Who is ‘encounter specialist’ Pradeep Sharma?
Here’s a quick read on the former Mumbai policeman, who was once a dreaded name in the underworld, and was put behind bars for his suspected role in a murder.
Former police officer Pradeep Sharma is the last of the Mumbai police's “encounter specialists” and is believed to have gunned down around 112 criminals, including several members of the Chhota Rajan gang, in the decade from around 1994 to 2004 – a period when Mumbai police officials were given a free hand to wipe out the organised crime syndicates which ruled the city during that period.
The Supreme Court earlier this week granted bail to Sharma over two years after he was arrested in connection with the recovery of 20 gelatin sticks from a car parked outside industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s residence in 2021 and the killing of the vehicle’s owner, Mansukh Hiran. Sharma moved the Supreme Court against the Bombay high court’s refusal to grant him bail in January.
A 1983-batch officer, Sharma and his team had in 1999 killed gangster Vinod Matkar, a henchman of Chhota Rajan, who was part of the gangster’s team chosen to kill his arch-rival Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar in Pakistan. The same year, Sharma killed Dawood gang member and sharp-shooter Sadiq Kalia in Dadar. In 2001, Sharma and his team killed gangster Ashwin Naik’s aide Ganesh Devadiga, who had 26 serious crimes registered against him, in Versova.
The 62-year-old, however, became famous after he and his team killed three suspected Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operatives in 2003 in Goregaon. Two of the three suspects — Abu Sultan and Abu Anwar Ali — were Pakistani nationals and Abu Sultan was said to be the terror outfit’s south India commander.
While serving as a law enforcement officer, Sharma has also been on the wrong side of the law. The former encounter specialist, who completed his schooling and college education from Dhule in North Maharashtra, was dismissed from service in August 2008 for alleged underworld links but was reinstated in May 2009 following the orders of the Maharashtra Administrative Tribunal.
In 2010, he was arrested in connection with the extra-judicial killing of Chhota Rajan gang member Ramnarayan Gupta alias Lakhan Bhaiya in November 2006. Sharma spent about four years in jail for his alleged role in Gupta’s death but was acquitted in July 2013 for lack of cogent evidence, though all other accused in the case — 12 police personnel and eight individuals — were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 2017, Sharma was reinstated in service in view of his acquittal and became head of the Anti-Extortion Cell of the Thane police. Within a month of taking the charge, he arrested Iqbal Kaskar, brother of fugitive gangster Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar, in an extortion case. He continued to head the anti-extortion cell in Thane till he resigned in July 2019 to join the Shiv Sena and contest the 2019 Maharashtra assembly elections from Nalasopara constituency. He, however, lost to Bahujan Vikas Aghadi candidate Kshitij Hitendra Thakur.
Antilia scare and Mansukh Hiran murder
The former cop’s second arrest came on June 17, 2021, when he was picked up by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in connection with the Antilia explosives scare and Mansukh Hiran murder case.
On February 25, 2021, a Mahindra Scorpio was found abandoned near Antilia, the South Mumbai residence of billionaire industrialist Mukesh Ambani, with 20 loose gelatin sticks kept in a bag and a threatening note addressed to the Ambani family. On March 5, Hiran, the owner of the SUV, was found dead in a creek at Reti Bunder near Mumbra, with six handkerchiefs stuffed in his mouth and his face covered by a scarf.
Initially, when the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) probed the case, police officials suspected that dismissed Mumbai police officer Sachin Waze was behind the entire episode and Vinayak Shinde, a former policeman convicted in Lakhan Bhaiya fake encounter killing case, helped him in having Hiran killed.
The story, however, changed after the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over the probe and, on April 23, 2021, arrested police inspector Sunil Mane, who was attached to the Kandivali unit of the Mumbai crime branch. The federal agency claimed that it was Mane who allegedly drew Hiran out of his Thane residence on the evening of March 4, 2021, called him to Ghodbunder Road and handed him over to Sharma’s four purported henchmen — Santosh Shelar, Anand Jadhav, Satish Mothukari aka Vicky Baba and Manish Soni.
NIA claimed that the conspiracy to kill Hiran was hatched on March 2, when Sharma met Waze at Mumbai police headquarters. Hiran, a 48-year-old trader, had reportedly refused to accept the blame for parking the explosives-laden SUV near Antilia. The next day, on the evening of March 3, the NIA claimed, Waze handed over a sizable amount of cash in a Rexine bag to Sharma in the office of the Pradeep Sharma Foundation, a social organisation set up by Sharma in 2017.
The four men smothered Hiran in a rented Chevrolet Tavera and, after removing his personal belongings, dumped his body in a creek. The four fled the city immediately and stayed in Kathmandu and Dubai for a while, the NIA claimed.
The mystery unravelled when the NIA arrested Shelar and Jadhav on June 11, 2021. After the two spilled the beans, the agency collected all corroborative pieces of evidence, including the Tavera, statements of its owner, and CCTV footage from the spots concerned. On June 17, NIA sleuths carried out searches at Sharma’s Andheri residence and the office of the Pradeep Sharma Foundation. Sharma was placed under arrest a few hours later. The NIA booked Sharma under the Indian Penal Code, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Explosive Substances Act, and Arms Act. It also accused Waze of arranging money for Sharma to hire contract killers.
Sharma applied for bail earlier this year, and was denied. The Bombay high court rejected Sharma’s bail citing his clout within the police and the possibility of influencing the witnesses. Following this, Sharma moved the Supreme Court.
Additional solicitor-general SV Raju, who represented NIA, said the agency has not found any evidence linking Sharma to the gelatin sticks or the theft of Hiran’s vehicle. “The only case in which his involvement has been found is Hiran’s murder.” He added Sharma met Waze multiple times before the murder. However, Sharma’s lawyer Mukul Rohatgi argued his client cannot be linked with the crime because he had multiple meetings with Waze.