This is really the story of how a professional force has been maligned by a few rogue elements and exploited by politicians to serve their own interests. Who is interested in a professional force ?

Bombay Police have had ‘rogues in and out of uniform’ even before Param Bir Singh and Sachin Vaze

Sujata Anandan

Long before former police commissioner Param Bir Singh accused Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh of using Assistant inspectors to extort money from bars and hookah parlours, Mumbai Police, hailed once as Scotland Yard of the East, had gone to seed.

There were two primary reasons– the creation and encouragement of “encounter specialists” among the junior force; and the existence of dual authority over the police that helped senior officers play one political boss against the other. The exigencies of coalition politics also made it difficult for any home minister or chief minister to command unquestioned authority. Both phenomena began in the 1990s and turned Mumbai cops into a force with no accountability.

Following the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, underworld activities grew in the city and senior officers were driven to their wit’s end. Sharp shooters and contract killers that the underworld would use to attack film stars and businessmen were not always hardened criminals – they were often young impoverished boys who often picked up guns for the consideration of sums that would help wed their sisters or pay their aged parents’ hospital bills.

These youngsters would melt into the vast multitude of Indians and remain untraceable. But cops had good intelligence on who had ordered the killings and thus the junior constabulary were encouraged to go after the ganglords. Soon enough they ended up as criminals in uniform, undertaking contract killings themselves for huge sums of money, some of it they allegedly shared with their bosses to keep them quiet and look the other way.

Eventually, encounter specialists were driven out of the force. But they still continued to rule Mumbai’s crime scene. Strangely, these out of uniform cops continued to patronise senior officers with skeletons to hide and control their transfers and postings.

Sachin Vaze was an encounter specialist but was suspended for the custodial death of an engineer Khwaja Younus in the early years of this century. Unfortunately for Vaze, others in custody with Younus too were educated youngsters and articulate. The court believed the undertrials and hence Vaze faced a long period of unemployment.

Even though temporarily out of uniform (when he joined the Shiv Sena), he was as active and Param Bir Singh felt it expedient to bring him back to the police force. But there would soon be a skeleton that refused to remain in the cupboard – instead washed itself ashore in Thane. And this was the body of Mansukh Hiren whose car was found packed with explosives and parked close to the residence of top industrialist Mukesh Ambani in South Mumbai.

Hiren, by most accounts, refused to accept the responsibility. He had to be eliminated, particularly since that car had been in Vaze’s possession until barely a month before its discovery. Hiren’s killers however got the timing wrong– it was low tide and the body got washed ashore; high tide would have ensured Hiren disappeared without a trace and the body would have been washed to the sea.

Parambir Singh is said to have stepped in to malign Deshmukh after it became apparent that the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which had already arrested Vaze, could come for him next. But in accusing Deshmukh of wishing to collect Rs 100 crore per month from Mumbai’s supposed 1700-odd bars and restaurants, he ended up making unforced errors.

First and foremost, the action against dance bars and hookah parlours by a previous Congress-NCP government had drastically reduced the number of bars in the city to a mere handful. Then the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown had greatly reduced their income and most are now running in losses. Moreover, on the days that Singh claimed Deshmukh had met the junior cops, the minister was in an ICU for Covid and could not have been in his office or residence at the time. Finally, he could have collected larger sums from industrialists, builders, the underworld and even through transfers and postings of police officers. He did not have to target petty bars and hookah parlours.

But the BJP, which has been desperate to pull down the government in Maharashtra, was looking for a narrative that would be easily bought by the gullible. Amid allegations that the letter has the stamp of the BJP IT cell all over it, the narrative also ties in with the desperation of former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis to return to office.

Fadnavis kept the home portfolio with himself and a tight leash on police officers, ending a practice that was started by his own party in 1995. In the coalition government led then by Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena, Gopinath Munde of the BJP, who was deputy chief minister, was given the home department which until then had stayed with the CMO. The practice was continued by the Congress and NCP with the latter wishing for more control. Until Fadnavis’ arrival top cops got used to playing the CM against his deputy and home minister – something that led to their disastrous conduct during the 26/11 terror attacks that eventually led to the resignations of both then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and his home minister and deputy RR Patil (both now deceased).

But his tight control over the police department led to another unsavoury fallout –with police officers ingratiating themselves with Fadnavis and the BJP. This was spotted by Anil Deshmukh months ago and he was already weeding out such officers –which enraged both the bureaucracy and the BJP.

Even in less polarised times, Mumbai’s police force had got used to running its own business and getting their way round their political masters. It will not be easy to clear the mess.