Mumbai: Around 60 kilometres from Mumbai, on the city’s northwestern outskirts, there is a string of small towns where lush green landscapes and beaches are dotted with shabby, haphazard and aspirational urban growth. Among them is Nalasopara, nestled between the towns of Vasai and Virar.
The entire belt — Vasai, Virar and Nalasopara — has been a political fiefdom of the Thakur family that heads the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi (BVA) party. It is the epicentre of the family’s sprawling residence and thriving real estate, education and hospitality businesses. What makes the Thakurs infamous, however, is their relation with alleged don Bhai Thakur, who is BVA president Hitendra Thakur’s brother.
For the upcoming Maharashtra assembly elections on 21 October, the Shiv Sena has fielded a former policeman and encounter specialist Pradeep Sharma — from the infamous 1983 batch of “Mumbai’s Dirty Harries” — to contest from the Thakur bastion of Nalasopara, a constituency with 5.12 lakh voters.
Sharma will contest against two-time Nalasopara incumbent Kshitij Thakur, Hitendra Thakur’s son, who won the seat in 2014 with a strong 54,499 margin despite the ‘Modi wave’.
“Uddhav saheb told me, ‘Pradeep, you go to Nalasopara. There is rampant hooliganism, torture, people are suffering. You go take care of them…’. I have played chor-police for 36 years. I will end the gundagiri here,” said Sharma, in one of his first public rallies in September after joining the Shiv Sena.
Known for over 110 encounters, Sharma had applied for voluntary retirement in July this year and subsequently joined the Sena in September to “expand the scope of his social service”.
“There are so many cases of Thakur clan’s high handedness…People who oppose the ruling local political outfit have to face a different kind of terror and hooliganism. It may be mental or physical, as well as if water, an electric connection is being denied or disconnected by his goons, it is a kind of social and mental harassment too,” Sharma told ThePrint.
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However, while the Shiv Sena has projected Sharma as an antidote to the Thakur family’s alleged thuggery, the former policeman too has a chequered past that has sprung up during his campaigns.
High, low points in the career of ‘Dirty Harry’
Sharma belongs to the 1983 batch of Mumbai Police that is said to have produced several ‘encounter specialists’, including Vijay Salaskar, Ravindra Angre, Praful Bhosale and Vinayak Saude. Now 57, Sharma was part of the very first encounter by members of this batch in 1993 — that of gangster Subash Makdawala.
Slowly, Sharma and his colleagues notoriously came to be known as Mumbai’s ‘Dirty Harries’, on the lines of the Clint Eastwood-starrer film. But his career graph has had several high and low points too.
In 2008, he was dismissed from service on charges of having alleged links with the underworld. The officer then appealed to the Maharashtra Administrative Tribunal, which reinstated him the following year.
He landed in trouble again in 2010 when he was arrested in connection with the alleged fake encounter of criminal Lakhan Bhaiyya. After spending four years under arrest, Sharma was acquitted by a local court in 2013. The state has, however, challenged his acquittal in the Bombay High Court.
The Devendra Fadnavis-led government brought him back as the head of Thane’s Anti-Extortion Cell in 2017 and he played a key role in the arrest of fugitive don Dawood Ibrahim’s brother Iqbal Kaskar in connection with an extortion case.
Cop Sharma, politician Sharma
Sharma’s alleged involvement in the Lakhan Bhaiya fake encounter case and reported links with the underworld have continued to dog his political image.
Not only is the rival BVA targeting the Shiv Sena candidate over cases in which Sharma has been embroiled in, but the political debutant has also found himself in the middle of a fresh controversy related to the Lakhan Bhaiyya case.
Last week, a video had surfaced in which Sharma claims to have spent two and a half years of his jail term at a hospital. To counter it, he had released a clip saying, “It was two and a half months, not two and a half years. It must have been a slip of tongue on my part. I was in (the hospital) for two and a half months.”
Earlier this month, Sharma was also seen walking at a rally in Nalasopara with former Dawood aide Shyam Garikapatti. The former policeman’s election affidavit had created waves too. Between him and his wife, Sharma declared assets worth Rs 36.21 crore, raising questions about how a public servant was able to amass so much wealth during his service period. His opponent, Kshitij Thakur, has declared assets worth Rs 63.67 crore between him and his wife.
Sharma, nevertheless, is confident that the opposition’s campaign will not dent his chances.
“These are their (opposition’s) tactics to divert peoples’ attention from the development issues and questions I am raising here that the opposition cannot answer and face. I am finding mass support and it was expected as people here are completely dissatisfied with the present living conditions,” he said. “They are looking for a change…and I will be here for change and development.”
Sharma, who is originally from Uttar Pradesh, also claimed that people in Virar and Nalasopara have developed a “psyche of fear”, having witnessed years of cruelty at the hands of the Thakur gang.
In response, Kshitij Thakur told ThePrint, “I feel like laughing at his (Sharma’s) statements. Why does this issue of hooliganism come only three times in five years — during the local body elections, Lok Sabha elections and assembly elections? And if a former cop like Sharma makes such statements then it means he is doubting the work of his own police force.”
“Sharma has been linked to cases of kidnapping, extortion, fake encounters. Name one crime that he has not been linked with. People from Nalasopara are smart and cultured. They can see through him,” added Thakur, who proudly talks of being a Stanford and Harvard alumnus.
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