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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 06:57 GMT 07:57 UK
Bombay's crack 'encounter' police

By Zubair Ahmed
BBC correspondent in Bombay

They are dreaded by criminals, loathed by human rights activists and envied by their colleagues.

Encounter Specialists Daya Nayak
Daya Nayak has faced accusations that he was in the pay of mafia bosses

They are a small, tightly-knit group of policemen who are given much of the credit for cleaning up crime in India's commercial and entertainment capital Bombay (Mumbai).

But they are no ordinary cops.

These crack shots belong to a unique, unofficial policing 'institution'- the city's so-called 'encounter specialists', as they have become known.

Their names routinely figure in reports of suspected criminals who have been shot while on the run.

Many say that extortion and random shootings which had turned Bombay into India's crime capital have been checked by these cops.

Troubling questions

Their detractors say the policemen are a law unto themselves hobnobbing with criminals themselves.

Encounter Specialist Vijay Salaskar
Vijay Salaskar says he has never taken the law into his own hands.

On Monday, one of Bombay's encounter specialists was under new and troubling public scrutiny as police chief AN Roy was forced to issue a personal report vouching for his man's honesty.

The police chief's report came after a local journalist went to court alleging that one of the encounter specialists, Daya Nayak, was in the pay of the city's mafia bosses.

The report exonerated Mr Nayak.

But analysts say Mr Nayak and encounter specialists in general cannot rest easy just yet.

The police chief's report was cautious, suggesting a "further inquiry" was required.

But Mr Nayak was jubilant. "Truth always comes out in the end," he told BBC News Online.

Many believe that the real truth about Bombay's encounter specialists may be too terrible to know.

Media glory

They say that the team of five crack policemen has admittedly broken the back of the city's once-notorious crime syndicates.

But they believe they did it at a terrible cost.

Encounter Specialists Daya Nayak
I am a Brahmin (a high caste Hindu), a teetotaller and a vegetarian. I have no social evil, why should I kill people without a reason?
Daya Nayak, Bombay police

More than 600 suspected criminals are alleged to have been shot in cold blood in so-called 'encounters' with the police, human rights groups say.

Daya Nayak admits he has "killed 83 criminals in four years."

But he insists that this is roughly one-third of the 300 arrests he has made in the same period.

He says the media "should highlight the arrests more than the encounter killings."

The leader of the crack team Pradeep Sharma says he is just doing his job.

"As a policeman my job is to clean the city of criminals which is what I am doing."

Recently, Mr Sharma marked a grand total of 100 "successful" encounters with suspected criminals.

In a sign that they are mostly hailed as heroes, the news was front-paged across the local newspapers.

The encounter specialists are also eulogised by Bollywood.

A recent film on a crack police marksman, said to be loosely based on Daya Nayak's life, was a moderate hit.

Mr Nayak said he merely offered advice to the filmmaker during the making of the movie.

Trigger happy?

But in all the self-congratulation, few ask if encounter specialists are really the right way to go about modern policing.

Pradeep Sharma insists most deaths at his hands have been accidents.

Bombay Police Chief AN Roy
Mr Roy was forced to issue a personal report vouching for his man's honesty

"When criminals on the run resist arrest, such encounters happen. It is more of an accident when we go to arrest criminals," says Mr Sharma.

"They fire towards us and in self defence we also do the same."

Daya Nayak says he does not resort to fake encounter killings.

"I am a Brahmin (a high caste Hindu), a teetotaller and a vegetarian. I have no social evil, why should I kill people without a reason?"

Vijay Salaskar, with 33 encounter deaths to his credit, says he has never taken law into his hands.

"We are not trigger-happy," he says, playing with one of the three mobile phones he owns.

"We kill criminals only when we are fired upon first."

Not everyone believes them.

'Real shooters'

It also does not help that they are often boastful about their skill.

No criminal can match their marksmanship, they say.

"They are not sharp shooters, we are real shooters," they say.

But Daya Nayak says it is not about one-upmanship and body counts.

"It is not a number game. We have different style of functioning. We have divided Bombay into five territories, each of us manages one's own territory. But we are not competing with each other," he says.

He claims that body counts are a media invention.

Even so, it is widely acknowledged that they engage suspected criminals at great personal risk.

"Anyone can be killed," says Daya Nayak.

He recalls being shot twice and badly wounded when he ambushed a notorious gangster in 1997.

"I shot him dead in front of 10-15,000 people, but got hit twice. I was in hospital for 27 days."

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