54-year-old Sunil Bhagwantrao Toke worked as a Constable at the Local Arms Division in Worli for the longest time, until he was given his long-due promotion as an Assistant Sub-Inspector. The cop who lives with his family of six in a 150 sq-ft room in BDD chawl near Jamboree Maidan, has been transferred 12 times in a career spanning 33 years.
His tiny kholi may not have enough space for the six people it houses, but every document, including the petitions, RTIs and PILs he has filed in the last two years are kept carefully.
From exposing rampant corruption in the traffic department with sting videos to raising inquiries into families of officials who haven’t left government quarters despite retirement, the Mumbai-based whistleblower has shed light on issues in the police force that are aloof from the public eye.
He recently made headlines after he sought permission from the CM to take his own life alongside his wife. He said that he was being pressured by well-placed officials within the department to retrieve his public interest litigation filed in January 2017, regarding the corruption in the traffic department.
Sunil Toke is a man whose story proves that even speaking the truth comes at a price. This isn’t the story of a whistleblower being rewarded, but about the many troubles, he had to bear to uncover the truth.
“My higher-ups would hurl verbal abuses at me behind closed doors of the thana and send my other colleagues out to ensure there was no witness to the event. In another instance, a khaki-donning cop barged into my home. My wife and children were present at the time. He threatened me saying, ‘Jar bandh nahi keli natka tar Dabholkar-Pansare karun taken amhi’ (If you don’t mend your ways, you will die like Dabholkar and Pansare),” he says
Despite the verbal abuse, mental harassment and departmental pressure over the years, Sunil Toke has refused to give up. In an exclusive interview with The Better India, he recalls his journey as an anti-corruption hero in Mumbai.
Sunil Toke joined the Mumbai Police as a constable in 1985. His first posting was at the Worli Police Station.
“It was during my first posting that I came across a case of illegal bootlegging. When we conducted a post-mortem, we came to know that poisonous alcohol had killed 200 people. When I exposed the scam to my higher-ups, I was verbally abused me and told to stay within my limits. I was new to the force and scared of losing my job. Families were shattered, most of them had lost their sole breadwinners. I couldn’t sleep at night knowing we had information on our hands and didn’t do anything about it. I kept telling my seniors to reopen the case, but they transferred me. This was the start of the many transfers I would have to see. Each time I raised my voice against the rampant corruption within and outside the department, I would be transferred.”
About 12 years into his service, he had caught hold of two bank robbers who had tried to escape with wads of cash after murdering the bank manager. When Toke chased them, they beat him to a pulp, but he did not let go.
“When two other robbers, in addition to the ones I had caught, were produced in court, I wasn’t given any credit. When the High Court judge called me to testify, I told them the entire truth, and until today, those men are in jail for life imprisonment. The judge told the department how I should’ve been rewarded by the Commissioner for my bravery. But my superiors rarely recognise my work,” Toke says.
Similarly in 2009-10, when Toke was returning from dinner, he caught hold of three minor boys counting wads of cash in a Vakola slum. It was to the tune of Rs 65,000.
He elaborates, “When I told my seniors about it, I was told to let the kids go, saying it was none of my business. But despite it being late at night, I took the money and the kids, recorded their statements and deposited it at the police station. A day later, three senior officials accosted me and accused me of having run away with the money. When the truth came out, they tried to sabotage the case. My blood pressure had shot up to the extent that I had to be admitted to KEM Hospital that night.”
The money was eventually returned to a retired postmaster, who the kids had stolen it from. The old man met Toke after he recovered and thanked him for having saved the retirement money he was to use for his daughter’s wedding.
The biggest scam that brought the whistleblower into the limelight was his exposure of the rampant corruption in the Traffic Department.
“In 2013, I was posted to the Traffic Police Department. When I requested them to post me in the office, than ground duty on medical grounds, my papers were torn and thrown into my face. I was told I was faking my conditions of diabetes, hypertension and heart issues. But I trained for 15 days and did the job anyway. I would reach office at 7 am and warn other officials against taking bribes. I told them if anybody complained, I would report them. They had seen me fine my son when he travelled without a helmet.”
It was only a matter of time until the cops got together and plotted to get Toke transferred to Goregaon. And the treatment continued.
He reveals how corruption in the traffic department works like a well-oiled machine where everyone from a traffic cop to the higher-ups has stakes in the bribes that are exhorted from motorists and drivers.
“Any police station makes at least Rs 5 to 7 lakh every month, and the job of collecting this money is given to an unofficial member (traffic cop) who is nicknamed in police circles as a ‘cashier’. Now imagine, there are at least two of these cashiers in every police station, whose only job is to extort money. From illegally-plying vehicles to overloaded trucks, school buses, ambulances and even vans carrying dead bodies, these traffic cops take bribes from everyone and then this collection is shared from their circles, up till senior officials,” he claims.
He recalls how despite writing letters to his superiors and even top IPS officers in the force about these incidents, attaching evidence in forms of CDs where these cops were caught on camera, they eventually never reached the recipients.
He adds how he was repetitively treated like he was the one at fault. Only last year, they refused to give out his salary during Diwali. They would give him negative performance reviews saying the cause of transfer was his absence at work. When he showed medical evidence, they said that he had bought those papers. They even pressured his doctor to get his medical history.
Toke even raised his voice against the against those who hadn’t left the government quarters, when as per protocol, in case of death or retirement, the family would have to move out. It was at this time that he was given death threats.
“I was made to sit outside offices for several hours and told that I was lynching the name of the department and told I was a hijara for that. It was a lady official who told me this. Despite calling the Police Control Room and narrating the entire incident, no action was taken. In 2017, when a few workers of the Worli Mandal who conduct Shiv Jayanti celebrations in our chawl vandalised our family car, they were let off with a non-cognisant complaint, because the boys claimed to have influential connections within the department.”
The Tokes had gone to their native place during the incident. They suffered a loss of nearly Rs 75,000.
When nothing else worked, he resorted to the media and WhatsApp. He filed a case in the High Court about the corruption in the Traffic Department, which he continues to fight to date. It has now been converted into a Public Interest Litigation. He has also filed another PIL with regard to the issue of families who continue to live in government quarters despite retirement.
“I am waiting for the next hearing. And despite all the setbacks I have witnessed, I will stand firm. I have full faith in the judicial system of our country. If justice isn’t delivered here, I will appeal to the Supreme Court. But I will not let corrupt officials get away. I will fight until I fall dead. For how long will we stay scared? What will they do? Transfer me? Fire me from my job? Kill me? It doesn’t matter anymore. It is better to live like a lion for a day than to live in fear of being hunted down like sheep,” he signs off.
In a country proud of its democracy, it is unfortunate that the voices of protectors of the law are unheard. But whistleblowers like Sunil Toke continue to reinstate that these voices may be muffled, but not silenced.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)