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Salute the brave constables of D B Marg police station

December 08, 2008 13:40 IST
Let me begin this column on a personal note. I spent the last years of college in Mumbai (then Bombay). I cut my teeth as a journalist in Mumbai. It was to Mumbai that I brought my wife after my marriage. In all those years I never thought of the Taj Mahal Hotel as an 'icon,' which is how seemingly all my journalistic brethren refer to it today. If anything it was VT -- now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus -- that was a touchstone of my life, not the Taj Mahal Hotel.

Given the frequent references to how 'all of us' visit 'the Taj' -- no other identification required! -- young reporters today enjoy a different lifestyle. Back then I met very few CEOs in the elegant suites at the Taj but did spend time with SHOs in police stations on the crime beat. It is to such men, the policemen in those grimy rooms, that I respectfully dedicate this column.

A few days ago as you read this there was a simple ceremony at the not-so-iconic D B Marg police station, when garlands were placed around the photograph of Assistant Police Inspector Tukaram Gopal Ombale. Were there any reporters present to honour Ombale's tale of heartbreaking courage?

On the night of 26-27 November, Ombale and several other policemen were on alert in the Girgaum Chowpatty area. They had been told that two terrorists were on the run in a Skoda. The twenty policemen out there had a grand total of two self-loading rifles and two bullet-proof vests. The vests were given to the men with the rifles, who were placed at vantage points around metal barricades. The rest of the policemen carried only lathis (batons)); some were plainclothesmen, others in uniform.

Those (virtually unarmed) policemen tried to stop the Skoda. The driver fired at them. The police shot back from the pre-determined vantage point and got him. The other man slid out, pretending to surrender, but carrying an AK-47.

Ombale rushed to secure him when the terrorist started pumping away with the AK-47. Call it guts or instinct but Tukaram Gopal Ombale refused to let go of his assailant. I am told that something like 30 bullets were recovered from his body.

His colleagues took advantage of Ombale's last act as they rushed at the terrorist with their lathis. The plainclothesmen were later identified as a 'mob' in grainy footage shot by someone on a mobile phone!

Tukaram Gopal Ombale died for his bravery. Assistant Police Inspector Sanjay Govilkar received bullet injuries. But those ordinary policemen -- some in their forties, laughably ill-equipped -- succeeded in doing what nobody else could, they captured a terrorist on a suicide mission alive. They also recovered artillery dwarfing their modest weapons -- AK-47s, several magazines, 9mm pistols, and grenades.

Today security agencies from across the planet are sending men to Mumbai, from the FBI, the CIA, Britain's MI-6, Israel's Mossad and Shin Bet, and even from Russia. Between them, they have mixed opinions of the Indian security forces' tactics -- especially the Israelis -- but to a man they salute those constables from D B Road police station.

There is nothing they prize more than information, and that is what they are extracting from the captured terrorist -- how he was recruited, how, and where, and by whom he was trained, and so forth.

Every major nation, even the Chinese, have problems with Muslim fundamentalists, yet none could capture a suicide attacker trained from the Al Qaeda manual. That honour goes only to the Mumbai police.

These were ordinary constables, not trained men from the Anti-Terrorist Squad, the Black Cats, or the Marine Commandos. I would love to say that their naked courage has been honoured by a renewed determination to fight terrorism but it would be untrue.

With one accord everyone is rushing to place all the blame at Pakistan's doors. I do believe the ten terrorists who carried out the actual attacks were indeed all from Pakistan, but it stretches credulity to breaking point to believe that there was no local support.

Investigators say there is no way that just ten men carried all that equipment, including timers and explosives, into the Taj Mahal hotel, so who smuggled it all in? Can men setting foot in the city for the first time really negotiate Mumbai's network of streets without guides to find Nariman House?

What of the politicians? What was the situation in Mumbai in the week after a weary NSG leader confirmed that the last terrorist had been killed in the Taj Mahal hotel?

No chief minister. No home minister. No replacement for the chief of the Anti-Terrorist Squad. A director general of police fighting for his office.

Maharashtra Director General of Police A N Roy was appointed amid controversy several months ago; the appointment was quashed by the Central Administrative Tribunal on October 8, 2008, and he is now battling it out in the high court.

Sharad Pawar named Chhagan Bhujbal as a replacement for former Maharashtra home minister R R Patil, but he could not take office until the Congress got its act together because you cannot have ministers without a chief minister.

The Congress loves to accuse others of playing 'politics as usual.' What do you think kept the party from selecting a new chief minister if not 'politics as usual' -- with more to come from Narayan Rane?

So Sonia Gandhi packed off the external affairs minister and the defence minister to Mumbai -- not to inspect the security situation, but to find a new chief minister. These are precisely the two ministers who must be in Delhi during an international crisis. Couldn't his mother have sent Rahul Gandhi in their place?

Few expect better of our politicians. But what of the media? It spent so much time around its beloved 'icon' that it almost forgot about VT -- or CST, call it what you will. There are roughly 13 million citizens of Mumbai. Do you think even a million of them have set foot in the 'icon?' But how many of those millions are not familiar with the railway station?

VT became a footnote to those reporters around the 'icon.' So, I fear, will be the names of Tukaram Gopal Ombale, and the other ordinary policemen with him, the likes of Hemant Bowdankar, Mangesh Yende, and Bhaskar Kadam. Can this ungrateful nation offer the living policemen and the families of the dead nothing but faded garlands around a photograph in a police station that today's journalists rarely bother to visit?

T V R Shenoy