Gangsters, guns and corruption trial: The Dirty Harry of Bombay

He is an idol in India, a policeman who made his name gunning down gangsters and boasts of killing 83 men in just four years. But now Daya Nayak is in the dock himself. By Justin Huggler
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In a court room in Bombay this week, one of the most remarkable stories in modern policing is drawing to a close. The man in the dock is no ordinary criminal. He is one of the most celebrated and idolised police officers in India, a real-life Dirty Harry who made his name by gunning down Bombay's gangsters in the streets, and was part of the elite unit credited with cleaning up India's commercial capital.

Sub-inspector Daya Nayak killed 83 men in just four years. He doesn't just admit to it, he boasts about it. In 1997, thousands watched as he ambushed a famous gangster in the streets during rush hour. In the ensuing gun battle, Insp Nayak was badly wounded and ended up spending 27 days in hospital. The gangster was killed.

It is a career that has turned Insp Nayak into a hero for the ordinary working men of Bombay - not least because he started out as a child labourer, working as a waiter in a spit-and-sawdust restaurant at the age of nine. He's the stuff of movies - and Bollywood has made no fewer than four based on his life.

An interview with InspNayak used to be a routine stop-off for foreign journalists who were passing through Bombay. He has posed for glamorous pictures toting an AK-47 assault rifle - a rather heavier-duty piece of weaponry than is usually associated with police work.

Then there were the macho remarks. Such as: "We do not have a personal life. We lead such risky lives that there is no place for family life." But even amid the adulation, controversy has never been far behind. Human rights groups, and pretty much everyone else in Bombay, have always maintained that most of the criminals were gunned down in cold blood, and Insp Nayak and his colleagues later invented elaborate cover stories of gunfights in which they had no choice but to fire in self-defence.

But, in the end, that is not what brought down Insp Nayak. Though it's pretty much an open secret in India, it never dented his popular appeal. What finally prompted his fall from grace were accusations that he was taking massive bribes from the very mafia leaders he was supposed to be hunting down.

The inspector has been accused of accepting bribes to let arrested gangsters off the hook - and of taking money from mafia leaders to kill their rivals under the guise of police operations.

An investigation by Bombay police's anti-corruption bureau found he had amassed wealth worth more than twice his total legitimate earnings. Although he continues to live in a crumbling apartment block in official police accommodation, Indian newspapers have reported that the investigation found he also owned a flat in Switzerland, a fleet of tourist buses and "probably" owns two hotels at a holiday resort in Goa. They also reported suspicions he was financing a Bollywood film.

But Insp Nayak insists that he is innocent, and says he is "not even 1 per cent" worried about the allegations. He has said the accusations are an attempt by Bombay underworld leaders to put him out of action.

Bombay took Insp Nayak to its heart because his story is what Bombay dreams are made of: the poor immigrant who comes to the city and makes good. Every day, new immigrants arrive from the rural backwater villages of India on the streets of the place they call the "maximum city", a metropolis of at least 16 million people that is bursting at the seams.

The roads are so crowded that they have had to build flyovers over the entire length of them, turning them into double-decker highways. Housing is in such short supply that the slums come up to the end of the runway at Bombay airport, and the wheels of the plane almost touch the roofs as you come in to land.

But people keep coming because they say that Bombay is the city that can make your dreams come true, where you can make it big.

This is the city in which Insp Nayak turned up as a nine-year- old boy in 1979, after being sent here by his family from their village in Karnataka, in the south. "Our family's financial condition was very bad. So my mother told me to go to Bombay to earn some money to help the family," he has said.

He started out working as a waiter in a cheap restaurant. At nights, he slept in the porch. But he was lucky: the restaurant owner took an interest in him and insisted that he go to school, and he left with a full education.

After he left he joined the police. It was no easy job. In the early Nineties, Bombay was a city dominated by organised crime. There were more than 100 shootings a year. Businessmen and real estate developers got regular threats from the mafia. Those that did not pay up were assassinated as an example to the others.

It was a city of godfathers, and the most legendary of all was a man called Dawood Ibrahim. In those days he was just a mafia don, but in years to come he would be accused of planning coordinated bombings that killed hundreds across the city, and designated an "international terrorist" with links to Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida.

