Excerpts- Part 2
Published by Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd, New Delhi
The One That Got Away -The Panvel Gold Case
I N 1991, the Government of India under P. V. Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister and Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister realised that the Indian policy regarding gold imports needed a relook. And once they had a relook at the situation, the gold smugglers did not know where to look. So, they turned instead to less honourable professions, such as extortion, protection, kidnapping and the like, and the DRI, in turn, turned to more mundane things such as undervaluation of imports, overvaluation of exports and so on. The face of the underworld went through a cataclysmic change.
This story belonged to a period when it was not legally possible to bring gold into India. Incidentally, it is estimated that the current holding of gold in India is approximately 22,000 tonnes—of which Reserve Bank of India holds only about 565 tonnes. Human beings, who are almost unique and have the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so. This human failing helps the Intelligence agencies often enough.
Take the case of Haji Ahmad Ibrahim Merchant.
Haji Ahmad Ibrahim Merchant, a resident of Bombay, was a businessman—as his name would seem to suggest. But then, there are businesses, and ‘businesses’. His legitimate business in Bombay was as the proprietor of a chalu Chinese restaurant—Chinese Central. Of the many compromises Haji made, catering the cuisine of the godless Chinese was one of them. After all, in his circles he wasn’t just considered a big shot he was a pious one at that.
The bigger they are, the heavier they fall. To his credit though, it should be mentioned that he was operating well below the radar, unnoticed. The Bombay Zonal unit of the DRI first mounted surveillance on Haji Ahmad in early 1991 when intelligence suggested he was getting cozy with one Salem Sarong and Mohd. Memon,who were not exactly strangers to DRI. To start with, the DRI launched the operation as an intelligence gathering exercise but it soon developed into actionable intelligence. It was a tedious process shifting grain from chaff. Haji was inexorably hurling himself towards disaster. The township of Dighi is about 90 km from Bombay, around the Dighi Creek on the coast of Maharashtra. It is known for its serene and clean beaches. Mohd Memon had a poultry farm and an ice factory in Dighi. Such infrastructure, as it were, enabled him to indulge in several adventurous activities, like landing contraband goods and on occasions transporting them to Bombay, a turnkey kind of job. Haji Ahmad Ibrahim Merchant now had a willing accomplice in Mohd. They were frequently in touch with each other and were obviously not discussing problems relating to Security Council of UN. However, in the last week of March 1991, Majid decided to leave more mundane affairs like smuggling to Haji and went on pilgrimage to Mecca. Worked out well for him! It saved him a few blushes and a whole lot of trouble.
Khalid Abdul Rehman Patwari, a close friend of Majid, had a hatchery at Neral in the Raigad district—Salva Hatcheries (P) Ltd—and an office in Mazgaon, Mumbai. He regularly brought live chicks from his hatcheries to Mumbai. But he was not averse to selling a biscuit or two of gold besides the chicken. Intelligence suggested that Haji was showing unusual interest in Khalid all of a sudden and lesser degree in the chicks. It turned out that Majid in his farewell instructions had asked Khalid to help Haji Ahmad in his smuggling activities, while he himself prayed in Mecca for everyone’s welfare. This of course, was Khalid’s version of things later before the officers, which was naturally denied by Majid Memon—now Haji Majid Memon—when he eventually returned from Mecca. Shoukat Abdul Hakim Chandle was a lowly driver employed by Majid Memon. His expertise lay in driving tempos laden with live chicken. His employer would instruct him to go to Dighi and pick up shipments of live chickens as and when asked by Haji Ahmad to do so. The last of the dramatis personae was one Mobin Ahmad Patwari. His expertise was acting as the sidekick to the tempo driver, Chandle, an unspecified role at best. The DRI finally had intelligence to suggest that the intervening night of 3 April 1991 was crucial. All the resources at the command of the DRI had to be deployed to keep a watch on the movements of the foursome. It was clear from the information gathered that the contraband in question was most definitely gold. Admittedly, the DRI was not aware of the place of landing or the actual date of landing of the contraband. Interception at sea, or at the place of landing on the vast coast of Maharashtra, was not considered feasible due to lack of accurate information—though the DRI was aware that the townships of Dighi and Srivardhan were being mentioned in dispatches. It was possible that the smuggled gold could land at either of these places on some unspecified date. Attempts to intercept the landing were fraught with problems of place and time. But at the end, the contraband had to be brought to Bombay—and so it was decided to strike as and when that happened. By 2 April 1991, it became clear that gold was being brought to Bombay by road either from Dighi or Srivardhan, that the gold would most likely be transported on the night of the third or the fourth, and that a tempo with registration MCT 2400 meant to carry live chickens could be used. There was also a vague suggestion that a jeep with registration MH02B-3402 would escort it. Armed with these details, the DRI maintained covert surveillance on the movements of both the vehicles from 2 April 1991. Two teams were formed, one to monitor the movements of the vehicles in Bombay, and another at Panvel, to watch their arrival at that place and their further movement from there.
