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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Beyond the Khaki

Additional commissioner of police, ATS, Sukhwinder Singh recalls asking Hemant Karkare, on their way back from a press conference on the Malegaon blast investigation...

December 7, 2008 12:27:52 am

Hemant Karkare (1954-2008)

‘Every time we had to make a presentation before the Pay Commission, he would be called upon. He was a classic orator.’

Smita Nair

Additional commissioner of police, ATS, Sukhwinder Singh recalls asking Hemant Karkare, on their way back from a press conference on the Malegaon blast investigation, how he kept his temper under control in the face of allegations hurled by the press on national networks. “I have become sober after working with him for five months,” says Singh, “He never lost his cool. I never saw him angry.”

Today, the entire force, from the IPS to the constabulary, recalls the man who stood for them and always “led from the front”, as Singh puts it. Something that Karkare did that fateful night too, when terror struck Mumbai. Officer Dinesh Aggarwal, who called him immediately after the ATS controls got the alert, cannot forget the last call: “I immediately called him to update him, and told him that I was leaving for the spot with arms, to which he replied, ‘Aggarwal, I am at the spot.’ ”

While the family hasn’t yet emerged from the shock, close colleague Parambir Singh, additional commissioner of police, ATS, still can’t believe that the man who always called him on the office phone in the morning and simply said “Haan, main bol raha hoon (yes, it’s me),” is no more. Parambir was at the Oberoi when he heard firing coming from the direction of Vidhan Bhavan. He rushed to find a bleeding constable who told him that three officers, including Karkare, had been shot.

It has been a week and Parambir still can’t gather words to describe his “guru”. Parambir’s association with Karkare goes back to the 1990s, when Karkare had joined as SP at Chandrapur, and Parambir as ASP. “Even today, if the department has photographs and leads on the naxalites, including names like Kranti Randiv, it’s because of the operation we did when he was SP at Chandrapur. I have done the maximum operations under his tenure and we have conducted raids as far as Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. Before the raids, everyone knew the naxal leaders as Annas, it’s only under his tenure that we finally put faces to them.” 

For Parambir, the “loss is huge”, as he recalls his “workaholic” colleague with great fondness. Even when Karkare was in RA&W, and posted in Vienna, he was in touch with him for errands like school updates of his children. “He was artistic and very systematic in his approach to work,” Parambir says—every day would begin with “to-do lists” with accurate briefings and updated comments. The only time a smile breaks across his face is when he recalls the erratic eating habits of Karkare. “I would see him skip his lunch or dinner sometimes. Once he got engrossed in work, there was no stopping him. There have been days when I told him to pack some sandwiches and snack on them between breaks. He would listen politely, but skip his lunch again for another meeting.”  

His office recalls him being in office till 2 a.m. going through files, analysing interrogation reports and calling junior officers to confirm facts. “He was Maharashtra’s thinking cop”, Parambir says, adding, “Every time we had to make a presentation before the Pay Commission, he would be called upon. He was a classic orator, a thorough gentleman.” he recalls. Junior officials, who did not want to be quoted, speak of him as the only IPS rank cop who allowed them to sit and discuss issues if there was any.

Rohini Salian, prosecutor for the Malegaon case, met him the day he met his untimely end. “I met him at 7.30 p.m. We were supposed to meet the next day and have a briefing. I saw him later on television wearing a bullet-proof jacket. In another 15 minutes, there was a news flash about his death. I prayed that the news should be a mistake.” Salian says he was an officer right till the end. Her first interaction with him was over a decade ago, when he was a witness in a TADA case where Arun Gawli was an accused. “He was very polished, balanced, soft-spoken and had all the details. That has not changed over the years. It was only in the last week that I saw a tinge of hurt in his eyes for the first time, as if he was a little upset with the way he was being maligned over the Malegaon investigation. On his last day, he was all charged up as we discussed the case details. It is a huge loss.”

While friends recall him as the cop who fought with a private bank that refused to give money to the families of three constables when they died in the line of fire, Parambir adds that the lack of basic amenities like water and living conditions for the staff upset him the most. His good friend Deepesh Mehta, who was among the first to reach JJ Mortuary, recalls that Karkare liked strange combos like “rice and milk” and was an avid fan of literature, both Marathi and English. He could hold his own in any debate. “He told me 15 days ago that we should try to work on measures for recyling water,” Mehta says. 

