Thursday, May 23, 2024

The ‘T’ Company: Thane emerges as a crucial link in the Bombgate investigation – The Big Story News

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Nearly a month after an explosi­ves-laden SUV was found parked a short distance from Mukesh Ambani’s residence, Antilia, all investigative leads seem to be converging in Thane, a satellite city north of Mumbai.

The two vehicles, a white Innova, allegedly driven by assistant police inspector Sachin Vaze, and the light-green Scorpio, allegedly driven by one of his aides, started towards South Mumbai from Thane, 30 km away, on February 24. On the intervening night of February 24-25, the Scorpio was left parked 500 metres away from the Ambani residence on Carmichael Road, with 20 sticks of commercial blasting gelatin and a note threatening the family inside the vehicle.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA), the central agency now probing the incident and the murder of the original Scorpio owner, businessman Mansukh Hiran, believes the conspiracy was hatched in Vaze’s fourth-floor office just two floors below the Mumbai Police Commissi­oner’s office at Crawford Market. Vaze headed the sensitive Crime Intelligence Unit (CIU) within the crime branch, a team of 20 officers and 70 constables tasked with investigating crime across the city’s zonal jurisdictions.

Vaze and Hiran had known each other for five-odd years. Both lived in Thane, their houses just 4 km apart. Hiran ran a car decor shop near his house on Ambedkar Road, close to the Civil Hospital. He also had an office in Crawford Market, close to the police commissioner’s HQ.

ALSO READ | A bomb-laden car, murder, and crooked cops: All about Mumbai Bombgate

Hiran left his shop on March 4 evening after receiving a WhatsApp call from one ‘Tawde’ of the Kandivali crime branch in connection with the Scorpio case. Hiran told his wife Vimal his ‘police friend’ would also be there at this meeting on Ghodbunder Road, a busy 15-km stretch that connects Thane to Mumbai’s northern suburbs. Ghodbunder or ‘horse port’ was where horses from the Middle East landed in Bombay centuries ago. Until a decade ago, this secluded highway flanked by dense forest on one side and the Thane creek on the other was a favourite spot for ‘encounter specialists’ to eliminate criminals. The highway has become gentrified since, with housing societies on either side and commercial complexes selling for a pricey Rs 12,000 per square feet.

The next day, on March 5, Hiran’s bloated body surfaced in the brackish waters of the Thane creek at Retibunder near Mumbra, around 10 km from his house, and 20 km from Ghodbunder where he was last spotted. Hiran’s hands were tied and his mouth stuffed with handkerchiefs. The spot from where his body was recovered can be seen from the unique ship funnel-shaped hilltop holiday home on Parsik Hill, built by the late actor Nutan and her naval officer husband Rajnish Behl in the 1960s.

It has been a month since Bombgate exploded, but we are nowhere closer to the truth. The NIA has not yet revealed Vaze’s motive in allegedly planting the Scorpio bomb or murdering Hiran. They don’t know yet whether the now-suspended cop was acting on his own or at someone’s behest. What we do know is that Vaze was reinducted into the force on June 6, 2020, on the recommendations of a committee headed by former Mumbai police chief Param Bir Singh. He was instantly made head of the CIU. Within a week, he was handed his first high-profile case—the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput on June 14, 2020. Vaze also investigated the suicide of architect Anvay Naik and the November 2020 TRP scam in which Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami is an accused.

The NIA is expanding its net of investigation with a clear focus on the Thane connections in the case. On March 30, the agency seized one seven-seat Mitsubishi Outlander from Kamothe in Navi Mumbai, the seventh vehicle to be recovered in this case. The SUV is registered in the name of one Sachin Vaze. The agency is trying to confirm if it’s the same Vaze who is in their custody. They will also investigate whether this is the car in which Hiran was smothered to death.

The agency, which took over the investigation of Hiran’s murder on March 24, believes the 48-year-old was killed because he refused to be a part of the Antilia conspiracy. When Vaze tried to tell him he would be arrested and bailed out soon, Hiran refused. He reportedly told Vaze his role was limited to handing over his Scorpio. He might even have hinted at revealing the conspiracy, which possibly sealed his fate.

ALSO READ | Antilia bomb scare case: What the post-mortem report tells us about Mansukh Hiran’s murder

Hiran’s post-mortem report, which INDIA TODAY has exclusively accessed, reveals he had abrasions on his face. A senior doctor at a government hospital in Thane says his captors had beaten him brutally before killing him. The NIA probe has revealed that the ‘police officer friend’ Hiran mentioned was none another than Vaze. The agency suspects he was present when Hiran was killed and later thrown into the creek.