On the afternoon of 3 April, the two vehicles left Bombay and the officers stationed at Panvel noticed that the entourage passed them late in the afternoon. If the pickup was at Dighi or Srivardhan as the DRI surmised, the vehicles had to pass through Panvel. Their departure from Panvel provided the officers with a rough ETA on their return journey. A night-long vigil was maintained to intercept them on their return. The best laid plans of men and mice might go awry. Anything could go wrong in an operation of this sort. What if this was just a dry run by the smugglers? What if the gold was not loaded in the vehicle/vehicles? What if the vehicles did not return within a reasonable time and what if there was a complete misreading of the intelligence gathered? One can never be certain of success when an operation is mounted solely on the basis of intelligence. A calculated risk a must always taken. Finally, much to the delight of the officers posted at Panvel, the tempo with registration MCT 2400 arrived far in the distance. And right behind it was the jeep, just as was expected. Now, a crucial decision had to be taken whether to intercept the vehicles or not. The DRI took the call and the vehicles were intercepted at Panvel. Much to the officers’ shock, amusement and delight, they found the tempo full of live chickens, being driven by Chandle and Mobin—but even better, right behind them in the jeep was Khalid in the passenger seat. Driving the jeep however, was Haji Ahmad, the Chinese restaurant proprietor himself in the flesh. Till today, DRI officers have never been able explain the wisdom behind Haji escorting his shipment of chickens. There was no need for him to do it unless he suspected that the driver and his companion would hijack the chicken carrier. That the vehicles returned together was a giveaway. The officers safely escorted both the vehicles to the DRI office. The search of the jeep and its occupants resulted in the recovery of Rs 1 lakh from Haji Ahmad. Perhaps he had kept it as small change for expenses on the way from Dighi to Bombay. The DRI developed a reasonable belief that the money represented sale proceeds of smuggled gold and promptly seized the cash. Whatever cash is found with the alleged smugglers (in Haji’s case it could be proceeds of the sale of chicken Manchurian and fried rice) is generally considered as sale proceeds of smuggled goods. In any case, the onus is on the accused to prove it is otherwise.
However the search of the cabin and the under carriage of the tempo yielded nothing. The only thing left to be searched in the tempo were the wooden planks on which the cages of chicken were resting. And lo and behold, the officers found 35 cloth belts, each belt holding 100 gold bars and each bar weighing 10 tolas. The gold bars were sewn into the cloth belts and the 35 cloth belts were concealed in the wooden planks—except in the case of one belt which only had 84 bars. A recount was immediately done. Still, there were only 3,486 bars there, weighing 34,860 tolas in total. The officers who drew the Seizure Memo offered themselves for search. The mystery of the missing 14 gold bars, if they were really missing, was not solved even after a thorough search of the ice factory and the hatchery at Dighi. Close interrogation of the persons who loaded the wooden planks at Dighi on the night of 3 April also proved that they had not helped themselves to any of the 14 gold bars either. The carpenter who made the cavities in the planks may not have been a genius but was surely a good craftsman.
