Now, elusive evidence

Print edition : June 22, 2002

Muthappa Rai is in the net, but the police are yet to find hard evidence of the alleged underworld don's operations.

THE recent arrest of Muthappa Rai, one of Karnataka's most elusive criminals, by the Dubai police, and his deportation to India, has not as yet helped the law-enforcement agencies to unravel the enigma that he is. Interrogation by Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) sleuths on May 29 and by the Karnataka police since May 30 has not yielded substantive information on his career in crime, and the extent of his links with Dawood Ibrahim.

Muthappa Rai outside the Central Bureau of Investigation office in Bangalore.-K. GOPINATHAN

The police have also not been able to track down and apprehend the underworld don's associates in Bangalore and other parts of Karnataka. This is rather surprising because it used to be the refrain of the Bangalore police ever since 1996 that Rai was running extortion rackets in Bangalore and Dakshina Kannada and Chikmagalur districts through his local associates. He is said to have taken refuge in various places - Dubai, Muscat, Egypt, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Kish Islands in Iran, Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, Switzerland, and so on.

The Karnataka police had issued warrants of arrest against Rai in eight cases under Sections 302 (murder) and 120B (conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code, the Arms Act and the Explosive Substances Act. The murder of a realtor, Subbaraju, in January 2001 by hired killers from Mumbai following a dispute over a piece of prime property in Bangalore and a housing layout on the outskirts of the city was also allegedly carried out at Rai's behest. Police officers investigating the case had said that while Rai's involvement in the murder was confirmed, they were yet to find out who had sought his help to have Subbaraju eliminated.

Arif and Syed, alleged henchmen of Rai, were taken into custody by a Bangalore City Police team at the Santa Cruz Airport in Mumbai after they had "surrendered" on Rai's "advice". Rai's former counsel K. Santosh Kumar was also arrested. A mobile phone allegedly used by the killers was recovered but the weapons were not traced.

Rai allegedly operated extortion rackets, helped property developers take possession of land in prime localities and collected 'protection money' from business houses in Karnataka. Obviously, he could not have done all this without the active help of local "friends". A police inspector who has been investigating some of the cases relating to Rai said: "It is a fact that he was sitting in Dubai, engaging people here and avoiding us. It was very easy for him. He could operate with impunity. We also were not able to find any direct evidence of his involvement."

According to a retired Director-General of Police, Rai's local friends may not be arrested because if that happens, "a number of (prominent) heads will roll". He said: "A number of people, from police officers to real estate developers to people in the travel business, have benefited from his (Rai's) actions. A number of real estate developers depend on him for evictions and collection of dues. I know of a leading builder in Bangalore who has been helped by Rai's men in 35 to 40 instances of eviction. Also a number of police officers, including some who worked under me, had contacts with Rai and used to speak to him almost on a daily basis. They may or may not have monetarily benefited from the association but it is a fact that they took his help to nab other criminals and then try to win medals and promotions. Given this situation, the tendency will be to soft-pedal the investigations and sweep under the carpet whatever information that comes up."

This former police officer is among people who suggest that the investigation be done by an agency which has no fear about the consequences of exposing Rai. But the Karnataka government is unlikely to hand over the cases to an agency like the CBI. (Karnataka is one of the two States that have not given blanket permission to the CBI to pursue cases in the State.) Nor does the CBI seem to be keen to take up the cases. A CBI officer said: "At present, he is peripheral to our investigations. Let us see what he tells the Karnataka police. We might want to interrogate him later."

A Karnataka police team led by a Joint Commissioner of Police that went to Dubai to arrest Dilip Naik, the main accused in the case relating to the murder of Vasanth Asnotikar, a legislator from Karwar, was said to have sought Rai's help. Asnotikar was shot dead by Dilip Naik and his associate. These 'supari' killers belong to the Amar Naik gang of Mumbai. The 'arrest' was arranged on condition that Dilip Naik would not be harmed while in police custody. An officer who was part of the police team said: "Since it was not possible to convince the Dubai police to believe us, we had to take Rai's help. The idea was to use a thief to catch a thief." It is not clear why the same set of officers could not interrogate Rai.

