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Issue 12

Once Upon a Time in Mumbai

Stolen cars, dirty cops, a body dumped in a creek, and India’s richest family. These may sound like the elements of a thrilling Bollywood movie, but actually form the basis of a case that gripped Mumbai earlier this year. On 25th February, a Scorpio SUV containing 20 gelatin sticks (low intensity explosives normally used for construction) was found outside Mukesh Ambani’s 26 story residence in South Mumbai. A few weeks later, the owner of the car, Mansukh Hiren, was found dead in a creek. The high ranking police officer who had been leading the case, Sachin Vaze, was arrested by India’s main counter-terrorism body (the National Investigative Agency) for his involvement in the case. Vaze, a member of the famous ‘encounter squad’ of the Mumbai police, active in the 90s and early 2000s, has been suspended from his role as Assistant Police Inspector and is currently in custody of the NIA. Once revered by the media as a top cop, every facet of his life is now under scrutiny. As things got even murkier, warring political parties BJP and Shiv Sena quickly co-opted the story to hurl accusations at the other. News media were equally fascinated, and every new twist in the tale dominated headlines and primetime debates. 

Bombay is no stranger to twisted crimes and long drawn out investigations. Nor is the involvement of police and rapid politicisation of the case a new phenomenon. The city of dreams has had its fair share of nightmares, with three horrific terror attacks that killed hundreds of people in the past thirty years. One of the main accused in the first of those attacks was Dawood Ibrahim, a notorious gang-leader and designated global terrorist. The underworld of Mumbai was his playground in the 70s and 80s, but he fled to Dubai in 1986. The pervasive presence of these gangs and the bureaucratic roadblocks surrounding legal procedures led the city police to take matters into their own hands.

In the 90s Mumbai police formed an encounter squad to deal with growing gang violence and extortion cases. The judicial process was lengthy and it could take several years for a case to even reach the court, and ‘encounters’ were seen as an effective, if slightly controversial solution. An encounter generally involved the police cornering a gangster who would then attack or try to escape, and the police would use the opportunity to shoot him dead. Sachin Vaze was one of the original members of the squad and is alleged to have been involved in the encounter killings of around 63 gangsters. However while some appreciated this quick and brutal method of delivering justice, others were horrified and questioned the legitimacy of some of these encounters. There were also rumours that the cops were trying to outshine each other, and getting involved in gang rivalries in the process. Many members of the squad were dismissed from the force but later reinstated. In 2004, Vaze was suspended and charged with murder for the custodial death of Khwaja Yunus. In 2007, he resigned when his request for reinstatement was denied by the Maharashtra government. He then joined the Shiv Sena, and was later reinstated as a cop in 2020. But things quickly went wrong just a year later, when he was named the prime suspect in the murder of Mansukh Hiren. On 11th May, Vaze was dismissed from the Mumbai Police.

The tale kept many readers hooked for months, reminiscent as it was of a good Bollywood gangster film. In fact, many famous entries in that genre were based on the lives and cases of the encounter squad. That our desire for these fast-paced and intriguing stories is now being fulfilled by the news is a worrying trend, but in a year unprecedentedly low on movie releases it perhaps makes sense. Journalist Suketu Mehta has spoken about the curiously close relationship between Hindi cinema and the underworld gangsters: “The Hindi filmmakers are fascinated by the lives of the gangsters, and draw upon them for material. The gangsters, from the shooter on the ground, to the don-in-exile at the top watch Hindi movies keenly, and model themselves, their dialogue, the way they carry themselves- on their on-screen equivalents.” 

The connection between the two worlds runs deeper still, as gangsters used to finance major Bollywood projects, and actors like Sanjay Dutt have been arrested for ties to the underworld and terrorist groups. In 2000, an assassination attempt was made on the producer Rakesh Roshan, allegedly in relation to an extortion threat made earlier. The shooting followed a string of attacks on Bollywood actors and producers. In 2001, Nazim Rizvi and Bharat Shah, producer and financier of the film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, respectively, were arrested for aiding and abetting the don Chhota Shakeel’s activities. Preity Zinta, who starred in the film, later testified against him, saying that she had received threatening calls from the underworld. Mumbai’s underworld turned to the film industry as a target for extortion when the property business dried up in the nineties. 

If this was a mainstream movie all the loose ends would have been tied up and the good guys would emerge victorious. Unfortunately, life isn’t a movie and the difference between good and evil isn’t always clear, especially when politics enters the mix. News readers eventually moved on from the case, distracted by the ongoing pandemic and newer scandals. Sachin Vaze has been in jail since March 13, potentially wondering how he fell from grace. If we’re lucky, a biopic is already in the works.

Photo courtesy: Shambhavi Thakur, Newslaundry

Rujuta Singh is a student of Political Science, International Relations and Media Studies at Ashoka University. Some of her other interests are music, fashion and writing.

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