Interview: It was my bad luck that on 26/11 I was given charge of the control room, says Rakesh Maria

Now 60 and set to retire on January 31 as Director General of Home Guards, the former city police commissioner and ATS chief remains one of Mumbai’s most high profile policemen.

Written by Rashmi Rajput | Updated: January 29, 2017 3:00:59 am
Maria had endeared himself to the people of the city because of his willingness to serve them. Maria had endeared himself to the people of the city because of his willingness to serve them.

As a student, Rakesh Maria read ‘A Marshall For Lawless’ , a novel featuring John Glyde, a gun-slinging law enforcer in a town named Lawless, set in the American wild west. By the time the young Maria turned the last page, he knew he would become a policeman. Now 60 and set to retire on January 31 as Director General of Home Guards, the former city police commissioner and ATS chief remains one of Mumbai’s most high profile policemen.

Excerpts from an interview with RASHMI RAJPUT

You come from a film background, what made you to join the police force?

I was a studious child, a favourite of my principal and teachers, I was made the class monitor and would take my job of maintain decorum in the class very seriously. I grew up reading crime novels and thrillers, they fascinated me. American author Louis L’maour crime fictions were my favourite. But I would say it was it was the book- The Marshall for Lawless which drew me to policing. I identified myself as the Marshall who was assigned the task of restoring law in the town of Lawless. Then of course there was Bollywood. I was awestruck with Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Zanjeer of a no-nonsense cop and pursued by civil services with only one passion of donning the khaki. While appearing for my interview during my civil services exam, I had written ‘IPS’ in all the five options available before the candidate to rank the central services in the order of their preferences. I remember, Retd. Air Chief Marshall P C Lal who was on the interview panel told me, ‘Son you have made a mistake and written IPS in all the five options. I told him that was not a mistake, I would either be a cop or nobody.

Bombay is now Mumbai. The crime scene has witnessed a sea change. What are changes you have seen?

When I joined the force the stress was more on ‘traditional crimes’ like robbery, dacoity, housebreaking. In my initial postings in Akola, Buldhana , Osmanabad we used to concentrate on these traditional crimes. The 80s-90s were dominated by the underworld. During the Khalistan movement terrorism started to become a subject matter of the local police. However 1993- serial blasts was a watershed for us. When the blast took place our initial assessment that it was a handiwork of the underworld. However, I vivid recall while interrogating Dawood Phanse (a landing agent who was in charge of the landing of the RDX at Shrivardhan in Raigad) he was the first to reveal that young boys from Mumbai were imparted weapons training in Dubai by underworld criminal Dawood Ibrahim. Pakistan’s ISI had used Dawood to carry out the blasts in India. Our investigations revealed how the 1993 blast was the handiwork of the ISI with Dawood being used to execute their plans.

The blast had also left the underworld divided on communal lines. You had a Chhota Rajan, a self proclaimed Hindu don who was killing ‘Dawood’s men’ who participated in the blasts and Dawood’s men were trying to eliminate Rajan’s men. Urban terrorism was now a reality and the local police had to evolve and equip itself with the rising challenge. The cracking of the Indian Mujahidden, a home grown terror module in 2008 introduced a new facet of terrorism. The November 2008 attack stunned all of us. It is another watershed in the history of policing. Today there is a constant threat of attacks by lone-wolf who are indoctrinated online.

Staying on the topic on the 1993 blast, what are your views on Yakub Memon and was be arrested from Nepal and not Delhi as claimed by late R&AW chief B Raman?

There is not an iota of doubt that Yakub Memon played an active role in the conspiracy. He had arranged for the tickets for the boys who too training in Dubai. One of the witness had testified before the courts that Memon had carried a bag of explosives containing arms and hand grenade and kept it at a friend’s place for safekeeping. He also motivated and radicalized the youth. While the arrest of Memon was made by CBI and I am not privy to where it was made. I could only say that he was responsible for the killing of 257 people and the courts of found him guilty and awarded him the punishment. When he was executed I was the Commissioner of Mumbai Police. Mumbai was tense and even NSA Ajit Doval had flown to the city to take stock of the law and order. Despite knowing that I might face the wrath from the crowd I decided to lead my men from front and had stationed myself in Mahim to ensure the funeral proceedings go off peacefully.

During those days was there nexus between Bollywood and the underworld and does it still exists?

In the past there was nexus. The dons used to even come to give a clap for the mahurat shots. Being seen with the dons was considered as a status symbol and in those days, anyone who had money irrespective of the source became a producer / director. Today that is not the case. The shady characters aren’t there and with the big corporates and even big international production houses approaching Bollywood, those shady elements of underworld are as good as over.

You are hailed as Sherlock Homes of the Mumbai Police. Where does this expertise of cracking a criminal come from?