Vaze tried his best to mislead the investigation. He conduc­ted a raid on one Tipsy bar in Dongri between 11.45 pm and 1.30 am on March 4-5 when Hiran vanished. He did not seize any papers or register any case. The NIA believes he cooked up an alibi for himself to establish he was in south Mumbai, whereas he was present in Thane, 40 km away, two hours before the raid. On March 4 evening, Vaze left his mobile phone with a junior officer in his Crawford Market office, and walked three km south to the General Post Office, so that his mobile location would be traced to his office on that day. Inte­restingly, a CCTV camera in the vicinity caught him walking there.

Investigators believe Hiran loaned the Scorpio to Vaze in exchange for a personal favour the cop may have done for him. Vinod Hiran, Mansukh’s elder brother, denies they were friends and insists they had a purely business relationship. “Mansukh knew Vaze only as his customer, they were not friends. Mansukh never brought him home. I never met Vaze,” Vinod told INDIA TODAY. Crazy about cars, Vaze had borrowed the light-green Scorpio from Hiran earlier too, in November 2020. Hiran’s shop was not very big, but he was known for his prompt service. The shop has been closed since his murder.

However, there is much more to this satellite township on the northeastern edge of Mumbai than the co-location of the alleged murderer and his victim.

The NIA is poring over the call data records and cellphone locations of several Mumbai police officials. At least one police officer from Thane, the NIA suspects, escorted Vaze from the Eastern Express Highway to Ghodbunder Road on March 4 night. The officer’s mobile location has been traced near Retibunder on that night. This officer, who has not yet been named, works in the anti-extortion cell. He claims he was returning to his home in Kalyan (20 km northeast of Thane) via Mumbra, which is why his cellphone location showed he was near Retibunder. The NIA is also questioning the CIU officer who reportedly kept Vaze’s mobile phone with him on March 4 to conceal his real location.

The evidence is now piling up. On March 28, Vaze led the NIA to the spot where he had tossed the hard drive, printer, laptop, two CPUs and two fake number plates in the Mithi river near the Bandra-Kurla Complex. Divers extracted the evidence from the heavily polluted river. Forensic expert Amol Deshmukh, an advisor to the state’s forensic laboratory, says that retrieving the evidence from the gadgets will require some effort as they had been in water for a long while.


Thane is one of the 10 police commissionerates in Maharashtra. At 147 sq. km, the city is twice the size of Mumbai island city (Mahim to Colaba) and India’s 15th largest city. Crime is not as high as in Mumbai. While the metropolis registers 100 cases of public scuffles and burglaries per month, Thane has only a third of such cases. However, the number of cases pertaining to extortion and land deals is much higher in Thane as it is the new hotbed of real estate. It is also under constant watch for communal tension in areas like Mumbra and Bhiwandi, which have witnessed communal riots in the past. A former police officer calls Thane the antechamber for the Mumbai and other commissionerates, the ideal parking spot for police officials who have ‘other uses’. “It is out of the Mumbai police commissionerate’s limits, yet not too far from the metropolis,” he says.

In his nine-month stint at the Mumbai Crime Branch before he was suspended and later arrested by the NIA on March 13, Vaze reported directly to police commissioner Param Bir Singh, bypassing four levels of command in the crime branch. Both Singh and Vaze served in the Thane police commissionerate for several years. Vaze was first posted in Mumbra, a Thane suburb, and later in the anti-extortion cell, between 1992 and 1997. Singh was police commissioner there between 2015 and 2018.

In 2015, BJP supporters were aghast when then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis appointed Singh as the Thane police commissioner. As additional commissioner of police in the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad, Singh had been accused of torturing 2008 Malegaon bomb blast accused Sadhvi Pragya. Her family members had alleged Singh beat her, forced her to eat non-vegetarian food and watch pornographic clips.

Fadnavis’s decision to appoint Singh in Thane, bypassing three of his seniors, had left the force divided. Singh had an eventful tenure in Thane, where he busted an illegal call-centre and drugs racket. His team had arrested alleged drug trafficker Vicky Goswami, the husband of actor Mamata Kulkarni. Another accused, Manoj Jain, was allegedly involved in manufacturing and exporting ephedrine, a chemical used in drugs. The fake call centre was operated by several youths, who would pose as employees of Internal Revenue Service, US, and seek money from US citizens to settle matters.

