This is not about 26/11. Too much has already been said about 26/11, most of it inaccurate or insensitive, by people unconnected to those three days of heart-stopping terror when a proud but leaderless Mumbai Police force of 50,000 was humbled to ignominy by 10 young Pakistani mercenaries while a politically weak Maharashtra government fiddled and we watched with horror and sympathy on TV.
The truth is, few people remember 26/11 until it's the anniversary of that terrible day when Death marched into the city with cold blood, AK-47s and grenades. Like it has today. Unless, of course, you lost somebody near and dear in the attack. Then the date will haunt you forever, because it changed your life completely and turned your world upside down.
No, this isn't about 26/11.
It's about Senior Police Inspector Vijay Salaskar, the brave cop who was killed along with Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare and Additional Commissioner of Police (East Region) Ashok Kamte that day. I don't dwell on the incident because it hurts. But more than their deaths is the hurt caused by the speculation, the stories still doing the rounds, of how and why they helplessly met their ends in a police jeep under a hail of AK-47 bullets... like lambs to the slaughter, that's what I've been told.
Salaskar was shy and all smiles. Like Sachin Tendulkar when you complimented him. He was the last man I would have identified as an encounter specialist.
I knew all three policemen. But, as you can see, Salaskar was my friend. When I got to know him he wasn't the celebrated encounter specialist responsible for eliminating 70 or 80 (his scorecard is vague) gangsters in a career spanning 25 years. But he was getting there. The year was 1997, and Salaskar had already gunned down 16 of Mumbai's most wanted criminals by then. He had built up a fearsome reputation in the underworld, supported by the smoking gun versions of his encounters written by awestruck crime reporters.
We seldom met. But he remained a friend till the end, a quiet voice at the end of the line when a phone call was made to him in distress to help somebody in trouble. And he did, he went out of his way to help, even if what was asked of him wasn't in his line of duty and necessitated his stepping on the toes of other cops in the department where he wasn't exactly the poster boy. I can recall those times. But my favourite memory of Salaskar is of our first meeting. He had shot dead Mumbai underworld don Arun Gawli's right-hand man, the dreaded killer Sada Pawle, in public the previous day.
He walked into my office at Fort, dressed in jeans and a blue-and-white striped shirt to tell me about it. His weapon of death, a .38 Tiger Titan revolver, was in a leather pouch he always carried with him. Other encounter specialists who visited me had deposited .9mm automatics hidden under their shirts on my table with a clatter, held AK-47s on their laps with their fingers on the trigger, then sat facing the door and flexing their muscles with ferocious expressions on their faces. I pretended to be overawed.
He did not mix with people easily... everybody had heard of Vijay Salaskar, though few people would be able to put a face to the name.
Salaskar was shy and all smiles. Like Sachin Tendulkar when you complimented him. He was the last man I would have identified as an encounter specialist. His reputation notwithstanding, Salaskar said he also did regular duties likes other policemen, including bandobast and nakabandis. President's Medal and all that were fine, but work was work. And he didn't care for the "encounter specialist" tag the press had given him. His advantage was that he was a good shot. But that alone was not the reason behind his success. The politics behind it apart, there was a lot of mental preparation that went into an encounter. After all, a man's death was being planned; even if the man was a notorious criminal with no compunction about killing others.
He just went and did the job, Salaskar told me. After the first encounter, there was no question of feelings, no coming back disturbed. Sixteen encounters and that is what had happened to him. He knew no fear, nobody knew or recognised him, he did not socialise, he did not drink and smoke, so there was no temptation to go out and face the risk of a run-in with trouble. He did not mix with people easily. But, he admitted modestly, everybody had heard of Vijay Salaskar, though few people would be able to put a face to the name.
Vijay Salaskar stayed only long enough to seek me out and offer his congratulations. Then he was gone. Like he went on 26/11... without saying goodbye this time.
And it was true. Years later when my newspaper held an anniversary street party, my crime reporter convinced Salaskar to break tradition and come. Reluctantly, he agreed. None of the socialites wining, dining and dancing recognised him. He didn't carry the leather pouch that night. I wondered if the gun was tucked into his waist. Then I spotted a police jeep with plainclothesmen holding AK-47s waiting for him at the end of the lane. Salaskar might not have been packing heat, as the expression goes, but he certainly wasn't without back-up. I was impressed.
At our first meeting, after everybody in the office from the advertisement executives, sub-editors, reporters, drivers and peons called on me under some pretext to gawk at the famous encounter specialist, Vijay Salaskar took my leave. When he stepped out into the lane, I watched from my window. He mixed easily with the share bazaar brokers, High Court lawyers, the Bombay House executives, bankers, advertising and corporate types out for lunch and disappeared from my sight. They didn't know the encounter specialist was walking beside them, a gun in the leather pouch under his arm. Everybody was a professional in his field, a specialist in his own mind, but Vijay Salaskar was also a killer. And a Good Guy. I think of him often, especially on this day. This picture was taken at that street party. Vijay Salaskar stayed only long enough to seek me out and offer his congratulations. Then he was gone. Like he went on 26/11... without saying goodbye this time.