In May 2011, a khabri—informant—tipped off a sub-inspector from the Bandra police station in Mumbai, about an armed assailant called Riyaz Kashmiri, a high-school dropout from Mumbai who had a few run ins with the law in the past for petty crimes and was allegedly on his way to bump off two Bandra-based property dealers. Based on the tip off, the police arrested Kashmiri at Bandstand in Bandra. Upon frisking him, the police found a revolver, photographs of the alleged targets and a piece of paper containing names of the person who presumably gave him the contract. It was as smooth as an operation could be. The only thing was that it was too good to be true. A policeman’s instinct, one of his most lethal weapons, told the cops that something was amiss. On further interrogation at the station, Kashmiri told them how his being arrested was a part of a grand plan. He claimed then that a top level informer, Afzal Khan, had paid Kashmiri to get arrested and blame the hit on the two Kutch-based builders whose names were duly mentioned on the chit. Khan hatched the plan at the behest of rival builders who wanted the two Kutch-based builders behind bars.
Khabris or “zero dials”—called so because of the famous trope of a gangster who makes a circle, or a zero, with his hand to warn his peers about a possible informant—have always been slippery customers. But the Mumbai police turned to them unerringly, in the 1980s for the pickpockets and in the 1990s to wade through the grime that was the Mumbai underworld. In the past two decades, however, the famed khabri network of the Mumbai police has slowly been sidelined like the public telephone booths they once rushed to, before mobile phones became easily accessible, when some piping hot khabar—news—came their way.
While the waning influence of the khabris could be written off as yet another sacrifice at the altar of technology, scratch the surface and you find that the lack of extra income for policemen, inherent risks of the job, reduction in the number of old school policemen, end of gang wars that once bloodied the streets of Mumbai and the change that the city itself has undergone have all played a part in khabris being pushed to the margins as an investigation tool.
Of the eight policemen that I spoke to for this story, ranging from senior IPS officers to the lower rungs that have their ears to the ground, many concurred that technology has been an important reason for the reduced use of khabris as a source of information. Retired assistant police commissioner Prabhakar Satam, who began his career in early ’80s and retired last year, told me that the police preferred to depend on tracking mobile phones and checking call records or footage from CCTV cameras and Global Positioning Systems (GPS), which have now become the prime tools of investigation in several cases. In June 2012, for instance, the DB Marg police in south Mumbai arrested a 24-year-old alleged thief by creating a fake Facebook profile in the name of a woman and convincing the accused, Karan Patel, to meet her. Patel, who had stolen Rs 6 lakh from his employer, was greeted by police at the spot and arrested. An assistant inspector from Dongri police station in south Mumbai, which is known to be a hotbed for khabris, corroborated this perspective and told me that the police had started using networking sites like Facebook to nab suspects.
In the same vein, a police inspector (PI) level officer from the Mumbai crime branch unit 5 located near Kurla railway station in central Mumbai explained to me that after using preliminary tactics such as the interrogation of suspects, the first route that most investigations tend to take is the use of technology for additional clues. Even while questioning suspects, he said, they would check the location of the suspects on the day of the crime by accessing their mobile records.