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Do you believe the Mumbai Police?

By R Swaminathan
September 16, 2003 12:18 IST
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So much can change between two Mondays.

On August 25, a Monday, Mumbai was rocked by two blasts within minutes of each other killing 52 people and injuring more than 150.

Hacks with a penchant for catchy titles dubbed it Black Monday. Potshots, and more, were taken at the stunned cops who were blamed for almost everything that was wrong with the city. As has become routine, the blame game started without much ado.

Analysts, real and apparent, with a smug I-told-you-so look and tone spouted jargon -- systemic breakdown, societal alienation, tentacles of terror -- all of it boiling down to 'hey, the cops goofed up again'.

On September 1, a Monday again, a triumphant Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal and Mumbai Police Commissioner R S Sharma announced to the cacophonous horde that the men in khaki had caught the perpetrators of the dastardly act -- a couple and their daughter.

The free for all potshots stopped. Media chitchat, which till then reserved sniggers and anger for the cops, came to be dominated by unabashed kudos for the 'great' work done. Sharma's version of how his men went about catching the culprits and Bhujbal's pat in the back for the cops made headlines.

The mastermind, said both, was at large, but expressed confidence he would be caught soon. And sure enough, in exactly 11 days on September 12, the mastermind -- Nasir -- was gunned down in what Sharma and rest of his team said was an encounter.

Going by what the police say, and which the media have swallowed hook, line and sinker, the second most devastating blasts in the city -- the first being the 1993 serial blasts -- were solved in 18 days flat.

Eighhteen days, and I am reminded of one of my family friends whose house in Bandra got burgled around two years back. Incidentally the robbery made front-page news at that time. The old man still occasionally does a round of the police station to find out when, rather if ever, the thieves will be caught.

But that is an aside and I am aware of the incongruities of comparing a terror attack, with implications for national security, and a Plain Jane burglary.

The alacrity with which the police have 'solved' the case raise fundamental questions about processes, techniques and the approach used by the police in solving 'high-profile' cases, especially ones involving terror angles. And in these questions itself lie the answers to evolving a more transparent and scientific investigation process that doesn't come crashing down the moment it is under the scrutiny of the courts.

Consider this: almost 150,000 troops of the US and its allies are scouring the entrails of Iraq for a man named Saddam Hussein. For their intelligence network, spy satellites, bugging devices and firepower, all they have managed till now are graphically enhanced posters of the deposed Iraqi president in the streets of Baghdad and Tikrit.

A man named Osama bin Laden, who keeps thumbing his nose at the world's most powerful nation, also brings out starkly the point that I am making.

When such a background is there for ready reference, 18 days to solve a case appears truly remarkable, and little too much to digest. Which then leads to my pet peeves -- process of investigation, confessional statements and encounters.

As per the cops, soon after the blasts one of the cab drivers, whose taxi carried the deadly cargo, volunteered to provide details of the people who hired it. Police artists, then, sketched out the suspects and circulated it. Till here all's fair and square.

What plants the seed of doubt is the speed with which the cops were able to find the suspects. According to the 2001 census Mumbai is the most populous city in India with close to 12 million people residing in it.

To find three out of 12 million within seven days is tougher than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Yet the Mumbai Police claims to have done just that, crediting its much-maligned intelligence network. A truly superhuman effort, if one takes the claims without a pinch of salt. But if the intelligence network was so good, why did the blasts take place at all?

Almost all terror-related cases in the recent past stand on confessional statements of the accused. This case is no different. The family, say the police, confessed to their crime and readily gave the name of the mastermind. Confessions are, but one of the ways for the police to establish a link between suspects and a crime.

But when confessional statements become the only basis for a case, the possibility of it crumbling in the courts, when witnesses and suspect turn hostile, is high. The Bollywood-underworld nexus case is a case in point.

The tragicomic situation faced by the Jammu and Kashmir Police and the Gujarat Police is in a league of its own. Both have their own sets of confessional statements from different 'groups of militants' admitting to carrying out the Akshardham attack. Such evidently dicey confessions hardly inspire confidence.

Encounters have acquired the distinction of becoming a pattern with the police. The key suspect -- Nasir -- in this case, not surprisingly, was gunned down in an encounter.

Quite convenient, if one considers the confessional statements of the other suspects now cannot be verified with what Nasir has to say. In front of the press Sharma proudly said that a police team, which was following the suspect, surrounded his car and shot him dead, along with his associate, when he fired at them. And how many were there in the police team? Fourteen, and heavily armed.

Nasir and his associate, by Sharma's own admission, were armed with two revolvers, an inconsequential weapon in the context. Still the police want us to believe that when Nasir whipped out his weapon, all that the 14 cops could do was shoot him dead. Since Nasir was the key suspect, shouldn't the cops have tried to arrest him? Now all one can do is wonder what secrets he would be taking to his grave.

Excessive dependence on confessions and encounters are symptomatic of a wider malaise affecting the police structure in India. The slow, but steady institutionalisation of political control over police forces, increasing opacity in the recruitment process, obsolete investigation tools, lack of professionalism are some of numerous reasons that have eroded the capacity of the police to function as objective fulcrums of the criminal justice system.

Almost two decades back, the National Police Commission had made recommendations to improve the police structure. The report is in a mothballed condition. A similar fate was meted out to the Ribeiro Committee on Police Reforms.

Police reforms, more so in the era of globalised terror, are an urgent requirement for a transparent, modern and a professional investigative process. A process, which does not raise eyebrows every time it is announced that a case has been solved.

Ramanathan Swaminathan is Senior Assistant Editor, 

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