An investigation is only as good as the investigator.
In one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s best-known detective stories, ‘The Adventure of Silver Blaze’, Sherlock Holmes inquires into the disappearance of the eponymous race horse and the murder of its trainer. At the crime scene, he finds an abundance of evidence, but he believes all of them to be false leads. So he decides to focus on a missing link. When a Scotland Yard detective asks Holmes whether he wanted to draw attention to any particular clue, Holmes replies: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“But, the dog did nothing in the night-time,” says the detective.
Holmes replies: “That was the curious incident.” In the end, the fact that the dog did not bark helps him unravel the mystery.
We have all been enchanted by the exploits of fictional super-sleuths like Holmes. But, what about real-life investigators in our country—who constantly battle lack of resources, political pressure, media scrutiny and threats? Why is that we rarely hear about their achievements, even though their triumphs are crucial in reinforcing our trust in the system?
In India, the talent for finding missing clues rarely makes a good investigator. He needs to be honest, fearless and self-motivated to take on criminals, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, and perpetrators of terror. He may not be born with all the required skills. Each high-profile case tests his mettle; worse, his triumphs may not bring the expected rewards.
D.R. Karthikeyan, former CBI special director, paid great attention to detail in his investigation into the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. The accused were all convicted, thanks to the solid case he built against them. But, as former Maharashtra governor P.C. Alexander once remarked, constant scrutiny and the hectic task of prosecuting members of a vengeful terrorist group made Karthikeyan “the most harassed man in the whole country”.
Neeraj Kumar, former Delhi Police commissioner, braved direct threats from gangsters like Dawood Ibrahim and Iqbal Mirchi in 2013, when he went after the accused in the case related to the spot-fixing of matches in the Indian Premier League. Ramesh Mahale, chief investigating officer in the cases related to the 26/11 terror attacks, helped send Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab to the gallows. He did not stop there, though. Mahale withstood public pressure in wanting to prove the involvement of Abu Jundal, an Indian citizen and Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist, in the attacks.
In the end, it is convictions that matter. The investigator has to trust himself, his instincts, and his sense of justice to bring the wrongdoers to book. Here, THE WEEK brings you the stories of people who did just that. As India’s ace investigators, they overcame the challenges they faced, and cracked cases that were hugely important. Their stories deserve to be told.
Early in the morning of May 22, 1991, a flurry of phone calls from Delhi greeted D.R. Karthikeyan, then inspector-general of the Central Reserve Police Force in Hyderabad. First on the line was the CRPF director-general. Then came calls from K.P.S. Gill, the legendary director-general of Punjab Police, and Vijay Kiran, CBI director.
The nation had spent the previous night mourning the killing of Rajiv Gandhi. The government needed to bring the perpetrators to book, and it wanted a competent officer to head the investigation. Hence, the calls to Karthikeyan.
The task before him was daunting. Those days, chances of recovering prints from a crime scene were slim. Investigators largely relied on sources and surveillance camera footage. Unlike the Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi assassinations, the killing of Rajiv was a ‘blind case’—no culprit was caught red-handed.
Karthikeyan agreed to head the probe on three conditions—he would avoid the third degree, strictly go by the law, and would not allow political interference. Under him, one special investigation team went to Colombo, while another began analysing materials gathered from the blast site.
The probe kept him busy for 20 hours a day, seven days a week. “Those days, I used to get frequent calls from [Sonia Gandhi’s personal secretary] Vincent George,” he tells THE WEEK. “He would call, sometimes at midnight or even later, to ask about the progress. I used to say, ‘How can I tell you every day about what is happening?’ He told me that the family would not go to sleep till they heard about the developments in the case.”
Months later, Karthikeyan went to Delhi to file an affidavit before the commission headed by Justice J.S. Verma, who was overseeing the case. “Having come to know of my presence in Delhi, Vincent George suggested that I call on Sonia Gandhi,” he says. “I took the permission of the home minister, and went and met her. Throughout the long meeting, she was in tears. It was Priyanka Gandhi who made inquiries on various aspects. At the end of the conversation, Sonia Gandhi rose and politely thanked me for the investigation.”
Karthikeyan fought pressures, threats and sceptics. “After it was revealed that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was responsible for the assassination, my colleagues in the CBI and elsewhere advised me to withdraw from the probe,” he says. “It was then that they told me that none of them had come forward to take up the investigation on the morning after the assassination. They had reasoned that if the case was not solved, they would be condemned as incompetent. And, if the case did get solved, the terrorist group identified [as being responsible for the killing] would kill investigators and their families.”