SID chief D Sivanadan has saved the last operational SMS that Karkare sent. “During the Kandahar hijack operations, he had helped in major raids and seizure of weapons. With his background in RA&W, we had suggested his name for ATS as he was a man with nine years of intelligence. The last detail I recall is the way he presented a lavish lunch for his team when I had gone visiting there. Everything was in order, and everything was perfect,” Sivanadan says.

Vijay Salaskar (1958-2008)

‘When I said I wanted to visit him in his Bandra office one day to see how he worked, he smiled and changed the topic’

Jaidev Hemmady

The mere mention of encounter cop Vijay Salaskar sent shivers down the spines of gangsters, but his family remembers him as a jovial man who always had a witty one-liner to make everyone laugh.

Divya, Salaskar’s daughter, who is preparing for her MBA, says the man responsible for about 75 encounters never discussed his work with anyone in the family. “When dad was posted at the Bandra office a few years ago, I told him that I would visit him in office one day to see how he worked but he smiled and changed the topic. He never spoke about what sort of a day he had at work or any problems he might have faced,” says Divya, who wants to “honour dad’s wish that I study management”.

She remembers that her father’s work often prevented him from attending her school functions. “Initially, I felt dejected, but as I grew up, I accepted the fact that he was a different kind of person and I have always been proud of what he was,” says an emotional Divya.

The family says Salaskar liked watching nature shows on National Geographic channel and movies like Vertical Limit. His wife Smita says the policeman enjoyed trekking and cycling. “Before he joined the police force, he used to cycle a lot and visit offbeat destinations.”

A student of the Dalmia College in Malad, Salaskar completed his post-graduation in commerce and then studied law before proceeding to work for New India Assurance for five years before joining the state police department in 1983. “A typical nine-to-five job did not satisfy his desire for social service and adventure. He decided to give up the job and appear for the police exams,” Smita says.

Divya adds, “Father had an immense desire for social work. He would often tell me to try and spare a few hours to teach students.”

Within the first year of his appointment, Salaskar shot to death a dreaded criminal, Raja Shahabuddin, wanted for many murders. In the years to come, he became an encounter specialist who was much-respected in the police force. But even though he was a busy cop, he made it a point to take the family out on holiday at least once a year to places like Hampi, Smita says.

The tough cop had a sweet tooth. “He was especially fond of Maharashtrian sweets like sheera and shikran, a delicacy made with chopped bananas and sweet milk,” his wife says.

Ashok Kamte (1965-2008)

‘He never gave a second thought to walking into a card shop in uniform and buying a Valentine’s Day card for me’

Sunanda Mehta

If homes speak of their owners, a visit to No. 14, Rakshak Society in Pune is all one needs to understand the life and times of Ashok Kamte, additional CP East Region, Mumbai. With condolences and an unending stream of visitors flowing in even now, the sprawling bungalow, tucked away in a green pocket of Pune, refuses to sport a despondent air. Instead, even today, it breathes life, warmth and dignity, underlined by an unmistakable air of bravado—all defining qualities of the slain Kamte. A man who lived by valour and died by it too, the night Mumbai was attacked.

Today his stolid character finds reflection in the dignified demeanour of his wife Vinita, their two sons and the home he so lovingly built and which holds his memories in every corner. From the shelves lined with books on weapons and combat to the mounted rifle that belonged to his grandfather—the first Indian IG Police of the erstwhile Bombay State—to the line of medals bagged by Kamte the sportsman, the story of man who believed in living life king size is etched all over the walls.

“His work was his life. Of course he gave us all the love and attention we wanted, but deep down all of us knew nothing would ever come between him and the call of duty, not even us,” whispers Vinita, 43, a lawyer who gave up her practice after marriage as she moved cities with her husband on his various transfers. For the last three years, though, she had set up home in Pune after Kamte was transferred to Solapur—and then Mumbai six months ago—keeping in mind their sons’ education. But ever since, every weekend saw Vinita travelling to be with him or Kamte coming over to Pune.

“On weekdays my day would start with his call. After that there would be at least 10 calls from him through the day. He was the kind of person who wanted to share his every moment. A man without a trace of malice or a bad word for anyone, he rushed to help people in trouble,” remembers Vinita, fighting back tears.

