Mumbai’s best known police officer makes for a difficult interviewee. He is a man of few words. Add to that a ban on talking to the press imposed on him by his superiors. If you want to understand Assistant Commissioner of Police Vasant Dhoble, all you have to go by are a few laconic utterances. But even these, in the context of what his supporters say, can give you a glimpse of the world as he sees it.
About two decades ago, Dhoble was sent to Goregaon, then a quiet suburb of Mumbai full of four-storeyed housing board colonies and bungalows. By then, Dhoble had already acquired a reputation he has never lost—of being both honest and tough. Ajit Wagh, then the senior police inspector in charge of Goregaon Police Station, recalls giving Dhoble a hockey stick and telling him to go fight crime. Wagh, who retired as an ACP himself, has strong views on policing. He quotes his Police Commissioner VS Ramamurthy: “Don’t behave like clerks in uniform, writing reports all the time, backsides stuck to your chairs. Move in your area, make contacts, terrorise goondas, and let people feel secure.” Dealing with goondas, as Wagh says, meant arresting them under Section 151 of the Criminal Procedure Code (ie, preventive detention), getting their custody on a week’s remand, tying them to chairs, and thrashing the soles of their feet. “Now they’ve clipped our wings,” he says, “by giving us only 24 hours’ remand.” For a while, Wagh was on deputation to the Research & Analysis Wing, where he was taught how to behave if sent abroad. Among his instructions: ‘Never show your teeth’ when amused. Even today, he reacts with horror if a senior officer is caught laughing. As a youngster, Wagh once earned a hockey stick whacking from his enraged father for watching a film being shot. “I didn’t even know my name in childhood. All I heard my father call me was ‘haramkhor’ and ‘nalayak’.”
This was Wagh’s world, and Dhoble, then in his mid-thirties, was under his command—an heir to the hockey stick, a tool not just to show you meant business, as Wagh taught him, but also to keep you from drawing your gun at the first sign of being under attack. Dhoble was given a team of local youth called the Eagle Brigade and ordered to make Goregaon safe at night. It suited his temperament. Dhoble never sleeps, says Wagh.
But Dhoble was no stranger to the hockey stick. By the time he took up his Goregaon assignment, he was facing a case filed by a woman who accused him of beating her husband to death with a hockey stick (indeed, the allegation was that one stick broke and he carried on with another). Once Dhoble took charge, everything in Goregaon started shutting down by 11 pm, including street vendors and paanwallahs. Burglars found they had nowhere to hide till their break-in hour of 2.30 am. Even his colleagues were scared of him. One night, a cop drinking at a bar saw Dhoble enter with his trademark hockey stick, and bounded out the nearest window.
In 1994, a trial court convicted Dhoble in the abovementioned case, and he was dismissed from service. But Goregaon residents took out a protest march in support of this officer found guilty of doing an unarmed man to death. Two years later, Dhoble was back in the force with an acquittal from the Bombay High Court, which refused to believe the testimony of eye-witnesses. Within a year of his reinstatement, he was in the dock again, accused of having shot the wrong man in a police encounter. Principal Judge AS Aguiar of the sessions court, which was looking into the incident on the High Court’s orders, held the encounter to be fake, but the HC rejected his report and upheld it as genuine. Dhoble dismisses all this as “just allegations”. In 2003, the Supreme Court upheld his acquittal, but ordered another inquiry and awarded Rs 1 lakh as compensation to the victim’s mother.
Dhoble’s supporters are not troubled by his alleged violations of the law. Wagh points out that Dhoble was given an honourable acquittal, not one based on mere technicalities. Retired ACP SK Pathan says he supports Dhoble’s strongarm approach because it could save Muslim youth from the drugs that he insists are freely available at nightclubs. “Parents would come crying to me when I was posted at Pydhonie [a Muslim majority area], telling me their sons had become addicts. Their rich friends take them along to these pubs,” he says, “Ten more Dhobles are needed—with not one but two hockey sticks. Have these nightclubs closed down? Are kids too terrified now to go there? Bas, that’s all that matters.”
It’s a widely held view, it seems. “Give me a hockey stick, I’ll beat up these protestors!” a middle-aged man was heard shouting at a protest march held in Bandra against Dhoble, “They’ve ruined my son’s life, made him a drug addict.”
Dhoble’s supporters say they feel no revulsion at his tactics, not even on viewing a video clip that shows him roughing up the manager of Amar Juice Centre. For years, locals had been complaining against this streetside stall, which stays open late. Nor do they have sympathy for the sixty-plus Yusuf Bhure, who has alleged in a High Court petition that Dhoble slapped him so hard that he fell over and lost some of his hearing (all he was doing, he claims, was showing the policeman the relevant documents of his eatery-cum-hookah parlour Moghal Serai).