Karthikeyan, however, dug his heels in. His systematic inquiry won him so much praise that the Interpol once invited him to make a presentation on how he carried out the probe, before a gathering of top police officers and forensics experts at Lyon in France.
The accolades, however, came at a price. “The case took a heavy toll on me and my family,” says Karthikeyan. “I was declared a diabetic, because of the pressure, the constant travel and untimely food. My wife had a heart attack, [from] constantly worrying that I may also be assassinated.”
P.C. Alexander, who was governor of Maharashtra from 1993 to 2002, once asked him: “You must be the most harassed man in the whole country. How do you look so calm and relaxed?” Kaarthikeyan remembers telling him: “It is my philosophy that birth and death are preordained. Till that time comes, nobody can take my life. And, if that day comes, nobody can save me.”
In 1996, Letika Saran began leading the investigation into the biggest corruption case in Tamil Nadu’s history—chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s alleged amassment of wealth disproportionate to her known income. On February 14 last year, based on the findings of the team led by Saran, the Supreme Court upheld a trial court verdict convicting Jayalalithaa, her confidante Sasikala, and Sasikala’s two relatives in the case.
Saran, a 1976-batch IPS officer who retired as director-general of Tamil Nadu Police, was the first investigating officer in the disproportionate assets (DA) case. “Whenever there is a change in government, there are large-scale transfers, and one such transfer was mine in 1996,” recalled Saran, now 65. “I had just been posted as DIG (training). On a petition filed by Subramanian Swamy, who was then in the Janata Party and is now in the BJP, the court ordered an inquiry and named me inquiry officer. I was then sent to the department of vigilance and anti-corruption. Additional superintendent of police Nallama Naidu and a few others were directed to assist me.”
Before she was entrusted with the DA case, Saran had proved herself by solving several high-profile cases. She had led the investigation into the case related to the infamous Premananda sex scandal, which led to the godman’s conviction in 1997. “We [the investigating team] got letters from so many countries warning us that we should leave the godman alone. Had the Crime Branch been a stamp collector, they would have had a complete album of stamps from around the world,” she recalled, laughing.
The Jayalalithaa case was the most politically high-profile one. “She had suffered a bad electoral defeat in 1996, and many people had written her political obituary,” said Saran. “There were so many corruption cases registered against ministers and bureaucrats, and they were occupying the front pages of newspapers. I had to find out the facts, and the facts had to be borne out of evidence.”
She and Naidu decided that they needed a starting point. They scrutinised Swamy’s complaint, which had mentioned bank accounts and properties belonging to Jayalalithaa, and focused on collecting evidence. “We had to prove that the property belonged to Jayalalithaa and persons related to her, and [find out] how they acquired it and the source of the money…. To prove that one little thing belonged to them, a lot of hard work had to be done,” Saran said.
Once she and her team collated all the evidence, they were ready to go to the next stage of the investigation. “I had to give a report to the [sessions] court in two months, and I had to have something solid,” she said.
The inquiry, however, was stayed by the High Court on a petition filed by Jayalalithaa, saying there was a designated agency to investigate cases of corruption, and that it was improper on the part of the sessions court to have appointed an investigating officer. The High Court later directed the state directorate of vigilance and anti-corruption to inquire into the case. The head of the directorate then asked Nallama Naidu to register a case and begin the probe.
Interestingly, Saran has fond memories of Jayalalithaa, whom she recalls as a “very pleasant lady”. “Jayalalithaa returned to power in 2001,” Saran remembered. “She was not welcoming towards me, but she was polite. I had meetings where the CM was present, but she never made me feel uncomfortable. I think that, once she realised that the evidence was not twisted and nothing unfair was done, she was pleasant.”
In 2015, the Supreme Court asked former CBI special director M.L. Sharma to conduct an inquiry into the informal meetings between former CBI director Ranjit Sinha and some of the accused involved in the coal block allocation scam. He submitted a 225-page report to the Supreme Court, which ordered a probe against Sinha. The report stated that Sinha’s decision-making process had been impacted by the politicians he had met at his residence. Based on his findings, the CBI registered a case against Sinha last April under the Prevention of Corruption Act.
The case is of enormous significance as it involves the office of the CBI director, who is not only the administrative and legal head of the premier investigating agency, but also has the final say in all important cases. The government, therefore, tried to insulate the position from political influence by having a fixed tenure of two years for the CBI director. Despite this, the position of the CBI director remains vulnerable. The reason, says Sharma, is that the CBI director, because of his position in the ruling establishment, is wooed by politicians and senior bureaucrats. “He starts thinking he has become part of the establishment. This is a psychological problem. When you think you have become part of governance, then vulnerabilities creep in,” he says. Also, post-retirement job offers tempt many to use their position to dole out favours. “The Central Vigilance Commission chief, which is a less important position, cannot get a government job after retirement; the same should apply for the CBI director,” he says.
