The Mumbai police have spent a good part of the past five months defending their investigation of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide. But for the past month, the police have gone on the offensive against its critics – especially Republic TV, which since its inception three years ago has unabashedly gone after anyone it saw as an opponent of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah regime at the Centre. In the past, Republic TV has run motivated and vicious campaigns against fellow journalists, human rights activists, politicians and the Gandhi family.
Early on Wednesday morning, news trickled in that the Maharashtra police had arrested Republic TV editor and founder Arnab Goswami in a case of abetment of suicide. The case had been closed earlier in April 2019, but was reopened in May this year by home minister Anil Deshmukh.
Besides leading investigations against Goswami, the Mumbai police have also been busy registering cases against bloggers, social media busybodies, news channel employees, and even actors for making ‘offensive’ remarks against Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray or his son.
The U-turn by the Raigad police in the abetment to suicide case against Goswami goes to show how deeply politicised the force has become. It had closed the case against Goswami when the BJP was in power in the state, and it has arrested him now when a new coalition is in power.
Supremely powerful, politicised and corrupt
A brief survey of events of the past two decades would show that Mumbai’s unique position as the country’s capital of money, glamour and crime has made many of its police officers supremely powerful, politicised and corrupt.
In no other part of the country do you would come across ordinary police inspectors running real estate empires worth hundreds of crores. But in Mumbai, you will. Here, some officers have been known to eliminate real estate players, senior cops have been found to be in cahoots with gangs run by Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan and an officer was removed from his post as Mumbai police commissioner and arrested soon after for shielding a fake stamp paper racket.
Also in no other part of the mainland (not even Gujarat), will you find officers enjoying almost blanket immunity for excesses and human rights violations. But again, in Mumbai you will. Very rarely have the press, courts and elected politicians tried to hold the Mumbai police accountable. Extrajudicial killings by the dozens have instead been storied by script-writers and crime reporters as Ab Tak Chhapan and Class of 83. ‘Encounter specialists’ is a phrase that crime reporters in the city use in their copies as if it is a special designation, hardly caring to see the long trail of cold-blooded murders, devastated families, widows and orphans that the spate of unabated police ‘encounters’ left in their wake.
Much before the phenomenon of encounter killings reached the shores of Gujarat, it was the streets of Mumbai that witnessed ‘shootouts’. Not everybody who was gunned down was an underworld shooter. Barring a few, almost every ‘encounter’ was fake. Yet, very few ‘killers in uniform’ were investigated or punished.
Khwaja Yunus, a 27-year-old engineer, went “missing” 18 years ago after being picked up as a ‘terror suspect’. Officially, he is still missing although it is apparent that he died in police custody. The law presumes a person dead if they are not traceable for seven years. But the officers who had picked Yunus up and tortured him are back in service, reinstated by the current Shiv Sena-Congress-NCP regime. The Maharashtra government recently informed the Bombay high court that the state had not even conducted a departmental or disciplinary inquiry against the four police officers, as was ordered by the court way back in 2004.
A sub-inspector with 83 encounters to his “credit”, and who was once arrested on charges of disproportionate assets, has recently been promoted. When it comes to giving its officers a license to kill, the Maharashtra government supersedes all, except the insurgency-torn states.
Handmaidens of political bosses
If the lower rungs of the Mumbai police have been involved with the underworld and the builder lobby, the senior leadership of the force has acted as a handmaiden of its political bosses.
Param Bir Singh, the current police commissioner, has a troubling track record of leading investigations that suit the political party in power. In August 2018, while he was serving as the additional director general of police (law and order) under the BJP-Shiv Sena government, Singh held the infamous press conference in which he released the ‘conclusive evidence’ against the human rights activists and academics accused in the Bhima Koregaon case of waging war against the nation, even as the matter was being heard by the Supreme Court.
Justice D.Y. Chandrachud made scathing observations on this press conference, while admonishing the Maharashtra police for briefing and leaking evidence to the media while petitions were sub-judice in high courts and the Supreme Court. The Bombay high court passed strictures against Singh but the state did not initiate any action against him because it was reported that Singh held the presser at the instructions of the then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.
After the current Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government was sworn in, Singh as the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) chief, gave a ‘clean chit’ to Ajit Pawar, the deputy chief minister, in the irrigation scam case. Ironically, Singh’s predecessor – both in the post of Mumbai CP and chief of the ACB – Sanjay Barve, had filed an affidavit before the Nagpur bench of the high court in November 2018, naming Pawar in the Rs 70,000 crore scam. Barve indicted Pawar in the scam under the Devendra Fadnavis government and then went on to become the Mumbai CP. Fast forward a year later to December 2019, Singh gave Pawar a clean chit under Thackeray-Pawar regime. He went on to become the Mumbai CP.