It was into this criminal underworld that lurked behind the glamour of Bollywood that Insp Nayak entered. On New Year's Eve in 1996, he was sent to monitor the area near Juhu beach, where crowds of Bombayites gather to cool off at sunset and young lovers slip into the shadows as darkness falls.

He received a tip-off that two members of a well-known gang were going to be in the area, and went to intercept them.

"I went there to arrest them, but they fired on us," he has said. "In retaliation I shot them dead. I was new so I became worried after the encounter. I had fired at them because they fired on me. I was worried because they were big gangsters. But the police department appreciated my work."

In fact, it was a night's work that was to change Insp Nayak's life and turn him into a major star. Around that time, desperate to rein in the mafia gangs, the Bombay police decided on a new strategy. They created five tightly-knit elite units of police to gather information on the underworld, hunt the mafia dons down and bring them in. Except, human rights groups and commentators have alleged, the police commanders were not bothered whether they were brought in dead or alive.

After that New Year's Eve in Juhu, Insp Nayak was recruited to one of the units. They became known in India as the "encounter specialists". Originally, encounter was a term for a shoot-out in which police killed the criminals while acting in self-defence. But it quickly became a euphemism for a situation in which the police caught the criminals and instead of arresting them, gunned them down on the spot. The shoot-out was added to the police report later.

It was a policy which originated in India in the suppression of separatist Sikh militants in Punjab in the Eighties. The Bombay police took the "dirty" tactics of counter-militancy and applied them against urban criminal gangs.

"As the gang wars spilt out into the streets of Bombay, the police followed a straightforward enough policy," the commentator Vir Sanghvi wrote in the Hindustan Times this week. "They made out a list of gangsters and then just went out and killed them."

The police got away with it, Mr Sanghvi wrote, because Bombay's middle classes had lost faith in a judiciary that was failing to convict arrested mafia leaders. A senior minister "openly declared he had ordered the police to shoot down gangsters," a former Bombay police chief, Julio Ribeiro told the Indian Express.

"The situation was so bad that police postings and transfers were paid for," Mr Ribeiro said. "With the seniors so corrupt, there was no way they could have checked the junior encounter specialists."

But it was a world in which Insp Nayak was thriving. He and his colleagues have always insisted there were no false encounters, and that all of the killings were in self-defence. In an interview two years ago, he said that he may have killed 83 gangsters, but he had arrested more than 300 alive, and the media "should highlight the arrests more than the encounter killings".

All the same, the various "encounter specialists" came to be known in the Bombay press by the number of kills each had chalked up. Even though Insp Nayak did not have the most kills - that was Inspector Pradeep Sharma with more than 100 - he became the biggest celebrity, partly because of the romantic story of his rise from humble origins, partly because he loved the limelight so much.

He used to hang around with the Bollywood glitterati, and was a regular at premieres and parties with the beautiful people. He helped fund a major expansion for his old school in the village in Karnataka, and managed to get the biggest star in Bollywood, Amitabh Bachhan, to come along to the opening ceremony as the guest of honour.

Since those heady days, most of the encounter specialists have fallen on harder times. Several have been suspended or are under investigation for misconduct.

Insp Nayak's fall began in 2003, when a former associate of his called Ketan Tirodkar filed a complaint against him. Mr Tirodkar describes himself as a former journalist. He is also a self-confessed fixer in the extortion business.

He alleged that Insp Nayak had close links with two Bombay mafia dons, and had amassed huge private wealth through his dealings with them. Specifically, he alleged that Insp Nayak had arrested known gangsters and then demanded huge bribes for releasing them. He alleged that the policeman had accepted payments from gangsters to eliminate rivals or businessmen who were standing in their way. And he alleged that the mafia had paid Insp Nayan to have police officers who were getting in their way moved to different units.

Initially, the police brushed off the allegations. The Bombay police commissioner personally vouched for Insp Nayak, and a report exonerated him. But the investigation continued, and the anti-corruption bureau began to investigate his disproportionate wealth.

Earlier this month they raided his Bombay home, and he was suspended from the police force. Inspector Nayak's supporters still believe he is the victim of a stitch-up by his enemies in the Bombay underworld.

But whatever the outcome of his trial. It seems that the era of the Bombay "encounter specialists" is coming to an end.