An ace in the maze

  • Top cop, toppled
    Top cop, toppled: Rakesh Maria's policing skills won him many bouquets, but the BJP government in Maharashtra always considered him the man of the Congress-NCP government | Getty Images
  • New man in charge
    New man in charge: Ahmad Javed was chosen as the new Mumbai Police commissioner because of his seniority, and for the fact that he was sidelined by the previous government.
  • Not on his watch
    Not on his watch: Fadnavis was reportedly miffed with Maria for giving priority to the Sheena Bora murder case | PTI

Just when his team got a breakthrough in the Sheena Bora murder case, Mumbai police commissioner Rakesh Maria was shunted out, with promotion. What earned him the velvet boot?

  • The tip-off that kickstarted the investigation came to Maria. He chose a team comprising his three most trusted officers to investigate the case.

  • “The officers investigating the case wore their loyalty to Maria on their sleeves," said an IPS officer. "If the entire team has been transferred, the investigation must have suffered.”

Late in the evening of September 7, a team of forensic auditors, chartered accountants and officers of the Economic Offences Wing met Rakesh Maria, the Mumbai Police commissioner, who was leading the investigation into the sensational Sheena Bora murder case. He had one message for them: Go all out and probe the investments of Indrani Mukerjea, Sheena’s mother and the prime suspect in the case, and her husband, Peter Mukerjea.

Hours ago, Maria’s team of investigators had got a major breakthrough in the case. Forensic tests confirmed that DNA samples from the skeletal remains of a body exhumed in a village near Pen in Raigad district conclusively proved that the body was Sheena’s and that she was Indrani’s child. By bringing in EOW sleuths to investigate the complex financial dealings, which were possibly linked to the crime, Maria was broadening the scope of the murder case. “The team had been asked to focus on various companies, investments and properties not just in India, but also in the UK, Spain and other parts of the world,” he told reporters that night.

The following morning, Maria got the boot, albeit a velvet one. He was promoted as director-general (as commissioner, he was additional director-general) and appointed head of the Home Guards―a ceremonial, dumping ground of a post for one of the finest investigators in Maharashtra Police. The transfer was part of a swap: Ahmad Javed, a 1980-batch officer serving as the Home Guards DG, was brought in to replace Maria. It was Javed whom Maria, a 1981-batch officer, had superseded when he took over as commissioner in February last year.

Last month, before the Sheena Bora murder scandal broke, the Maharashtra government sounded out Maria about a promotion. He reportedly asked the government that he be given a non-executive post, so that he could spend more time with his family. Little did the ace officer know that the promotion would be so soon and so unceremonious. The office of the Home Guards director-general is near the Jehangir Art Gallery: it was like the government telling Maria to relax, and take the rest of his career easy.

It seems Maria has taken the advice to heart. For the first time in months, he left his office early, reportedly telling a trusted orderly that he could finally surprise his wife by being home before the sun sets.

As his transfer sparked off intense speculation about the timing and motive of the government’s decision, the powers that be soon realised that they had shot themselves in the foot. Public outcry forced the government to bring Maria back to supervise the team probing the Sheena Bora case. Maria himself is not keen on taking up the role again, saying that if he does so, it would create two power centres―him and Javed―in the Mumbai Police hierarchy.

The government maintains that Maria's transfer was a routine, administrative matter. But that certainly does not seem to be the case. In 2004, the Maharashtra government had filed an affidavit in the High Court saying the post of Mumbai Police commissioner was available only to officers of the rank of additional director-general, and not to full DGs. To appoint Javed as commissioner, the government had to issue a notification elevating the post to the rank of director-general.

According to K.P. Bakshi, additional chief secretary (home), Maria’s promotion and transfer were carried out as per section 22 (N) (II) of the Maharashtra Police Act, which says that “in exceptional cases, in public interest, and on account of administrative exigencies, the competent authority shall make mid-term transfers”.

