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Commentary/Dilip D'Souza

Put It Down To Experience

I read through the list in an afternoon paper and my mind went back. No, my heart went back, with a familiar thump, to that sun-drenched March evening when I might have become an item on a similar list. I remember it well, that small round hole that was suddenly less than an inch from my eyes. I remember the heavy metal that ended in the hole, the thickset man with the ridiculous moustache who was holding it, barking at me.

I remember thinking, absurdly: "Well, old boy, now this is one more of those life experiences you can tot up: you've had a gun shoved in your face."

Then, I got scared. Really, really scared.

That evening, I had trotted up to the terrace with my camera, drawn there by the sunset, crows, the sea. I strolled around, shooting the crows that sat still long enough. Watching the sun glitter off the waves. Enjoying the breeze on my face.

Till I looked around to find several burly men lumbering towards me. They began pushing me, grabbing at my camera ("What's this?" one wanted to know), shouting in my ear that I had been furtively photographing the nearby police office. Who was I and what was I doing here? My submissions -- that I lived two floors below, that I had been photographing the crows and the sunset -- were brushed aside as if they were just so much unbelievable tripe. Who are you, I asked in turn. By way of polite reply, two guns appeared. One was stuck between my eyes.

A day later, that cop who had my life at the tip of his itching finger looked squarely in my eyes that he had nearly blown away and said: "I did not pull out my gun." Months later, the city's commissioner of police, one S Ramamurthy, submitted an affidavit to the high court claiming that when I was asked my name, I had said I was "Shaikh." Which, of course, had made his men suspicious.

I learned at least three lessons from that episode. One, that cops lie. Two, that the senior-most cop in the city also lies, and to the courts. Three, that he assumed it is self-evident that a Muslim name -- even one that is part of a lie -- is automatically grounds for suspicion.

But it was over the next months and years that I began wondering just what would have happened had that lout pulled his trigger and spilled my brains onto my terrace. Would I have been just another victim of a police "encounter"? Just one more in a lengthening list that has people who should know better applauding wildly? How many in that list are like I might have been, shot mistakenly and then called the "notorious gangster Shaikh"? After all, we have only the police's word for it that all these dead men are indeed gangsters -- not that even that justifies their deaths.

And I know, very personally indeed, exactly how much that word is worth.

There are many questions to ask about encounter deaths, about a climate in which they happen so frequently. One is: exactly who are these men being killed? Is it possible, credible, that all of them, every single one, are vicious criminals?

Put it down to experience: I have my answer.

Another question: even if they are vicious criminals, are they to be killed so indiscriminately, summarily? Of course, this question is always waved off with: "And what about the innocent people who these gangsters killed? Why do you care more for the criminals than for the victims?" Maharashtra's honourable home minister, Gopinath Munde, recently asked, along these lines: "When people are being killed for extortion, how come this is not an issue with human rights activists?"

It sounds plausible. It really is lazy: lazy thinking, lazy law and order, empty rhetoric by a home minister too lazy to do his job. Human rights activists have never said innocent deaths must not be punished. They say: arrest the extortionists and criminals, whoever they are; try them; if they are guilty, punish them severely and swiftly. When a government can't be bothered with the hard work -- hard work, yes -- involved in doing those things, it is failing in its duty to us. And let's be quite clear, one real reason criminals get bail easily and cases drag on is that the government is simply lazy about doing its homework and pushing the cases through. It cannot, being lazy, ask for a blank check to kill. That will mean innocent people will continue to be killed. Now, by the government as well.

And that brings us to the third, and possibly gravest, question about encounters.

Another ex-police commissioner, Julio Ribeiro, touched on it not long ago. Asked about the grip the underworld has on the city whose top cop he once was, this widely admired and respected man told Outlook magazine: "We have to first accept that extortions have gone through the roof. To bring order the entire climate has to change... Even small cases of extortion have to be investigated. If this is done, the message goes out that the police means business. The underworld will then go underground."

A good prescription? Yes, I'm sure you think. Except that Ribeiro saw a substantial "difficulty" in it: "The people belonging to the party in power are themselves into extortion."

In other words, and this is the question: just how do you fight crime when the men who rule us themselves wallow in crime? How might the honourable Gopinath Munde, so concerned about people "being killed for extortion", answer that?

Now this is not some novel question that has not been asked before, that has not occured to all of you before. But it bears repeating, it bears repeating, because it bears some relevance to crime and punishment in Bombay, in India.

Bombay has seen a spate of murders and encounter deaths in recent months. In particular, Arun Gawli's rise to respectability -- as vouched for by the Gandhi cap that he never leaves home without -- but more significantly, to serious rivalry with the Shiv Sena, has come with a price. His men are being steadily picked off: in encounters with the police, in mysterious shootings.

And there is a context to, precedents for, reasons for, these things.

In its years in power, the Congress winked at and used crime for its own seedy ends. The Naiks, the Patils, the Pawars -- their Governments in the state all played footsie with major criminals. For its part, the Shiv Sena grew up, as Ribeiro reminds us, on extortion and violence. This meant that the Congress was playing footsie with the Sena too; never once holding the Sena accountable for anything it did over three decades. Not the violence against Tamils, Gujaratis, Muslims; not its admitted part in riots; not even the "small cases of extortion" Ribeiro mentions. The Sena got away with all of these.

So, in quite the natural course of things, the Sena came to power itself: in 1995, allied with -- applause, please, for the cleanest party in the land -- the BJP.

Again, there's nothing new in this brief account, nothing unique to Bombay. But with this backdrop, is it any wonder that extortion and gangland killings happen ever more openly, brazenly? That a man like Arun Gawli has political ambitions?

After all, Gawli is only following a tried and trusted path that has already been blazed all the way to power. After all, he too grew up playing footsie with a political party -- the Shiv Sena itself. "[We] had relations," said Bal Thackeray of Gawli. "[He] went to prison under the Congress regime and now he is fighting against me. But he should remember that if he is alive today, it is due to Bal Thackeray." And he topped that off with: "Gawli deserted me a few months ago."

So tell me, who's surprised that Gawli's men are dying like flies? Not I, but then I might have died like a fly myself, on my terrace.

After the most recent killing of a Gawli aide, Jitendra Dabholkar, Munde was asked why Dabholkar's police protection -- yes, he seems to have had some of that -- was removed. "As per government rules," Munde replied, "criminals cannot be provided police protection." Also, Dabholkar "was helping Gawli. [That was the reason] for removing his police protection."

Good for Munde. Now I'm waiting for him to remove the police protection for another man who helped Gawli. The man who said: "... if Gawli is alive today, it is due to Bal Thackeray."

90 men killed in encounters with Bombay police
'If policemen kill criminals who are harmful to society I don't see anything wrong with it'

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Dilip D'Souza

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