KAVASJI JAMSHEDJI PETIGARA, the first Indian to head the Bombay CID as the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) in 1926, will always be remembered for the most high-profile arrest he made. Not once, but several times, Petigara found himself in the unique situation of having to arrest Mahatma Gandhi. He was one of the officers who arrested the ‘father of the nation’ from Mani Bhavan during the peak of the Quit India movement. In fact, such was the relationship and the respect they both shared towards each other that Gandhi himself used to insist that Petigara be present every time he courted arrest.
This was a testament of the level of trust Petigara, given the title of ‘Khan Bahadur’ by the British government, enjoyed from both sides, during the intense and crucial years of the Indian Freedom struggle.
This month, the Mumbai police have arranged for a ceremony to mark the 75th death anniversary of Petigara, whose life-size marble statue is located at a distance from the Mumbai police headquarters, opposite the Metro theatre. Petigara had passed away on March 28, 1941.
Mumbai police spokesperson Dhananjay Kulkarni said, “He was the first Indian to become a DCP in the erstwhile Bombay police force. He had also been accorded the title of ‘Khan Bahadur’ for his stellar work during his tenure by the British government. We have invited his family members for a celebratory function on March 28.”
Police historian Deepak Rao says that Petigara had no formal police training and joined the force in 1903 as a plain-clothed policeman — also known as the ‘safedwala’ back then. “Six years after he joined the force, the Crime Investigation Department (CID) was created in 1909. Of the two wings of the CID — crime and politics — Petigara was assigned to the latter (currently known as Special Branch) as a sub inspector, given his ‘great knowledge of the city’ and contacts within the Parsi community. Throughout his career, he served only in the CID and was never posted at a police station as he was great at gathering information,” Rao told The Indian Express.
Petigara moved through the ranks pretty soon and by 1920 he was the then Superintendent of police, Special Branch. In 1928, he was promoted as DCP Special Branch, thereby making him the first Indian to be given the post of DCP in Bombay. His work had been so impressive that in 1932, even as other officers were preparing to give the Imperial Service Examination, he was nominated to the Imperial police, Rao said.
Petigara’s grandson, Kavas Petigara, says that it was very rare during the British rule that an Indian commanded British officers, but his grandfather was an exception. “Even at the height of the Quit India movement, he was trusted by them (Britishers) and the Congress party as well. Hence, he indispensable for both the sides,” Kavas told The Indian Express.
“Whenever Gandhiji courted arrested, he wanted my grandfather to be there. Gandhiji understood that my grandfather was doing his duty. In fact, when Gandhiji went to attend a round table conference in England, of the two recommendation letters that he needed to travel, one came from my grandfather. Till date, the letter is kept at Mani Bhavan,” Kavas said, grinning from ear-to-ear, unable to hide his pride..
Another anecdote that Kavas remembers is that of Dr Gilder, a famous surgeon in Mumbai and a Gandhian who would always court arrest with the national leader. “Once, Dr Gilder was treating my grandfather, when he suddenly got the news that Gandhi was courting an arrest. Torn between attending to Petigara and courting arrest with Gandhi, Dr Gilder sent a written note to Gandhi saying he could not join him as he was treating Petigara, a request which Gandhiji readily approved of.”
Interestingly, Petigara’s connection with Gandhi did not stop there.
His son Noshirwan was the assisting solicitor to the special public prosecutor in the Gandhi murder trial.
Kavas says that one of the most important attributes of his grandfather was the “crucial balancing act” that endeared him to the people in spite of him working in the police that reported to the Britishers.
A testament to his popularity with the people is the fact that the life-size marble statue was constructed with public subscription who loved “ the special character” so much, they readily paid for it.