I would credit my success to my team. Knowledge is information and for a police officer its his informant network. I was lucky to have some of the best men in my team. I always respected information and never differentiated if it came from a constable or an IPS officer. Detection is my weakness and interrogating an accused is like playing a game of chess. Like when I first saw Maria Susairaj(convicted in the murder of a television executive, Neeraj Gover) I just looked at her and told her- Madam, you are my first suspect. My words left her unsettled. The next day she came to visit me along with her brother. While talking to her, I noticed a bruise mark on her left arm, I called my officer to take her for a medical test and we interrogated her. In few hours she cracked and the case was solved.

While instinct play a big role, I would say its the eyes that give away. An accused always comes prepared. He has an alibi in place but he would never be able to make an eye contact and that’s where you get your first clue.

But any case that you regret not detecting?

I would say the Dr.Narendra Dabholkar murder case. While ATS was never formally given the investigation in the case. We were parallely probing it. My officer, Ravindra Dohiphude even visited the Sanatan Sanstha’s ashram in Panvel and we were on the right track but the Kalina Forensic Science Laboratory report changed the course of the investigation. It opined that the weapon seized from two arms dealers were used in Dabholkar’s murder and that made us change the line of the investigation.

What are your takeaways from the 26/11 attack?

November 2008 is another watershed. In the said case the conspiracy, planning, training everything took place of a foreign soil. We were able to nail that it was a handiwork of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Our investigation has not only been hailed by the Indian press but also by the international media. When Police inspector Ramesh Mahale prepared a 55-pages synopsis in Marathi, I sat down late night translating in English to ensure that there is no error as I knew the world was watching us and there was no room for mistakes. The case ended in conviction and it was a sense of victory for me and my team.

But along with the accolades came the allegations levelled by Vinita Kamate, widow of slain IPS officer Ashok Kamte, who said that you failed to send the reinforcement on time? Your comment?

Unfortunately the yardstick for measuring one’s contribution in the 26/11 attack was if an officer was injured or he died. It was my bad luck that I asked my men to assemble at the crime branch to collect their weapons, the then CP, Hasan Gafoor saw me and ordered me to take charge of the control room. I did whatever was best possible. My only regret is that I wasn’t there. If I could rewind my life, I would go back and try to rescue the three. I understand the emotions of the family members and respect them but I did whatever I could.

There is a conversation which has been recorded on the wireless where late ATS chief Hemant Karkare is heard telling a senior IPS officer that teams from the crime branch and the Quick Response Team (QRT) had arrived at Cama hospital and they were planning to cordon it. On wireless we even received inputs that terrorists were approaching the Crime branch but I diverted the force to the spot and told my men at the control room to be prepared. I think if I would have been killed, I would have been hailed for my efforts.

The Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis recently said that the Commissioner of Police shouldn’t take keen interest in one case. Were you hurt by the comment and do you regret cracking the Sheena Bora case?

Commissioner of Police is not a showpiece. The job mandates to maintain the law and order of the city, prevent , detect and investigate crime. If I wanted to shield Peter I wouldn’t have cracked the case in the first place. I don’t regret detecting the case. I have met Peter only four times during the course of the probe and if I have to rewind my life I would still go the Khar police station and interrogate Peter.

On September 7, a day before I was promoted to DG, State Homeguards, I had interrogated Peter and found discrepancies in his statement. I had discussed those with my team and had given Peter 24-hours to come clean but before I could interrogate him again on September 8 my orders had come. While transfer and promotions are the prerogative of the Government , I felt bad that they imputed motives on me. Contrary to what is said a month before my promotion i had sought a posting as the DG with either Homeguards or the State Security Corporationl as I wanted to take a break from active policing.

What according to you are the strengthen and challenges for the Mumbai Police in the coming days?

The biggest strength of the Mumbai Police is its officers. The Mumbai Crime Branch is an institute that has been built over the years by the officer who cracked cases through their solid informant network. It’s a jewel in the crown of the Mumbai Police. For no reason they say it is second to Scotland Yard. However today more and more importance is given to technical intelligence. While terrorists and organized groups have realized that digital footprints are easy to crack and they are now going back to the old ways, we on the other hand are neglecting the institution of Khabaris or informers. Human intelligence is a slow process but there is no substitute to it. I have always advocated that the tenures in crime branch and ATS shouldn’t be fixed. It takes years to build a good informant network. But before an officer can make use of it, he is shifted out of these agencies. If there is nothing adverse found against an officer and if his integrity he should not be transferred.

Your plans after retirement?

On January 31, my wife is taking me out to dinner. It would be my first dinner as a non-government officer and I am looking forward to it. Of course I plan to publish my book by this year.

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