Bombay calling London



“Pull the cops off the streets of Bombay for just one day,” the late Pramod Navalkar, Shiv Sena leader, had once told me, “and see the mayhem that will overpower not just the city but Maharashtra and the entire country. Firm policing is why you and I can walk the streets fearlessly and sleep easy at night.”

What Navalakar said is as true of Bombay as it is of London, where the lack of firm policing allowed the riots that broke out last week to escalate. In a country that is small enough to fit into Maharashtra with lots of room left over edgeways, Navalkar’s words have eerily come true so many years later.

I am stunned by the London Met police’s wimpishness. Not that I have ever supported encounter killings back home, but London’s cops did not even know how to deal with a gun-toting gangster-drug dealer (Mark Duggan) and, if they really shot and killed him, they had no clue how to execute the event and prevent the consequences. Later, they stood by — not even using water canons, plastic bullets or tear gas. Wary as they were of violating human rights, perhaps firm handling at the beginning would have prevented things from spiralling out of control.

It was their call to take but they thought CCTV footage would be adequate to catch looters who came hooded and masked for the large part. And the arrests they have made, I am sure, add up to only a small percentage of those who actually took to the streets over the past week. That, of course, set the tongues wagging in Maharashtra’s Vidhan Bhavan where an Assembly session is underway. Faced with criticism of failing to install the CCTVs sanctioned for Bombay, Congressmen and those in the Nationalist Congress Party are now questioning: if western models do not work even for the west, can they not be as easily subverted in India?

When I had travelled to London last year, I had fallen in love with the city all over again, dreaming up ways to return and spend extended periods of time in the British capital. I guess I am not so keen any more. Of course, I will still travel to London but I am now very thankful that I live and make my home in Mumbai. Because though London might still be quite safe and welcoming, I believe I would be safer in the hands of the Bombay police who react more swiftly and are more adept at bringing situations under control in double quick time.

Of course, the 1992-93 riots did go on longer than they should have essentially because of the sympathy of a section of the cops towards the rioters: that is the other side of the coin to how London’s cops reacted with excessive caution towards causing any harm to the rioters. But while some of our own cops perhaps encouraged the looters then, I am glad that our rioters (unlike in the UK, where two girls clearly cocked a snook at the cops by saying they wanted to “show the police and the rich’’ what exactly they could do) were always afraid of getting on the wrong side of the law. Not that we are rich but those girls were not really that poor either. So I choose Bombay over London any day.

Whatever my reservations about them, at least our policemen know how to do their jobs. And, though they may now be quite discredited as a consequence of their partisan attitude during the riots of both Bombay and Gujarat, they operate in and have to police a far more complexed society than London’s.

Once upon a time, one of my friends in the force had boasted, “If a Naxal sneezes in Gadchiroli, we hear of it at the Police HQ in Colaba two minutes later.” Though that may not be strictly true today, at least they are still preventing the outbreak of riots (if not blasts), despite all the divisions and factions in the police force and the political pressures they are subjected to today.

But our cops have occasionally also been helped along by our political leadership – however weak and annoying at the present moment they may be. Clearly, the holidaying British leaders, who didn’t care to return sooner, and the complete irrelevance of the mayoral office in London (as it is in Bombay too), contributed to the escalation of the London riots. Perhaps they needed someone like former Maharashtra chief minister AR Antulay’s firm hand.

He was before my time as a journalist but one of my chief reporters told me this delightful story: riots had broken out in Nasik on Antulay’s watch and were swiftly brought under control. When Nasik’s police commissioner called the chief minister to say “Sir, you will be pleased to know that we have controlled the riots in one hour!” he was in for a shock. For a very displeased Antulay snapped back, “No I am not pleased at all! Why did they break out in the first place? If you had been doing your job, there would not have been a situation you would have had to control!”

He transferred the commissioner and when the bureaucrats resisted, he made his chief secretary sit at his own personal assistant’s typewriter after office hours and type out the order himself “in the time it takes me to reach from Mantralaya to Varsha (the CM’s official residence).” Unhappy as the chief secretary was, the order was ready much before Antulay’s car entered the gates of Varsha and there was never again a riot in Nasik.

But while British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to be now belatedly getting tough on both the police and the rioters, sadly, Bombay’s cops today do not have the kind of leadership they need to bring closure to the July 13 blasts — I am told they have all the clues but no confidence to take the explosive results of the investigation forward. Cameron is as clueless about his riots (bad parenting and sick minds are too simplistic explanations for what happened in London) as are our own politicians generally seem about similar situations in India.

Nevertheless, I will never again describe Bombay’s cops as “second to Scotland Yard.” Like my boastful friend had pointed out to me, they operate with far inferior technology and equipment than the British cops and under legal systems and court processes that Britain has long left behind.

So, if not the best, they are clearly on par. And may God save the British Police should (god-forbid) such a situation happen again in London. Perhaps they could call on the Bombay police for a tip or two.

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