While pickpocketing and bag snatching are said to be fairly common in Mumbai, Bob and I feel a visitor is less likely to become a victim there than in certain European cities.
Unless, that is, the visitor uses public transportation, where thieves practice all the common strategies plus a few creative twists of their own.
And unless the visitor happens to be robbed by snatch-and-grabbers on scooters, a nasty crime on the increase.
And unless the visitor experiences the human-leg-clamp robbery as experienced by our friend Paul McFarland just one year ago.
Otherwise, most victims of diversion theft are local commuters.
Street crime in Mumbai
When we asked about pickpockets, a few Mumbai police officers tried the “good PR” approach. “We don’t have much pickpocketing,” they told us. “Mumbai is very safe. You can walk anywhere day or night. Married women wear mangalsutras, necklaces of pure gold. They are not afraid to wear them anywhere,” the cops said. Yet, the next day’s newspaper reported “man caught and beaten by witnesses after snatching a woman’s mangalsutra.” If witnesses are taking care of thieves on the spot, perhaps the police aren’t aware of the crimes?
We’d interviewed a pickpocket in Mumbai PD custody back in 2001. [Story coming soon.] He was trundled to us slumped in a wheelchair with a broken leg and broken ribs. Caught by his victim on a train, he’d been beaten to a pulp. That’s the way it’s done here, we’d been told.
Now Assistant Police Inspector Subhash Borate suggested that many Mumbai thieves suffer from drug addictions. He described a few local M.O.s:
A long hook is fashioned from a steel bar. Thieves stand with it on the platform at the train station. As the train pulls out, the thief snags a bag or purse held by someone standing in the doorway of the crowded train. (This sounds strange to me, as if it might cause people to fall off the moving train.)
Beggar children clamp onto the legs and back of a victim so he can’t walk, while one rummages pockets. (Similar to the human-leg-clamp robbery mentioned above.)
Subhash also mentioned drink-drugging on trains and the trust-building of a person pretending a desire to practice his English with a foreign visitor.
When Bob suggested that poverty might be a motive for theft, the police officers countered that nobody needs to be unemployed in Mumbai. There’s work enough for anyone who wants it. We saw hiring signs in restaurant windows.
Bob was to lecture about 70 Mumbai police officers on methods, motivation, and pre-incident body language. The day before the seminar, we were introduced to a 40-ish man in police custody. He’d previously served time for five assaults, a murder, and numerous robberies, and had been picked up again that morning. The barefoot prisoner was dragged in handcuffed to an officer. Bob questioned him through a Hindi translator, but the man was guarded and said little of substance.
Meanwhile, two television news crews materialized, and convinced Bob to steal in the streets for their cameras. Bob stole numerous items from the pockets and purses of people on the sidewalk. After each steal, four big television cameras converged on the victims and huge crowds grew—bigger than anyplace else. The victims had no idea their items had been taken, and their reactions were just what news correspondents live for.
Bob’s conclusion was that, compared to the people of other countries, the Indians he stole from were more trusting. They did not react to Bob’s hands in their personal zone, and he was able to steal the belongings of many people very easily. Perhaps that’s because Mumbaikers are used to crowded situations. In some countries, Germany and Hong Kong, for example, the citizens are hardened and cynical. Perhaps too, that is why the locals continue to be the prime targets of thieves.