When the police plant bombs

That old adage says when thieves fall out, honest men come by their own. In Mumbai, there is nothing honest in the air as yet with allegations, wild and otherwise, flying thick in the wake of the scare caused by the discovery of dynamite sticks near the skyscraper home of Mukesh Ambani.

It is not a coincidence that the man who had a hand in planting the explosives near Ambani’s home this time is an old timer from those days of disgrace and shame for the Mumbai police.

The dramatic disclosures in the case should put all of India on notice, and bring to attention the huge risks when police forces that must control crime and maintain law & order are allowed to run amok and use unconventional and illegal means to deliver what the law requires them to do by the rule book. What we see today is at least in part the continued fallout from the time Mumbai police went on a trigger-happy spree with the so-called “encounter” killings that led to the force becoming split between two gangs. This was an arrangement under which gangs were being ostensibly eliminated but what it delivered was something very different as gangsters outsourced the killing of their rivals to the police. Soon, the gangs outside were mirrored with gangs inside the force, each police “encounter” team known for its loyalties, information sources and the price at which rivals could be bumped off. This kind of failure at the political and professional level led to loss of control and the injection of a new level of murkiness in a system that has always been on the edge of murky and submerged in corruption.

It is not a coincidence that the man who had a hand in planting the explosives near Ambani’s home this time is an old timer from those days of disgrace and shame for the Mumbai police. He is himself a disgraced, low ranked police officer, making this an inside job that in itself reveals the kind of rot that runs through a police force that years ago took pride in being called the Scotland Yard of India. There is also no doubt that this disgraced officer, an Assistant Police Inspector named Sachin Waze, has in the past worked as the ‘A’ team of the man who now headed the force, the Commissioner of Police Parambir Singh. This was in the 1990s, when Singh as Deputy Commissioner had Waze in his team as an “encounter specialist”.

What looks like a problem of the police in Mumbai is a problem that we see across the nation, where encounters have become the preferred way to eliminate gangsters, cut short the legal process of prosecution and take cover under the plea that the people of India support the killing of gangsters.

Singh has since been shunted out, but he has hit back saying the State Home Minister, Anil Deshmukh of the NCP, had asked Waze to collect Rs. 100 crore from bars, and assorted businesses in Mumbai. Singh, of course, cries foul now but was silent all along, which in itself raises its own questions about his conduct, given that there is political rivalry also at play between the BJP-led Centre and the Shiv Sena-led State. The Commissioner’s “revelations” therefore taken on a colour of someone speaking out against one party to stand for or seek cover from another. Waze has been arrested by the NIA, a little over one year after he was reinstated in service in a rather odd move, after being suspended and then resigning from the police force way back in 2007.

And who reinstated him? Singh headed the committee that did the deed, though Waze was being prosecuted for the death in custody of Khwaja Yunus, a 27-year-old computer engineer, in a case now pending in the courts. The reason cited for the urgent reinstatement was the need to hire more police staff in times of a pandemic! From the top to the bottom, the rot runs deep and won’t be easy to clean since it is now so much a part of the system that it has created its own efficiencies, paybacks and a way of working that keeps the machinery moving. There is another death that could be traced to Singh and Waze’s hands now – one of the cars used in the Ambani case was allegedly being parked at the Police Commissioner’s office; the precise car carrying the dynamite belonged to a little-known businessman who has since died in mysterious circumstances.

 The truth will for long remain concealed behind a flood of allegations, innuendoes and surmises. Whatever the picture may be, there is no doubt that the Mumbai Police will not command respect. It may well embolden other members of the force to test boundaries and further lower standards.

Consider that if the so-called “encounters” were investigated, if Waze and his senior Singh were held to account for their actions, this team of two would not have had the capacity to rise to the levels they have and sabotage the system in the way they have today.

Controlling this slide will require a huge effort. But what looks like a problem of the police in Mumbai is a problem that we see across the nation, where encounters have become the preferred way to eliminate gangsters, cut short the legal process of prosecution and take cover under the plea that the people of India support the killing of gangsters. What this simplistic analysis refuses to see or learn is that due process is not a hurdle to be crossed but the only way in which the forces can be kept honest, can be made to deliver on their legal mandate and to be able to truly control crime and conduct investigations bringing those truly guilty to justice.

Any approach that shortchanges due process is an invitation to disaster, as we see happening in Mumbai. Consider that if the so-called “encounters” were investigated, if Waze and his senior Singh were held to account for their actions, this team of two would not have had the capacity to rise to the levels they have and sabotage the system in the way they have today. This writer is personally witness to how these “encounter” specialists have gone about their work, almost all of it illegal, almost a private den that is sometimes dirtier than the code with which gangs may operate. More than two decades ago, one of these “specialists” in a private conversation revealed that he had the power to listen in to any mobile conversation without due process, kept a set of guns in his locker in the office which he displayed and made no bones about admitting that he was not clean and that his team was known for being the one that made money – which was a cause of jealousy among many others!   

There is no doubt that the Mumbai Police will not command respect. It may well embolden other members of the force to test boundaries and further lower standards.

What is the influence of all of this on young police officers who join and take up routine city policing? A retired DGP remarked that the shootout at Lokhandwala, the one which has a Bollywood movie to its credit, in which two police teams fought to claim the encounter, wasn’t the best introduction to the way the police operated in Mumbai.

Mumbai, and the nation, needs to put a stop to short termism when it comes to daily policing. There is only one way to control crime, maintain law & order and build confidence among the citizenry. It’s the old-fashioned way of getting this right. It takes time, effort, skill and involves support for the men who live up to the pledge of the uniform. It demands exemplary punishment for those who break the rules.  This is called due process, in letter and in spirit, and is the only way. Whenever it is violated, we will get the murkiness that shames the Mumbai police today. Whenever it is followed, we will get a force that makes the city proud of its work and commitment.

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at Bhavan’s SPJIMR. Views are personal)