The rise, fall and redemption of Mumbai’s encounter cop Pradeep Sharma
In the ’80s, the cops from the famous “Batch of ’83” smashed the underworld. S Hussain Zaidi connects that era with the arrest and recent reinstatement of Pradeep Sharma of the Mumbai police
The killer duo was branded as the Billa-Ranga of Mumbai, after the men who murdered teenaged siblings Geeta and Sanjay Chopra in 1978 in Delhi. Known as Javed-Rahim, they were noted history sheeters and had spread a reign of terror in Mumbai during the late Eighties. Javed Khan, who had escaped from Thane jail, facilitated his crony Abdul Rahim’s flight from Aurangabad jail. Both of them had taken refuge in Mumbai. Tales of their cruelty include raping a wife in front of the husband and then slaughtering the husband in front of the distraught wife.
The Mumbai police had already spread a dragnet for them but were unable to catch them. In those days, the khabri or police informer would often provide false leads to the police and make a quick buck. The policemen of the Eighties had a lot of self-respect and pride in their service. They had lost hope of catching the duo but they still didn’t want to have two dangerous fugitives loose in the city.
One night in August in 1989, the police control room received a tip-off that Javed and Rahim were holed up in a chawl at Maneklal Estate in Ghatkopar West in the north eastern suburbs of Mumbai. The information was relayed to the Ghatkopar police station and immediately a sub-inspector and three constables were sent to scour the shanties of Maneklal Estate.
The officer chose to check the zigzag bylanes of the chawls while the constables went door to door knocking and looking for the notorious duo. Suddenly, one constable hit pay dirt. Javed, by now aware of the police raid, came out of hiding and confronted the policeman. He whipped out a sword and struck the constable on his arm, causing a deep gash. He also managed to inflict injury on the second constable. Their screams of pain alerted the sub-inspector who rushed to the spot, only to be attacked by Javed’s friend Rahim. This was an era when criminals actually peed in their pants at the sight of a khaki uniform -- which is why the policemen weren’t expecting an assault. They were caught totally off guard.
Fazed and upstaged, the wounded police team was staring death in the face -- they could see that Javed had a gun. In a reflex action, the sub-inspector unholstered his service revolver and fired at them. He kept firing until he finished all the six bullets in his revolver. Javed and Rahim collapsed.
Two things became history after that. Javed and Rahim became a lesson for all the other wannabe criminals who were polishing their kattas or country-made hand guns. And of course the nondescript sub-inspector, Pradeep Sharma, started his innings as an encounter specialist in the Mumbai police. To date, he has killed the maximum number of gangsters, drug peddlers, and even Pakistani nationals from the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group. Sharma is credited with killing over 112 gangsters in a span of 17 years between 1989 to 2006. He was suspended and subsequently dismissed three years after the controversial Lakhan Bhaiyya encounter in November 2006. Ram Narayan Gupta alias Lakhan Bhaiyya (considered to be mafia don Chhota Rajan’s close aide) was killed in 2006 in a fake encounter by 13 policemen of DN Nagar police station. Pradeep Sharma was in jail for almost four years between 2009 to 2013 until the trial court acquitted him of all charges in the case (though 13 other cops were convicted and given life imprisonment).
Back in the police force
Last week, Pradeep Sharma once again made headlines when he was reinstated into the police force.
“Ironically my husband was never indicted for 111 encounter killings that he was involved in and had to spent time in jail for an encounter he never did,” says Swikriti Sharma, sitting in the living room of her sixth floor flat in the Andheri suburbs after her husband’s reinstatement earlier this month.
However, Sharma does not want to talk about his encounters.
“Why can’t you focus on my other accomplishments? I have arrested over 1,200 hardened criminals, detected several intricate cases, and reformed over two dozen hardcore convicts and rehabilitated them in the mainstream,” Sharma says. Then in a candid moment he says, “Do you know, it was I who discovered and transformed a humble waiter into a famous cop like Daya Nayak?” Nayak became Sharma’s most famous protégé’. Nayak was the only encounter specialist who shot to fame due to his association with Sharma. Otherwise encounters were the mainstay of the officers from the famous 1983 batch of Maharashtra state police officers.
Officers like Praful Bhosale, Vijay Salaskar, Ravindra Angre, Aslam Momin and of course Pradeep Sharma belonged to this batch. After a year’s training at the Nashik Police Training School, they joined the force in 1984. That was the year when Dawood made a hasty, unplanned escape from Mumbai and when Bombay was hurtling towards a Sicily-like reputation with the mafia completely out of control.
The batch of 1983 is dubbed as the “killer batch” of the Maharashtra police.
They have all been in violent skirmishes with underworld gangsters from various gangs including Dawood Ibrahim, Chhota Rajan, Arun Gawli and Amar Naik. Between themselves they were responsible for eliminating over 500 gangsters in police encounters or extra-judicial killings.