“He really had that heart of gold we often hear about. It went out to everyone and especially his juniors and his men. On the day he died, he had called one of the policemen at his house in Chembur to enquire about a wound he had on his leg. When he came to know that the treatment cost Rs 1,500, he gave him the amount and told him not to neglect the injury,” adds Revati Dere, Vinita’s twin sister.

Vinita recounts another instance, when the daughter of his typist in Solapur could not afford a tennis kit and Kamte immediately dug into his pocket. “Whenever he heard of a sportsperson who could not afford something, he would go out his way to call up people and arrange for sponsorship. He read about this woman wrestler who did not have the money to go abroad for a tournament. He instantly wrote out a cheque of Rs 10,000 and then called up some people he knew and asked them to pitch in too. He never talked about these gestures,” says Vinita.

They were traits that earned Kamte everlasting friendships. “At every posting we made a few friends who became friends for life,” says Vinita. His friends from St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai have been coming in every day—the college held a special memorial service for him. With a post-graduate degree from St Stephen’s College in Delhi, Kamte is one of the few policemen who completed the Staff College course in Wellington, reserved mainly for the Armed Forces.

In addition to over 200 books each on weapons and fitness, Kamte had a huge collection of music he had put together while in Bosnia as part of UN forces. “He loved to turn the volume up as he exercised, despite my protests,” says Vinita, who also recollects how he carried a weapon with him everywhere, even on holidays. “He would say: ‘What if there is a crisis when we are staying in a hotel? Imagine my not being able to help anyone despite being in the police. And I would never want to go down without putting up a fight’. It was almost like a premonition,” adds Vinita, Kamte’s wife of 17 years.

With his well-built frame—from his passion for exercise, bodybuilding and sports—and booming voice, the ACP inspired awe in everyone he met. “Though he was this tough officer, he never gave a second thought to walking into a card shop in uniform and buying a Valentine Day card for me. I would say—don’t you feel embarrassed doing this? I felt shy about buying one at this age, but he would be completely at ease about it,” Vinita says.

Kamte shared a special bond with his sister in Dubai. “She couldn’t do without hearing his voice every day,” says his mother Paramjeet. Vandana Chavan, former mayor of Pune and Vinita’s elder sister, remembers how he would call up her mother and ask her to make his favourite dish. “He would do it with a right that we all loved. He was a complete foodie and relished whatever you cooked for him. Every year the family would get together for Diwali at their house. He loved having people over,” she says.

Kamte was also a dog lover—he had two golden retrievers in his house in Pune and two Basset Hounds with him in Chembur. In the garden, there is a tombstone in memory of his father’s dog Kenneth.

But beyond all these qualities, what stood out the most was the man’s undeniable valour, courage and integrity as a police officer that never buckled even in the face of politicians and other authorities. “He only did what he felt was right and never cared about the consequences. The quality earned him both the wrath and the respect of all politicians,” says his father, Colonel (retd) Marutirao Kamte, 79, who called him ‘Tiger’ for this quality of his. “He would in turn address me as General. Right from his childhood, he was fond of guns and the Commando comics—which he had preserved in the hope that his sons would read them someday,” says the army man whose son would have completed 19 years of service in the police force on December 11.

His constables saved his picture on their cell phones for the motivation he provided them. This fearlessness in the line of duty made him a hero in Solapur, a city he was called upon to handle as CP at a critical time in 2005. He famously beat up a three-time MLA Ravikant Patil for not adhering to the time limit for bursting crackers—people turned out in large numbers threatening to immolate themselves if Kamte was transferred out.

“I tell my sons Rahul and Arjun that they have to be proud of the way their father died. The elder one, who is 15, understands. He came with me to Mumbai to get his body. But the younger one breaks down, he says he wants to hear his voice. I am planning to get him some tapes of his father’s interviews,” says Vinita.

Some things still hurt. Like learning of the death through the television ticker rather than officially and a certain lack of mention of the martyrdom in police high ups. But the family is not dwelling on it simply because it’s not something Ashok would have spent time or thought on. “He never let anyone down. Everyone could depend on him, be it friends, family or even the most junior person in the force,” says Vinita. So could the nation.

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