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Society?s willing murderers

If you are reading this in Mumbai, then you probably know all about Daya Nayak, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jan 29, 2006 10:02 IST

If you are reading this in Mumbai, then you probably know all about Daya Nayak. But if you are reading it in one of the HT’s many other editions, then the name may not necessarily ring a bell.

In which case, let me refresh your memory. You may not recall it, but you’ve come across Daya Nayak before. He was the inspiration for the character Nana Patekar played in Ab Tak Chhappan.

If that does not strike a chord, how about this? Did you see Ram Gopal Varma’s Company? You may have noticed the onscreen dedication before the movie began — and while you were still struggling to get to your seat, your arms weighed down by cartons of popcorn and Pepsi — to Daya Nayak, one of the inspirations for the film.

How about Kagaar, whose star Amitabh Dayal spent six months with Nayak before shooting for the film so that he could get the character right? There is now a sequel on its way.

And lest you think that Nayak is just a filmi character, what about this? In 2002, when he organised the annual day of a school, dedicated to the memory of his mother in a village near Mangalore, he got Amitabh Bachchan to be the Chief Guest. And among the celebrities who attended was MF Husain, who donated his famous horse paintings.

All right, you ask, who is this Daya Nayak? Why is he such a hero to our society that movies are made about him? And that Amitabh Bachchan and MF Husain attend his functions?

Short answer: he is a murderer.

As far as I can tell, he has killed at least 85 people. But, of course, he is not your common garden variety murderer. He is the publicly-lauded, much-celebrated sort of murderer that urban Indian society has decided it needs.

In other words, he is an encounter specialist.

And we all know what that means. Fifteen years ago, an encounter was when a police party confronted a criminal and fought a fight to the finish. If criminals — or suspects, at any rate — died, then this was because the police had acted in self-defence.

Then, the definition changed. An encounter became an occasion when the police captured a gangster and, instead of arresting him, shot him dead on the spot.

The cops took their lead from the anti-terrorist squads. It is an open secret that KPS Gill and his force ended the Punjab militancy by simply executing the terrorists they came across. They knew that judges would be too terrified to convict terrorists. And they recognised that witnesses would be too intimidated to give evidence against them.

So, they just killed the terrorists.

Why did the Punjab police get away with it?

Well, basically because they had social sanction. There was widespread agreement that civilian laws failed when it came to terrorist situations. And in the absence of any special laws for special situations, Gill just made up his own — with public backing.

Within months, police forces all over India had adopted the same principle. Even if they were not dealing with terrorists, they used the encounter policy to handle organised crime — whether it was the coal mafia in Bihar or the Bombay underworld.

As the gang wars spilled out into the streets of Bombay, the police followed a straightforward enough policy: they made out a list of gangsters and then just went out and killed them.

In the days to come, other police forces followed the same policy. The Delhi Police have their own encounter specialists — of whom Rajbir Singh is the best known — who are called in to handle big-time gangsters and terrorist suspects. Nearly every time I read about an encounter in Delhi, I am pretty sure that the suspects have been shot in cold blood.

How do police forces, mandated to uphold the Constitution in a country that takes pride in the Rule of Law, get away with this?

They do so because you and I — the solid urban middle-class — have little faith in the judiciary. We may cheer when the Supreme Court passes strictures against Buta Singh but in all the areas that really matter — civil cases, property disputes, attempts to seek redressal from injustice etc — we know that the legal system is worse than useless. Cases take so long to come to trial that witnesses forget what they have seen and judgments are often irrelevant by the time they are delivered.

Our lack of faith in the judicial system’s ability to provide justice extends to the criminal law. Far better, we say, to let the cops kill terrorists and gangsters than to allow an effete judicial system to let them escape.

For over a decade now, I have struggled with the ethics of encounters. I cannot possibly countenance murder. On the other hand, I see the point that the police are making: if you leave it to the judiciary, justice will never be done.

My reservations — in the many columns I have written on the subject — have had less to do with liberal ethics than with the consequences of letting policemen become executioners.

