For a month now, Arvind Ramesh Shimpi’s body has been lying in the morgue of J J Hospital in Mumbai. His family has refused to accept it, accusing the police of beating him to death in custody after arresting him for a theft, they say, he didn’t commit.
At the city’s Churchgate station, with a footfall of over 1.6 lakh commuters every day, Arvind was one of 24 shoe-shine men. As a row rages over the 34-year-old’s death allegedly at the hands of police, his friends remark on the irony. In the busy station where little stands still, this unseen, unheard force of two dozen, with their permanent stations, have another crucial task: being the eyes and ears of the Government Railway Police.
Until a decade ago, the shoe-shine men, along with the taxi-drivers and porters at the station, had a ‘Railway Mitra’ identity card, an official recognition of their assistance to commuters and to police as informers. “The IDs were misused by many and subsequently discontinued, but the system of informers still exists,” says Deepak Deoraj, DCP at Government Railway Police (Western).
“We used to get leads on molestation and chain-snatching on trains from them,” says retired DCP, GRP (Western), B Shirsat.
In 2015, the Railway Mitra programme officially began again, though without the IDs, and this time only for authorised workers living permanently at stations. Every month, the GRP holds a meeting with the shoe-shine men, telling them to look out for suspicious people or activities.
“If a stranger is at the station for very long, we inform the police. With a history of train blasts, unclaimed bags are the first to be reported,” says Sanjay Ram, who has had a fixed station, opposite platform no. 2, since 1999.
“Police sometimes pay us for tip-offs,” says Balu Gangaram More, who claims to know each hawker and police constable at the station, as well as those who regularly sleep at Churchgate at night and those who are strangers. He is reluctant to talk about Arvind, except saying he knew him. “Arvind may have stolen the phone. I don’t know how he died.”
Arvind sat between platform no. 2 and 3, a regular for 24 years. He began working at the age of 10, accompanying his father, who also polished shoes, at the station.
“We were born and brought up here, on the road,” says elder sister Rehana Shaikh, pointing to a tiny space on the footpath opposite the station, where tin boxes, plastic bags full of clothes, bed and a mirror show signs of inhabitation. Rehana took on a Muslim name after her marriage.
Their mother abandoned the family when Arvind was five. After Class IV, he stopped going to school, and started working. Ashok Patil, Arvind’s classmate, joined him at the station two years later.
It was at the station that Arvind met Sunita. Nine years younger, Sunita also lived on the footpath and sold mogra (jasmine) flowers on local trains. She visited the station for tea breaks. When he was 24 and she still 15, Arvind proposed. “I agreed because he promised me I wouldn’t have to work after marriage,” Sunita says.
They have three children — aged 9, 5 and one just a few months old.
Arvind’s income was irregular, with weekends particularly bad. But, Sunita says, “He kept me happy. Only that he drank a lot.”
On March 8 night too, the last time she saw him, Arvind had stomped away after an argument between the two over his drinking. When Arvind didn’t return for four days, Sunita assumed he was sleeping over at Rehana’s shanty, like he did after their fights.
At 1.30 am on March 12, a policeman shook Sunita awake as she slept on the pavement. The frail 25-year-old, with her three children snuggled by her side, heard disbelievingly as he said, “Tera aadmi shaant ho gaya hai, uski body JJ se le le (Your husband is no more. Collect his body from J J Hospital).”
She learnt later that at 4 am on March 9, within hours of leaving home, Arvind had been picked up along with Suresh Goregavkar, 66, and a 14-year-old for allegedly stealing a Nokia handset and Rs 200. While the minor was sent to a shelter home, Arvind and Goregavkar were sent to Arthur Road jail. Arvind died in judicial custody there. Police approached her 13 hours after he died.
“How could he suddenly die? He was fit when I saw him last,” says Rehana. Guddu Shimpi, Arvind’s middle sibling who sells lemon juice for a living, adds, “He would never steal anything.”
Police say they have clear evidence to nail him. “Arvind was arrested on the basis of CCTV footage. He was part of a group of three who stole the phone,” says Vijay Kadam, senior police inspector at Azad Maidan station. Investigations are on into the custodial death allegation, he adds. Police have said Arvind had sudden abdominal pain and collapsed, and are hoping the histopathology report will show he was suffering from a disease.
A postmortem, conducted at J J Hospital on March 13, showed fresh contusion marks on Arvind’s left hand, an enlarged liver, cut lip, scratches on his body and a red bruise on his head suggestive of internal bleeding.
While the cause of Arvind’s death is officially “awaited until further reports”, Guddu says, “He died because he was hit on the head.”
Balaji Nirmal, whose phone had been stolen, remembers seeing Arvind at the Azad Maidan police station. “Police asked him if he wanted tea. He was sleepy and said no. He assumed he would be let off.”
There were few shoe-shine men at the station around the time when Arvind was picked up. Like the others, he started at 7 am each day, took a break from 11 am (after the morning office rush hour) till 2 pm, and then worked for two more hours, after which he ate and slept. However, Arvind was known to wander off for drinking bouts. “He was an alcoholic,” asserts Sanjay Ram, who claims to have known Arvind since he was a toddler. “He also had a temper problem,” adds friend Ashok Patil.
Balu More, wearing the symbolic blue uniform of a shoe-shine man, occupies Arvind’s spot now. The peti he carries, which has a tiny stand, four brushes, bundles of shoelace, insole, glue, and four circular boxes of polish, is the same as carried by all the 24 shoe-shine men, who sit lined together.
As he knocks his brush against the wooden shoe-stand to attract customers, swishing the bristle left and right like a pendulum, Buddu Natarajan says their customers are increasing in number, with at least 10-15 loyal ones frequenting each one of them. From Rs 3 for a normal polish and Rs 5 for cream a decade ago, the rates have gone up to Rs 7 for normal polish, Rs 10 for cream and Rs 15 for colour polish. “In a day, we earn Rs 500,” Natarajan says.
Even liquid shoe-polish, which once threatened to hurt their business, has not eaten into it much, he smiles. “In a train with so many people, shoes tend to get dirty.”
Except for VIP visits, police too largely leave them alone, though there are incidents of pavement dwellers being roughed up. “Because a draconian law allows it, police can round up streetdwellers if they don’t have identification or employment proof,” says Abhishek Bharadwaj, an activist.
Since Arvind’s death, the uncertainty has increased. “Anyone can be picked up. They are beaten up in jail, bones are broken,” says Patil.
On the footpath outside, as she waits for high court dates in her husband’s case, Sunita sighs, “The poor have no worth.”
She is stitching together a garland of mogra flowers. She has started working again.