Rakesh Harikishan Maria is at home in Mumbai. And, Mumbai is home to this Bandra boy. From the darkest alley to poshest drawing rooms in the city, Maria knows Maximum City like very few other cops do.
Maria became Mumbai Police commissioner on the day after Valentine's Day 2014. In November that year, there was a run-in between Hindu and Muslim youth in Lalbaug. The local Shiv Sena legislator parked himself on the street and directed the mob mobilisation himself. And, it was a Sunday.
Word reached Maria at around 9pm. He turned up at Ground Zero dressed formally, complete with a blue blazer and a lathi. He walked the street from end to end, and, the crowd melted into the alleys. “Maria's presence prevented a full-blown riot,” said an IPS officer.
The legend of Rakesh Maria was built by leading from the front. This very trait has earned him many bouquets, and a few brickbats, too. His current 'promotion' as director general, Home Guards and civil defence, is being seen as a fallout of his leading the investigation into the Sheena Bora murder.
A career in the police was an unusual choice for a Punjabi boy, whose family owned Kala Niketan, a film production house. “Always impeccably dressed”, as a boy, youth and cop, Maria could well have jumped on to the Bollywood bandwagon.
Educated at St Andrew's High School, Bandra, and at St Xavier's College, Mumbai, Maria excelled in tae kwon do and basketball, a game he continues to play. A decade ago, as commissioner, Railway Police, he was part of a team of junior staff which played in a departmental basketball tournament.
He entered the civil services in 1981. Legend is that in his Union Public Service Commission application form he indicated only one choice of service. Usually, applicants choose the administrative and foreign services above the police service.
Even as a young assistant superintendent, Maria filed away names and faces into his elephantine memory bank. An example was given by a former journalist, whose father was an inspector under Maria in Buldhana district. More than a decade later, when Maria was first introduced to the journalist, the cop asked him if he were related to the inspector.
Maria entered Mumbai as deputy commissioner in 1992. The next year shaped the legend of Maria. When the serial blasts shook Mumbai on March 12, 1993, he was deputy commissioner, traffic. On March 13, two young sub-inspectors―Dinesh Kadam and Sukhlal Varpe―found an abandoned Maruti Omni in Worli. Maria rushed there and had the car bomb defused. He traced the van to Tiger Memon's family and led the raid of their Mahim flat on March 14. The raid yielded the keys to a scooter. The next day, a Dadar doctor called the police about a scooter abandoned in front of his clinic. The key matched the scooter, which, too, was wired with explosives.
Guided by M.N. Singh, then joint commissioner, crime, Maria eventually made a watertight case against those behind the 1993 blasts. Maria must be the only IPS officer to have headed the crime branch as deputy commissioner, additional commissioner, joint commissioner and commissioner. The 1993 blast probe also endeared Kadam to Maria. Even in the Sheena Bora murder case, Maria first asked Kadam to take a look. It was during his stint as deputy commissioner, crime, that he began building his formidable network of sources in the underworld and among Mumbai's elite.
Satish Nandgaonkar, Mumbai bureau chief of The Hindu, recalled the media grilled a deputy commissioner, who succeeded Maria, over the slow progress of a case involving the underworld. Nandgaonkar said, “He admitted that he simply could not be as fast as Maria. 'Maria is already a legend,' he said.”
When Chota Rajan was attacked in Bangkok by Dawood Ibrahim's hit men in 2002, Maria was with the Railway Police. But, he was the one who provided crucial tips to the Mumbai Police about how the contract was executed. A lawyer who has worked closely with Maria testified to his methodical interrogation technique and his ability to go on for hours. “He will not forget even slightest details of the accused's confession,” the lawyer said. “In one case [which is still on] I discussed an accused's role with Maria. He stunned me by reciting almost every detail found in the charge sheet. Then, he gave exhaustive details of cases in which the accused had been involved in before. It was an insightful backgrounder about how the accused worked.”
This interrogation ethic provided Maria with crucial leads in the 2003 twin blasts case, where car bombs were set off at the Gateway of India and in Zaveri Bazaar. The accused, a couple, had hired a taxi and had left the bomb in it. The lucky driver had got out at the Gateway of India to urinate, when the bomb went off.
Maria talked to the driver for close to ten hours, gathering details of the couple for the identikit artist. Maria gave the sketch to plainclothes and sent them to comb the Golibar area, from where the accused had hired the taxi. In around four days, the couple was arrested.
“I must say that the twin blasts case was far more trickier than 1993 blasts, in which there was clear involvement of underworld biggies,” said Suresh Walishetty, retired assistant commissioner. “The couple had no criminal past. They were merely planters. So, they had to be questioned thoroughly to find the conspirators. Maria sir sat with me for hours, during the questioning. He would question them himself, when a specific angle needed elaboration. We opened that case within four to five days of the attack.”
Walishetty said many were unhappy with the way in which Maria was kicked upstairs. “There were other occasions in which the government could have transferred him, if it wanted to,” said an officer. “The most recent one being the inept handling of the Malwani hooch tragedy [June, 2015].”
A section of officers strongly feel that Maria places himself above the institutions that nurtured him. There have been situations when Maria wanted junior officers to toe his line and they politely declined. Maria would often distance himself from such officers.
Post 26/11, too, the Maria aura had dimmed when Vinita Kamte, wife of slain assistant commissioner Ashok Kamte, lashed out at him in her book, To The Last Bullet. During the 59-hour attack, commissioner Hasan Gafoor had asked Maria to man the Mumbai Police's main control room. Vinita said that there were discrepancies in the call logs of radio conversations between the control room and her husband's vehicle. In the wake of the controversy, Maria had threatened to resign.
Maria has had his share of terror probes, too. For the 26/11 probe, he was the first to question Ajmal Kasab. As chief of the anti-terrorist squad, he cracked the German Bakery bomb blast case.
Maria's days as an investigator seem to be over. In the office of the Home Guards, in a lane opposite Jehangir Art Gallery, his work will be mostly administrative. Perhaps, the avid reader and lover of ghazals will have more time for his family. His wife, Preeti, runs a handbag business. Elder son Kunal, a US-based lawyer, is getting married in November. Younger son Krish is studying in the UK.
A story in the Mumbai Police is about Maria's diary in which he scribbles clues, analyses of old operations, anecdotes and leads. There might be many who would pay a fortune to take a look at it.