Kill, joy

Relatives and friends in Hubballi celebrate the 'encounter cop', V.C. Sajjanar

Vishwanath, a soft-spoken, sober young man, surprised everyone when he plunged into the student union elections at J.G. College of Commerce in Hubballi, Karnataka. His opponent was politically well connected and mobilised loud rallies on campus. Vishwanath quietly met his electorate and won. He then extended the olive branch to his opponent and became even more popular.

Thirty years later, Hubballi woke up to the news of the Cyberabad Police shooting dead the four accused in the gang-rape and murder of Disha, a 26-year-old veterinarian, in Hyderabad. As television channels flashed the images of Cyberabad Police commissioner Vishwanath Channappa Sajjanar (51), who headed the team that shot down the accused, Hubballi erupted in joy.

The Market area, where the Sajjanar family lived till recently, saw neighbours dancing and distributing sweets. The Extension area, where the family now lives, saw a stream of well-wishers making a beeline to congratulate them.

Sajjanar’s elder brother Dr Mallikarjun Sajjanar and his wife, Dr Vinootha, said they were happy as well as sad. They were proud of the brother who people say “taught the rapists a good lesson”, but the inquiry into the killings has made the family wary.

“As Vishwanath lost his mother quite early, he is very attached to the women of the family. He respects women and elders. His two daughters adore him.” - Dr Vinootha, Sajjanar’s sister-in-law

“People should stop wrongly accusing my brother (of being) an encounter specialist,” said Mallikarjun. “My brother would never break the law. It was an act of self defence. My brother will readily face all inquiries.”

Mallikarjun gets annoyed when people ask him about the Warangal “encounter” of December 13, 2008, where three youths, who allegedly threw acid on two female engineering students, were shot dead. Sajjanar was part of that team, too.

“Where was the NHRC when Disha was raped and killed?” asked Dr Vinootha. “This encounter is an exception. But it is a warning to the government that urgent judicial reforms are needed to tackle heinous crimes like rape and murder.” She added that people, especially women, were cheering Sajjanar as they were disappointed with the justice system. The police action is being hailed as the “right” move, and the people of Hubballi believe Sajjanar was the “chosen one” to punish the evildoers.

The Sajjanar family, which hails from Asuti village in Ron taluk of Gadag district, settled in Hubballi in the early 1950s. Vishwanath’s father, Channappa Basappa Sajjanar, a tax consultant, was in the cooking oil business with his three younger brothers.

Vishwanath and his two elder brothers lived with their cousins in a big, joint family. “He was barely nine when he lost his mother, Girija. I raised the three siblings as my own, along with my two children,” says Mallamma, Vishwanath’s aunt, who never misses her annual visit to Hyderabad to be with the family of her favourite “son”.

Early guide: R. Nataraj, who taught Sajjanar in college, said success had not made his student arrogant. Early guide: R. Nataraj, who taught Sajjanar in college, said success had not made his student arrogant.

“As Vishwanath lost his mother quite early, he is very attached to the women of the family,” says Dr Vinootha. “He respects women and elders. His two daughters adore him. He values every relationship. No wonder he has a huge circle of friends from his school and college days.”

Said Mallikarjun: “My brother is a family man, and makes sure he spends some time in Hubballi every year. A lot has changed; the joint family has become nuclear family. The children are no longer in the family business and are working professionals.”

He added that no one in the family took to politics though his father was involved in Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement, and was close to former chief minister S.R. Bommai and the Janata Party.

“I studied medicine, the second brother who passed away recently studied law and Vishwanath is the only IPS officer in the family,” he said. “My brother’s professionalism and honesty appeals to every political party. During Y.S.R. Reddy’s tenure as chief minister, Vishwanath served his constituency (Pulivendula) for 18 months. Today, the Telangana government has honoured him with the top post in Cyberabad for his sincerity.”

Support system: Sajjanar’s brother Mallikarjun and sister-in-law Vinootha. Support system: Sajjanar’s brother Mallikarjun and sister-in-law Vinootha.

After completing his BCom and MBA, Sajjanar was inspired to take the UPSC exams after one of his doctor friends got selected for the Indian Revenue Service. Sajjanar did not get into the IAS and wanted to retake the exam, but changed his mind and joined the 1996 batch of the IPS from the Andhra cadre.

“His first posting was as DySP of Pulivendula, and he later served in Guntur, Kadapa, Warangal, Medak and Adilabad, many of which were Naxal-affected,” said Mallikarjun. “He served in the intelligence wing and the ATS before his posting as Cyberabad Police commissioner in May 2018. His work in cracking (financial scams)—from Amway to QNet—earned him a lot of respect.”

