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Nagarwala case: mystery returns after three decades

Last week, Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah directed the concerned ministry to provide one of the witnesses...

Written by Krishnadasrajagopal | New Delhi |
December 21, 2008 12:20:28 am

Last week, Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah directed the concerned ministry to provide one of the witnesses of the Nagarwala case the transcripts of his testimony within the next 10 days.

The voice of Nagarwala has come back to haunt public memory 30 years after it fooled a chief cashier at State Bank of India to part with Rs 60 lakh.

Rustom Suhrab Nagarwala, an ex-army captain and intelligence officer, for reasons still unknown, called the bank’s Parliament Street branch on May 24, 1971. On the other end of the line was chief cashier Ved Prakash Malhotra, who heard the “voice of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi” instructing him to withdraw Rs 60 lakh and hand it over to a “Bangladeshi”. Times were tense, with India on the threshold of a war with Bangladesh. Malhotra did not cross-check before following the voice’s instructions. Alarm bells rang for Malhotra when he learnt of the impersonation at the PM’s residence, where he had gone to get a receipt for the sum withdrawn.

Nagarwala was nabbed for “mimicking the voice” of the PM and the money was recovered on the same day after intelligence officials swung into a manhunt on the advice of the PM’s principal secretary P Haskar.

The incident became a political scandal with Opposition claiming Gandhi’s hand behind the fraud. The case took a mysterious angle with the death of its investigating officer, D K Kashyap, in a car crash. Nagarwala died in prison the same year, reportedly of a heart attack.

Even more thought-provoking was the report of a Commission of Inquiry set up by Janata Party under Justice P Jaganmohan Reddy on June 19, 1977, which said: “There were several lacunae and to supply an answer to these would force me to leave the safe haven of facts which required to be established by evidence and enter the realm of conjectures and speculation.”

Interestingly, one of the four lacunae pointing to the improbability of the popular version of the incident was that Gandhi reportedly did not have an account in that particular bank.

The case which inspired the author Rohinton Mistry in Such a long journey and made into a movie by Sturla Gunnarsson in 1998, is now material for an RTI application for retired senior police official Padam Rosha, one of the witnesses who testified on July 19, 1978. Rosha had sought the disclosure of the transcript of his testimony. But the ministry had refused him, quoting the antiquity of the case.

“The information desired by you is more than 30 years old. In terms of Section 8 (3) of the RTI Act, 2005, there shall be no obligation to give any citizen any information relating to any occurrence, event or matter which has taken place, occurred or happened 20 years before the date on which any request is made,” Under Secretary J S Phaugat replied to Rosha.

Noting that the RTI Act 2005 specifically makes it mandatory for public authorities to part information over 20 years old, Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah directed the ministry on December 16 to provide the transcripts within the next 10 days.

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