'Encounter Specialists' Were Seen as a Bitter Yet Necessary Medicine: Retired IPS Officer

In an interview to The Wire, Meeran Chadha Borwankar says political interference in the Mumbai police's affairs is rampant and that 'hafta' collection often goes up the hierarchy.

Nothing has eroded the image of the police in recent times or brought to the forefront the unholy police-politician nexus than the events of the last few weeks in Mumbai, triggered off by an explosive-laden SUV found near billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s residence Antilia, exactly a month ago. Since then, a sequence of events – transfer of the police commissioner Param Bir Singh, Singh’s letter trading grave charges against the state home minister, the suspension and arrest of Sachin Waze – the case has only got murkier.

Even as a new report pointing to political interference in police transfers further threatened to deepen the malaise, the author of the report Rashmi Shukla is now suddenly in the line of fire too. No one knows from where will the next salvo be fired, even as the original issue – the Antilia case continues to mystify and defy explanation.

Retired IPS officer Meeran Chadha Borwankar who worked in Mumbai, where she was a former director general of police (DGP) and also former joint commissioner of police, crime branch, Mumbai, where she became known to severely curtail ‘encounters’ and attempts of extortion.

In an interview to Sunanda Mehta, Borwankar talks about her experience with the band of ‘encounter specialists’, her experience while heading the volatile Mumbai crime branch and the rampant corruption and political interference that is reducing the police force to a farce.

Also read: Criminal Justice System Being Perverted, Requires Reform: Former Civil Servants

Given the startling events of the last few days, to begin with, tell us about this strange world of encounter specialists.  How did this group emerge and then flourish?

They were just a few officers who would dare to challenge gangsters, enter their dens, search and arrest them. They were quick and fast in action, courageous but not an undisciplined lot.

Let me share with you that the class of 1983, known for having produced the maximum ‘encounter specialists’, trained with me for three months at the Nashik Police Training College (PTC). Other IPS officers from my batch of 1981 had already completed the three-month training. The principal of the training college asked me to lead trainee sub-inspectors in outdoor activities including the daily morning run of about 4 km. These 1983-batch youngsters would keep requesting me to run fast, but would not overtake me, respecting my rank. They were young, disciplined and a motivated batch with ‘we will change the world for good’ kind of enthusiasm.

What is the typical profile of an encounter specialist you have commented that it’s very different from the perceived one?

The ‘encounter specialists’, as they came to be known later, were a simple lot, most of them physically fit, all respecting the uniform, loyal, full of enthusiasm and positive energy.

When I worked with them at the crime branch, I noticed they were not high-handed or arrogant and were respected by other officers. They had successfully created an aura about themselves. Meticulous in planning, they always had officers who were good at paperwork, to ensure there would be minimum legal loopholes in their operations. I did not find them gung-ho, gun-happy kind of irresponsible officers. Not that I am defending what they did or do, but the traits of loyalty towards their teams, their superiors who handled them and even their informants is extraordinary.

Retired IPS officer Meeran Chadha Borwankar. Photo: Author provided.

Isn’t there any mechanism to keep a check on what seems to be an unnecessary evil but one that is not going away? Do we need counter-encounter specialists?

No, we do not need ‘counter encounter specialists’ or even encounter specialists for that matter, but we do need brave and courageous officers. And it is not difficult to keep them under check. As I said earlier, they are generally very loyal to the police leadership. Due to a very slow and tardy trial judicial process for criminal cases where most of the dreaded criminals may well be acquitted, they [encounter specialists] were ‘created’ by police leaders to counter lethal organised crime in Mumbai. In fact, one of the senior officers during the late 90s used to say, “I know this is the wrong medicine, but what to do it is the only one working!”

Then somewhere down the line, the ‘encounter specialists’ who were uniformed sub-inspectors/inspectors, were romanticised and glorified, became aware of their powers and a few took to extortion and protection. Politicians, police leaders, builders and the rich started using them for settling civil disputes, personal enmity and to make money. A cult thus born can be demolished by substituting it with prompt and speedy trial of court cases.

You have said that Sachin Waze should not have been reinstated or at least not posted in the criminal investigation unit. What about Param Bir Singh’s transfer – was that correct?