H.T. Sangliana, City Police Commissioner, Bangalore, said: "We are preparing a list of all those who may have helped Muthappa Rai. We are yet to take steps to reach them." When asked about Rai's alleged links with Dawood, he said: "This will be revealed later." Where does Rai stand among the various underworld dons of Indian origin who operate from abroad? According to Sangliana, Rai is a shark, and not a whale.

There is a theory that Rai, despite his alleged involvement in a range of criminal activities, is not a big-time mafia don as projected by the media. He was close to Sharad Shetty, a Dubai-based gangster from Mumbai and confidant of Dawood. It was Shetty who sheltered Rai in Dubai initially.

Fifty-year-old Rai comes from Puttur, a town near Mangalore in Dakshina Kannada district. Early on, as a Congress worker he was involved in a knife attack to protect his friend who was contesting a local level election. Later, he became a clerk in a nationalised bank in Bangalore. He quit the job to manage a night club in Bangalore. He soon came to control a number of night clubs and was involved in shady real estate deals. He had close links with gangsters such as M.P. Jairaj (who was shot dead in 1989 allegedly at the behest of Rai by men hired from Mumbai in 1989), 'Oil' Shiv Kumar and Sridhar Murthy. Rai and 'Oil' Kumar were allegedly involved in a fuel adulteration racket and jointly ran a petrol station. They fell apart eventually and Kumar was murdered in 1990.

Rai was arrested by the police while he was settling a real estate deal. In 1992, when he was brought to the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate's court in Bangalore, Narayan Salian, a friend of Amar Alva who was allegedly murdered by Rai's gang, shot and seriously injured Rai.

Rai shifted base to Madikeri and Heggadedevanakote near Mysore. He was allegedly instrumental in the murder in 1996 of Robert D'Silva, a timber merchant from Madikeri. He fled to Dubai using a fake passport. In a case of mistaken identity, Rai's men from Mumbai shot dead Seena, the car driver of Sridhar Murthy, in Bangalore in 1997. The real target was Sridhar Murthy. Rai's name was in the news also after a sharpshooter from Mumbai, Eric D'Souza, was shot dead in an encounter by the Bangalore police in December 1999. It was alleged that D'Souza was sent to Bangalore by Rai to eliminate Sridhar Murthy.

Operating from Dubai, Rai promoted Bannanje Raja, a gangster in Bangalore. It was through Bannanje Raja and others, informed sources say, that Rai conducted his operations in Bangalore. Bannanje Raja, along with Arif and Syed, was involved in a shootout in Bangalore in 1998. He fled the country after the incident. Bannanje Raja is among the six most wanted criminals, according to the website of the Bangalore City Police.

In 1997, after the murder of Seena, the Karnataka police sought the aid of Interpol to issue a red corner alert against Rai. L. Revanasiddiah, the then Police Commissioner of Bangalore, played a major role in this. Rai's deportation from Dubai on May 29 was the culmination of this effort. (India and the United Arab Emirates signed an extradition treaty in 2000.) Rai was held by the Dubai police in early May on charges of travelling without relevant travel documents. He was handed over to the Interpol in Dubai on May 12. Informed sources said that Rai himself wanted to come back to India since it was getting too hot for him in Dubai, especially after the killing in Mumbai of Sadhu Shetty, a hotelier who was said to have been close to Chhota Rajan. Sadhu Shetty is said to have tipped off Rai on Chhota Rajan's presence in an apartment in Bangkok. This information was allegedly passed on to Chhota Shakeel by Rai. Rai is also said to have fallen out with Sharad Shetty. The latter was reportedly unhappy that Rai, after the murder of Subbaraju, started negotiating directly with the realtor's sons, bypassing his representative. According to informed sources, RAW, which has 'used' Chhota Rajan to get information on Dawood's activities, may also have had a hand in the deportation of Rai and might now want to 'use' Rai.

According to informed sources in the Police Department, Rai has been making contradictory and inconsistent statements. He once said that he had fallen out with Dawood because he was an anti-national and in the same breath denied that he knew Dawood personally. Rai's statements against Dawood are being seen as signs of either bravado or frustration. His alleged statement that the Karnataka police had requested him to help secure Dilip Naik is seen as an attempt to play one group of officers against another.

Another handicap that the police face is that there is not much direct evidence against Rai. Said Rai's advocate Tommy Sebastian: "If the Karnataka government sets up a special court to try (as it has been saying) him (Rai), I will have him out in three months."

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