And now as Mumbai CP, Singh has gone after Republic TV. This, however, doesn’t necessarily make that the case is ‘insignificant’ or ‘bogus’, it’s just that the investigation suits the present Maha Vikas Aghadi government. But then, it’s hardly surprising that Singh – who owes his Mumbai CP post to Uddhav Thackeray – is working in a way that suits him, or when he was ADG (law and order) and held the Bhima Koregaon presser, acted in a way that suited the political agenda of the then BJP government. His predecessors in Mumbai have not acted very differently.
In 2013, as a journalist, I had filed an application in the Bombay high court, producing evidence I had collected that showed that the Mumbai ATS had framed an innocent Muslim in the Pune German Bakery blast case. Taking cognizance of my reports, the then National Commission for Minorities head Wajahat Habibullah wrote to the Union home minister, asking for a re-investigation.
Around the same time, I went to meet the then Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan at his official residence, Varsha, in Mumbai. I petitioned him to reinvestigate the case and remove the senior Mumbai crime branch and ATS officers who had framed innocent people in some terror cases. Chavan said while he agreed with my findings, he was helpless. The NCP ran the show when it came to the police, he said, and was ‘pressuring him’ to make a controversial officer the next Mumbai CP. So insistent was the NCP on this officer’s elevation that Pawar’s party had issued an ultimatum to the Congress leadership in Delhi—if that officer was not made the next Mumbai CP, they could even snap the alliance. Such is the influence that certain police officers wield in the city.
A great part of the blame of politicking the Maharashtra force lies with Sharad Pawar’s party. Barring five years from 2014-2019, the NCP has been in-charge of the home portfolio, exercising control over the Mumbai police since 1999. The current home minister in Maharashtra is also from NCP. In December 2006, it became manifestly clear that the Maharashtra police had arrested innocent persons in the 2006 Malegaon blast case. The ‘secular’ NCP was under pressure from its Muslim base and was forced to transfer the case to the CBI. However, the Congress-NCP government still allowed the ATS to file the chargesheet on the very next day the case was transferred to the central agency.
Though the Bhima Koregaon case has been taken over by the NIA, nothing stops the Maharashtra government from setting up a commission of inquiry to probe the broader circumstances surrounding the case. But it won’t. There is a tendency to shield the delinquent police officers, instead of holding them accountable.
In 2007, the then DGP P.S. Pasricha was exposed as being involved in shady real estate deals (I was the author of that expose). Even as retired cops like Julio Ribeiro demanded his ouster, the Congress-NCP government went out of its way to shield Pasricha. Under fire for condoning Pasricha’s shady deals, the government set up an inquiry committee to probe the DGP and his family’s assets but the terms of reference were diluted to make the whole probe meaningless.
In 2015, the then Mumbai CP Rakesh Maria was removed unceremoniously on accusations that he might have been soft-pedalling the investigation into the Sheena Bora murder case. In his book released this year, he has laid the blame at the door of his former deputy Deven Bharti, the then joint CP (law and order). But besides a ping-pong of accusations between the two senior officers, the government has simply kept mum. No inquiry has been done, no action taken. All this, while the serious accusation that an officer of the rank of joint commissioner of police was aware of the disappearance of Sheena Bora for more than a year and did nothing remains unchallenged.
In Mumbai, a small group of officers have learnt to play the system. Regardless of the party in power, they invariably end up getting top posts like Mumbai CP, Thane CP, Pune CP, joint commissioner (Crime), joint commissioner (law and order), ACB chief and ATS chief. They have learnt the art of being useful to their political masters, whether saffron, orange, white and green in colour. They can go after left-leaning academics under a saffron regime with the same elan as they can book cartoonists on charges of sedition under the Congress regime. These officers are seldom posted out of Mumbai, even as their ‘lesser’ cadre mates are sent to far-flung places in the vast state that Maharashtra is.
While the TRP scam and the abetment of suicide case against Goswami must be investigated – and Republic TV must be made answerable for allegations of fuelling hate, the arrest of Goswami is overreach. It shows how politicised, and partisan, the police in our country is becoming. And it doesn’t bode well for the future of free speech or human rights.
Ashish Khetan is a former chairperson of the Dialogue and Development Commission of the Delhi government.