Counter-bhai in Mumbai

  • Many sides of the ‘encounter specialist’

It is only recently that the other side of the police encounters has become a part of the mainstream narrative on human rights in South Asia. In Pakistan, the recent case of Naqeeb Ullah Mehsud’s killing at the hand of known ‘encounter specialist’ SP Rao Anwar became the trigger for a mass awakening, underscoring the abuse of power in the police circles and in turn triggering a nationalist movement.

Even so, ‘encounter specialists’ – or equivalent – are glorified in pop culture in the region, and in parts internationally as well. In South Asia, Bollywood has played a major role in this glorification, with pretty much every other leading man in the Indian film industry having player a ‘badass’ cop who has little regard for law.

Hence, it was no coincidence that Bollywood thronged the launch of former Assistant Commissioner of Mumbai Police Isaque Bagwan Me Against the Mumbai Underworld in July this year.

The event organised to both launch Bagwan’s memoirs, and celebrate his career, was headlined by Nawazuddin Siddique, who of course has played both sides of the cat and mouse game, most recently in Genius and Raees.

Veteran investigative journalist and author Hussain Zaidi has edited Bagwan’s book and hence was present at the event and spoke about the significance of the book in crime literature.

But of course it was the guest of honour whose presence shed the most penetrative light on the event, the book, and of course Bagwan’s career: Uddhav Thackeray, the Shiv Sena chief.

‘Encounter specialists’ – or equivalent – are glorified in pop culture in the region, and in parts internationally as well

The chief of his radical, nationalist, right-wing Marathi ethnocentric party, responsible for innumerable acts of violence, vandalism and thuggery in Maharashtra graced tributes to a law enforcement official, that too from the Muslim community.

It was the late Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s sixth death anniversary on Saturday. The same Thackeray whose anti-Muslim – often an extension of his anti-Pakistanism – position has been underlined – with and without any possible extricated nuance – over the years.

But it’s also the same Thackeray who entrusted the last years of his life at the hands of a Muslim physician Jalil Parkar. The same Thackeray who will be played by a Muslim actor, Nawazuddin Siddique, in his biopic set for his release on his 93rd birthday, January 23, next year. And indeed the same Thackeray who provided political shelter to Isaque Bagwan, something the former Assistant Police Commissioner acknowledges, including his memoir.

Of course, Me Against the Mumbai Underworld, isn’t a commentary on Indian Muslims and their dynamics with Hindu nationalists, which Muslims in Pakistan – anywhere on the ideological spectrum – completely fail to comprehend.

It is more a firsthand account of taking on the underworld, front on, with of course the definition of that particular realm dictated by the political realities in Mumbai and Maharashtra.

Bagwan’s story begins exactly 42 years before the book’s release, July 1976, when he took charge as a sub-Inspector at Colaba Police Station. The cop spearheaded scores of operations in the 80s and 90s when gang wars had traced their apogee, kidnappings and smuggling was rampant, and terror had begun to engulf the city as well.

One of Bagwan’s career highs came when he captured David Pardesi, who has been linked with Dawood Ibrahim. He had a prominent law-enforcement role to play in the aftermath of the two most noteworthy terror attacks in Mumbai –1993 and 2008. It was in the immediate aftermath of the latter, in January 2009, that he called it a day.

Bagwan’s encounter with Manya Surve became the storyline for Bollywood film Shootout at Wadala. Bagwan had been extensively interviewed for the film, but was left furious with the final product, eventually providing him the motivation to pen down his memoirs.

‘Manya Surve was killed in an encounter with the police and not with the help of the underworld as shown in the film. We arrested both the gangs mentioned in the film; it was all misconstrued. We were very furious. I raised my objections before the Press and finally, they changed my name in the movie given to the character played by Anil Kapoor. That’s when many politicians and senior officers asked me why I couldn’t write a book with fact.’

Bagwan is a three-time recipient of the President’s Police Medal for Gallantry, which Hussain Zaidi said at the book launch proves his ability as a cop, because one “can’t be lucky thrice” in a one on one situation.

Despite being perpetually tagged as an ‘encounter specialist’, Bagwan vehemently disowns the label. In fact, Me Against the Mumbai Underworld is a protracted effort to do the same and underscore how he never took law into his own hands.

Of course, even the most ardent of fans would read that claim with a pinch of salt. But the fact that someone like Isaque Bagwan, who got fame, career grown – and now a stint at writing – owing to that very billing, the fact that there is an effort to shun the ‘encounter specialist’ label could bode well for the future of police reforms – and Bollywood.