On a warm afternoon in Mumbai, a man stands outside the Bharatiya Janata Party office, dressed in a well-ironed light blue shirt and dark trousers, his legs a measured distance apart. In one muscular hand is a half-peeled banana. He scans the office and the road it looks onto with a policeman’s gaze, even as his companions plead with him to share stories.
“Okay, okay,” says Ravindra Angre, proceeding to tell them in Marathi how he once arrested a criminal. “He wasn’t giving me any information. So I scared him,” says the former policeman.
“What did you do to him?” asks someone.
“I told him, ‘You piece of shit, I’m writing a report about you right now. In English. I’m writing it in English.’ And he was so scared because he didn’t understand English, and he thought a police report in English would be harmful when it was taken to a judge,” Angre continues. “And within a minute, he would say, ‘Sir, sir, please. I will tell you everything, but please don’t write it in English.’”
The group erupts with laughter. Everyone had expected the story to be more gruesome, and the ending is an anti-climax.
Angre was one of Mumbai’s famous encounter cops, a group of fierce policemen who were given carte blanche authority to execute gangsters and pass them off as ‘encounters’ but who later found themselves on the other side of the law. Many of them were suspended from police service, some were dismissed, and quite a few were arrested for extortion and murder. Angre himself was arrested and dismissed from service for extorting money from a real estate developer. A few weeks ago, like a few encounter specialists before him, he joined a political party. Angre is now a BJP member, and it is rumoured that he will soon head the party’s Thane unit.
As he waits for a minister he is supposed to meet, Angre eats two large bananas in quick bites, crosses the road and consumes in two large gulps a couple of bottles of Amul Kool milk. He then declares to his companions that it is now time for lunch.
In the late 1990s, the financial capital of the country was turning into a deadly conflict zone. Daily extortion calls from underworld dons would be received by the offices of real estate developers, corporate honchos and Bollywood producers. Even someone who had just organised a lavish wedding, it was said, could expect a call the next day. Failure to comply would risk an un-natural death. The city’s gangsters, split on communal lines, were trigger-happy and shootouts between them were common.
The police seemed no match for these gunmen. Many policemen were, in any case, on the take. Even if gangsters were arrested, slow court processes meant they would be out on bail and roaming the streets within days.
That’s when the Mumbai Police adopted a controversial policy. With the support of politicians and top police authorities, they put together a squad of elite policemen who would do away with the tardy legal system altogether. They would not capture gangsters; they would shoot them instead. These encounter specialists, as they came to be known, left a trail of bodies; some 600 people were killed in the decade between 1993 and 2003, an effort that saw a large part of the underworld wiped out.
These were extra-judicial killings, plain and simple, but with their methods being lionised in the media and endorsed by much of Mumbai, the armed cops were able to pass them off as ‘encounter’ deaths; the press releases always said that gangsters had opened fire first and been killed in retaliation by the police. As the years went by, however, the encounter specialists underwent a spectacular fall from grace. Many were accused of being corrupt. Some were apparently taking on hit jobs for the underworld itself. And several encounters were allegedly staged against innocent people. Besides suspensions and dismissals, some policemen even had to serve jail time. Some did manage to get back into the force, but many couldn’t. Now, a few of them want to embark on political careers.
The first off the block was Sachin Waze. A veteran of 63 official encounters, he was later accused of killing a software engineer allegedly involved in a 2002 bomb blast case in Mumbai. It is said that the victim, Khwaja Yunus, died after Waze punched him and poured cold water on him; Waze argues that Yunus is alive but absconding. After his arrest, Waze quit the force in 2007 and joined the Shiv Sena.
Among the most famous encounter cops is Pradeep Sharma. He is officially said to have killed 112 men in encounters, including notorious crime bosses and terrorists of the Lashkar-e-Toiba. Later, however, he was accused of working at the behest of underworld dons. In 2010, he was arrested and charged with the killing an alleged gangster named Ram Narain Gupta, nicknamed Lakhan Bhaiyya. The victim’s brother claims that Gupta was shot over a land dispute in a police station and his body was later dumped in a park to pass it off as an encounter. After the sole witness to the alleged murder, a builder named Anil Bheda, was found dead— his body burnt to make identification difficult—in a forest on the outskirts of Mumbai, the case against Sharma was thrown out on insufficient evidence.
Last year, Sharma filed his papers as a candidate of the Republican Party of India for the Maharashtra state Assembly polls. The RPI was then expected to form a pre- poll alliance with the BJP. After Satyapal Singh—a former police commissioner of Mumbai who once formed a special squad of encounter specialists when he was a deputy commissioner of police and made Sharma its head—joined the BJP, it was rumoured that Sharma too was trying to join the party. At the time of filing his candidacy, according to an Indian Express report, Sharma had declared assets worth Rs 39 crore, including flats and two commercial properties in Mumbai. Most of the immovable property was in the name of Sharma’s wife Swikriti. The encounter specialist also declared a ‘firearm’ worth Rs 25,000.
But during this period, an old case was reopened. Sharma’s acquittal in the Lakhan Bhaiyya case was appealed against in the High Court and a bailable warrant issued for him. When the RPI and BJP announced a seat-sharing agreement, Sharma’s name was missing from the final list. He had withdrawn his candidacy. Contacted over the phone, Sharma says, “I am not a member of the RPI now. I had filed my nomination papers, wanting to work for people, but I withdrew it later. I’m not involved in any party activity now.”
