Sharma may owe much of his tough guy act to Bollywood. But in his case, the violence is for real: public records show he has personally gunned down 87 gangsters in the mean streets of India's film and organized crime capital since 1990. The 41-year-old's scorecard has made him the country's deadliest cop ahead of two other inspectors, Praful Bhosle, 46, and Vijay Salaskar, 45, who have clocked scores of 82 and 40, respectively. All three are from Bombay's élite Criminal Intelligence Unit, which, as Mob crime spiraled out of control in the early 1990s, was tasked with taking down the bad guys, guns blazing if necessary. Few mobsters went quietly: police shot 71 in "encounters" in 1997, 83 in 1999 and 97 in 2001. In all, since records of shoot-outs began in 1982, police have killed 1,200 gangsters in and around Bombay.
The effect on India's crime capital has been dramatic. From two a week at the height of the violence in the early 1990s, intergang gun battles are down to two a month. Once almighty syndicates are losing scores of men and millions of dollars because of the disruption to their businesses. Arun Gawli, who describes himself as a former Mafia don, sees himself as a virtual prisoner in his own mansion, living behind a phalanx of armed guards, CCTV and four separate locked gates, out of fear of what he calls "police contract killings." "In a democracy, these sorts of killings are unlawful," he says. Gawli, 51, claims he has lost a total of 60 associates to encounters in the past decade. "O.K., there were days a while back when I went astray. But this sort of murder campaign is way beyond acceptable."
Police bosses counter that they are being criticized merely for being better shots than the Mafia. They add that none of the hundreds of complaints alleging staged shoot-outs or executions filed by victims' relatives or human-rights groups—or even a handful of official inquiries—has ever led to a conviction for extrajudicial killing. "The allegations of fake encounters are baseless," says Pradeep Sawant, Bombay's deputy police commissioner. "It's not that we always go to kill. Our idea is to arrest the gangsters. We only retaliate if we're fired upon."
Many in India argue that there are few alternatives, since the country's judicial system is tainted by corruption and crippled by backlog. Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, India's most famous cop for helping put down the Sikh insurgency in Punjab state in the 1990s, is blunt: "Our legal system doesn't work at all. If there are no legal remedies, there'll be extralegal ones."
By and large, this is a compromise the public accepts. "We know the vast majority of encounters are fake," says Hindustan Times editor Vir Sanghvi. "We do not think that this is a perfect situation, but in common with the rest of the middle class we have come to the regrettable conclusion that there is no real alternative." For a professional enforcer like Sharma, success isn't just measured in body bags or reduced gang violence, but invitations to celebrity parties and near unanimous media praise. "I don't enjoy killing," says Sharma. "But after we shoot some mobster, his victims look at me like God. That's the best part of the job."
Not everyone is a fan, however. With every racket busted, Sharma knows he raises the price on his own head. "It runs into millions," he brags. "It's like a Mafia World Cup, there's so many people trying." The stories of many of Sharma's shoot-outs may be as hard to believe as his movie-style patter. But one thing's for sure: in this war, the blood that's spilled is real.