Transferring the commissioner of police for the criminal acts of an assistant police inspector is very strange. Because there are five ranks in between and police being a uniformed service is very conscious of ranks. However, I have seen this kind of blurring of hierarchy when the junior officer directly collects money, or ‘hafta‘, for the senior, a widely prevalent practice in the state. The other day I was talking to an IPS officer of Delhi and he said it is known as ‘monthly’ in Delhi!

Also read: Extrajudicial Killings, Political Clout, Suspension: Tracing Mumbai Cop Sachin Waze’s Career

How was your experience of heading the crime branch in Mumbai and handling the larger-than-life cops?

I was posted in the crime branch in 2004-2007 after a lot of discussions at the home minister level. I was sounded about the proposal but received my orders about two months later. In the meanwhile, I had talked to a few experienced officers, brushed up my knowledge of law and also followed the crime branch and its activities closely. I was earlier DCP in Mumbai for five years which included a stint at the crime branch too.

I was very clear that I would not favour any particular group or any kind of officer. It made sense to me to take all the 200+ officers with me than to depend upon a few. During 2004-2007, the Economic Offences Wing (EOW) was also with the joint commissioner of police crime.

I decided to depend on the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, 1999 (MCOCA) than on encounters as once booked under MCOCA, a gangster would be in custody till the end of the trial and thus unavailable to play havoc in the field. I must say that most officers supported me though I was aware that I was being called ‘bookish’ by some. I emphasised the need for good documentation, read case papers and frequently held consultations with investigating officers and prosecutors.

The ‘larger-than-life cops’ were very agitated about the delay in trials and had a valid point that most of the witnesses would not support us in courts, resulting in acquittals. It was a Catch 22-situation. Any acquittal of a case involving organised crime, would lead to ‘we told you….’ kind of looks all around.

I understood their viewpoint and worked harder on improving the quality of investigation and prosecution. I found the media was quite critical of me and said things like the ‘crime branch was losing its sheen’ with me as its chief, depending heavily on MCOCA instead of on encounters.

One remarkable trait of these larger-than-life cops was their information network. It was absolutely impressive. I also found them extremely protective of their informants. Once two of these cops got into a heated argument in my office, one accusing the other of poaching on his informants. Both had tears in their eyes. I had a tough time cooling them down!

I found these cops to be reserved, keeping their cards close to the chest and very possessive of their team of officers and informants.

And they look up to police leaders. And I must add that in our battle against organised crime, the additional commissioners of police and DCPs working in the crime branch fully supported me. The commissioner was of course a thorough professional.

Nevertheless, can there really be any justification for these encounter killings or vigilantism including the argument about instant delivery of justice as opposed to the tardiness of the system?

 No, there is absolutely no justification for ‘fake’ encounters. An efficient and prompt criminal justice system is the only solution to the vigilante and ‘instant justice’ phenomena we see all over the country now. Citizens are sick and tired of cases taking 20+ years to conclude.

Once again political interference in the police department has been highlighted, thanks to the letter written by Param Bir Singh, where he talks of the home minister’s 100 crore demand. Just how rampant is this interference?

Oh, very rampant and more so if the officer is himself or herself corrupt. In case the senior officer is honest, the politicians generally stay away or get occasional work done from juniors and bide their time. But if the seniors too are in the ‘hafta’ racket, they get all kinds of irregular and illegal ‘tasks’ done from them and through them. That is when the force too becomes unprofessional and demoralised as in police department everyone knows what goes on at the top and take their cue from there. And thus, citizens get a raw deal during their visits to police stations and investigation becomes mediocre. Poor conviction rate of crime reflects this.

The blame for Waze in a way lay with the commissioner of police, who in turn put the spotlight on the minister where does the buck stop?

The roles of both the ex-commissioner and the minister need a thorough enquiry. I hope it is not brushed under the carpet considering that public memory is notoriously short. Speedy enquiry by a high court judge can bring out the truth in the allegations levelled by the ex-commissioner.

Sachin Waze. Photo: Twitter/@ColonelAR

Why is that the transfer of top cops the first knee-jerk reaction to anything that goes wrong? Does it help do damage control?

