MUMBAI—One of India's most famous police officers is on trial—accused of being a killer-for-hire—in a case that embodies the difficulty of trying to clean up the nation's notoriously corrupt crime-fighting forces.
Panos Pictures for The Wall Street Journal
Ramprasad Gupta, pictured, says Pradeep Sharma shot his brother in a 'fake encounter.'
The officer, Senior Inspector Pradeep Sharma, was once so widely revered that two Bollywood movies have been inspired by his exploits. They include the 2004 hit "56 So Far," a reference to the large number of gangsters killed by the big-screen hero.
Pradeep Sharma in a 2005 photo
Today Mr. Sharma is in jail, charged with killing a real-estate broker on behalf of a business rival in 2006, in what is known in India as a "fake encounter"—a murder that is falsely reported as a police shootout.
Faked police shootings are common in India, according to civil-rights groups, police officers and senior government ministers, who say they have taken steps to rein in the practice. While vigilante-style justice declined in Mumbai, it has spread to other parts of India, with cases being pursued in the capital city of New Delhi, and the western state of Gujarat, among other places. The Supreme Court, in a ruling last year to deny bail to Mr. Sharma and other officers, bemoaned 'the growing lawlessness in the country."
In an interview, one of Mr. Sharma's close friends and police colleagues openly acknowledged that police shootouts have long been staged. Sachin Waze, who served on Mr. Sharma's police team, said its mission was to kill suspected gangsters by any means and claim self-defense. "We just had to say that publicly because of the legal system," Mr. Waze said.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, former Mumbai Police Commissioner Julio Ribeiro spoke with reporter Geeta Anand about the growing problem of lawlessness and corruption in India's police force.
India's policing crisis exposes how the nation, despite modernizing its economy the past 20 years, hasn't kept pace with improvements to its law enforcement and the judiciary. Police forces tend to be poorly trained, and officers nationwide often live in slums because of low pay. They must cover three times as many people per officer (1,037) as the global average, according to 2009 figures from Human Rights Watch. According to Transparency International, an anticorruption advocacy group, police are reported as the most-bribed public-sector individuals in countries like India, where corruption is considered widespread.
The case against Mr. Sharma is complicated by the fact that the prosecution's most valuable witness—a friend of the alleged victim—was himself murdered last year. The badly burned corpse took months to identify.
Mr. Sharma, who is in jail, declined through his lawyer to comment. He denies the charges. His friend Mr. Waze said the allegations were concocted by colleagues jealous of Mr. Sharma's fame.
Crisis in India's Police
"Fake encounters" were popularized when gang warfare raged in Mumbai in the 1990s. Since then, these extrajudicial killings have spread across India, leading to what the presiding Supreme Court justice called "the growing lawlessness in the country."
Several crime-fighting teams like Mr. Sharma's existed between 1998 and 2003, when Mumbai police began to phase them out, Mr. Waze said. The teams were fiercely competitive, he said: If a rival team killed one gangster, "We'd go out and kill two or three." Mr. Waze claims to have killed 63 gangsters himself. A police official couldn't confirm the numbers but said they sounded like an exaggeration.
The phenomenon of the faked shootout grew in the 1990s, when gang warfare raged in Mumbai. The city recently has tried to rein it in by suspending or firing some cops, but the phenomenon has already spread to India's far corners.
Last November, in Gujarat state, an investigator filed a court report alleging that police there faked a shootout to explain the deaths of a college girl and three friends. Also last year, a Delhi court ruled that local police staged a shootout in which they claimed to have captured four terrorists working for Pakistan. The National Human Rights Commission recently reported that, over the past two decades, it has received more than 20,000 cases of people allegedly dying in judicial custody, and more than 4,000 complaints of people dying in police custody.
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India's Supreme Court has demanded reform. In 2006, the court ordered the introduction of civilian monitoring committees to investigate complaints against police. Less than half of India's 28 states have passed the reform.
The Indian home minister, P. Chidambaram, who oversees law enforcement, acknowledged in an interview that police do sometimes fake shootouts to settle political or personal rivalries. But he also said that "many encounters are indeed genuine."
Mr. Chidambaram blamed police abuse on poor living and working conditions, which "dehumanize" officers. He also blamed a severe shortage of officers and a lack of training.
"This is a huge country, and you can't expect change overnight," Mr. Chidambaram said, noting that law enforcement is a state subject. To improve policing, he said, the central government is offering the states sample policies on policing and hiring. It has added 90,000 central-government police officers and has funded the hiring of another 100,000 state police each of the past two years.
Mr. Sharma's trial gets scant public attention, at least partly because people here widely believe police corruption is simply the status quo.
Referring to the use of fake shootouts, former Mumbai police commissioner Julio F. Ribeiro said: "The middle class was, and is, in favor of it." While Mr. Ribeiro opposes vigilantism, he said, he understands its appeal among frustrated citizens. People "are convinced that the judicial system doesn't work, so they support taking the shortcut and killing anyone suspected of wrongdoing," he said.
India's courts are indeed overstretched. Currently there is a backlog of 30 million civil and criminal cases combined, according to the National Bar Association.
Mr. Sharma, 49 years old and the son of a college professor, joined Mumbai's police in 1983. Mr. Sharma excelled academically in school, earning a master's degree in chemistry, but was bent on a more action-oriented life, friends and former colleagues say.
