MOMENTS after taking over as the new Mumbai police commissioner on August 21, R.H. Mendonca spoke his line: "There is a need for the Mumbai police to act now." And act it must. To bring a semblance of order to the underworld-mastered chaos that has gripped the country's commercial capital, and also restore the people's faith in the war-fatigued police. No tall promises but Mendonca says he means business.
On the heels of cassette baron Gulshan Kumar's killing on August 13, the city was engulfed in a spiral of violence. Nine died in police encounters alone over the next few days. But the daylight murder of builder N.M. Desai outside Tulsiani Chambers at Nariman Point on August 19 forced the state government to take note and initiate a brisk revamp of the police brass. Earlier, even as Bahrain-based NRI Ali Budesh claimed via the media that he had ordered the supari job on Desai, the police turned on Arun Gawli, perceived as a political threat by the Shiv Sena, and arrested him in the case. In fact, the last act of Mendonca's predecessor, S.C. Malhotra, was that arrest.
Mendonca's actions will be particularly under scrutiny because an intelligence report filed with the home ministry has painted a rather shoddy picture of the Mumbai police. It points fingers at a senior police officer who had made it almost mandatory for police stations under him to donate Rs 30,000 every week. It also points to a nexus between sections of the police and the underworld. In the reshuffle, the officer in question was quietly ejected. Reliable sources say the state government ushered in Mendonca as the new marshal under pressure from the Centre to act.
For, Mendonca was not the obvious choice of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. His name had earlier been proposed for police commissioner by deputy chief minister Gopinath Munde, but chief minister Manohar Joshi vetoed the proposal and appointed Malhotra in his place. Once the state government was forced to revamp the police setup, Munde pushed for his man in the top slot again. Men-donca is best remembered for his interrogation of Raj Thackeray in the Prakash Kini murder case which rattled the Sena chief no end. But Mendonca was also responsible for slowing down investigations to such a snail's crawl that the High Court ruled the CBI must take over the case since the city police was dragging its feet and not investigating obvious leads.
Though now it's still early to assess Mendonca's performance, there seems to be no respite to the extortion drive of the underworld. Mumbai Samajwadi Party chief Abu Asim Azmi is the latest 'victim'—Azmi told Outlook that members of Chotta Rajan's gang and Arun Gawli's company have been persistently calling him. "I have been receiving calls. First, from Arun Gawli. Then, from Chotta Rajan. They want money in lakhs. I decided I must report the matter to the police." But not everyone has been complaining to the police—for instance, the successful city doctors, who are the latest addition to the underworld's milch-cow list.
Mendonca doesn't have too many well-wishers either. Former municipal commissioner S.S. Tinaikar is of the view that the outgoing police chief Malhotra was made a "scapegoat" and that the mere appointment of a new commissioner does not reassure the people that all is well. Former police commissioner D.S. Soman has also pointed out that a few changes cannot "change the system".
Malhotra, who earlier had Thackeray's blessings, was pounced upon by the Sena chief after the Gulshan Kumar killing. In an interview to the Sena mouthpiece, Saamna , Thackeray lashed out at the Mumbai police, and specially mentioned the commissioner. Malhotra responded to the attack by pointing out that he was ready to quit if the government and the Sena chief were unhappy with him. When he was given the marching orders on August 20, the outgoing police chief cryptically told the press that he had been "declared out by the third umpire".
According to police sources, the new chief's test lies in how well he handles the situation in the face of the Sena's remote-control grip over the police force. Also, the re-emergence of the Ashwin Naik gang, with the alleged help of the Sena, is a cause for concern. Ash-win, whose wife Neeta is a Sena corporator, is the brother of the slain underworld don Amar Naik. The Amar Naik gang became a virtual non-entity after his death and the arrest of Ashwin Naik under TADA in 1994. The latter, however, jumped bail in 1996 and is reportedly in hiding in Europe.
