and the dismissal of others from police service.
The killing of Fawda, an alleged Abu Salem operative, in August 1997 triggered a controversy that marked the first step towards making encounter specialists accountable.
The victim’s family and human rights activists moved court, claiming the encounter was a case of mistaken identity. The man picked up as Fawda, they said, was Abu Sayma, a peanut vendor outside Charni Road railway station. They alleged that he was picked up by a crime branch team as he came out of a mosque and killed at Ballard Pier.
This petition led to other petitions challenging encounters, and the Bombay HC ordered a probe into 100 encounters. Though HC ruled in favour of Mumbai police, human rights groups challenged the order in SC, where the matter is pending.
In November 2006, alleged Chhota Rajan man Ramnarayan Gupta alias Lakhan Bhaiya was killed in an encounter at D N Nagar, Andheri.
His brother, advocate Ram Prakash Gupta, filed a petition in the Bombay High Court alleging that the encounter was staged and that Lakhan Bhaiya had been killed in cold blood.
On the high court’s directions, a special investigation Team (SIT) was constituted under a deputy commissioner of police to probe the matter, and encounter specialists, inspector Pradeep Sharma and senior inspector of D N Nagar police station Pradeep Suryawanshi, were among 17 officers arrested on charges of murder.
The case that hurt the most
More than the many controversies surrounding encounters, it was the custodial death of alleged bomb blast accused Sayyed Khwaja Yunus which affected encounter specialists the most.
A CID probe established that Yunus, held for the Dec 2002 Ghatkopar bomb blast case, was killed in custody. The probe into his death led to the arrest of several encounter specialists including inspector Praful Bhosle and API Sachin Vaze, while some other encounter specialists such as Arun Borude, Pradeep Sharma and then ACP Ambadas Pote came under the scanner for their alleged role in the custodial death case.
Also read: 'Too much corruption led to decline,' an interview with former IPS officer YP Singh