In Mumbai, an explosive scare, a murder, and now – a political crisis

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Why did suspended police officer Sachin Vaze place 20 loose gelatin sticks in a duffle bag with a Mumbai Indian logo, inside a green-coloured Scorpio and park it outside Antilia, home to one of the richest Indians, on Carmichael Road in south Mumbai?

According to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which took over the probe on March 9 after the Union home ministry took suo moto cognizance of the explosives case, Vaze did this to regain his lost glory. A top NIA official told Hindustan Times on condition of anonymity that Vaze, who was at the time of the discovery heading the Crime Intelligence Unit (CIU) of the Crime Branch, “wanted to prove to Mumbai Police brass that he is still as good, by solving a bomb conspiracy.”

The official said that Vaze planned the whole episode to plant explosives outside Antilia. “He wanted the limelight again,” he said.

Vaze has a chequered history, no doubt. He was arrested and suspended in 2004, in connection with the alleged custodial killing of a terror suspect named Khwaja Yunus. In 2007, he left the force, and joined the Shiv Sena shortly afterwards. In the meantime, he started dealerships in partnership and security services. Vaze was only reinstated in 2020, after an alliance of the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party, and the Congress (the MVA or Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi) came to power. And he tripped up, NIA officials contended, because of his overconfidence.

Vaze was the lead investigator in the explosives case when it first came to light. It was later transferred to the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS), before the NIA took over.

Vaze however has refuted this theory and maintains his innocence. On March 25, Vaze told the special NIA court which was hearing a plea to extend his custody, “I was Investigating Officer for one and a half days and I did what was required to investigate the case. Not only I but all Crime Branch and Mumbai police officers did so.”

“But suddenly something changed and when I went to NIA on March 13, I was put under the arrest by NIA officials,” he said.

The previous day, the central agency invoked sections of the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), an anti-terror law, against the suspended cop. NIA used sections 16 and 18 of the anti-terror law claiming that an individual/or group of persons planning such a conspiracy can be booked under terror charges. The two sections deal with conspiring to commit a terror act.

The court granted custody to NIA, but for 15 days instead of 30 as permitted under the UAPA.

Which brings us back to the question posed at the beginning: why did Vaze plant the explosives, as the NIA contends? That’s one part of this saga, and much of it depends on what the NIA investigation and the ensuing court case will no doubt reveal.

But there are two more parts to this story which are inextricably linked to the green-coloured Scorpio that turned up outside Antilia, on Carmichael Road on February 25. It involves the likely murder of an auto parts dealer, and a fast-developing political crisis that the coalition government at the helm in Maharashtra finds itself in.

To use a popular millennial phrase, that escalated quickly.

First, the murder…

A Thane-based auto parts dealer named Mansukh Hiran who had been driving the Scorpio for three years, having taken it from its owner, a certain Peter Newton in lieu of a defaulted payment, turned up dead 10 days after the his body washed up ashore a creek in Mumbra; it turned out that Vaze not only knew Hiran well, he had also borrowed the car from him for four months, and returned it on February 5. On February 17, at around 6.30pm, Hiran took the vehicle heading towards south Mumbai, the statement read. However, its steering was not smooth which prompted Hiran to park the car on the side of the road, and continue his journey in a taxi.

At around 8.25pm, at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSTM), close to the CIU office, Hiran met Vaze. A CCTV grab from the area showed Hiran sit in Vaze’s car – a black Mercedes – and get out of it after 10 minutes. NIA officials believe that Hiran handed over the keys of the Scorpio to Vaze during this time.

The following day, Hiran filed a stolen car report in Vikhroli. His wife told the ATS, that Hiran had taken a mechanic on February 18 to bring the vehicle back to his shop. However, finding the car “stolen”, he lodged a complaint with Vikhroli police station.

NIA officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that after interrogating Vaze — it began on March 13 itself, when NIA officials in Mumbai called him in for questioning in the morning, and arrested him 10 minutes before midnight — and speaking to several Mumbai Police officers and witnesses, as well as on analysing technical evidence, they have managed to piece together the sequence of events behind the case that has caught the nation’s attention.

Sharing details, one NIA officer said, “As part of his plan to produce a sensational case in Mumbai and then solve it in record time, the arrested assistant police inspector, who was in charge of the Crime Intelligence Unit (CIU), asked businessman Mansukh Hiran to leave his Scorpio on the highway on February 17.”

“Hiran, after leaving the car on Mulund-Airoli Road, met Vaze near Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus the same day, and handed over the keys as asked by the officer. Vaze then asked Hiran to lodge a complaint (of a missing car) with the police, which Hiran filed on February 18,” the first officer said.

From February 17 till February 25, the Scorpio was with Vaze and his associates in CIU, investigations revealed.