Sajjanar’s leadership qualities were obvious from his college days, said his teachers. “The region was known for oil and cotton, and the college helped the youth study commerce and continue their family business,” said R. Nataraj, 68, who taught economics at J.G. College. “But, over the years, alumni like Sajjanar have inspired our students to pursue MBA or take up competitive exams. His amicable nature, humility and attitude made him a leader. Success has not made him arrogant.”

He added that Sajjanar, who studied in English medium, opted for Kannada literature in the UPSC exam and can speak Hindi, Telugu, English and Kannada.

“When I asked him why he did not take up a posting in Karnataka, he said the people of Andhra were not ready to let go of him,” said Nataraj. “Once, I was sitting in his office and noticed a young officer walk in with some sweets. He told me it was Sajjanar sir who had encouraged him to appear for the IPS exam. His subordinates told me ‘saab’ was ‘more concerned about our children’s education and well-being than we are’.”

Veeranna Yalagi, a classmate, recalled how Sajjanar helped him when his brother’s child needed treatment. “We landed in Hyderabad for treatment four years back and Vishwanath took it up as his personal project,” said Yalagi. “He visited the hospital, spoke to the doctors and arranged for funds. He does this for every friend or relative who reaches out to him.”

Said Veeru (Veeranna) Sajjanar, a cousin from Mundargi village: “Vishwanath anna’s father brought me to Hubballi, along with 12 or 13 other cousins from the village as he felt education was important. Anna would wake up at 4am to study and would compel us to do the same. I feel obliged to him, like many others, as we are all educated today. [Even now,] you can often catch him talking to youngsters about competitive exams at weddings and other functions.”

Dr Ishwar Noolvi, 69, who taught Sajjanar communication and marketing, talked about how the latter helped set up a library for students to prepare for competitive exams. “He is a tough cop, but a kind person,” he said. “He is a role model to hundreds of his peers and youngsters, including my daughter who, encouraged by him, chose to study geopolitics and international relations. I once went to his (Hyderabad) office and he was in uniform. He removed his shoes and touched my feet. This humility has taken him ahead of others.” Noolvi added that Sajjanar visited the Sri Siddharooda Swami Mutt every Monday till he was in Hubballi.

Said Noolvi’s wife, Girija: “When news of the encounter was flashing on the television, we felt proud of him and were happy he was safe. When human rights activists started accusing him, we switched off the television. As a woman, I am outraged that Nirbhaya’s parents are still running around for justice. The Unnao case is chilling. Why should the taxpayer feed criminals in jail? We want speedy justice. I appreciate Sajjanar’s action. Women want instant justice like in the times of kings. Empower good officers to handle ruthless criminals. They deserve no mercy. What is the point in having long rules and procedures if justice is never going to be delivered?”

In another corner of Hubballi, Dr S.S. Honnalli and his wife, Shyla, who are Sajjanar’s parents-in-law, are anxious. “Friends, relatives and neighbours are calling up to congratulate us,” said Shyla. “We are lucky to have him as our son-in-law. He keeps personal and professional life separate and makes time for his family. Life in the police department is not easy. We grow anxious, but our daughter handles it well. She is proud of her husband. My eldest granddaughter chose medicine and the younger one, who is in class eight, also wants to be a doctor.”

Dr Honnalli is worried about the impending inquiry. “When criminals attack you, don’t you have a right to defend yourself?” he asked. “It is easy to judge others’ actions. Being a cop is not easy and the family, too, is in angst.”

It was back in 2000 that a family friend suggested Sajjanar as a good match for Anupa, Dr Honnalli’s daughter. “We were reluctant. But my daughter, who was only 19, accepted,” said Shyla, admitting that she worries for her granddaughters, especially when Sajjanar is handling sensitive cases.

For people in the area, however, Sajjanar is a hero. A big group of well-wishers from Gangavati in nearby Koppal district brought sweets and a bouquet to his Hubballi home, and told him he had made Karnataka proud. “Enough is enough,” says Anjaneya, a well-wisher. “Even if they had killed those criminals intentionally, we would stand by the police. Deliver speedy justice before people start taking law into their own hands.”

Said Pushpa Sajjanar, a cousin and a lawyer: “If the government would have ensured stringent and faster justice in the Nirbhaya case, Disha would perhaps be alive today. Why is everyone assuming the shooting was intentional?”

Nataraj even argued that, “If parliamentary democracy is about people, the same people are endorsing encounters today. Is the government listening?”

Said Lalitha, Sajjanar’s sister-in-law: “There is no fear of law. Boys are not being raised well. Even the few police officers who are sincere will turn complacent if the system turns hostile. Let officers do their job without any political interference. Let us not forget that policemen are humans, too. What about their rights?”

Mahendra B. Dalabanjan, who, along with five other classmates, landed in Hyderabad to congratulate their friend, said, “Sajjanar is caring as a person and is a bright officer, too. I felt really sad to see him tense. But, he welcomed us with a smile.”