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Mumbai police ready to giddy-up

Mumbai is set to see the return of the horse-mounted police, 88 years after the unit was disbanded due to rising traffic

The mounted police unit made its first public appearance at the Republic Day parade in Mumbai.
The mounted police unit made its first public appearance at the Republic Day parade in Mumbai.

The Republic Day parade in Mumbai offered an unusual sight this year. Amidst the hour-long tributes, tableaux and dance routines came a cavalry of 10 in royal blue regalia, complete with a lance, a sash and a fluttering flag. As people craned their necks and unleashed their camera phones, the horsemen marched in perfect sync with the drumbeats—backs straight, noses in the air. Then one of the horses raised his tail and let himself go.

It was an awkward moment. But the horsemen had anticipated this. Within seconds, a man in a blue tee with “Mumbai police" written on the back scurried in with a broom. A few quick strokes and he had scooped it into a dustpan, out of sight. The riders marched forward, as if nothing had happened. The horses behaved themselves for the rest of the parade. By the end, few even remembered the aberration in the choreography.

The sight may not be an entirely unfamiliar one for those who have watched the Republic Day parade on Delhi’s Rajpath over the years, but this was the first time Mumbai’s mounted police unit was being seen in action in decades. The contingent was received with much enthusiasm but the announcement of their induction into the city police force a few months ago wasn’t—particularly not by animal rights organizations. Mumbai used to have a mounted unit until 1932, when the then police commissioner, Patrick Kelly, decided to stop it owing to rising traffic. Soon, the horses were replaced by patrol vehicles and the stables taken over by garages, fuel stations and parking spaces. So why bring them back after 88 years, when traffic snarls have made the city the fourth most congested in the world?

Working animals in India
Working animals in India

“Mounted police are effective in crowd control and law and order situations," says deputy commissioner Pranay Ashok, spokesperson of the Mumbai police. “The fact that they are at a height, not the eye level, has a sanitary effect on the crowd."

The Mumbai police, he adds, intends to deploy 30 horses on a regular basis—it’s not clear when. On a usual day, the horses can be used to patrol beaches or crowded places like Marine Drive, or enter narrow lanes that a police vehicle can’t. “During riot-like situations," Ashok adds, “if things go out of hand, these can be used to charge at people and disperse the crowd."

Was there any instance in the recent past where the situation could have been controlled better by the presence of mounted police? “As of now I don’t have any such information," says Ashok. “But we can’t wait for anything to happen to have a solution. We can pre-empt it."

A member of the unit walks his horse as part of a trust-building exercise at a training session.
A member of the unit walks his horse as part of a trust-building exercise at a training session. (Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

Raybhan Nirmal stands at the centre of a large playground in the police training centre in Marol, suburban Mumbai. Around him, 13 trainee horsemen walk in a circle, each holding a horse by its rein. It’s a mix of students, old and new. They will be walking the horses around—or “handrolling", as Nirmal calls it—as a trust-building exercise. “Hold them tight," he barks occasionally, as the many legs and hooves around him start kicking up a dust cloud. “Maintain a gap between yourselves."

Nirmal, 51, retired as a subehdar from the army last year. For most of his career, he worked as a horse trainer, teaching young cadets the art of riding, grooming and conducting patrols and parades. Like his current batch of students, he too is a Marathi speaker. But while training them, he switches to Hindi, an old habit from his army days.

“Rider No.1," he begins. “Tell me, when does a horse say no to an activity like riding or jumping?"

Rider No.1 seems unsure.

Boliye (speak up)," Nirmal exhorts. “Even if you are wrong."

“Because it’s hurting."


“The horse might not be familiar with the terrain," says rider No.2.


“The horse isn’t used to it."

These are all correct answers. But there can be many more reasons. “The horse will resist if it is unfit," says Nirmal. “Or if the saddle you use doesn’t fit it properly. Also, remember that not every horse takes well to leading (a cavalry). If your horse isn’t the type, place it in the middle. Got it?"

“Yes sir!"

Born in a farmers’ village in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, Nirmal claims to be from the Bhosale clan, same as the Maratha king Shivaji. He had always wanted to be a horse rider. “So much that when shepherds would visit our village, I would ride their sheep and donkeys," he told me when we first met a few weeks ago.

When Nirmal was offered the job of a horse trainer by the Mumbai police in mid-2019, he was hesitant. “My wife said, ‘you have worked your whole life. Not any more’." But the police’s mounted unit was rudderless. After a few introductory riding lessons in April at the Mahalaxmi racecourse in Mumbai, the personnel selected had no trainer or horses to practise with and spent their days doing “physicals".

Members of the Mumbai mounted police unit have been training for the last six months in Mumbai and Pune.
Members of the Mumbai mounted police unit have been training for the last six months in Mumbai and Pune. (Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

The Mumbai police, says Nirmal, were quite persistent, until the army veteran gave in. Nirmal, who was living in Pune at the time, had a few contacts at Pune’s Royal Western India Turf Club. He requested use of their space, put together a team of horses from the club and commenced the training sessions in October. But soon, he realized it wasn’t just logistics he needed to pay attention to.