But, the kind of cases the CBI deals with are prone to invite political influence and media hype. For instance, the CBI handles politically sensitive cases that directly impact the stability of a government. When top Union ministers are named as accused, they fall directly under the supervision of the CBI chief as ‘category one’ cases. Corruption cases involving the top brass of state governments are handled by the state law enforcement agencies and only come to the CBI when the court directs an investigation. Then, there are cases that concern national security like terror attacks and assassinations.
But, all investigations ought to be objective and scientific, says Sharma. “It is only when the resolve is weak that the case goes for a toss,” he says. Under Sharma’s supervision, the CBI had filed a charge-sheet in the rape case against Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, that saw the conviction of the godman last August. “During the Ram Rahim investigation, I was aware that he had followers whose votes in several constituencies in Punjab and Haryana could swing the election results,” says Sharma. “A string of political leaders kept on the right side of the godman. But, at the time of investigation, the CBI only focused on the investigation.”
Also, there are certain anomalies within the system that slow down the probe or prevent it from reaching its logical conclusion. For example, the CBI files a charge-sheet in 70 per cent of the nearly 1,200 cases it registers each year. These cases are tried by special courts. And, they are headed by additional sessions judge or sessions judge, who are appointed by state governments in concurrence with the High Courts concerned, explains Sharma. So, while the CBI is a federal investigating agency, there is no federal adjudicatory mechanism, like in the US where there are federal judges appointed by the president. Also, the director of prosecution in the CBI is appointed by the Union law ministry, which affects the coordination between the CBI and law officers. Of late, the CBI has been burdened with bank scam cases as well, necessitating diversion of its resources.
Despite these challenges, Sharma says investigators have managed to secure convictions in several important cases, like the Beant Singh assassination case, 1993 Mumbai blasts case and fodder scam case.
Ink the links
The second leg of the trial in the 26/11 terror attacks case was held at the special court in Mumbai in March. Chief investigating officer Ramesh Mahale and his team are trying to prove that Abu Jundal alias Zabiuddin Ansari is the crucial Indian link to the attacks, orchestrated and executed by handlers in Pakistan. A native of Beed in Maharashtra, Jundal was in the control room with Pakistani conspirators during the attacks. In the first phase of the trial, the lone surviving Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab had been tried and sentenced to death by the court. Kasab was hanged in 2012. The same year, Jundal was charge-sheeted on the basis of evidence collected by Mahale.
Only the highly trained mind of an investigator could use Jundal’s Indian identity in his favour. Mahale is confident it will not weaken India’s case against Pakistan. “If Pakistan uses the Indian link against us in its ongoing 26/11 probe, we are not going to hide any facts,” says the retired senior police inspector. “But if they acknowledge Jundal is an Indian, they will also have to acknowledge that he went to Pakistan for training and joined the Lashkar to plot against India.”
The evidence is clear. Apart from his Pakistani national identity card and passport, Jundal’s voice samples in the 26/11 control room, where he was present and talking to terrorists at Nariman House, establishes his role in the attacks. His voice has been identified by his friend. “We have located his childhood friends in Beed, who remember Jundal and will confirm that he is an Indian. They went to school and college together, and one of them, who is also his relative, is a government servant today,” says Mahale.
Mahale comes across as a calm cop, but as a sub-inspector, he recalls, he was quite aggressive. Sometimes, he would get aggressive with the accused when they evaded questions. One day, his senior lady officer gave him a piece of advice: a good investigator does not show aggression while dealing with the accused; hit him with your pen instead. And, he has stuck to the advice, filing flawless charge-sheets and keeping his cool around the accused. In fact, soon after probe began into the 26/11 attacks, he gifted Kasab two sets of new clothes for Eid, as he was wearing the same clothes he was arrested in. The next year around Eid, Kasab asked Mahale, “This time, no gift?” Mahale got him another set of clothes, which Kasab showed the judge during the trial. The Supreme Court called the 26/11 probe a “good investigation”. Mahale and his team filed a 11,350-page charge-sheet in 90 days, during which they did not avail any leaves.
Investigations always excited Mahale. He says investigators must know how to deal with hostile witnesses and must always have an eye for detail. Also, they should regularly update themselves with developments in the Supreme Court and High Courts and observe the legal processes. “An investigator’s mind is not a hard disk; he must do his homework and revision properly each time,” he says.