The “administrative exigency”, says the government, is that Javed needed time to settle in before the start of the festival season. But the reasoning does not hold water. Javed has served in Mumbai as deputy commissioner and joint commissioner (law and order). He is an experienced hand who has in-depth knowledge of all police stations in the city. What remains to be seen is whether Javed’s seemingly irregular appointment would be challenged in court.

D. Sivanandhan, former Mumbai Police commissioner and director-general of Maharashtra Police, said Maria's transfer, which came 22 days before he was due for promotion, was surprising. “Javed is due to retire in January next year,” he said. “He will get just four months. What can anyone do in such a short stint?”

Questions have already been raised about why Maria was shunted out of the investigation into the Sheena Bora case. Theories are abound: that it happened because he was planning to take the inquiry beyond the homicide, and because of the strong perception that he, as Mumbai Police commissioner, was taking inordinate interest in a murder investigation. Also, did his team err in the handling of the investigation, prompting the state government to transfer not just Maria, but also his team of trusted officers? Interestingly, each of these theories could have a grain of truth in them.

COVER STORY Graphics: N.V. Jose

A few days before Maria was transferred, a senior Union home ministry official wondered why the Mumbai Police commissioner was personally questioning the accused in the case. “Why is he taking so much interest? We can understand that the case is sensational. But an officer of his stature and rank should let the juniors handle the probe. We also wonder why the Crime Branch is not in the picture,” the official told THE WEEK.

But then, it is known that once Maria takes up a case, he likes to immerse himself in the investigation―from the beginning to the end. As commissioner, he had total control of the inquiry into the Sheena Bora case from day one. The tip-off from Meerut that kickstarted the investigation, it is reliably learnt, came to him. He chose a team comprising his three most trusted officers―assistant commissioner of police Sanjay Kadam and inspectors Dinesh Kadam and Nitin Alaknoore―to investigate the case.

Sources close to Maria say he had to intervene because Indrani had refused to answer the queries of investigators. Maria has built a reputation as someone who could crack even the toughest of suspects. In fact, his quizzing capabilities are the stuff of lore among cops. Officers who have worked with him talk admiringly of how he employs his physical stature, commanding presence, piercing eyes and soft voice while questioning suspects. His elephantine memory, talent for cross-questioning and penetrating gaze have helped crack suspects like actor Sanjay Dutt in 1993 Mumbai serial blasts case and terrorist Ajmal Kasab in the 26/11 attacks case.

Maria sympathisers said investigators were struggling to make Indrani talk during questioning. Initial queries met either stony silence or outbursts in impeccable English. And the inspectors in the team were clearly not comfortable with English. When Maria came to know about the language barrier, he decided to step in.

He first questioned Indrani on August 29, four days after she was arrested. Sources said Maria confronted her in the presence of her ex-husband Sanjeev Khanna and former driver Shyam Rai, both of whom, the police said, had admitted to their role in the murder. But a stubborn Indrani kept saying that Sheena was in the US. He then told her that the police had recovered Sheena’s passport. Sources say that it was then, for the first time, that Indrani lost her composure.

Supporters of Maria say tactics like these have made him an ace investigator. “Maria is among the best investigators in the Maharashtra Police,” said M.N. Singh, former Mumbai Police commissioner. “Crime investigation is his passion and he likes to be at the centre of action. That explains the questioning that he is doing. I have seen him do this in almost every major case he has handled―including the 1993 blasts case, when I was his immediate superior.”

Maria’s abilities as an investigator may be reason enough to justify his interest in such a convoluted murder case. So, was his transfer prompted by his decision to widen the scope of the investigation by including the crucial financial transactions the Mukerjeas were involved in?

It was Maria who asked EOW officers to probe the shady financial dealings of the Mukerjeas. The Serious Fraud Investigation Office, under the Union ministry of corporate affairs, had investigated the sale of the INX bouquet of channels, in which the Mukerjeas had stake,  in 2013. The SFIO report, of which THE WEEK has a copy, has some damning revelations that point to the role of a major corporate house. The SFIO had recommended action under various sections of law, but it was never initiated. Maria, sources said, wanted to go the root of how the channels were funded and how they were sold by the Mukerjeas. He was also keen to investigate how the duo had allegedly pocketed a few hundred crores from the deal, and what they did with the money.

