“Encounter”, in the English dictionary, has two essential ingredients. One, it implies an unexpected meeting, and two, the meeting must be of persons in conflict. The very ingredient of a surprise meeting with an opponent makes the juxtaposition of the noun “specialist” incongruous. There can be no specialisation in sudden and unexpected meetings with criminals who the police want to put out of action.

The bold truth is that on prior information from rival gangs, the police confront the criminals. Obtaining that information is legitimate police work if, of course, the rival gangster parting with the information does not expect to be protected in return. If the elimination of a rival leaves the field open to the informer, the entire transaction takes a different hue.

Encounter specialists – I know not why and who invented this moniker and when – operated on the basis of information provided by rival gangs. There was a distinct measure of danger involved in this arrangement. Some leeway had to be allowed to the informant, which translated into permission to carry on his own nefarious business. Responsible police leaders, surely, could not bless any such understanding.

The arrangement also tempted the specialists to dip their own hands into the till. Extorting money from builders and film producers and other creators of unaccounted cash was the most common form of criminal activity of the underworld. The encounter specialists could then be held responsible for the rise in extortion cases whenever it occurred.

A violent alternative

The urban middle class adores the encounter specialists. For them, the specialists represented protection from criminals. Since the judicial process system has failed to function like it was expected to, shooting them down in the street represented raw justice as an alternative. This class failed to look beyond its nose. If it had looked it would have seen the danger lurking round the corner – the specialists were fast turning into uniformed criminals protected by the state.

Police officers turned rogue are infinitely more dangerous than the criminals they pursue daily. They enjoy the protection of the uniform and consequently become a law unto themselves. The impunity the uniform enjoys enables them to kill without fear. In fact, they are hailed by their superiors in the Service and honored by the political class which is constantly chasing votes and voters. The middle class vote is overwhelmingly with those who ensure instant justice.

The downside to the middle class support of encounters is apparent only when a “specialist” like Sachin Vaze of the Mumbai Police is booked for planting a car laden with gelatin sticks outside the residence of one of India’s leading industrialists. Why on earth would he do that except to frighten the tycoon and extract big bucks from him? It is reported that there was a letter left in the parked car addressed to Mukesh Ambani and his wife, Nita, containing such a demand.

The murder or suicide of Vaze’s friend, Mansukh Hiren, a Thane-based businessman, whose Scorpio car was used in the drama, is also attributed to the police officer. Vaze, the blue-eyed boy of Param Bir Singh, who was Mumbai police chief until he was transferred abruptly on Wednesday, had been using the SUV for some time (four months according to Hiren’s wife) before it was parked outside the Ambani house. Other pieces of evidence that would seem to point to Vaze in the case of planting the car with the gelatin sticks have been leaked to the press by the Amit Shah-controlled National Investigation Agency, which has taken over the investigation.

It is to be expected that encounter specialists will turn rogue sooner rather than later. The public which encourages them by deifying them should desist from doing so because the end result is invariably unedifying. If the public disapproves of such practices, the politicians in power would also condemn encounter killings. And if the ministers in charge of the police stop encouraging the specialists, the police leaders, too, will follow. They will find alternate ways of controlling crime instead of adopting short cuts that turn potentially good cops into criminals.

The second take away from l’affaire Vaze is that political enmity of the extreme variety that has invaded the political space after the advent of the Modi-Shah duo can sometimes help to unveil other wrongs. The ambitious IPS officer, Param Bir Singh, had been appointed Police Commissioner of Thane in 2018 comparatively early. There were honest and competent officers, like KL Prasad, senior to him, available. Why were they overlooked?

The officer was making Herculean efforts to occupy the police commissioner’s chair in Mumbai by using the same contact but was twice thwarted. Tested and respected officers, first Datta Padsalgikar and then Subodh Jaiswal, were shifted from deputation posts at the Centre back to their parent cadre of Maharashtra to lead the city police.

When I was informed that Param Bir Sigh was lobbying for the commissioner’s job with Sharad Pawar after the Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition government was installed, I told my interlocuters that Pawar was not a man to be taken in. His knowledge of the activities of each IAS and IPS officer was encyclopedic. Param Bir Singh would not find it easy.

I was wrong. Singh did surmount the obstacle of Sharad Pawar. I was myself surprised and also shocked.

Once Singh was installed in the chair, it was no surprise that the suspended police officer, Sachin Vaze, was reinstated. Singh could now use him for sensitive tasks. The consequences should have been anticipated by any seasoned police officer.

The cut-throat rivalry between the Bharatiya Janata party and its old bedfellow, the Shiv Sena, had manifested itself prominently during the suicide case of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and then the matter relating to the television ratings of anchor Arnab Goswami’s Republic channel. Sachin Vaze had been deputed to be present wben Goswami was arrested in November. It was not surprising therefore, that the Amit Shah-controlled National Investigation Agency got involved in the investigation of the parked Scorpio case involving the Ambanis.

To take over the inquiry from a state government, a terrorist link needed to be established. This was quite dramatically and I may be excused for saying, miraculously, provided by the presence of one Tehseen Akhtar, the right hand man of Yasin Bhatkal, the head of the Indian Mujahideen in High Security Cell no. 8 of Delhi’s Tihar Jail! This known terrorist was accused of operating a terror cell from his CCTV– monitored ward. He was further accused of dispatching the threatening letter to the Ambanis. I will not venture to say that I understand where this is heading.

Julio Ribeiro served in several senior positions as a police officer and was India’s ambassador to Romania.