Explosives, extortion, and a trigger-happy cop… The story so far has had all the elements of a Bollywood pot-boiler. Maharashtra’s political theater is once again buzzing with high drama, but how did we get here? Let’s take a brief look at history to figure out what lies ahead for the Maharashtra state government.
Rise, fall and resurrection of an “Urban Cowboy”
It all began in the 90s when extra-judicial killings dubbed “encounters” were the de rigueur as the Mumbai Police attempted to take down the Mumbai underworld.
In the late 90s Parambir Singh was a Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) in the Mumbai Crime Branch. Over the years as the police went about their ambitious plan to dismantle the stranglehold the mafia had over the city, the violence was virtually legitimised with “encounter specialist” cops being touted as heroes. Daya Nayak, Pradeep Sharma and Sachin Vaze were among those who gained notoriety during this period.
A January 2003 article in the Time Magazine called the encounter specialists “Urban Cowboys”.
It is noteworthy that Vaze was suspended along with 14 other policemen following accusations of having a hand in the alleged disappearance of Khawaja Yunus, a young man who was allegedly killed in police custody in 2002 after being falsely implicated in the Ghatkopar blasts. Vaze had claimed that Yunus had escaped when the vehicle transporting him fell into a ditch.
However, Vaze was reinstated in June last year after a review committee headed by Singh, who had by then become the Mumbai Police Commissioner, approved the move.
Shortly after that Vaze was posted to the Crime Branch and was part of investigations in many high-profile cases including the TRP scam, Anvay Nayak suicide case where Arnab Goswami has been accused of abetment.
Interestingly, Khwaja Yunus’s mother Asiya Begum has challenged Vaze’s reinstatement and the case comes up for hearing next on March 31.
Ambani security scare
On February 25, 2021, an explosives laden vehicle was found in the vicinity of Antilia, the residence of billionaire industrialist Mukesh Ambani who is perceived to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A Scorpio containing 20 gelatin sticks was recovered from Carmichael Road after one of Ambani’s security officers informed the police about noticing an abandoned vehicle. The Bomb Squad and the Crime Branch’s Crime Intelligence Unit (CIU), of which Sachin Vaze was a part, reached the spot.
The owner of the vehicle Hiren Mansukh had reported it stolen after he was forced to leave it near the Airoli Mulund bridge on the night of February 17 when the vehicle’s steering wheel got jammed. Mansukh, a Thane-based businessman, had even registered a police complaint about the stolen vehicle.
However, on March 4, Mansukh went missing. On March 5, Leader of the Opposition Devendra Fadnavis alleged a link between Vaze and Mansukh. On the same day, Mansukh’s body was found in a creek near Mumbra. Shortly after this his widow alleged that Vaze was involved in Mansukh’s death. The state Home Department then handed over the case of Mansukh’s death and the recovery of the explosives-laden Scorpio to the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS).
On March 8, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over investigations into the original case involving the recovery of the Scorpio, though the Hiren Mansukh death case remained with the ATS.
Vaze had till then been leading investigations in the Ambani security scare case, but no breakthrough had been made. On March 13, following nearly ten hours of interrogation, Vaze was taken into custody by the NIA.
Vaze was arrested under IPC sections 286 (negligent conduct with respect to explosive substance) 465 (forgery), 473 (making or possessing counterfeit seal with intent to commit forgery), 506(2) (criminal intimidation), 120-B (criminal conspiracy) and also provisions of the Explosive Substances Act. A special NIA court then remanded Vaze to NIA custody till March 25.
Meanwhile, Vaze was suspended yet again on March 15, but in a shocking twist Mumbai Police Commissioner Parambir Singh was also shunted out after being posted as DG Homeguards. Hemant Nagrale took over as Police Commissioner. The soft-spoken Nagrale is known to keep a low profile and has previously served as DGP (Technical and Legal). The reason for Singh’s sudden transfer was given as serious lapses in investigation.
Parambir Singh’s shocking revelations
But what has now set the cat among the pigeons is a letter that Singh wrote to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray claiming that he was being made a scapegoat to divert attention from a bigger problem, that of corruption. Singh alleged that Home Minister Anil Deshmukh had instructed police officers to collect bribes worth at least Rs 100 crores a month from bars. The text of the letter has been shared widely in the media.
Singh says in his letter dated March 20, 2021, “Shri Sachin Vaze who was heading the Crime Intelligence Unit of the Crime Branch of the Mumbai Police was called by Shri Anil Deshmukh, Hon’ble Home Minister, Maharashtra to his official residence Dyaneshwar several times in last few months and repeatedly instructed to assist in collection of funds for the Hon’ble Home Minister. In and around mid-February and thereafter, the Hon’ble Home Minister had called Shri Vaze to his official residence. At that time, one or two staff members of the Hon’ble Home Minister including his Personal Secretary, Mr. Palande, were also present. The Hon’ble Home Minister expressed to Shri Vaze that he had a target to accumulate Rs. 100 crores a month. For achieving the aforesaid target, the Hon’ble Home Minister told Shri Vaze that there are about 1,750 bars, restaurants and other establishments in Mumbai and if a sum of Rs. 2-3 lakhs each was collected from each of 3 them, a monthly collection of Rs. 40-50 crores was achievable. The Hon’ble Home Minister added that the rest of the collection could be made from other sources.”
He further says that Vaze immediately informed him about this and a few days later two other policemen: Sanjay Patil, ACP, Social Service Branch, and DCP Bhujbal had a similar meeting with Deshmukh.
Deshmukh refutes claims, but alliance under strain
Shortly after Singh made the shocking allegations, there have been demands for Anil Deshmukh’s ouster as Home Minister. Deshmukh predictably denied all claims and said, “The former Commissioner of Police, Parambir Singh has made false allegations in order to save himself as the involvement of Sachin Waze in Mukesh Ambani & Mansukh Hiren’s case is becoming clearer from the investigation carried out so far & threads are leading to Mr. Singh as well.”
On March 20, Deshmukh released the following press statement calling Singh’s allegations “false and baseless” and saying that he was going to file a defamation case against Singh.
— ANIL DESHMUKH (@AnilDeshmukhNCP) March 21, 2021
In a video statement released today, on March 22, Deshmukh presented his timeline of events to prove that the allegations against him were false. “I was admitted to Nagpur’s Alexis Hospital between February 5 and 15 as I was suffering from Covid. When I was discharged there were several journalists waiting to get my quotes at the gate, but I was feeling weak and went and sat in my car without talking to them. Then I was in home quarantine till February 27 and on February 28 I stepped out of my home for the first time and went to Sahyadri Guest House.”
— ANIL DESHMUKH (@AnilDeshmukhNCP) March 22, 2021
Meanwhile, Parambir Singh has moved Supreme Court demanding a CBI inquiry against Deshmukh. The Hindustan Times reports that Singh’s writ petition accuses Deshmukh of interfering in various investigations. Singh has sought an “unbiased, uninfluenced, impartial and fair investigation” into the allegedly “corrupt malpractices” of Deshmukh. He once again claimed that his transfer was “for reasons smeared with malice”.
But the bigger question is, given how Deshmukh has become a political hot potato, will the Shiv Sena-Congress-NCP alliance jettison him in a bid to survive this controversy or stand by him?