Sources told THE WEEK that the tip-off to Maria may have come from a party who had suffered losses in the deal and was well aware of Indrani's chequered past. Nawab Malik, senior leader of the opposition Nationalist Congress Party, told THE WEEK that Maria was shunted out of the investigation because he was planning to probe the money trail. “A number of Singapore-based companies had invested in channels floated by the Mukerjeas,” he said. “I firmly believe that a few top industrial houses were involved. The government transferred Maria because it was worried that the investigation might lead to serious and damaging revelations. Clearly, the reason of the transfer was purely political.”

Maria’s active role in the investigation also gave the impression that he was giving undue importance to the case. High-profile murder cases normally go to the Crime Branch, but in this case, it was kept out of the loop. There were rumours that Maria had links to Peter Mukerjea. In fact, Satyapal Singh, BJP MP and former Mumbai Police commissioner, told the media that Maria knew Peter. Maria, however, denied the allegation, saying he met the Mukerjeas for the first time only after Indrani’s arrest.

Several officers, retired and serving, told THE WEEK that they found it surprising that Maria was taking so much interest in a murder probe. “Why did he not do it at the time of [Narendra] Dabholkar's murder, when he was chief of the Anti-Terrorism Squad? The Congress-NCP government, at that time, had asked the ATS to assist in the inquiry into the Dabholkar murder case,” said an officer who retired after more than three decades of service in policing and intelligence gathering.

The officer said he found it surprising that someone like Shyam Rai, who was booked in an arms act case, was questioned so well by the Mumbai Police that he spilled the beans on the Sheena Bora murder. “Just consider the number of cases registered by the police every year for illegal possession of arms,” said the officer. “Does the police really take so much interest in arms act cases? It is a proven fact that Maria is an excellent investigator. But then, police commissioners do not busy themselves with day-to-day progress of a murder investigation.”

So, did Maria and his team err in the way they carried out the investigation? And, why was the case not handed over to the Crime Branch? The answer may lie with how Maria brought Inspector Dinesh Kadam, one of his loyalists who was deputed to the Maharashtra ATS, back to the Mumbai Police. Maria wanted Kadam to be back in Mumbai by May this year. But the ATS did not relieve the inspector till June, as it was facing a severe crunch of quality manpower in terms of experienced investigators. Had he been relieved in May, Kadam would have been posted with the Crime Branch, as per Maria’s plans.

But, it did not happen. When he returned to the Mumbai Police in June, Kadam was put in charge of the roving squad in the western region. After the tip-off about the murder came, Kadam was one of the first to be asked by Maria to investigate the case. It was Kadam who made Shyam Rai spill the beans on the alleged murder by Indrani.

41DevenBharti Maria and Atulchandra Kulkarni, who heads the Crime Branch, lack a certain rapport. So Maria could have relied more on Joint Commissioner Deven Bharti (in pic), who is comfortable with his style of working | PTI

To the surprise of many police officers, the entire team of investigators probing the case has been transferred out with Maria. “The officers investigating the case wore their loyalty to Maria on their sleeves,” said an IPS officer. “They went with him wherever he went. He did not discourage it either. It was as if they were his personal entourage. It does not happen in any uniformed force. So, if the entire team has been transferred, it could mean that the investigation must have suffered.”

The Crime Branch was clearly not happy at being sidelined. Last week, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis reportedly asked Bakshi, the additional chief secretary, to call for a detailed report on the investigation from the Crime Branch. When Bakshi asked for a report, Crime Branch officers conveyed that they were not part of the investigation.

The Maria camp hinted that the Crime Branch would not have been able to handle such a complex case. Most of the elite officers had already been moved out of the Crime Branch and posted at police stations, as previous commissioners felt that the branch had become a fiefdom. “The Crime Branch is not what it used to be for the past few years,” said one source.