Mahale, who took voluntary retirement after 30 years of service, now spends his time delivering lectures to police officers during their training courses and on other platforms. “If I tell them about 1947, that will not help. But if I tell them about the investigative techniques that have been used in 2017-2018, it would be helpful,” he says. Mahale is also writing a book on the attacks, which is expected to be the most authentic first-person account of an investigator’s experience dealing with Kasab, the person, terrorist and convict.
But, what drew him to the khaki? As a child, Mahale would visit his grandfather’s hotel, which stood opposite to Arthur Road Jail, every weekend. “I used to see policemen coming there with criminals and going out every day,” he recalls. “It was fascinating, and, somewhere, it left an imprint on my mind.”
A mere ‘hello’ on the phone is enough for him to recognise Dawood Ibrahim’s voice. Neeraj Kumar, former Delhi top cop, had many a conversation with India’s most wanted gangster. Kumar had headed the special task force investigating the 1993 Mumbai blasts case. “These conversations were in connection with his proposal to surrender before Indian authorities,” he says. “Twenty years later, Dawood’s name cropped up in the IPL 6 spot-fixing case, at the fag end of my tenure as Delhi police commissioner. Dawood asked me why I was still after him when I was on the verge of retirement. He hung up without waiting for my reply.”
But, more than gangsters, Kumar is wary of white-collar criminals and politicians. “In the match fixing case, a politician called me to his office and asked why I had summoned a certain so-and-so,” says Kumar, who now heads the anti-corruption and security unit of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. “In the 1993 Mumbai blasts case, I was asked by a top bureaucrat at a politician’s behest, why I was pursuing a certain person who was also a white-collar criminal. I call such politicians gangsters in khadi.”
Kumar adds that a gangster has more respect for law enforcement agencies and police officers. White-collar criminals and economic offenders take it as a personal affront when the law catches up with them. Also, they have the money power to take investigators to courts. “They do it till the case is sent to basta khamosh [cold storage],” he says. Many from Kumar’s team have suffered in such cases, and he, too, continues to pay the price. “When I was in the CBI, I arrested a revenue official. Today, I have five malicious cases pending in the court against me, and every 15-20 days they come up for hearing,” he says. “Surprisingly, [despite] the charge-sheet we had filed against the tax official, he managed to get the cases quashed without even a hearing.”
Then, of course, there are the incessant threats. In the 1990s, Kumar would get calls from Dawood’s close aide Iqbal Mirchi alias Iqbal Memon. “I was trying for his extradition, and he would call to ask why I was after him,” he says. He also received a note when he was in London once. He was staying at St James’ Court hotel, and the receptionist gave him an envelope with a note inside. “It ominously read, ‘Don’t tell me you don’t know me. We are aware you are in London and staying at the hotel.’ And, the note was signed by Iqbal Mirchi’s brother-in-law, which I got to know later. I shared the note with the Scotland Yard, and they managed to trace the man and pick him up for questioning,” he recalls.
Fearlessness apart, an ace investigator should have common sense coupled with perseverance in abundance. These traits helped Kumar nab many gangsters who had fled abroad. In 1995, he played a critical role in getting gangster Babloo Srivastava extradited. Babloo had been nabbed at Singapore airport on his arrival from Dubai. When extradition proceedings commenced in Singapore, he claimed he was not an Indian, but a Nepalese national. Home minister of Nepal Mirza Dilshad Beg travelled to Singapore to support his claim. But, Kumar had got hold of Babloo’s Indian passport, left behind by him at a girlfriend’s flat in Agra. He quietly obtained the application form that Babloo had filled up at the Lucknow passport office, and that had his thumb impression. Thus, the CBI succeeded in proving that Babloo was indeed an Indian, and he was extradited to India.
“I believe there is no such thing as a blind case,” says Kumar. “There is always a clue that needs to be picked up.”
Measure for measure
An officer of the Delhi Police special cell, Sanjeev Kumar Yadav is an eight-time recipient of the President’s Police Medal for Gallantry. His conviction rate in terror-related cases is one of the highest in the country. Judgments have been delivered in 32 of 44 cases he has investigated, while 12 are pending trial. Of the 32 cases, 22 have resulted in convictions—which means Yadav has a conviction rate of 69 per cent.
Yadav has led more than 70 encounters, and handled cases related to the blasts in Delhi in 2005 and 2008, the attack on Jama Masjid in Old Delhi in 2010, and the 2012 attacks on Israeli diplomats. One could say that he has nailed terrorists both by bullets and by the book.
Yadav prefers to spend weekends at Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range in Delhi. “Shooting, like investigation, involves psycho-muscular coordination,” he says. “A rock-steady grip is essential. Even a slight shivering of the hand could result in [you] completely missing the target.”