IT is reliably learnt that Ashwin Naik is on the comeback trail and has the backing of some senior Sena leaders. What has brought Ashwin back into the reckoning is the fact that he is a bitter rival of Arun Gawli. With the police gunning for Gawli and even cracking down on the shakhas of his party, the Akhil Bharatiya Sena (ABS), Naik sees an opportunity to take over the mantle of Mumbai's resident don. The other two dons—Dawood Ibrahim and Chotta Rajan—are running their outfits in Mumbai from Karachi and Malaysia-Singapore respectively. Ashwin Naik, an absconder, has been making frequent visits to Mumbai with the knowledge of some state government and police officials.
With Naik's probable re-entry, there seems to be no respite for the city which is slowly going out of official control. According to a senior police official, the very fact that people are not registering complaints when the underworld demands extortion money is a clear indication that there is no faith in the police. "There has to be structural changes and suspect police officers who have dealings with the underworld have to be first weeded out before there can be any change," points out the official.
According to him, the current single-pronged attack against the Arun Gawli gang will not suffice. While it would be foolish to believe that Gawli has given up his criminal activities and turned to politics and social work, he is not the sole underworld operator. The 'D' Company of Dawood Ibrahim is perhaps the most organised city gang and the Chotta Rajan outfit or the Nana company is active too. A selective targeting of one group or the other is not likely to curb the activities of the underworld, claim police officials.
Indeed, enquiries made by Outlook reveal that the Nana gang has already started its collection drive for the Chotta Rajan-sponsored Ganpati festival next month. Businessmen in the Chembur area, a Rajan stronghold, say they have been asked to 'donate' money by 'dadas' and that almost everyone has obliged. No complaints have been lodged with the police since the business community feels that their interests would be jeopardised if they approach the police.
It is not the underworld alone which pressurises businessmen for 'donations'. The Sena shakhas have for long been extorting money from traders in the name of providing protection. Ever since the Sena-BJP government came to power, the shakhas have been collecting 'donations' with increased enthusiasm. With the police in no position to check the activities of the shakhas, these branches of the Sena, spread all over the city, have been operating blatantly.
In police speak, the shakhas have come to be identified as parallel police stations where disputes are often resolved. Also, some of the pramukhs wield clout in the government and can even pressure the police. Officers who chose to crack down on the shakhas have invoked the wrath of the party. Thus DCP Sanjay Pande who cleaned up Dharavi and its adjoining areas and even questioned the activities of shakha members in his zone invoked the wrath of the Sena. He was shunted out to the computer section of the police.
With the threat of transfers looming, there are few in the police force who dare act. Police officers admit that a cleanup of the city must begin from the bottom and that petty crimes and extortion of even a few thousand rupees has to be taken seriously. But the big question, say officials, is whether the politicians are willing to give a free hand to the police.
With the state government giving a virtual nod to encounter killings by the police to clamp down on gangsters, the violence is likely to increase. But there are doubts whether the police are actually investigating the extortion-related killings of the underworld. Neither in the Gulshan Kumar case nor the Desai killing have the police nabbed the assailants. As for the Gawli hit-man who the police claim was responsible for the Desai murder, he was shot dead in a police encounter. And senior police officers admit that Gulshan Kumar's killers have fled the city.
Meanwhile, the police intelligence has put two more prominent city businessmen on the underworld hit list. The police say that they are grossly understaffed to check crime in the city. There are 32 police stations and a force of 38,000 is grossly inadequate for a city with a population of about 14 million. The state government has promised to beef up the force.
But more than adding numbers, what is really needed is an attitudinal change in the style of functioning of the police. Mendonca is known to be a tough cop. But the question is whether he will succeed in widening the police net and crack down on gangs irrespective of their affiliations. Right now the police image has taken a severe beating and public confidence can be restored only if the new commissioner's hands are not tied. But will the Sena-BJP give Mendonca the all-important freedom to act?