The chief argument by encounter cops for joining political parties is that they felt used by the police administration and government. According to them, their brand of rough justice was not only okayed but also encouraged by top police officials and the government. But when they had outlived their use, and rivals with grudges— apart from human rights activists—came after them, they were left to fend for themselves. “Every morning there would be a meeting of ours with top police officers where a list of names of people to be killed would be given to us. Now some try to say we were acting on our own or taking on hit jobs for other gangsters,” Angre says. “There was bound to be repercussions of the way we took on the underworld. And we were told we would be supported.”
According to a former police official who requests anonymity, most encounter cops were thugs in uniform. “They took money from one gang to bump off someone from another gang,” he says, “Mumbai is very different now. And hopefully they won’t ever come back, either in uniform or in the garb of a politician.”
According to Byculla to Bangkok, a book by the veteran crime journalist Hussain S Zaidi, encounter cops were deeply connected with politicians during their service days, often carrying out hit jobs for them. He writes, ‘Until the early nineties, the Mumbai police by and large had some credibility. But with the onset of ‘encounters’, they became pawns in the hands of politicians. Political parties that had initially patronised the mafia marked them out in a use-and-throw policy.’
After Vijay Salaksar, the senior police inspector who was killed by terrorists in the 26/11 attacks, shot the dreaded gangster Amar Naik, he was asked by a minister of the then government to specifically go after Arun Gawli, for which he was told he had the government’s backing. Zaidi writes in the book, ‘Salaskar knew that Gawli and the Naiks had forced the minister’s hand… The ruling Shiv Sena was convinced that Gawli in particular deserved to be punished for his belligerence towards the powers that be.’ Salaskar started striking out Gawli’s top hitmen, killing the likes of Sada Pawle and Vijay Tandel. It is said that the government had a special police chowki erected right in front of Dagdi Chawl, the fortress Gawli built to protect himself, and posted Salaskar there.
When a rival gang issued a Rs 5 lakh contract for the head of a gangster named Amjad Khan, it is said that nobody wanted to take on the job because of Khan’s alleged friendship with Pradeep Sharma. The gang upped the offer to Rs 5 crore and later to an unbelievable Rs 20 crore, according to Zaidi. The gangster Chhota Rajan eventually took up the contract and paid Rs 5 crore to an encounter specialist to locate and point out Khan.
After Khan was killed, Sharma went after Rajan. Zaidi writes in the book, ‘Between 2006 and 2009, encounter specialists of the Mumbai police specifically chased down Rajan’s men and more than thirty were killed. The fear psychosis that they unleashed was such that no new shooters were willing to join the gang, while those who already worked for Rajan refused assignments as they were tired of being harassed by the police.’ The police made sure that real estate developers and businessmen known for their loyalty to the gangster cut off all ties with him. According to Zaidi, ‘In the two years after 2006, Rajan’s business suffered losses of more than Rs 250 crore by a conservative estimate… By the year 2010, Rajan had hardly any powerful lieutenants left in the gang.’
Angre is a veteran of 52 official encounters. His most famous kill is that of Suresh Manchekar, one of the city’s most dreaded and elusive dons. Angre spent around three years following various leads to track the man down, from a flat in Mumbai’s Parel area whose telephones he had bugged to the large villa of an alphonso mango dealer in Belgaum in Karnataka, and the beaches of Goa, from where calls were being made to the Parel flat. Angre had even planted moles within Manchekar’s gang. He eventually tracked the elusive gangster to Kolhapur, where he was shot on 15 August 2003. “It was my Independence Day gift to the nation,” says Angre.
That, in Angre’s telling, is when the decline began. “From those heady days, when we went after those nobody dared to take on, how do you expect us to remain happy in postings where we have to register cow thefts and listen to senior citizens’ complaints?” Angre asks. According to him, as accusations against them grew, they were sidelined by the police and given insignificant postings.
Ironically, when Angre was arrested and sent to jail, he found that his cellmate was a gangster he was once after. Sajid Chikna, a member of the Amar Naik gang, had apparently been asked by various gangs to kill Angre in prison, but he did not dare take up the supari in fear that the police would later kill him for it. “In my first day in [Thane Central Jail], my cellmate saluted me. My world came crashing down. From killing and putting underworld dons in prison, I was now sharing a cell with one of them,” he says. “All my pretensions about the grandeur of the service vanished. But I still wanted to serve the public. Maybe not as a policeman, I realised, but maybe in another capacity.”
According to Angre, an encounter cop would make for a different kind of politician. “We won’t just find the problem,” he says, “We will finish it off.”
After Angre was reinstated by the police in 2012, he found he was being sent off to the Maoist belt of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra, a punishment posting as some saw it. He went on leave, did not report to his new post, was suspended and later sacked. Angre, though, claims he did not report to the post only because it was at the police control room, which sees little action. “I was expected to make reports on thefts of cows and animals and inform my superior every morning about crimes that had taken place at night. I want to be on the field, in action, where I could actually make a difference,” he says.
“I told my superiors, ‘Those Naxalites are no big shakes. Let’s just encounter those motherfuckers’.”