Mumbai's 'Dirty Harry' loses his badge as suspect death toll soars

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 September, 2008, 12:00am

Mumbai's Terminator has been terminated. Police Inspector Pradeep Sharma, 46, was sacked last week after a bloody career in which he personally shot dead 110 suspected criminals.

Mr Sharma, nicknamed the Terminator of Mumbai, has always been different things to different people.

For human rights groups in Mumbai, he was India's 'Dirty Harry' without a safety catch, shooting plenty of innocent people as he blazed away at the city's criminals.

For the organised crime gangs who turned Mumbai into the country's crime capital in the late 1980s, he was their worst nightmare, an enemy who felt neither fear nor pity.

For many residents, he was a hero responsible for making the streets safe from the depredations of the underworld.

Mr Sharma woke up last Sunday to find out from the reporters outside his door that his boss, Hasan Gafoor, Mumbai's police commissioner, had accused him of having illicit contact with the very criminals he was meant to be fighting.

'It was disturbing to see the patterns of behaviour he had fallen into. We couldn't allow it to continue because it was basically indefensible,' said Mr Gafoor.

The decision brings the curtains down on India's leading 'encounter specialist' - a peculiar Indian euphemism for the sort of officer who regularly engages in shootouts.

For many years, Mr Sharma was a feared member of Mumbai's Criminal Intelligence Unit.

His men went after mobsters with a ferocious sense of purpose. Between 1997 and 2003, they gunned down more than 600 gangsters.

But their methods outraged human rights activists who accused Mr Sharma and his men of catching suspects and taking them to deserted wasteland while the city slept. There, they supposedly pushed them out of a police jeep, shouted 'run' and gunned them down.

Mr Sharma denies stage-managing these 'encounters'.

'Not all the criminals I caught were killed. Hundreds were put behind bars. My job was to arrest criminals and terrorists alive, because that is the only way to get information and to break their network,' he told the South China Morning Post.

Human rights lawyer Majeed Memon tried but failed to prove in court that Mr Sharma's killings were pre-meditated murders rather than accidents.

'If these were accidents, how is it that not a single policemen was ever killed or injured? And isn't it strange that none of Sharma's victims ever survived his injuries and lived to give his version of events? Their injuries were always fatal,' said Mr Memon.

Such accusations make Mr Sharma laugh.

'I was never a 'Terminator', just a God-fearing man doing my job, which was eliminating crime in this city, not terminating people,' he said.

Mr Sharma's life story has inspired several Bollywood movies. The son of a small town principal, he joined the police force in 1983 as a sub-inspector. He soon made a name for himself after shooting several underworld dons.

He also has a way with words.

'Look, if gangsters were armed and resisting arrest, then I had to shoot in self-defence. If someone is walking about with an AK56, you can be sure they're not going to the temple or going shopping,' he said once.

He also had a charming persona and a taste for eye-catching flourishes. In a 2003 Time magazine story, he posed with a machine gun cradled in his arms. The article describes him leaning back in his chair and snarling: 'Criminals are filth ... and I'm the cleaner.'

For Mumbai lawyer, Seema Gulati, the sacking is long overdue.

'Just because he was able to break the back of organised crime doesn't mean that what he did was right. I'm glad he's gone. He used to function like an official executioner,' she said.

Mr Sharma's fall from grace began in 2004 when allegations began to circulate that he was helping the real estate mafia to grab land.

The allegations eventually surfaced in Mumbai's state legislature. Last year, local politician Gopinath Munde claimed that Mr Sharma had amassed a fortune of US$400 million.

The intelligence bureau says it found evidence of links between Mr Sharma and India's most wanted criminal, Dawood Ibrahim, who is believed to be based in Pakistan or the Middle East.

The file the bureau gave to Mr Gafoor included details of Mr Sharma's phone conversations with alleged criminals, and details of his properties and investments.

Faced with such an abundance of evidence, Mr Gafoor had no choice but to sack Mr Sharma.

As a dismissed officer, he is no longer entitled to police protection. And he could be forgiven for a nervous backward glance when he ventures onto Mumbai's streets.

Rough justice

Pradeep Sharma was a member of Mumbai's feared Criminal Intelligence Unit

The number of gangsters they reportedly gunned down between 1997 and 2003 was: 600