On February 25, a second NIA investigator said, Vaze and a constable of CIU went in a convoy of two cars — the Scorpio and an Innova — to Carmichael Road around 2:20am to drop the Scorpio, laden with gelatin sticks, near Ambani’s residence, Antilia. A threat letter, addressed to Ambani and his wife, had already been placed beforehand in the vehicle. “Vaze and the constable took turns to drive Scorpio and then they returned in the Innova,” the officer said.

“But, around 4.30am, Vaze returned to the spot to check the Scorpio as he thought he had left his identity card in it by mistake,” the second officer added. This visit, NIA officials said, has been established by CCTV footage from Mulund toll naka, where the Innova can be seen re-entering Mumbai from Thane around 4 am after leaving the city about half-an-hour earlier.

A CCTV grab showing a man in a white kurta walking to the Scorpio prompted the NIA officials to take Vaze to the site, and make him walk to analyse his gait, and compare it to the person in the grab. They also raided his office in CIU, after his arrest, and seized a laptop, an iPad, a phone, and documents among other material. They also seized the black Mercedes that Vaze and Hiran sat in. In all, six vehicles have been seized by the NIA, including the Innova, which was a police vehicle.

NIA officials said the agency will likely make the constable, whom they did not name, a witness rather than charge him in conspiracy. They added that the constable has confirmed the role of Vaze in the conspiracy.

Once he was made the investigating officer of the case, Vaze asked Hiran to take the rap, but the latter demurred, said a third NIA officer.

NIA officials believe that Vaze’s plan was to create some link between Hiran (once he confessed) and some Pakistani terror group or suspect, to make it look like a conspiracy planned by Pakistan’s spy agency Inter Services Intelligence. The officials admitted that this remains a theory that is yet to be proved.

On March 5, Hiran’s body was found by fishermen at the Reti Bunder creek in Thane district, around 10.30am. The Mumbra Police handed over the body to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Hospital in Kalwa and filed an Accidental Death report. Prima facie, the police said, it seemed that Hiran had died by suicide. But Vimla, Hiran’s wife contested that claim. In a statement to the ATS, which took charge of the murder probe, she said that Hiran was too good a swimmer to have drowned. Besides, the body had no identifying markers on it: his wallet, gold chain, gold ring studded with a pukhraj stone and wrist watch were not found on him when his body was recovered. What’s more, his body was found in a creek at Mumbra with handkerchiefs stuffed into his mouth, which was also covered by a scarf.

On March 4, Vimala said that her husband returned from his shop at 8.30pm and told her that he was going to meet a police officer named Tawade, somewhere along Ghodbunder Road.

Vimala told the investigating team that when she tried calling her husband at 11pm, his mobile phone was switched off. Later at night, her son spoke to Hiran’s brother, Vinod to inform him that Hiran had not returned home. Vinod called Vaze, who reportedly expressed surprise at the meeting and informed Vinod that Hiran had not mentioned that he was going to meet Tawde.

The following morning, Hiran’s family lodged a missing person’s report at Naupada police station. The report filed helped identify the body.

On March 7, an ATS team questioned the family for over three hours and filed an FIR against unknown persons for the murder of Mansukh Hiran.

“Taking into consideration all the above circumstances, I am sure that my husband was murdered,” the last few lines of Vimla’s statement read. “I suspect Sachin Vaze could have committed the said murder.”

Further investigation by the ATS revealed that two people were involved in Hiran’s murder: an ex cop called Vinayak Shinde, and a bookie named Naresh Gor.

Preliminary investigation found that some SIM cards used in commission of the crime were obtained by an employee of Gor, who runs a card club and also accepts betting on Cricket matches in Mumbai. The SIM cards were obtained from a Gujrat based person known to him and were found to be obtained in the name of a company from Gujrat. Preliminary investigation also revealed that the SIM cards were handed over by the bookie, Naresh Ramaniklal Gor, to Vinayak Shinde.

It was Shinde who called Hiran on March 4, pretending to be a cop called Tawde, the ATS investigators found. At least 14 SIM cards procured by Gor from a contact in Gujarat were activated and used in the commission of this crime, the ATS said. Some of the mobile handsets in which those SIM cards were used were destroyed by the accused. A Volvo, belonging to Vaze’s former business associate, Abhishek Agarwal, was seized from Daman; the ATS believe it may have been the vehicle in which Hiran spent his last few hours.

It is as yet unclear whether Hiran was made unconscious and then pushed into the creek, where he drowned. A Diatoms test – which checks for the presence of a single-celled algae called diatoms, to indicate whether a person has drowned – was performed on the body. Its results have been sent to a forensic science laboratory in Haryana for confirmation.

However, Vaze was the mastermind of this murder the ATS said in a press conference that the chief held a day before the case was transferred to the NIA.

The Union home ministry passed an order transferring the case to the federal agency, since the cases were linked; the NIA now has custody of the two accused of murdering Hiran, and have begun actively investigating the death.

… And then, a political crisis…

The second related part to this story is a study on the snowball effect: within days of Vimla’s statement to the ATS, the leader of the Opposition in Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, demanded a probe by the NIA into the explosives as well as into Vaze’s role in the murder.