Add to this the equation between Maria and Joint Commissioner Atulchandra Kulkarni, who heads the branch. The relations between the two are cordial, but it lacks a certain rapport. Maria likes his subordinates to toe his line. Kulkarni, who returned to the Maharashtra Police in 2013 after more than a decade in the Intelligence Bureau, is known as a man of independent thinking. So Maria, it is learnt, could have relied more on Deven Bharti, joint commissioner (law and order), who had served under Maria and is comfortable with his style of working.

The BJP's power elite always considered Maria as someone close to the previous government, particularly to the Nationalist Congress Party. The late R.R. Patil was an admirer of Maria's policing skills. As home minister in the NCP-Congress government, he had ensured Maria’s appointment as Mumbai Police commissioner.

On the other hand, Fadnavis, the current chief minister, is not so enamoured of Maria. It is not that Fadnavis has doubts about Maria's competence. In fact, he has spoken highly about it. According to a BJP leader, Fadnavis appreciated the fact that Maria was personally on the streets of Mumbai to ensure that the huge crowd who had gathered for the funeral procession Yakub Memon, who was recently hanged for his involvement in the 1993 serial blasts case, did not cause trouble. “It was this [Sheena Bora] case, and the feedback that the CM received about Maria being overzealous, that upset Fadnavis,” said the leader.

In June, Fadnavis had called for an explanation from Maria when photos of the commissioner meeting Lalit Modi in London had surfaced. Maria wrote to the CM that he had met Modi at the insistence of the latter’s lawyer, and that he had taken permission from Patil, then home minister. It appeared that a truce of sorts had been called when Fadnavis accepted the explanation. But it was clear that Maria would not continue in Mumbai beyond September 30, the day when two directors-general of police, Sanjeev Dayal and Arup Patnaik, were due to retire, necessitating Maria’s promotion.

On September 5, Fadnavis told a select group of journalists that he was satisfied with the investigation into the Sheena Bora case. He also added a caveat: no case should be treated as special, as all cases were of equal importance. The obvious reference was to Maria leading the investigation from the front. What also did not go down well with Fadnavis was the fact that Maria, who had not given a single interview since he took over as commissioner, was holding almost daily briefings for the media.

His briefing on the evening of September 7 proved to be the last straw. The process to find a successor to Maria was put in motion. Three officers―Javed, S.C. Mathur, K.K. Pathak―were shortlisted, after D.D. Padsalgikar, currently additional director of IB and Fadnavis’s choice for the post, conveyed that he wished to continue in Delhi.

Javed was finally chosen because of his seniority, and for the fact that he was sidelined by the Congress-NCP government. By appointing him, the BJP government also hoped to sent out a message that it was not averse to capable Muslim officers who had excellent track records. Fadnavis, who also holds the home portfolio, signed Maria's transfer order on his way to the airport as he took off for a five-day visit to Japan.

What the government clearly did not expect was the outburst of support for Maria. Retired officers with formidable reputations, like Julio Ribeiro and Arvind Inamdar, expressed shock at the way Maria had been shunted out.

BJP leaders admit that the transfer episode has done much damage to the government's image. “What was the harm in letting Maria continue for 22 more days?” asked a senior party leader. “He had told the government that he would file the charge-sheet by September 30. So the government should have waited three more weeks, and the court would have decided whether Maria had done a good job. Why invite controversy when he had just 22 days left?”

With Maria’s transfer and the subsequent damage control measures, the government has ended up having egg on its face. On September 8, Bakshi issued a terse statement saying Maria would continue to supervise the investigation into the Sheena Bora case. Maria said he was not keen on it, citing procedural and protocol issues. The government then began working on giving him statutory powers for investigating the case. As this report goes to print, Maria’s role in the investigation still remains uncertain.

“Once you take such a decision, it is best not to think about the consequences. The government should have remained firm and let Javed complete whatever was left of the investigation,” rued a BJP leader. “Surely, our crisis managers did not think through the steps. It is, perhaps, the biggest goof-up by the CM's home department.”

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