Controversy

The plot thickens in the case involving Sachin Vaze and the discovery of explosives near Mukesh Ambani’s home in Mumbai

Print edition : April 23, 2021

Sachin Vaze being taken to court on March 14 by officers of the NIA for a hearing in connection with the agency’s investigation into the recovery of explosives from a car parked on Carmichael Road in south Mumbai, near Mukesh Ambani’s house, Antilia, on February 25. Photo: Mitesh Bhuvad/PTI

At the NIA office in Mumbai on March 23, officials of Pune’s Forensic Science Laboratory examining the SUV that contained the explosives. Photo: Mitesh Bhuvad/PTI

Outside Antilia on February 25. Photo: VIVEK BENDRE

On March 25, when officers of the NIA investigating the death of the businessman Mansukh Hiran brought Vaze, accused in the case, to Thane’s Mumbra creek where Hiran’s body was found. Photo: PTI

Details emerging from the investigations into the bomb scare incident near Mukesh Ambani’s residence in Mumbai and Sachin Vaze’s involvement in it seem to indicate that the situation is less about the initial case and more about politicians and their desperation to hold on to power.

Reinstated in June 2020 after a hiatus of 13 years, Sachin Vaze, Assistant Police Inspector and one of Mumbai’s infamous encounter specialists, was perhaps ready to become indispensable to the ruling regime in the State. Unfortunately for Vaze, his return was short-lived, and he was arrested after just 10 months of service in connection with a bomb scare and murder plot. Vaze is not just caught in a quagmire; his case has become a political flashpoint between the ruling Shiv Sena–led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Yet, more significantly, as the case unfolds, revelations are surfacing of a larger plot reportedly involving senior politicians and the police force.

The BJP latched on to the policeman with the murky past and believed that this weak link of the Sena’s would be ideal to help it plot the MVA’s downfall. The Sena was no better. Once Vaze was reinstated, ostensibly because the force required police officers owing to COVID-19 lockdown pressures, he was given every major case in the State to investigate. An observer said: “It seems obvious that they [the MVA] wanted to go after people linked to the opposition and who better to trust than one of theirs.”

Vaze led the investigations into the email case involving the Bollywood actors Hrithik Roshan and Kangana Ranaut, the TRP scam case, the fake follower case in which the rapper Badshah was interrogated, and the abetment to suicide case in which Republic TV editor Arnab Goswami was arrested. When the TRP case, which also involved Goswami, came to light, the BJP accused the MVA of vendetta politics. Goswami, by many accounts, is considered a “BJP man”. Observers said that the policeman’s downfall was essential given his involvement in several high-profile cases that could open a can of worms.

Also read: Sachin Vaze, ‘encounter specialist’ with Mumbai Police, arrested by the NIA for his alleged role in the bomb scare near Mukesh Ambani’s residence

The bomb scare and murder case for which Vaze was arrested is proving to be another example of the age-old nexus between the police and politicians. As investigations dig out more information, the case appears to have gone beyond “a who done it” situation and is becoming less about the initial bomb scare incident and more about politicians and their desperation to hold on to power.

Beginning of the case

The beginning of the case was an SUV parked awkwardly on Mumbai’s Carmichael Road on February 25. The car was jutting out on to the road, and residents complained to the local checkpost police. Police statements said that after they inspected the vehicle, they found 12 gelatin sticks, which are used for small explosions mainly in mining, inside it. The bomb squad said the sticks would not have exploded as they had not been assembled into a bomb. The vehicle was found parked a few hundred metres from the residence of Reliance chairman Mukesh Ambani, and a search of the vehicle yielded a letter threatening him. The police found that the SUV, which had a fake number plate, belonged to a businessman, Mansukh Hiran, who had reported it stolen in February.

Vaze was made lead investigator in the case, but within a day the Anti-Terrorism Squad took over. The opposition demanded that the National Investigation Agency (NIA) step in, and currently both agencies are investigating the case. Interrogating Hiran was part of the process, but on March 4, Hiran’s family reported him missing. A day later his body washed up on the shores of a creek near Thane. The police registered a case of accidental death, but Hiran’s family believed it was murder and said that the hand of Vaze was all over the death. Two days after Hiran’s body was found, his wife, Vimla Hiran, told the media that her husband had a connection to Vaze, who had, in fact, rented the SUV in February. When the NIA began interrogating officers, Vaze was detained and eventually arrested for his purported role in planting the explosives. Vaze was also accused in the Hiran death case.

Vaze is clearly at the centre of the plot but is certainly not its vortex. When he was presented in court, Vaze told the judge he was being made a “scapegoat” and had nothing to do with the bomb scare incident. Among the many questions raised, the most basic one is, Why would Vaze be part of a plan to place a car laden with explosives near Reliance chief Mukesh Ambani’s house? Informed sources in the police said that he had nothing to gain. Yet, as the investigations unfold and information on evidence is released to the media, it appears that the police officer has several shocking links to the incident.