Yadav rarely misses his targets. He helped break the backbone of Indian Mujahideen, the homegrown jihadi outfit, which, between 2005 and 2008, grew so audacious that its members began sending emails to the media warning of attacks and daring the authorities to prevent them.
The Delhi Police initially did not take the mails seriously—after all, no terror outfit had ever attempted such a modus operandi. But, when the officers checked the timing of the mails and the attacks, they sensed a pattern. They found that the conspirators were hacking into Wi-Fi networks, sending emails and then deleting the accounts. Yadav and his colleagues began carrying out satellite searches and surveillance, and then screened and analysed data to zero in on suspects.
The job of an investigator of terror cases is tough, says Yadav. He cites the example of nabbing Mansoor Peerbhoy, the alleged head of the IM’s media wing. “Mansoor was an engineer working with Yahoo on a Rs 19 lakh package,” says Yadav. “The IM made him do a course in hacking in Hyderabad, after which he travelled across Mumbai to locate spots where unsecured Wi-Fi networks were available. He did not know when the blasts would occur. On the morning of July 26, when the terror attack was supposed to happen in Gujarat, [IM leaders] Iqbal and Riyaz Bhatkal gave him a USB flash drive and a mailing list, and asked him to send the emails at a particular time. Peerbhoy then went to Mumbai… and hacked into an unsecured network and sent emails. Minutes later, the blasts happened.”
Some of the mails were sent from Delhi as well. Investigators had to do intense technical analyses to find out that there were individuals who were in touch with those who executed the attacks. “When we analysed the technical evidence, we deciphered the meaning of their conversations over the phone,” said Yadav. “When they said ‘too much traffic in Karol Bagh’, it meant there were too many people around and that they could not plant the bomb there.”
The crackdown on terrorists worked, but it also burdened the investigators with other concerns. Once they had finished their job, the monitoring by human rights groups, courts and various departments began. “I was overburdened, as I used to receive more than 20 summons each day,” says Yadav. “I decided to get transferred out of the special cell.”
In September 2011, a blast at the Delhi High Court killed 17 people and injured 76. “P. Chidambaram, then Union home minister, called me back to the special cell,” says Yadav. “Soon, the commissioner, too, called me. I was reluctant, but I could not refuse.”
Yadav formed a team, which busted a remnant module of the IM months after the attack. Since then, for him, there has been no getting away from the special cell.
Former CBI director and chairman of SIT-Gulbarga massacre case
In 2016, the special sessions court in Ahmedabad convicted 24 people and pronounced 36 others innocent in the Gulbarga massacre case. The case relates to the cold blooded killing of 69 persons, including Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, on February 28, 2002, in the heart of Ahmedabad. It took 14 years for convictions to take place in the case which is just one among several of the Godhra massacre cases.
Speaking to THE WEEK, R.K. Raghavan, former CBI director and chairman of SIT constituted by the Supreme Court to probe these cases describes criminal investigations as “arduous, something akin to rock climbing”.
How did you manage to get convictions in such a sensitive case?
Convictions in such complex cases are normally the product of investigating skill, hard work and honesty.
What hurdles did you face during the probe?
I can only recall the attempt to malign us in the SIT by elements who were not reconciled to our objectivity and a dedicated approach to ferreting out the truth.
What was your first thought when you took up the cases?
My first thought was about the enormity of the task and my unfamiliarity with the locale. The thought vanished quickly because of the quality of my investigators and their respect for me despite the fact that I was a total outsider to Gujarat.
You investigated another case—Priyadarshini Mattu case. What is your advice to young police officers?
This was a case transferred to the CBI from Delhi Police. There is a need for seamless transfer from one agency to another. This calls for not only investigating skill but extreme care as well. There is absolutely no scope for any casualness or slipshod work.
What are the tools for a good investigation?
Fundamentally, it is the will to work hard and look for evidence in the most unusual of places. Perseverance is the key, buttressed by a good knowledge of the law and a resolve to adhere to the truth. Padding evidence to somehow produce result is dangerous. It can backfire. The courage to tell the court that there is no evidence to fasten on an innocent accused is paramount to professional investigation. Your accountability is to the law and no one else.
Is it possible for investigations in sensitive and high-profile cases to be bereft of any pressure or threat?
It is possible provided you have a reputation for fearlessness and integrity. Criminal investigation is arduous—it is akin to rock climbing. Both skill and valour are required. In India, many police officers have not measured up to the challenge. They have shown themselves ready to yield to extraneous pressure when an ounce of resistance would be enough to ward off predators wanting to pull criminals out of well deserved trouble.