“My students were sourced from across departments. No boss wants to lose their high-performers, so I was mostly left with under-performers," says Nirmal. “A lot of them were scared at first. I had to convince them, build up their morale. You will ride like kings, I would tell them. Your fame will spread across Maharashtra."

Such pep talk was necessary, says an officer from the mounted unit, requesting anonymity. “The horses inducted to be part of the mounted unit were trained for competitive races. Once you sat on them, they would rise and shoot (into a gallop). We had a team of 70-80 people initially. But soon, they started complaining about back problems, neck problems. Two of them hurt themselves so bad they had to be hospitalized. By the end, we were left with 25."

This is very different from the approach in other parts of the world. A 2014 BBC Earth feature on San Francisco’s mounted unit speaks of the tough standards for riders as well as horses from the very beginning. “Talent scouts scour the nation looking for the best and the brightest horses," the voice-over says. “On the few occasions they find one, that horse will be put through a rigorous physical and mental assessment to ascertain if they indeed have ‘the right stuff’." Only one in 10 horses, the report adds, makes it to the training.

For the Mumbai unit, the work conditions were quite rudimentary. Getting adequate funds for the project in time was a problem, admits a police officer. Nevertheless, starting October, Nirmal started training both men and horses every day for three months. “I would teach them for 2 hours every day, the weaker ones longer," says Nirmal. “Then came lessons on grooming, massaging, feeding and how to talk to them right."

It was also a challenge to get the horses used to crowded settings. So Nirmal got a few members to station themselves with a brass band 200m from the training spot. “I would ask them to come closer and closer slowly. If the horses became restless, the band would stop, move away and then resume. If a crowd of children or onlookers gathered, I would ask them to clap."

Bollywood stylist Manish Malhotra designed the ceremonial wear for the Mumbai mounted police personnel.
Bollywood stylist Manish Malhotra designed the ceremonial wear for the Mumbai mounted police personnel.

On 20 January, the Mumbai police formally announced the arrival of the mounted police on their Twitter handle with a slick video. In it, a young rider, wearing a uniform designed by Manish Malhotra, is seen riding a black stallion in slow motion. “Regal in stature, Formidable in form, the ‘Mounted Police Unit’ returns to Mumbai Police," read the caption.

Not everyone was enthused. “Why do you want to use animals when you have alternative machines?" says Fizzah Shah, trustee of the India chapter of In Defense of Animals (IDA). “Cement concrete roads get hot. There’s so much pollution, traffic on the roads that makes their work conditions highly unfavourable." Also a bone of contention, she says, is the treatment of working animals. “At present, we have dogs as part of Mumbai police. Their trainers take care of them very well but once they retire, there’s no retirement home or pension."

There can be other professional hazards. In March 2016, Ganesh Joshi, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA from Uttarakhand, assaulted Shaktimaan, a horse with the Dehradun police, with a lathi while protesting. The horse suffered multiple fractures and died a few months later. The incident sparked an uproar, gathering 1,087 signatures on a petition to ban the use of horses by police. Joshi was released on bail. Meanwhile, the state BJP dismissed the incident, saying their leader was being made a “political scapegoat". In October 2017, the Uttarakhand government announced that it had decided to “withdraw the case in public interest".

Even as the Mumbai police plans to reintroduce horses, they are gradually disappearing from the rest of the country. In his 2018 book History And Future Of The Mounted Police In India, a former director general of police of Karnataka, S. Krishnamurthy, writes that vehicles have almost completely taken over patrolling in most parts of India. In Odisha and in the North-East, there is no mounted police at all. In other states, police horses are mostly used only for ceremonial purposes.

A 2014 research paper titled Making And Breaking Barriers: Assessing Value Of Mounted Police In The UK by the American think tank RAND Corporation and the University of Oxford says the mounted units significantly helped increase engagement with, and response among, members of the public. But it also adds that there isn’t much evidence of the extent to which mounted units “improved" the ability to maintain public order. “It is therefore important to understand the relative value that a force’s management places on the specific capabilities and effects of mounted police, when judging whether or not mounted police are an appropriate resource to develop and deploy," the report concludes.

“If you look at all the metros in the country, Mumbai is the only one without a mounted police unit," says S. Jaykumar, additional commissioner of police, who has been leading the set-up of the mounted unit for the past year. “As Mumbai gets crowded, vehicles face difficulty in manoeuvring. In such cases, the presence of mounted police gives us a distinct advantage in visible patrolling."

He does not disclose the budgetary allocation for mounted force, nor if they plan to induct female riders in what is an all-male team so far. “We have only just started," he says. “We have got where we have in spite of many limitations."

A month after the Republic Day parade, the Mumbai police mounted unit has commenced training for a fresh batch of riders. Thirteen horses have been bought so far and plans are afoot to get 17 others, along with dedicated vehicles to ferry them to their patrol stations. It’s unclear when they will be formally pressed into patrolling, although a unit member says they are expected to be present at the Ganesh Chaturthi bandobast in August.

“When we had started working on it, we had thought it would be an impossible feat," says an officer. “Some were making fun of us, many of our men were dropping out. But then our sahebs said, karke dikhao (show us you can). And we did."

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