In plain clothes, he can easily pass for a Professor or a Corporate Head Honcho. Or even a doctor. J.K.Tripathy does not carry the trappings of the uniform. With no handle bar moustache and no stentorian voice, this 1985 batch IPS officer can easily merge in a crowd. So when he was the Commissioner of Police, Chennai, the very first posting made by the AIADMK regime, minutes after the swearing-in ceremony in 2011, a clean shaven, self effacing gentleman would get off his 3-star-plate car a few hundred metres away from a police station and walk in like a common citizen to see how the staff inside treat petitioners. On one occasion, in North Chennai, he met a complainant who had been kept waiting for 4 hours just to have his petition accepted. Tripathy asked the Head Constable why he was making the public wait so long. Without even looking at him, the policeman casually shot back, “the Inspector is not here.” Tripathy nudged him: “Ask your Inspector to come immediately.” Irked by the bravado or perhaps even the seemingly provocative suggestion, the head constable thundered: “And who are you to order him to come?” With a smile, he retorted: “Tell him that his Commissioner is here.” The Head Constable took a hard look, jumped out of his seat and saluted his super boss.
It’s this ‘out of the khakhi’ mindset that has marked the thirty year career of this highly decorated officer who is now vested with the challenging task of overseeing the most dangerous sections of society in Tamil Nadu, who are behind bars. As the Additional Director General of Police (Prisons) Tripathy manages about 15,000 prisoners; those convicted, under-trial, remanded and under preventive detention.
Did I say he looks like a Professor? That’s what Jalad, as he’s called by his ‘first name’ circle, worked as, after passing out of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). An irrepressible urge to question what he believed was wrong and to ‘change the system’ during his formative student years at JNU – a hotbed of activism, ensured a quick end to his academic career in Political Science and a shot at the Civil Services Examination. In his very first attempt, as he was doing his PhD, the Odisha born professor stormed into the Indian Police Service in 1983 but wasn’t keen on the uniform and preferred the IAS or IFS. So he deferred his selection and wrote the exam again, this time getting into the Indian Information Service. A third crack landed him in the IPS. “That’s when I believed that I was perhaps destined to be a cop!”
After getting into the IPS, Tripathy began to love every minute of his job. When he was posted as the Commissioner of Police in Tiruchirapalli, he earned his spurs in Community Policing with ‘Beat Officers’, ‘Slum Adoption’ and ‘Complaint Boxes’. By befriending the general public and informally involving them in intelligence gathering and crime prevention, Tripathy won not just the hearts of common citizens but even global acclaim, becoming the first Indian Police Officer to collar two international awards. A Gold Medal for ‘Innovation in Governance’ was conferred on him by the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration and Management in Scotland. Then came an ‘International Community Policing Award’ from the Washington headquartered International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). Tripathy was also the first police officer to receive the ‘Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Public Administration’ from the PM in 2008, not to forget his Police Medals for Meritorious and Distinguished Service and the Dr. Malcolm S. Adiseshiah Special Award.
I remember meeting him for the first time in 2001 when he was posted as the Joint Commissioner of Police – South Chennai, as part of what many insiders still feel was a dream team led by super cop K.Vijaykumar. The grapevine has it that many dreaded criminals either fled the city or surrendered and courted arrest as they probably felt safer inside prisons fearing police encounters. Chennai witnessed a string of encounters in which notorious gangsters fell to police bullets. To his friends and in fact to the average petitioners who approach him for help, Tripathy can be quite the charmer. I can never forget the image of him standing in civvies in the Royapettah General Hospital lending moral and logistical support to a colleague who had lost a child under tragic circumstances. But those who cock a snook at the law and harm innocent folks, know that he is one officer who would not want his officers to treat their weapons as show pieces.
Picking milestones from a thirty year old career, which saw him occupy other sensitive posts like Inspector General of Police – South Zone, Crime Branch CID and Economic Offences, can be daunting. Having served as Superintendent of Police in 9 districts in Tamil Nadu, I have always believed that he is best suited for Law & Order. Not wanting to dwell too much on cases he had cracked early on in his innings, Tripathy recalled solving the Chennai Bank Robberies in 2012 involving four armed men from Bihar and one from West Bengal, who, in quick succession, had looted two banks in the city at gun point. Although the two banks in question did not have CCTVs, Tripathy had formed about 30 teams who finally stumbled upon video footage from another bank which showed a suspect doing a sort of recce. The gang was traced to a rented house in Velacherry where a shootout took place in which all the 5 robbers were killed.
As the Prison Chief, ‘Reforms’ has been his buzzword, continuing the good work of his predecessors like R.Nataraj and coming up with more innovation. “After being isolated from society, prisoners need to be able to settle down after their release with some livelihood” to prevent them from taking to crime again. The establishment of the Mahatma Gandhi Community College in all major prisons in the State and a tie-up with community colleges headed by my former Loyola College Principal Fr.Xavier Alphonse has ensured that prisoners get a wide array of educational options to choose from – bridge, vocational, computer courses and even PhDs. Forging a strategic partnership with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) the Prison department has made 100% placement for prisoners post release a reality. The joke doing the rounds is that if you want to be sure of a job, land in prison! The ‘ classrooms in prisons’ concept was built on the premise that “leaders in society can be made stake holders in the reformation process.” The ‘Adopt A Prisoner’ scheme has also gathered momentum. For six thousand rupees per annum, anyone can sponsor an incarcerated person’s education and also get to interact with them to follow their progress. What caught the fancy of even the New York Times was an initiative to rope in released prisoners as private security guards. But how advisable is it to use a thief to catch a thief? Tripathy explains that despite the understandable trust deficit, “we carefully handpick those who did not commit heinous crimes and they are monitored regularly by our officers.” A sizeable chunk of inmates were probably “forced by circumstances to commit crimes”. Only a “small percentage are habitual offenders.”
When I met him at his office for a long pending coffee chat, my little daughter Sanvi who had accompanied me, asked the ADGP a question, coached by my wife Vidya. “Uncle, how did you feel when Thamana kissed you?” Tripathy was initially taken aback and then his eyes lit up as he recalled how a little girl who had been missing from the Marina Beach and had been rescued by the police, had spontaneously planted a kiss on his cheek during a press conference.
Known to be a workaholic, Tripathy doesn’t find much time for his hobbies. He is way too busy sowing the seeds of crime prevention to be able to pursue real gardening. “Photography used to be a childhood passion. I have a very good camera but it’s gathering dust somewhere!” Classical and instrumental music helps him put his feet up, which is quite rare. With solid support from his artist and writer wife Anuja, the Tripathys have been able to shape the future of their kids pretty well. Papa’s princess Jigisa is studying medicine. Jeetwan, their brilliant elder son is a Mechanical Engineer from NIT and is now in Delhi, working hard to get the three magic letters after his name. Just like his father. But unlike the dad, the IPS is the young aspirant’s only choice. Having seen his first hero at home taking on the bad guys, how could Jeet not want to don the khahki uniform?
Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer, Columnist, Author, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7.