Singh and Vaze, however, have never worked together. The latter had been under suspension since 2004 over the custodial death of Khwaja Yunus, a suspect in the 2003 BEST bus blast in Ghatkopar. However, another figure known to both of them, joined Singh in the Thane police commissionerate. Pradeep Sharma, head of the anti-extortion cell, located his office within a kilometre of the police headquarters at Thane. Sharma, an erstwhile ‘encounter cop’, had been Vaze’s boss when he was the CIU head in 2001. Vaze had joined the CIU as a cyber expert but drifted into operations. He had 63 encounters to his credit before his first tryst with infamy in 2004.

Sharma’s own career was nearly finished by the 2006 Lakhan Bhaiyya case, in which his police squad had allegedly kidnapped the Navi Mumbai-based gangster, brought him to Versova and shot him dead. While 12 policemen were convicted of the murder in 2013, Sharma was acquitted for lack of evidence. Ramprasad Gupta, Lakhan Bhaiyya’s lawyer brother, challenged Sharma’s acquittal in the Bombay High Court in 2014. The case is still pending.

Singh is believed to have given Sharma a free hand. In 2018, Sharma arrested Dawood’s brother Iqbal Kaskar from his house on Pakmodia Street near Bhendi Bazaar. The area was under the Mumbai Police’s jurisdiction but Sharma, it is said, did not take them into confidence as the case was registered in Thane. Fadnavis issued Param Bir Singh a stern warning after then Mumbai police chief D.D. Padsalgikar objected.

Sharma took voluntary retirement from the police force in August 2019 to contest the assembly election on a Shiv Sena ticket. He was fielded from the Nalasopara assembly constituency north of Thane where Vaze reportedly spent a month campaigning for his former boss. Sharma was defeated by Kshitij Thakur of the Bahujan Vikas Aghadhi by over 40,000 votes. (Sharma could not be contacted as his cell phone was unreachable).

There is nothing so far to connect Sharma to Hiran’s murder except the fact that Vinayak Shinde, whom the ATS arrested on March 4 in connection with Hiran’s murder, was once a constable in his unit. Shinde, a resident of Kalva, a suburb of Thane, was also involved in Lakhan Bhaiyya’s fake encounter for which the HC convicted him in 2011. Shinde has been out on furlough for over a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He reportedly met Vaze at the latter’s office in January in search of work. The NIA believes it was at this meeting that the Bombgate conspiracy was hatched. The printer on which the threat letter to Mukesh Ambani was drafted, and which was recovered from the Mithi river, also belonged to Shinde. A junior at the Thane College from where he graduated in 1994 recalls Shinde as not being particularly bright. “He was always busy in students’ union activities.”

As revelations from Bombgate continue to trickle in, a one-member committee of retired Bombay High Court chief justice Kailash Chandiwal was constituted on March 30 at Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s behest. Tasked with investigating Param Bir Singh’s charges of bribery against home minister Anil Deshmukh, the committee has been given six months’ time. However, the government is under no compulsion to make its report public since it has not been constituted under the Commission of Inquiry Act. Justice Chandiwal, who retired in 2014, had famously sentenced police constable Sunil More in 2006 to 12 years of rigorous imprisonment for raping a minor at the police post at Marine Lines.

Meanwhile, the political intrigues continue. On March 27, NCP chief Sharad Pawar and his trusted lieutenant Praful Patel reportedly met Union home minister Amit Shah in Ahmedabad. While Patel denied any such meeting, Shah was cryptic in his reply. “Not all things should be made public,” he told reporters on March 28.

Fadnavis, meanwhile, has kept the heat turned on the Sena by highlighting the political pressure put on Singh to reinstate Vaze, a former Sainik. Sena leader Sanjay Raut told reporters on March 29 that he had warned his party leaders against reinstating Vaze, given his dubious credentials. “I had told them that Vaze would become a pain in the neck one day,” Raut said. “The government has learned a lesson from this whole episode.” Raut’s statement is a tacit admission that the Sena might have erred in swiftly rushing to the tainted police officer’s defence. Chief Minister Thackeray had on March 10 defended Vaze, saying he was not ‘Osama bin Laden that he could be hanged without a trial’. As the NIA investigations continue to uncover the wider conspiracy, the Sena is clearly unsettled. If the central agency unearths a political connection in the Antilia case, it could impact Sena’s fortunes in the crucial Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections in February 2022. The game of smoke and mirrors in Bombgate may well clear by then, and the naked truth may cause the Sena more than a little embarrassment.

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