Before the Nineties, encounters were far and few -- like when police officer Ishaq Bagwan bumped off Manohar Surve in 1982 or sub-inspector Rajendra Katdhare killed Rama Naik in 1987 or sub-inspector Emmanuel Amolik killed Mehmood Kalia in 1987. There were apocryphal reports that Dawood was instrumental in all these encounters and that he officially got rid of his rivals through police action.
However, after the Nineties and especially after the serial blasts of 1993 which became the Mumbai mafia’s Anno Domini, encounters became the norm. Soon after the former police commissioner, RD Tyagi took over in 1995, he instructed the crime branch and zonal deputy commissioners to make a list of 10 wanted criminals from each zone and complete their cases.
In fact, the then DCP Satyapal Singh (who became Mumbai police chief later) and DCP Param Bir Singh, the current Thane police commissioner, reportedly formed encounter squads with officers from the 1983 batch including Bhosale, Salaskar and Sharma at the helm.
Emboldened by the official decree and empowered by their immediate bosses, the trio went all out against the Mumbai mafia. Pitched battles were fought on the streets of Mumbai.
“It is wrong to call us the killer batch. We were officers with killer instincts. Those were the times when the underworld was at its peak. Our seniors knew that only aggressive policing could rein in the mafia,” explains an encounter specialist who retired as assistant commissioner of police (ACP).
However, Sharma feels that the batch had a uniform strategy of taking on the underworld because of their mentor, Arvind Inamdar, who opted for retirement in 2000 and has the distinction of having been transferred 29 times in 35 years. “Inamdar had a totally unconventional and pragmatic approach to policing which he instilled in the entire batch,” explains Sharma.
The gangs were almost decimated by the encounter specialists. The score card led with the names of big hits like gangsters Sada Pawle, Amar Naik and others. Arun Gawli, the only gangster from Mumbai who had not escaped India, was so terrified that he decided to join politics. The Dawood gang actually stopped recruitment of hitmen. Abu Salem went globe-trotting and abandoned the perpetration of reckless killings in Mumbai. Ashwin Naik took refuge in an obscure hideout in New Delhi.
The encounter specialists became power centres of their own and began calling the shots. Eventually the race for getting the maximum head count, created animus within the group, each one accusing other of favouring a particular gang. But that is another story.
They got aligned with politicians and senior police officers for their vested interests. Some of the encounter specialists amassed disproportionate assets, while others parked their ill-gotten wealth in philanthropist activities.
Slowly, these cops were becoming even more powerful than their bosses. But with all the major gangs cut to size, the encounter specialists soon became expendable.
Angre and Momin were dismissed, Bhosale was suspended for the mishandling of a particular case. Nayak was ostracised. Sharma was suspended and later dismissed and jailed. He was thrown in along with the same criminals he had once arrested.
“I died several deaths in jail every day. But I decided that instead of wallowing in self-pity I would bounce back and prove my innocence,” Sharma said.
Soon after his acquittal in 2013, Sharma launched a security firm by the name of Urban Hawk Security Services at Andheri. Today it is one of the most sought-after security firms in the city. Despite his reinstatement into the Mumbai police force, Sharma has not shut it down but instead handed it over to his daughters to look after. ”This is my survival kit after I retire in 2020,” he says.
After his reinstatement, Sharma has joined the Thane police anti-extortion cell and wants to use his well-oiled khabri network for flushing out the sleeper cells of terrorists in and around Mumbai.
But his final plans include writing a tell-all book on the Mumbai underworld.
While unabated gang wars in the mafia in the Eighties gave birth to the rise of encounter specialists of the Mumbai police, the sociology of crime itself has undergone a sea change in the 21st century. With most of their foot soldiers decimated through police encounter killings and stringent laws like the Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act (MCOCA), the big bosses of the Mumbai underworld were forced to diversify and look for other modes of revenue generation.
With the heads of the four big mafia groups languishing behind bars – Arun Gawli convicted for killing a Shiv Sena leader; Abu Salem convicted for his role in the serial blasts of 1993, Ashwin Naik for various extortion cases and Chhota Rajan in Tihar jail enjoying his well-earned retirement -- the mafia scene is completely cold in Mumbai.
The Underworld in the Mumbai of today
While the Eighties and Nineties were characterised by supari killings, extortion, the flesh trade, dance bar protection rackets, the 21st century is all about real estate and Bollywood.
Chhota Rajan still manages to pull strings in Mumbai but not with the same vigour that he did while in his heyday and Chhota Shakeel has free control over his fledgling gang empire in the city but with riders. Currently, a late entrant to the scene, Ravi Poojari, the killer of lawyer Shahid Azmi, is the only ganglord who somehow has managed to stick it out.
“Over 500 million square feet of construction activities is in full swing between Andheri and Dahisar. These properties cannot be acquired, developed or constructed without the appropriate use of muscle. The businessmen need the underworld and vice versa. So the mafia will never starve for money,” disclosed a senior officer from the crime branch.
S Hussain Zaidi is the author of Black Friday, Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia, Byculla to Bangkok and My Name is Abu Salem