Vaze was first transferred. He was also questioned by the ATS. Then, on March 13, as stated above, he was called in to the NIA team’s Mumbai office. He wasn’t the only CIU officer called in that day. Others who had also actively investigated the crime in its initial days were asked to come in too. But after 12 hours of questioning, he was the only one arrested.

The home minister, who was under attack from Opposition for the shoddy handling of the case, transferred the Mumbai police commissioner, Param Bir Singh, the following week. In a media event the following day, he said that Singh’s transfer wasn’t routine, but due to grievous errors committed by his colleagues.

A few days later, Param Bir Singh, who had taken charge of Home Guards, Maharashtra, wrote a letter to the CM, and marked other senior politicians and bureaucrats. He accused the home minister, Anil Deshmukh, of running an extortion ring. Deshmukh had set Vaze, and a few other cops, a target of collecting 100 crore, most of it from establishments like hookah bars and restaurants, the unsigned letter stated.

Singh said that he was “made a scapegoat to divert attention from the actual wrongdoers”.

Deshmukh, however, refuted the allegations raised by Singh. “Sachin Vaze’s direct links in Antilia Case and Mansukh Hiren case are coming forward. Param Bir Singh is afraid that its connections will reach up to him. He has made these false allegations to save and protect himself from legal action,” the home minister tweeted immediately. Later, he issued a statement expanding on his innocence.

The letter led to fresh demands by the Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), calling for Deshmukh’s sacking. The Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government rallied around Deshmukh, and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar held press conferences on two consecutive days poking holes in allegations made by BJP leaders, including Fadnavis, based on the letter’s contents.

NCP Maharashtra president Jayant Patil said there was no question of replacing home minister Anil Deshmukh and asserted, “The letter is a reaction after Maharashtra chief minister and home minister decided to take a tough stand,” the state minister said. “If we ask Deshmukh to resign now, we would be doing what certain people want,” he told HT.

The Congress, which is part of the MVA coalition, along with NCP and Shiv Sena, also said that Deshmukh mustn’t resign, but demanded that a probe be ordered into the so-called extortion ring.

A few days later, Singh moved the Bombay HC through a Public Interest Litigation, seeking a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into Deshmukh’s alleged dealings.

…Which just keeps growing…

Singh’s letter also made a reference to another report, this one submitted last August to the additional chief secretary (Home), a post that was held by current Chief Secretary Sitaram Kunte at the time. The report was put together by former Commissioner of Intelligence Rashmi Shukla and pertained to an alleged money for transfer scam in the police department. Shukla submitted the report to the then Director General of Police Subodh Jaiswal, who in turn forwarded it to Kunte on August 26, 2020. In the covering letter Jaiswal wrote: “It is a serious matter and necessitates urgent action by the state government. It is recommended that this be brought to the notice of Hon. Chief Minister at the earliest and an immediate and comprehensive enquiry by State CID (Crime), Pune be ordered to identify concerned individuals and take necessary legal action.”

The report, which is based on intercepted phone calls of six people, states that they were middlemen who helped police officials seek postings of their choice, and brought up the names of politicians like NCP chief Sharad Pawar, deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar and home minister Anil Deshmukh, in their conversations.

The report does not state that the middlemen spoke to these leaders directly but to politicians’ aides and policemen. The report states that one the middlemen is an assistant in the home minister’s office. The report also does not talk about any direct transfer of money to these politicians. It does however refer to “monetary exchange” between police officers and middlemen acting in close connection with politicians.

HT has seen a copy of the report, and Shukla, who is currently on deputation with the Central Reserve Police Force, has not responded to repeated calls and text messages.

Kunte submitted a five-page brief to Thackeray on March 25, detailing out what exactly happened regarding these phone interceptions.

Kunte’s report – HT has seen a copy of it – stated that Shukla intercepted the calls under the guise of “public safety” and thus “misguided the authorities”. It further stated that no transfers of police officials took place between June 27 and September 1, 2020 – the period in which the calls were intercepted, and thus no scam had occurred.

As things stand, the MVA government is mulling over taking action against Shukla, if it is discovered that she leaked the official report. Fadnavis claimed that he had the call record details of what Shukla intercepted, and he has asked Union home secretary to advise on whether a CBI probe in this matter can be instituted. However, in his note, Kunte said that no such pen drive of intercepted calls was submitted along with the report.

The state has also decided to institute a judicial commission, led by a retired judge, to probe the allegations against Deshmukh made in Singh’s letter.

Meanwhile, Vaze remains in custody of the NIA, which has started probing Hiran’s murder. On Thursday night, they took Vaze to a spot about a kilometer ahead of where Hiran’s body was found. Then, they drove him to another spot in Thane, where Hiran had reportedly been lured to by Shinde. On Friday, the NIA also put all three accused in the Hiran murder case in the same room.

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