Yes, it helps damage control as far as naïve, unaware, uninformed citizens are concerned. Those who understand administration and the media know that these are face-saving tactics and things would be ‘normal’ soon! The cynicism is tragic.

The report that Devendra Fadnavis talked about regarding political interference in police postings and the money and touts involved, wasn’t this an open secret anyway?

Yes, and it was so even when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power in Maharashtra. But it is very difficult to prove, as generally both parties are happy with the transaction. It has been going on since the early 80s and has slowly become entrenched as police leadership too got corrupted during the last four decades. This is the sad state of affairs across the country and with all political parties, not in Maharashtra alone. It was flagged by the Vohra committee in its report during 1993 about the nexus among criminals, police, politicians and bureaucrats in India.

Also read: The Maharashtra Police Is Getting Dangerously Politicised and Partisan

Did you see anything changing after this report?

After the Telgi stamp paper scam of Maharashtra and Karnataka, electronic stamp papers were introduced and it changed the scenario for good. I hope something similar comes out after an enquiry of the current case.

What about the establishment board that is supposed to decide on postings of police officers how has it been sidetracked, so effectively? What is its significance now?

The board is good on paper as it is in compliance with the Supreme Court-mandated police reforms of 2006 in Prakash Singh’s PIL. But I have seen how blatantly it is being breached. Politicians either ring up or send ‘unsigned paper chits’ advising transfer and postings to the board members. Officers are themselves at the mercy of these politicians for their own appointments and postings. Thus, they have to accede to these informal requests. However, wherever they feel strongly that an officer shall be a liability to a particular post, they take it up and most of the politicians respect such professional inputs and do not insist.

What do you make of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)’s allegation that Rashmi Shukla’s report holds no significance as she’s known to be a BJP supporter?

I am surprised that an internal enquiry was not conducted after Rashmi submitted her report as the then home secretary was a thorough professional. He is the chief secretary of the state now. I would wait for his response.

Is she the same person that they talked about some months back when they said there is a lady official trying to topple the government?

Yes, the political parties at that time were referring to her but have brought out her name in open now.

File photo of Maharashtra home minister Anil Deshmukh. Photo: Video screengrab.

We still don’t know anything about the Antilia incident per se why was the SUV outside it laden with gelatin sticks? Your comments

In fact, the investigation of Antilia and Mansukh Hiren cases have been sidelined. We must not lose sight of them and follow them carefully. I wonder if the current allegations about corruption are for the purpose of diverting attention from these very sensitive cases. But as aware and informed citizens we need to ensure that both cases are investigated thoroughly. Considering the gravity of the offences and the interlink, I would recommend a special court for their immediate trial. As discussed earlier, due to the delay in trial of criminal and civil cases, not only citizens but even police officers are losing faith in the criminal justice system.

Where do you see the case going from here?

I only hope it does not go the 2G way. The whole country was in turmoil due to corruption charges in allotment of spectrum, toppled the government but the case finally went down with a whimper. The judge famously said that he waited for evidence to be brought out by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), when the law gives enough power to a judge to call for any document or evidence.

In the current scenario, both the criminal cases need to be tried in a special court at the earliest and there should be a judicial enquiry into the allegations made by the ex-commissioner. I hope the judiciary would stand up and hold the guilty accountable. Citizens want result now; we have had too many discussions and exposes!

Also read: As Mumbai Police Drama Continues, Probe Into MP’s Suicide Delayed

Why do you think Julio Ribeiro refused to head the investigation?

Asking Ribeiro sir to investigate at the ripe age of 92 was to my mind an attempt to silence him.

 So, is this unholy nexus between politicians and the police really the crux of the entire issue?

Yes, corruption and nexus between politicians and police officers is the crux of the issue. In a way, I am glad it has come out in the open. Vohra committee report of 1993 had highlighted it and yet the nexus continued to flourish as it is emerging during the investigation of both Antilia and Mansukh Hiren murder cases. So, the saga of 1993 continues and would do so if we as citizens do not hold police, politicians, bureaucrats accountable while convicting criminals.

I, therefore, suggest that we should pursue the Supreme Court mandated police reforms. And also insist that all political parties include overhauling of the criminal justice system in their electoral manifestos implementing it earnestly at the earliest.

Sunanda Mehta is a journalist and author.