Recently, when sleuths from Mumbai crime branch arrested a well known gangster who had been absconding for several years, he didn’t seem unduly perturbed at being held by the police. When a cop asked him why he didn’t seem too worried, he replied, “Saheb, mujhe pata hai ki aap log mera counter (encounter) nahin karoge, isliye mujhe koi tension nahin hai.” (Sir, I am aware that you people (police) will not kill me in an encounter, so I’m not worried).
The mobster’s reply stunned the officer, but he soon concluded that it was indeed the case — apparently, the only thing gangsters feared was being eliminated in a police encounter. Police say that it was also the primary reason why they had managed to keep the underworld quiet for almost a decade, from 2000, till a couple of years ago.
The bad old days
From 1998 to 2002, Mumbai police and its team of ‘encounter specialists’ killed as many as 650 criminals belonging to various gangs. “This resulted in the underworld being wiped out from the city. Those who feared for their lives fled the country,” says the officer.
However, the police lost the plot thereafter, as, over a period of time, the encounter specialists themselves became a menace, with some even undertaking ‘supari’ killings to settle scores between rival gangs. A former encounter specialist, however, refuses to accept that they misused their power and status. “In fact, we are the victims. We were used by our superiors to first get rid of the underworld menace. Once that was done, we were thrown away like used tissue paper.” Another aspect which hit the encounter specialists hard was the judiciary coming down heavily on them for their extra-judicial killings, which resulted in a host of them getting suspended from the force.
According to another senior police officer, the stringent MCOCA (Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act) also helped tackle the underworld menace. Post-2002, underworld activities — at least blatant firings and killings — seemed to be on the decline.
“This was mainly because most of the criminals had been gunned down, and those alive were put behind bars for a long time under the draconian MCOCA law,” says a retired IPS officer.
So what has spurred the recent spurt in underworld killings, with the shooting of investigative journalist J Dey being the most high profile case? According to the police, apart from the main gangs, such as those of Dawood Ibrahim, Chhota Shakeel and Chhota Rajan, even break-away ‘splinter gangs’ like those headed by Ravi Pujari and Santosh Shetty have become active. This, combined with the departure of the encounter phenomenon — the ‘fear factor’, as it were — has brought Mumbai police and the authorities back to the problem they faced in the ’90s: how to tackle the growing menace of the Mumbai underworld?
“Right now, there is no system in place to deal with the problem. Encounters have failed, while MCOCA has not been fully successful,” rues the police officer, adding that policemen today do not have the required informer-base to get adequate intelligence about the underworld. “In the light of the ‘use and throw policy’ adopted by the authorities with regard to the encounter specialists, policemen today are reluctant to come forward and tackle the underworld head-on,” says a serving police officer.
No short-cut solutions
While there is no fool-proof solution in sight, experts feel that there are a few aspects of the problem the police can start working on right away.
The first of these is the revival of a proper informer network. In the past, it was the encounter specialists who had the best informer network in the police force. But with most of them shunted out, Mumbai police has been operating without access to a base of informers who used to provide timely intelligence, opine experts. The problem is further exacerbated with the underworld’s new strategy of ‘outsourcing’ work to mercenaries rather than use their own affiliated henchmen.
Former Maharashtra DGP, Dr PS Pasricha says, “Chhota Rajan and Dawood Ibrahim have started outsourcing contract killings to unemployed youngsters who have no crime record. This makes it difficult for the police to catch them. Given India’s porous borders with Nepal and Bangladesh, these shooters easily escape the country, and as we don’t have strong extradition treaties, they are not caught.”
According to Pasricha, there is an urgent need to strengthen the informer network, besides equipping the force with the latest technology. “Proper combination of intelligence and technology is vital to combat the underworld.”
Former Mumbai police commissioner MN Singh believes that the campaign against the underworld has gone flat in the last few years. Recalling the earlier phase when the mafia was on the ascendant, Singh says that the current surge in underworld activity is bound to revive memories of the 1990s.
“Back then, we had dealt with it strongly. The Dawood and Rajan gang had been weakened. Suresh Manchekar and Amar Naik, their key lieutenants, were killed,” remembers Singh. “There is no doubt that the public is worried about the gangs bouncing back. The recent incidents involving journalist J Dey, Bharat Nepali and Farid Tanasha are disturbing, and are a wake-up call for the police.”
On the other hand, former chief of Maharashra police, SS Virk, holds that rather than encounters or draconian laws, it is proper investigation and timely disposal of cases in courts that will be the most effective deterrent to the underworld. “There is no reason for panic. Once there is a concerted effort, things will improve. Good investigations, good police officers, good prosecutors, fast track courts — only if we have all these working together will we get good results. The existing laws are more than adequate to tackle the underworld menace.”