TRYSTS AND TURNS

Fate of encounter specialists

The goings-on in the Mumbai police are getting murkier

Fate of encounter specialists

Under Scrutiny: After Sachin Vaze, another encounter specialist, Pradeep Sharma, is in the NIA net. PTI

Julio Ribeiro

Pradeep Sharma was arrested in Mumbai by the NIA last week. The arrest made front-page news in local newspapers because he was a swashbuckling, risk-taking encounter specialist of the Mumbai police for several years between 1989 and 2008, when he was dismissed from service by Anami Roy, the then Police Commissioner. Anami got rid of him under Article 311 of the Constitution after evidence to show that he was in cahoots with the underworld came to light.

In 2014, Sharma decided to challenge his dismissal before the Maharashtra administrative tribunal, which set aside the dismissal order leading to the reinstatement of the Inspector in 2017. Surprisingly, he was posted not to Mumbai City but to the Commissionerate of Thane, neighbouring Mumbai. The Police Commissioner of Thane in 2017 was Param Bir Singh who was later made Police Commissioner of Mumbai and removed from that coveted appointment when his closest confidante, Assistant Inspector Sachin Vaze was arrested for planting 20 gelatin sticks outside the residence of industrialist Mukesh Ambani. Vaze was known to be an acolyte of Sharma, with over a hundred kills under his belt, like Sharma, who boasted of 112!

Like he relied on Vaze in Mumbai and put him in charge of the crucial Crime Intelligence Unit, Param Bir relied on Sharma in Thane. He had put him in charge of the anti-extortion cell of the Thane Crime Branch, knowing well that encounter specialists were being suspected of patronising extortion demands of rival gangsters. Sharma was arrested in a widely publicised fake encounter case of one Lakhan Bhayya in 2010 but was acquitted in 2013. At that time, he was in the wilderness after dismissal from service. In 2017, when he was reinstated, the BJP-Shiv Sena government of Devendra Fadnavis was ruling the state. The government overlooked Sharma’s chequered history and assigned him to work under a chosen Commissioner.

Vaze was reinstated by the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government of Uddhav Thackeray after a 17-year suspension facing a murder charge. The reinstatement in the service was a hush-hush affair. The police chief chose the former encounter specialist for a critical job in the Crime Branch, with instructions that Vaze would report to him directly, skipping all intermediate superiors to whom he would normally have answered! Those intermediate supervisors felt humiliated, and naturally so.

Reverting to Sharma, he resigned in 2019, after two years in the Thane police. He joined the Shiv Sena and contested the Assembly elections. He lost, and set up an NGO, PS Foundation, promising to give free ration to the poor. He was not short of funds! At the time he contested elections to the Vidhan Sabha, he had declared personal assets valued at Rs 56 crore, a figure well beyond his or even very senior officers’ known sources of income.

It appears that the bonhomie between Sharma and Vaze continued apace as Sharma’s name began cropping up in the investigations by the Maharashtra ATS into the gelatin-laden SUV outside the Ambani house and the subsequent murder of Mansukh Hiren, the owner of the SUV and an old acquaintance of Vaze.

The NIA, which took over the investigation of the Hiren murder from the ATS, arrested Sharma on suspicion that he conspired with Vaze and several other police officers, some of them in service and others dismissed from service, to plant the car and later murder the star witness, Hiren, whose car had been requisitioned by the conspirators.

Most police officers, both serving and retired, feel that the planting of the car with the gelatin could not have been planned by some junior police operatives, even those with ‘encounter specialist’ credentials. No Sharma or Vaze would even dream of threatening or scaring an internationally recognised business magnate like Ambani. They are daredevils, undoubtedly, but not lunatics! And till the present moment of writing, no one can tell with certitude what the motive for this insane project was all about.

While police circles, both senior and junior, serving and retired, agree on a superior’s hand in the botched-up plot, they are confused about the motive. Some say the plan was known to the Ambani scion as it was preliminary to an attempt to change the aviation authority’s decision to deny his request to allow helicopters to land on the roof of Antilla. The junior ranks feel that it is an attempt by a greedy police chief and his inner circle to become future active partners in a projected internationally accredited security agency that they said was on Ambani’s drawing board.

Personally, I think the second theory can be summarily discarded. The first one is remotely possible, though stupid. In any event, if that was the motive, then the wrong person was chosen to execute it. Vaze was an ‘encounter’ specialist and not a specialist of the ‘cloak and dagger’ variety required for undercover operations. Wrong choices can land plotters and planners in trouble. A Police Commissioner has lost a coveted assignment. His political boss has lost his job and standing in his party. And two ‘super cops’ are in NIA custody, awaiting an uncertain future.

Tribune Shorts

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