In Maharashtra, khakhi and khadi in the dock
The state’s worst-kept secret is out. A thorough inquiry, exemplary punishment for the guilty, and deeper police reforms, are essential
Minister log mere peeche aur police log mere jeb mein rehte hai” (Ministers follow me, and the police is in my pocket). The Hindi film industry has a unique way of staying ahead of real-life narratives. The dialogue from the 2011 blockbuster, Singham, pits the villainous don against an honest inspector, Bajirao Singham, and forces the latter to retort in anger: “Aata majhi satakli!” (loosely translated from Marathi to mean, now, I have lost it!)
Watching the political developments in Maharashtra, any right-thinking citizen would be well prompted to echo Singham’s memorable one-liner in sheer frustration. After all, when both the political and police leadership are caught in a web of egregious lies, deceit and possible criminality, it makes one wonder whether lawmakers and law-enforcers have abandoned any notion of public service, but instead become partners in a cash-and-carry private enterprise.
How else is one to interpret the unprecedented war of words between the state home minister, Anil Deshmukh and the ex-Mumbai police commissioner, Param Bir Singh? The commissioner, on being transferred, suddenly accuses the minister of seeking a “vasooli” (collection money) of ₹100 crore per month from Sachin Vaze, an assistant police inspector, now arrested in the Ambani bomb scare case. The home minister, in turn, claims that the police commissioner is only trying to protect himself from being implicated in the same case in which one person, Mansukh Hiran, has been found dead. Amid these allegations and counter-allegations, here is the inconvenient truth — the chickens have come home to roost and Maharashtra’s, and dare one say, India’s politician-police nexus has been laid bare.
A few years ago, a senior Maharashtra police officer Sanjay Pandey admitted as much during actor Aamir Khan’s popular Satyamev Jayate TV show while alluding to an “organised, institutionalised settlement” system by which dance bars and restaurants in Mumbai had to pay a “hafta” or fixed fee to the local police and their superiors.
Which is why it is time to end this self-righteous indignation over the happenings in Maharashtra. If a police commissioner had not been transferred, it is more than likely that he wouldn’t have said a word.
If Hiran’s body had not been found in the Thane creek, it is possible that the Ambani bomb case would have died a natural death, and Vaze would still be calling the shots. And if former Maharashtra chief minister (CM) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, Devendra Fadnavis, didn’t have access to confidential documents, may be the Shiv Sena-led government could brazen it out. Nor can Uddhav Thackeray or Sharad Pawar distance themselves from the murkiness of this episode. After all, Vaze joined the Sena after being suspended in a fake encounter case. What was the compulsion to reinstate him in 2020 when the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) came to power, but for the fact that he was seen as a “Shiv Sainik in uniform”? And can a hands-on, veteran politician like Pawar claim that he was unaware of what the home minister might have been up to?
While Fadnavis can legitimately claim to have put the Maharashtra government on the back-foot, don’t forget that he, too, presided over the same system when he was CM. Will anyone believe that the politician-policeman nexus only surfaced in November 2019 when the MVA government came to power? Indeed, can any state government claim to have made an attempt to implement the police reforms recommended by the Supreme Court in the 2006 Prakash Singh case? At the core of those reforms is the urgent need to insulate the police from political pressures, be it in transfers or investigations. But no government has chosen to prioritise police reforms.
But why would any government bite the hand that feeds them? The fact is, whether it is the alleged extortion racket or the lucrative “transfer-posting” industry, an increasingly corrupted politician-police culture has corroded and enfeebled institutional structures to the point where the lines between right and wrong have been blurred. It isn’t just the street constable who seeks a bribe with impunity: The chain it appears extends from the station house officers to shockingly even Indian Police Service officers and their political bosses.
Which is why heads must roll in Maharashtra and any inquiry must go well beyond the usual political score-settling. Let the guilty be identified and given exemplary punishment. To protect the trustworthy police officer and yes, the upright politician too, the chain of fraudulence must be broken. Else every furious citizen will be entitled to scream: ‘’Aata majhi satakli’!
Postscript: Some of the goings-on in Maharashtra seem bizarre in tragic times (remember the state has by far the highest number of Covid-19 cases and many beat policemen have lost their lives in the pandemic). Take, for example, Pawar’s suggestion that the 92-year-old former Mumbai police commissioner Julio Ribeiro be asked to probe the allegations. Ribeiro has rightly pointed out that he is hardly at an age where he can be the lead investigator. But the fact that a nonagenarian is considered as most apt for the task reveals the deep credibility crisis that confronts an entire generation of those in khakhi and khadi.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal