October 2, 2019 4:38:20 am
IT IS being pegged as a battle of nayak vs khalnayak in the Nalasopara Assembly seat, located around 60 km north of Mumbai. The twist is that both “encounter specialist” Pradeep Sharma and incumbent MLA of Bahujan Vikas Aghadi (BVA) Kshitij Thakur are claiming the other is the khalnayak.
While Sharma talks about Thakur and his father as “Dawood’s landing agents”, Thakur has raked up the Lakhan Bhaiyya encounter case in which Sharma was arrested. He was eventually acquitted by the lower court for staging an encounter and the state appealed the acquittal in the Bombay High Court where it is pending. The allegations have already found some resonance in both camps.
Sharma is a member of the ‘Class of 83’ — a term used for the 1983 batch at the Maharashtra Police Academy at Nashik — that saw a number of ‘encounter specialists’ such as the late Vijay Salaskar, Prafful Bhosle, and Ravindra Angre. They were trained by former Maharashtra DGP Arvind Inamdar. The likes of Sharma were hailed as heroes — he was once termed ‘India’s Dirty Harry’ by Time magazine — until allegations of corruption, staged encounters and links to underworld gangs started tumbling out of the closet.
Sharma, who notched up 113 ‘encounters’ to his name, has been in trouble with the law but landed on his feet each time. He was dismissed in 2008 under Article 311 of the Constitution after alleged telephone conversations between Sharma and Dawood henchman Chhota Shakeel tapped by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) led to an enquiry, followed by dismissal. In 2009, however, the Maharashtra Administrative Tribunal (MAT) reinstated him.
However, in 2010, the 58-year-old was arrested in connection with the alleged fake encounter of criminal Lakhan Bhaiyya and spent four years behind bars but was acquitted in 2013 by a trial court for want of evidence. Sharma’s acquittal was subsequently challenged in the Bombay High Court by the state. He was the only one to be acquitted as 13 other cops in his team were convicted and given life imprisonment. Eventually in 2017, Sharma was reinstated and made the senior of the Anti-Extortion Cell of Thane police.
Within a month of taking charge, Sharma arrested Iqbal Kaskar, fugitive gangster Dawood’s younger brother. That has helped Sharma build a profile for himself that may help him in an area considered a hotbed of anti-social elements, what Sharma calls “gunda gardi”.
Having taken early retirement from the post of ACP, he was to retire nine months later, Sharma’s catchphrase is, “10 per cent politics and 90 per cent social work”. “I have been into social work since the past four-five years with the PS Foundation that helps underprivileged people with free ration among other things,” Sharma told The Indian Express. PS Foundation is primarily active in Andheri which was incidentally one of the seats that was being considered as an option from where Sharma could fight before Nalasopara was decided.
With a large number of its voters from UP, Nalasopara was an easy choice for the UP-born ex-cop, but the sitting MLA is also from UP. The Thakurs wield enormous clout in the constituency.
Ask Sharma what his connections are with Nalasopara, he says: “I know a lot of people in the area and many of my informers come from there. Earlier, when we were focused on Mumbai, several externed criminals were given a safe breeding ground here by the Thakurs. Now that I have come here, there is fear among such elements.” He adds, “Hitendra Thakur (Kshitij’s father and president of BVA) and the likes have been booked under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act in the past and they were basically Dawood’s landing agents — ensuring the smuggled goods had a berth at the coastline there.”
Ask him about the problems in his Assembly segment, Sharma said the infrastructure is so poor that even if it rains for a few hours, the area is under lockdown. “The roads are bad, there is no capacity to handle rainfall and there are constant power outages. Over the years, nothing much has been done and my vision for my seat is ‘Ek Naya Nalasopara’,” the 58-year-old said.
Responding to the allegations, Kshitij Thakur said, “Everyone has a tongue and can say whatever they want. If he is saying there is no development in the area, I’m willing to debate it wherever he wants. Why does he not talk about what plans he has for the area?”
Soon after his candidature was announced, posters with Lakhan Bhaiyya written on them, were put up across Nalasopara. Ramprasad Gupta, brother of Lakhan Bhaiyya, later told the media he would campaign against Sharma if need be. “I don’t want to campaign for any party but I want to point out that his acquittal is under challenge. I also want to ask how someone employed as a police inspector can earn as much to contest polls,” Gupta said, adding no party had approached him for campaigning.
With the case casting a shadow on his campaign, in spite of his acquittal, Sharma said: “I was not involved in the case and likewise have been acquitted. As far as his brother campaigning against me, Lakhan Bhaiyya himself was linked to Chhota Rajan and I am not surprised his brother would want to support any gangster.”
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