He quickly distinguished himself by his wit and daring, they say. Indian police traditionally rely on a lathi, a heavy stick, as an enforcement tool; Mr. Sharma earned notoriety for being quick to draw a gun. He killed an alleged Nigerian drug dealer and befriended a professor with links to a notorious Mumbai gang, friends and former colleagues say. The professor and others became his underworld informants.
When Mr. Sharma began nabbing gangsters, there were plenty to choose from. Gang violence escalated in the 1990s as criminals tried to get a piece of Mumbai's wild real-estate boom by extorting builders. In 1995, nine people died in shootouts in Mumbai. Two years later the number jumped to 72.
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Newspapers at the time brimmed with stories of people being held up while hosting lavish weddings or buying fancy cars. People who didn't pay were often killed. Mumbai's Bollywood movie-production sets became the scene of real-life shootouts as producers were held up for ransom.
The police set up four teams to break the violence, one headed by Mr. Sharma. His friend, Mr. Waze, joined his team in 2000. Mr. Waze said Mr. Sharma was considered "one of the best that the department had."
Mr. Sharma and his team became household names nationwide. When Mr. Sharma's deputy founded a new school, India's biggest movie star, Amitabh Bachchan, showed up to inaugurate it.
The campaign worked: Gang violence waned. But at the same time, complaints mounted alleging that the city's elite crime-fighters were becoming involved in financial transactions with the gangs themselves. Deven Bharti, additional commissioner of police in Mumbai, said investigators found evidence that suggested some officers, including Mr. Sharma, were colluding with the underworld for money.
Mr. Waze denies Mr. Sharma made money through deals with the underworld.
Mr. Waze himself faces criminal charges that, in 2003, he killed a man accused of terrorism while transporting him from one city to another. He denies the charges. "I have said, he ran from my custody," Mr. Waze said when asked about the killing. He resigned from the police department and is currently running a small business while awaiting trial.
Mr. Sharma remains imprisoned awaiting a verdict on charges that he arranged the 2006 kidnapping and killing of a real-estate broker, Ramnarayan Gupta.
His alleged victim had a checkered past. Between 1989 and 1998, Mr. Gupta was charged with several murders and attempted murders, although police records indicate that the cases were never resolved one way or the other.
But by the late 1990s, Mr. Gupta had cleaned up his act, according to several friends and associates. Police records also show that, after 1998, he was accused of no more crimes.
Poster for '56 So Far,' a movie inspired by Mr. Sharma several years ago.
According to court testimony by one of his friends, Anil Bheda, Mr. Gupta had rebuilt his life as a real-estate agent. At the time of his death, Mr. Gupta made a living buying and selling land for farmers and property developers, court documents show.
In November 2006—around the time of his death—Mr. Gupta got into a fight with a businessman over a land deal, according to Mr. Bheda's testimony. Mr. Bheda said Mr. Gupta told him he "got drunk," went to the businessman's house and "threatened to kill his son."
That businessman is accused of conspiring with Mr. Sharma to have Mr. Gupta killed, according to court documents. He denies the allegations.
A few days after the fight, around lunchtime, Mr. Bheda was standing on the street with Mr. Gupta when several men jumped out of a silver sport-utility vehicle and pushed the two men inside, Mr. Bheda said in his written testimony. They were taken to a police station and found themselves in a room with Mr. Sharma, according to the testimony.
Mr. Bheda said the police separated the two men, and it was the last time he saw his friend. That night, local television news reported that the police had killed a wanted criminal, Mr. Gupta, in a shootout around 8 p.m., court documents say.
A police document filed in court in 2006 gives the police's version of the killing. It says officers received a tip that Mr. Gupta would be visiting a certain place that evening, and when he arrived in a rickshaw, they tried to arrest him—prompting him to shoot at the police, who fired back in self-defense.
For the next month or so, Mr. Bheda testified that he was held mostly incommunicado in police custody. But the dead Mr. Gupta had a champion: His younger brother, Ramprasad Gupta.
The moment his elder brother was shoved into the SUV, the younger Mr. Gupta received a phone call from a witness, he said in an interview. "I immediately thought it must be a fake encounter," he said.
Starting at 4 p.m. that day, he said, he sent faxes and telegrams to the Mumbai police commissioner and to local politicians. "Ramnarayan Vishwanath Gupta and Anil Bheda picked by police," one telegram reads. "Their life is in danger. Please help and save their life."
Police say the telegrams and faxes didn't reach the police commissioner that day because they weren't properly addressed and it was a holiday.
In separate investigations, a magistrate and a deputy police commissioner determined that the alleged shootout that killed the elder Mr. Gupta never actually occurred, and that police had likely murdered him, according to court documents and interviews with senior police officers. Based largely on testimony from Mr. Bheda, several officers including Mr. Sharma were arrested in January 2010.
The younger Mr. Gupta takes pride in the fight for his brother. "Sometimes you find yourself in a position to do something important, to change history," he said.
In March of last year, Mr. Bheda disappeared for good. The evening of his disappearance, a corpse turned up in a wooded area in Mumbai's northern suburbs. It was his body, burned beyond recognition.
The trial of Mr. Sharma and the 21 other accused—mostly police officers—began in Mumbai Sessions Court in July and is expected to take several more months. Mr. Waze said neither he nor Mr. Sharma ordered the killing of Mr. Bheda or any other person.
Mr. Waze said he expects Mr. Sharma to be exonerated. "Pradeep Sharma loves nothing better than police work," Mr. Waze said. "He hopes to be back on the job as soon as his name is cleared."
—Diksha Sahni contributed to this article.