What if they kill the wrong people? This happens all the time. In the 1990s, there was the famous Barakhamba Road encounter where the Delhi Police shot and killed a carload of innocent businessmen because they mistook them for gangsters. In Bombay, the police routinely kill innocent chana-wallahs by mistake and then pretend that they were dangerous criminals in disguise.

What happens when the killings are motivated? A few years ago, when I was editor of the HT, we focused on the Ansal Plaza encounter. The police claimed to have foiled a plot to bomb the shopping mall by killing the terrorists. In fact, as the HT was able to demonstrate quite conclusively, the Delhi Police had taken two drugged terrorist suspects to the Ansal Plaza basement and shot them in cold blood. They then demanded public praise and gallantry awards as a reward for murder.

And then, there are the Bombay encounter specialists. I have always believed that even if encounters have social sanction, there is something dangerous about the way in which cowboy cops are allowed to kill whoever they like.

If a cop can kill anybody he likes, what is to stop him from blackmailing potential victims? Moreover, some of these encounter specialists are clearly in the pay of the underworld. Why would Chhota Shakeel need to send a shooter to snuff out a rival gangster when he could pay a cop to do it? Not only would the rival goonda be dead but the cop would also get a medal.

Daya Nayak was the king of the murderer-cops. Such was his fame that celebrities flocked to him. Even when he wasn’t inspiring movies, he attended film parties, hung around with stars and lived an impossibly glamorous life.

Could such a man, I often wondered, be entirely on the level? Should we be giving him the authority to murder whoever he liked — in our names?

Then, a short while ago, it all went badly wrong for Nayak. A journalist called Ketan Tirodkar filed a complaint against him. The new Bombay commissioner transferred him out. And the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) began looking at his affairs.

What the ACB says it has found makes for shocking reading. It raided the homes of Nayak and his alleged partner P Manivellan. The search yielded evidence of Rs 41.75 lakh in cash. The ACB discovered also that Nayak ran finance companies in his wife’s name. It suspects that he runs a fleet of luxury buses that ply between Mangalore and Tirupati.

The ACB’s search also turned up a Mercedes-Benz bought, allegedly, by Nayak, in the name of Rajendra Padke, a poor plumber. There were chit fund companies worth crores in the name of Nayak’s wife. He probably owns two hotels in Goa. Investigations suggest that Nayak is also into film finance. One famous Bollywood producer had been advanced Rs 10 crore by companies connected to Nayak’s wife. And there is evidence of overseas accounts.

At a conservative estimate, the ACB has concluded, Nayak could be worth around Rs 100 crore. And yet, if you compute every penny he has officially earned, that comes to Rs 16 lakh over a lifetime.

So where has the other Rs 99.84 crore come from?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Almost all of Bombay’s encounter cops are in disgrace. Praful Bhosle, who killed 82 people, has now been suspended. Ravindranath Angre, who killed 50, is under a cloud. Pradeep Sawant, who commanded the encounter squad, has been suspended for his role in the Telgi scam.

Say this for the Bombay cops: they are the finest police force money can buy — if they don’t kill you first.

Anybody who knew Nayak when he was hanging out with movie stars could tell he was living beyond his means. But no official took action. Chhagan Bhujbal defended him. Various commissioners praised him.

As far as they were concerned, it was okay that he was a crook as long as he was their murderer for hire.

I pass no judgments about Nayak — he is entitled to a fair trial. But doesn’t his rise and fall tell us something about middle-class urban society?

There is a tough option when it comes to dealing with the law and order problem. We can spend money on the judicial system and ensure that cases are speedily disposed of so that the police have no reason to prefer murder over trial.

But there is also a soft option -- to let cops become society’s willing executioners. What does it say about today’s India that rather than spend money to strengthen our system, we prefer murder even though we know that it can lead to such abuses?

The Daya Nayak case should make us all re-think our positions. No longer can we sleep peacefully at night knowing that each day people are being murdered in our names.

First Published: Jan 29, 2006 00:44 IST