NEW DELHI // The fall from grace of Mumbai's once-lionised "encounter specialist" police officers continues with the arrest last week of Pradeep Sharma, an inspector who it is claimed has killed 112 gangsters. He is being investigated in relation to the death of an alleged Mumbai gangster.
"Encounter specialists" are the small group of elite policemen belonging to Mumbai's Crime Intelligence Unit (CIU) who carried out an unofficial policy of cornering criminals and shooting them dead. They have been operating since the since the early 1990s. Many Mumbai residents believe that the encounter specialists deserve credit for cleaning up crime in India's commercial and entertainment capital by eliminating at least 350 suspected gangland members and scaring many others out of the city.
Although the officers' shootings amounted to summary executions, lurid tales of their gunfights with gangsters made some of them celebrities. Newspapers regularly splashed stories and photographs on the team's "bravery", TV channels broadcast documentaries, and their exploits inspired Bollywood films. But their trigger-happy tactics also made them a target for human-rights campaigners. The Mumbai encounter specialists have in recent years been under constant legal scrutiny, with several of them being investigated on charges of corruption.
Following an investigation by a special investigation team appointed by the Bombay High Court, last Friday police arrested Mr Sharma, the 48-year-old police inspector with the highest tally of alleged gangsters. Ramprasad Gupta, a Mumbai-based lawyer, filed a petition in the High Court alleging that his brother, Ramnarayan Gupta, alias Lakhanbhaiya, had been shot dead in cold blood by a police team led by Mr Sharma on November 11, 2006.
Mr Sharma, who was dismissed from the Mumbai police in 2008 for alleged connections with the underworld don Dawood Ibrahim but later reinstated, maintains that Lakhanbhaiya was a henchman of the Chhota Rajan gang and was shot by the police team in an encounter. "My brother was not a gangster when he was killed," Mr Gupta claimed. "There was no criminal case against him post-1997. He was a reformed man. At the behest of [Chhota Rajan's arch-rival] Dawood Ibrahim, Mr Sharma and his team abducted Lakhanbhaiya and shot him dead."
Mr Gupta also stated in the petition that two hours after Lakhanbhaiya had been picked up and five hours before he was shot dead by Mr Sharma, the Gupta family filed a complaint to police, fearing that he might be killed by the police. The court's investigative team said that they had found prima facie evidence for Mr Gupta's allegation that his brother had been abducted and then assassinated by the team led by Mr Sharma. Two other policemen and three informers - all members of the team that killed Lakhanbhaiya - were also arrested alongside the inspector.
The investigators' report claimed that at least five bullets hit Lakhanbhaiya from close range, with the first hitting him in the forehead. The investigation team chief, KMM Prasanna, told the media that his team had got "solid evidence" against Mr Sharma in the case and he will soon have a charge sheet prepared against him. "Our evidence is more than what is known in the public domain. It was only after we had gathered concrete evidence that we arrested Sharma," Mr Prasanna said.
With the latest arrest of the team leader, Mr Sharma said the curtain has come down on the "famous five" Mumbai encounter specialists who had been entrusted with the job of removing the Mumbai underworld about two decades ago. Daya Nayak, the other idolised member of the "famous five", with 90 encounter killings to his credit, was suspended from the force in 2006 for alleged links with gangs of Chhota Shakeel and possessing assets out of proportion to his police salary. He is facing trial.
Other encounter specialists Sachin Waze, Ravindra Angre, Praful Bhosale and Hemant Desai - the last two also being members of the "famous five" - have also been arrested and dismissed from the police. Inspector Sharma, known for his film star-like swagger, was dismissed from service in 2008 for suspected links with the mafia and amassing illegal wealth amounting to three billion rupees (Dh240 million). Since the charges went unproved, Mr Sharma was reinstated to the Mumbai police in May 2009.
"Encounters are an addiction for me. I feel bored on Sundays," Mr Sharma, who was one of the inspirations for the 2004 Bollywood film Ab Tak Chhappan (Fifty-six So Far) told Agence France-Presse in 2005, at the peak of his career. Mr Sharma denies that any of his 112 hits were in cold blood and says that in all cases he "fired in self-defence", an explanation frowned upon by many senior police officers and disputed by human rights activists.
The former Mumbai police commissioner MN Singh deems the failure of the criminal justice system as "the biggest cause of encounters gaining acceptance". Julio Ribeiro, another former Mumbai police commissioner, blamed politicians and corruption among senior police officers as important reasons behind the rise of the encounter specialists. "When encounters become the accepted norm, men in khaki run the risk of behaving like criminals or hired hitmen of opposing gangs - and, with the seniors so corrupt, there was no way they could have checked the junior encounter specialists."