Residents of Bandra and Khar—a hotspot for fast cars, malls, pubs and discotheques—are Dhoble’s most vocal supporters. “Bandra was so quiet and safe, so friendly. Nowadays, Bandra never sleeps. Where do these boys and girls come from? Do their parents know what the girls are wearing?” wonders a nun at Daughters of St Paul, a nunnery located opposite Royalty, a nightclub owned by Prashant Gunjalkar and Sohail Khan (actor Salman Khan’s brother). The late night sounds and sights of the place were so annoying that the nuns had to shift bedrooms just to get restful sleep. Others, too, complain of the nuisance that rowdy pub-goers are.
Double-parked cars forcing residents to call taxis if someone needs be rushed to hospital, drivers peeing wherever they feel like, drinkers flinging empty beer cans into their compounds, car stereos blaring away way past midnight, voices rising uproariously on the street, the litany list is long. Complaints to the local police have gone unheeded, says Anandini Thakoor, chairperson of the H West Ward Residents’ Federation. A couple of officers who took action were transferred. Thakoor, who confesses to being ‘conservative’ (“Why don’t girls enjoy their drink at home?”) has lived in the area for 45 years, and says it has never been so bad. “The tough cop feared by wrongdoers is gone,” she laments.
Dhoble sees himself as that tough cop. Asked if pub owners don’t throw their weight around, show some rubaab with him, he asks, “Rubaab kya hota hai?” To him, this is about discipline, not some class divide. In fact, he turns vehement if you so much as mention class: “Even when inviting someone for my daughter’s wedding, I wouldn’t ask if he’s a sadak-chaap or property-owner. I’m not concerned with the status of these owners or their patrons. As a person, I have no status. All we are concerned with is violations of the law. Is there a different law for the elite?”
Ask Dhoble about the time he put Goregaon to sleep by 11 pm, and he smiles. That was 1990. Haven’t times changed since? “So, in 2050 will people be allowed to dance nude on the streets? Have the laws changed since 1990?” growls Dhoble, “Has society changed—become more modern, educated, Westernised? Have we become Western or are we just trying to be? Has India really become part of the West?”
Such is the man put in charge of the Mumbai Police’s Social Service wing. Curbing ‘immoral activities’, hookah parlours, gambling and child labour is Dhoble’s mandate. What makes waves are his raids on the hangouts of the city’s elite and the manner in which he conducts them. He is known to take down the contact details of customers, and even round up girls to be sent to women’s homes on the assumption that they are prostitutes. This has led to charges that he tars reputations and ruins lives. “Customers are potential witnesses when the case comes up, [so] we have to take their details to summon them,” says Dhoble in his defence, “As for reputation, what is more important—saving their reputation or their life? Girls are being molested there and [pushed] into prostitution. We have on record cases where mothers have [pushed] their minor daughters into the trade. We are rescuing these girls, not arresting them.”
According to Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik, who backs Dhoble to the hilt, it’s clear what’s going on when bar owners are found to have the phone numbers of girls. “Would you want some barwallah to have your daughter’s number?” he asks.
Dhoble asserts that many of the places he has raided are hazardous. “I challenge you to enter a discotheque and exit from the other side,” he says, “What if there’s a fire? There will be a stampede.” The police wants people safe, he adds. By his count, of Mumbai’s 7,000 odd restaurants, only about 350 have performing licences (for live bands, DJ shows and so on), and of these, only 100 or so follow the rules. “About 250 are violating them on a day-to-day basis,” he says, “I wouldn’t mind minor transgressions, but what if the illegal-to-legal ratio is 80:20?”
Those who frequent these hazardous dens of vice aren’t convinced. “Life in Mumbai is so competitive and stressful, you need to let your hair down. All over the world, discotheques are open almost all night. Mumbai was like that too. But now, we all run home at 11 in case Dhoble Uncle comes,” grumbles a young doctor who misses her monthly night out.
“Who eats dinner at 5 am?” scoffs Commissioner Patnaik. “These people talk about the West, but there, supper is over by 6.30 pm. Who dines at 1.30 am? Is everyone on roza?” Nitin Gadekar of the Khar Residents Association, whose daughter was present at one Dhoble raid, agrees with the police officer: “The English-speaking youth, my daughter included, live in a cocoon. With their fabulous salaries, it’s like they’re in outer space.”
“Okay, we are the elite,” argues the doctor, “Look after the majority then, those who are dying in slums of malaria. What difference does it make to their lives if these places are raided? Are drugs and alcohol found only in pubs and discos? These people are missing the big picture.”
But what is the big picture anyway? A bustling metro where youngsters want to enjoy themselves the way their rich world counterparts do, where the good life seems within easy reach of those whose elders could never have dreamt of it? And ranged against them, a few oldies who imagine they can restore a lost world where children were obedient, hard work was prized and rock-hard morals ruled. Did such a world ever exist? Even ‘conservative’ Anandini, a Catholic, defied her parents to marry a Hindu 50 years ago.
Is that Dhoble’s vision? Is that the moral burden he sees himself shouldering? “I have seen how girls and boys are exploited in these places of entertainment. My aim is also to save them,” he was once quoted as saying, “I have seen places where some ladies are not in a position to walk out of these establishments after 1.30 am. Who is going to monitor this? We would not need to do moral policing if the youth understood good from bad…”