Feature story

Past forward

The Mumbai Police has set about preserving records that reveal a treasure trove of cases and criminals stretching back more than a century

It’s not something that you normally see law enforcement people caught up with. In an extended and brightly lit room, 20 police personnel are working to preserve the heritage of the Mumbai Police. They are not shuffling paper; instead, they are piecing together archival material, some of it a century old. Rather than investigating criminal cases, they are uncovering the history of law and order in the ‘maximum city’.

Documents, posters, pamphlets and other records — the Mumbai Police Archives (MPA) project has gathered together these and more as it works to highlight a legacy that would have been consigned to dust and mould had it not been for Dattatray Padsalgikar, Mumbai’s former police commissioner who, inspired by the police museums he visited in New York and London, thought of creating a similar experience in Mumbai and approached the Tata Trusts for support. That was the beginning.

Today the police archives occupy most of the ground floor of the Foreign Resident Registration Office in Dhobi Talao in Mumbai. For longer than anybody can remember, it used to be the place where material related to old cases, criminals and procedures were sent for storage. It was both repository and dumping space, with rooms full of tattered files, many dating back to the British Raj.

This hidden collection of criminality housed casework on some of India’s most sensational crimes and criminals, among them Ranga (Kuljeet Singh) and Billa (Jasbir Singh), hanged for the kidnapping and murder of two children of a naval officer, and Raman Raghav, the serial killer who terrorised Mumbai’s street dwellers.

When the Tata Trusts team took a look at the wealth of material in the archives, they proposed a project that involved preserving it with the aim that narratives for the Police Museum could be pulled out from here. “We needed the stories from the archives but we had no idea how to go about putting things together,” says a senior inspector who heads the archiving and conservation project. “The Trusts saw the value of what we had and agreed to train us.”

The records, some of them in tatters, required delicate handling and care

History’s paper trail

The historical worth of what the archives contains is high. “Any social or political history of Mumbai with law and order references would be incomplete without the documents we have here,” explains a senior member of the Mumbai Police Foundation (MPF). “For example, [VD] Savarkar was detained and questioned in this building. We have the chair in which he sat. Nathuram Godse’s confession is here. If you look at all the papers, the evolution of India’s politics — from freedom fighters to national parties — is recorded here.”

The exact value of what the archives holds is still to be determined but there is no doubting its significance. “We have not started studying the material in detail but we know that there is a lot of historically important information,” says a member of the MPF.

The Trusts came on board in May 2018 to fund the project and provide guidance on archiving and paper conservation techniques. Since the Trusts could not fund the Mumbai Police directly, a separate entity called the MPF was created with the police commissioner as head. The commissioner called for volunteers and about 40 police personnel came forward.

These volunteers are regular police people who have opted to put down their guns and batons and work instead on a different facet of the organisation. “We knew about arrests, station diaries and court cases, but not archiving,” says one of the team members. “This project was a challenge and all of the volunteers are learning something new.”

The task in front of the team was huge. The project started with 77 police digests — the earliest dating back to 1937 — each containing hundreds of pages of weekly reports from the office of the police commissioner. In addition, there were papers stuffed inside 800 wooden boxes and nearly 400 tin boxes, and even more tied up in files and cloth bundles, some from as far back as 1910.

Most of the labels on the files and boxes had faded and some of the oldest papers were in tatters. The project demanded expert help to salvage the material and put things in order. The archiving task was sourced out to Eka Archiving Services.

Eka director Deepthi Sasidharan calls the MPF archive an important resource on Mumbai through the 20th century. “However, any archive is only as good as the ability to find what one is looking for. The Eka team has sorted, catalogued and organised this archive, working alongside members of the police force who have learnt the basic procedures of archiving,” she says. Eka trained four volunteers in archiving methods: reading each document, identifying and recording key words, and creating an indexed database that is uploaded on a computer for easy retrieval.

The second part of the project was conservation and the Tata Trusts reached out to Himalayan Society for Heritage and Art Conservation (HIMSHACO), headed by well-known conservator Anupam Sah.

HIMSHACO trained a second group of volunteers in paper conservation, a long and painstaking process that involves numbering individual documents, airbrushing the dust and then deacidifying each sheet of paper to prevent further degradation. Once the sheet of paper is dry, it is lined on both sides with translucent sheets of very fine Japanese tissue paper, with attention being paid to repairing damaged spots and strengthening crumbling borders. “This technique will help these documents last several hundred years, if stored in ideal conditions,” says Paroma Sadhana, programme officer with the Tata Trusts who is coordinating the archiving and conservation effort.

A volunteer can process an average of eight sheets of documents a day — pages that are seriously damaged can take much longer — and the team covers about 150 a day. Once all the sheets of a digest are dry, they are stitched and bound in the original order, encased with a hard cardboard and bound with rexine and leather, with the title of the digest embossed on its cover.

The archives project relies on volunteers drawn from the force

Conservation and more

It was the sheer volume as well as the sensitive nature of the archives that led the Trusts team to decide that it would be better if police volunteers were trained to handle the work rather than engaging external experts. The archiving training took just six months, and the conservation training has been underway for more than a year and is yet to be completed.

“Conservation and archiving of all the papers is a huge task and it will take years to complete,” adds Ms Sadhana. Since not all the papers need to be handled with the same amount of care, MPF has deputed six police officers to go through the documents to assess what needs preserving. Also, now that the archives have been organised, police personnel can more easily analyse the importance of the contents and, in time, allow the narratives preserved within to emerge for public viewing.

Although work is in full swing, the project has faced some challenges. Regular transfers and sudden calls to duty are par for the policing course, thereby disrupting the carefully planned schedule and process.

The original team of 40 has come down to 30. Additionally, Mumbai has had three commissioners of police in the last few years; briefing the new commissioner and tweaking the administrative chain of command invariably leads to delays.

However, each successive police commissioner has not only commended the project, but also supported it as well as the work of the volunteers. Setting up a management structure has been one of the biggest challenges of this project, one that has relied heavily on the commitment of the police volunteers under training, and they have more than delivered.

The grant from the Tata Trusts to the MPF came to an end on October 31, 2019. The deliverables included an archiving and conservation procedures manual that will help the MPF team maintain quality and train future volunteers. Key sections of these manuals will be translated into Marathi for ease of understanding.

In spite of the relatively modest paper conservation lab that has been set-up, the police volunteers are well equipped to continue the task ahead of them. What began as an initiative to set up a museum has expanded to become a full-blown archival effort. This should prove invaluable in preserving the countless stories of the men and women in uniform who have helped uphold the law in a difficult-to-police metropolis.

The Mumbai police archives include casework on some of India’s most sensational crimes and criminals