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Hemant Karkare: Man of the Year

January 2009
Hemant Karkare: Man of the Year

By Sudheer Apte

Looking back at the year 2008, I’d like to nominate as “man of the year” Mr. Hemant Karkare, Additional Commissioner of Police, Mumbai, who in January took over as the commander of the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS).

What was special about ACP Karkare was not just his bravery and sacrifice, both of which were evident in plenty in the November Mumbai attacks, in which he lost his life along with a dozen other policemen. But in addition, Karkare represents an important force, a key factor that’s often missed in everyday analysis. He represents the system of law, order, and accountability that underlies every successful society. It’s the infrastructure that makes the world go around.

Many people are used to saying that Mumbai is a city unlike any other in India. What makes it work? Now, writers like Suketu Mehta (Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found) and Vikram Chandra (Sacred Games) would rather write about criminal gangs and the underworld. The way they tell it, Bombay policemen are all corrupt or villainous, and the entire city is a lawless realm of gangsters, pimps, and con artists. The only reason Mumbai is successful, according to Mehta, is the gumption of smart entrepreneurs engaged in dhanda, or business—from the humble dabba-walla to the fancy film producer or the super-rich businessman.

But in fact, all romantic notions of Mumbaikar spirit aside, what makes the dhanda work are the people whose job it is to keep the city running. From the humblest rat catchers to the forty thousand policemen and women, they are all under-equipped, understaffed, and under-appreciated. And yet, they do their jobs as well as they can.

This is not a new lesson for us, who live in a nation of laws. Our first-rate law and order apparatus is a key reason why the United States is a world power. Enterprises and people can safely flourish in a reliable environment of rules whose enforcement is swift and certain.

And this magic ingredient is what’s missing, to some degree, in the rest of India. In Bihar, if you’re poor or of the wrong caste, you’re by and large out of luck; the system doesn’t work for you. Delhi is much better, but even there, if you’re in trouble, what counts most often is your connections or your wealth.

The insidious cost of corruption or inefficiencies is not just lost time and GDP. It’s the loss of faith of millions of people in “the system”. And when you don’t trust the system, when you see it being abused by the powerful for political or monetary gain, when you don’t respect your government and its motives, then you become dejected and cynical. You are more likely to take shortcuts or break the law. You are more likely to nurture a deep sense of injustice and to believe conspiracy theories that explain why you are not successful. And once in a while, these conspiracies are in fact true. In Gujarat in 2002, the people in power really did withhold police services and allowed rampaging mobs to kill innocent Muslims in a particular area. Seething anger and resentment can only be expected.

And yet, slowly, almost imperceptibly, things have been changing in most of the country, and mostly for the better. Millions have been pulled out of poverty, political participation and awareness have increased, and more and more people expect the system to work.

When the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 happened, the New York Times interviewed Christine Fair, a RAND Corporation expert, in the initial hours. Fair was asked who the perpetrators probably were, whether they were local disaffected Muslims or foreign militant groups. She said, cautioning that no information was yet available, that she had little doubt these were Indians, Muslims who were “very, very angry”. In other words, this was an internal Indian problem. “There is no way you can put lipstick on this pig,” she quipped.

Well, it turns out the attacks do seem to be organized by Pakistan-based outfits, so she was wrong about that comment, but she was also wrong at a more profound level. She was wrong about India. It’s not that Muslims or other minorities, or the poor, are not discriminated against. They are. It’s just that they are not as hopeless as the extremists in Pakistan.

Malegaon, a Muslim-majority town in Maharashtra, is a poor town known for its once-prosperous power loom industry, and dogged by a history of terrorist bombings. Mr. Karkare’s team investigated the latest blasts that happened in September this year. While most of the earlier incidents appeared to be the handiwork of extremist Muslim groups, aided sometimes by Pakistani groups, the September blasts in Malegaon seemed strange. The military-grade bombs appeared to have been planned to sow fear in the Muslim community.

When investigation turned up leads to a group of vigilante Hindu nationalists, including a serving army officer, Mr. Karkare’s ATS team arrested the suspects and took them in for questioning. He took a lot of flak from Hindu nationalist politicians for these arrests.

A shopkeeper in Malegaon who was injured in the blasts was interviewed by the press. Looking almost happy, his leg in a cast, he said he was very impressed that Hindus had been arrested by the police. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry at his reaction. To me, it was unremarkable that the police had arrested upper-caste Hindus. But to him, this was obviously a big deal.

What went through his mind when he realized that the police really did want to do their jobs, and get to the truth no matter where it led? The next time he or his neighbors were asked to cooperate with the police, would he be more likely to be helpful? And would his improved attitude extend to other parts of the “system” that surrounded him?

What happens when this experience of a working system is replicated over thousands of people and millions of little incidents? This is what India has been going through for the past sixty years. The contrast with Pakistan, whose people have lost all faith in their system, could not be more stark. Can any Pakistani policeman even imagine arresting a serving army officer?

Here is a way to “fight” terrorism: continue to build the rule of law, and recognize the people who do their jobs and do them well. Hold powerful people accountable: it’s gratifying that heads have rolled both in the Home Ministry at the center and in the Chief Minister’s office in Maharashtra in the wake of the latest Mumbai bombings.

The terrorists can kill people and break things, but they cannot break the system if the people trust in it. Always remember your own principles and who you are; don’t become as hopeless as the terrorists. Once Mr. Karkare is reported to have told his aides, “We should do our jobs, and it is for the courts to decide.”

So, here’s a toast to someone who personified the lessons we need in these difficult times, and who is a hope and an example to all of us.


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