Obviously, one can expect heads to roll when a senior police officer is involved in a crime such as the bomb scare, and so Param Bir Singh, Mumbai’s Police Commissioner, was held responsible for the poor handling of the case and transferred to the Home Guards. On March 22, Param Bir Singh challenged his transfer in the Supreme Court and then wrote to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray accusing State Home Minister Anil Deshmukh of extortion and corruption. In his submission to the court, Param Bir Singh said he was a “scapegoat to divert attention” from the bomb scare case and that his transfer was a political move with oblique and sinister purposes behind it. He said his transfer was based on “conjectures, surmises and pure speculation”. He said he was on the brink of unravelling key discoveries in several cases and that was why he was shunted out as Police Commissioner. He told the court, and he wrote in the letter, that Deshmukh would call officers such as Vaze to his residence and give them targets such as collecting Rs.100 crore a month from commercial establishments.

Also read: Param Bir Singh, former Mumbai Police Commissioner, moves Supreme Court for CBI inquiry against State Home Minister Anil Deshmukh for corruption

On March 24, the Supreme Court threw out his plea and asked him to take it to the Bombay High Court. Param Bir Singh filed a public interest litigation petition in the High Court on March 25. He faced a setback on March 31, when the High Court ticked him off for not filing a first information report when he learned of such malpractice. The judge said he was disinclined to allow an investigation into the corruption charges.

The case took another turn when Devendra Fadnavis, former Chief Minister and senior BJP leader, raked up the case of a letter that Rashmi Shukla, a former Commissioner of State Intelligence, wrote in 2019 to the then Director General of Police, Subodh Jaiswal, alleging massive corruption in police transfers. Fadnavis said Rashmi Shukla’s letter contained purported summaries of conversations between people in which names such as Anil Deshmukh, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray were dropped. The MVA denied the allegations and accused Rashmi Shukla of indulging in phone tapping without the necessary clearances. Fadnavis demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into what he called the “Maharashtra Police transfer racket”.

Uddhav Thackeray directed Sitaram Kunte, his Chief Secretary, to file a report on the letter. Kunte’s report (not yet in the public domain) apparently said Rashmi Shukla had her own agenda and had herself leaked the letter. According to NCP Minister Hasan Mushrif, Rashmi Shukla made offers “worth crores” to independent MLAs to induce them to support the BJP after the 2019 Assembly election. The allegations were backed up by an independent and an NCP MLA. While charges are being thrown back and forth, the fact is this is another example of the deep rot of “arrangements” between the police and politicians.

Meanwhile, evidence emerging from the interrogation of Vaze in NIA custody seems to suggest that he did in fact play a crucial part in the bomb scare. The NIA said in its most recent media briefing that Vaze led investigators to a spot in the Mithi river in the city from where they recovered two hard drives, a vehicle number plate, two digital video recorders and a laptop. They also recovered call records from Vaze’s phone, which gives his location data as well. This critical evidence led investigators to conclude that it was Vaze’s driver who brought the SUV to Carmichael Road, while Vaze followed him in a white Innova. There is CCTV footage showing that Vaze was driving a white Innova the day before the SUV was found abandoned.

Also read: Sachin Vaze, Mumbai police officer arrested in abandoned vehicle case, to remain in NIA custody

Vaze is being investigated in the Hiran death case as well. The NIA said Vaze’s call records show a series of phone calls between him and Hiran in February. During a court hearing, the NIA told the court that Vaze had been issued 30 bullets by his department, but the agency found just five at his residences. They also seized 62 cartridges. As per police protocol, every police officer has to account for the number of bullets assigned to him/her. The NIA questioned the storage of so much ammunition in Vaze’s house.

‘Encounter specialists’

In the late 1990s, Mumbai was grappling with a serious extortion situation created by the underworld. Open violence and killings were common, so the State Home Department and the Mumbai Police created a special squad of officers who would in time be known as “encounter specialists”. The Shiv Sena, in alliance with the BJP, was in power then, and a few officers in the squad, including Vaze, became close to the late Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. Vaze was reportedly part of the Crime Intelligence Unit and the Anti-Extortion Cell. He was said to singularly responsible for breaking the underworld in the Thane belt. However, he was also reportedly responsible for 63 encounter deaths.

Vaze was suspended in 2004 over the custodial death of Khwaja Yunus, a young software engineer whom the police arrested in connection with the Ghatkopar bus bombing incident in Mumbai in 2002. Yunus’ family fought a lengthy legal battle and charged Vaze with torture and murder. In 2004, Vaze was suspended from the Mumbai Police. In 2007, after his appeals to be recalled failed, Vaze quit the police force and in 2008 joined the Shiv Sena. In June 2020, the Shiv Sena and Mumbai Police brought him back to the force saying that there was a shortage of officers and experienced hands were the need of the hour because of the COVID-19 lockdown.

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