The gold was seized along with the cloth belts, the tempo and the jeep. The 340 chickens sitting on the gold were also seized for what they were worth, hastily sold away and the sale proceeds appropriated. The gold weighing 34,860 tolas was valued at Rs 14.27 crore (current market value being Rs 130.21 crore). In the follow-up, nine premises were searched, scores of people were interrogated and their statements recorded, even summons were served on some to attend the DRI office for questioning—including on Majid Memon in absentia. In May of 1991, Majid appeared before the DRI, armed with an anticipatory bail order. He denied everything and declared that he was merely a ‘babe in the woods’. On the other hand, Khalid, Chandle and Mobin readily agreed to their role and implicated Haji to the hilt. Haji Ahmad though, was a different kettle of fish. He announced that his body was sacrosanct and that no persuasive tactics should be pressed into service while questioning him. Not that the DRI indulged in such practices, anyway. He made an incredible and brazen offer that he would adequately compensate the Additional DG if he (Haji) was allowed to replace someone in his place who would confess that he was escorting the gold-laden chicken van. Haji Ahmad denied outright that he had anything to do with the gold found in the tempo. He was not aware that his accomplices had already compromised him. About his activities from the afternoon of 3 April to the morning of 4 April 1991, he confessed that he had picked up a girl from Faryas hotel in Bombay the previous evening, had taken her to Panvel, spent the night there with her, and the next morning he suddenly found himself alone and eventually, was hitchhiking his way back to Bombay in a jeep when he was intercepted.
In the United States of America, you can invoke the 5th Amendment and refrain from making any statement incriminating yourself; but if you lie to a Federal agency, you could be jailed for five years. It is a felony to lie to a Federal agency. In India, on the other hand, you could get away speaking lies, the whole lies and nothing but the lies. The DRI could prove that Haji Ahmad was fanciful in his version of things. His statement should have been shown to his wife to cause some malicious matrimonial disharmony, if for nothing else. For all his imaginative lies, he was arrested along with his accomplices and was remanded to judicial custody for 14 days. On the second day of his remand, Haji was found in JJ Hospital feigning illness from unspeakable ailments. And to think of it, just the other day he was picking up girls from hotels and hitchhiking his way through Maharashtra! It was almost certain that with his unlimited resources he would be out on bail, and then out of circulation altogether. The Additional DG, DRI, flew to Delhi, sat down with the Detaining Authority, and much to his annoyance, got the detention order under COFEPOSA, flew back to Bombay and got it served by the police on Haji right on his hospital bed— all in a span of three days, to his utter disbelief. It served him right for the all the threats he had made to the officers and his crude attempts to entice and bribe a public functionary. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. Haji Ahmad’s tool was money—and lots of it. That his recent misadventure cost him a whopping loss of Rs 14,27,31,307—and some 340 chickens—did not seem to have made much of a dent in his vast resources. He considered his detention under COFEPOSA as a nail which could be hammered away with cash. He waited for an appropriate month in which the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court would be in session at Nagpur. He asked his father-in-law, a resident of Nagpur, to move a habeas corpus petition before that Bench against his unfortunate detention affecting his fundamental right to life and liberty. And, of course, the Bombay Zonal Unit never got wind of the petition, nor of any notices. Events took breakneck speed from then on. Before the DRI could say ‘shoo!’ Haji’s detention order was quashed and he was set free on the ground that the documents enclosed to the detention order were illegible. What you get in this world is law. Justice is what you get in the other world. Once free, Haji Ahmad Ibrahim Merchant flew to Dubai under a false passport. That same night, he rang up the ADG. And these were his exact words—he mouthed ‘Moheb Ali saab, main Ahmad bol raha hoon, Dubai se. Mera kaam aadhey paise main ho gaya... Aap maane nahin! (Moheb Ali Sir, I’m Ahmad, speaking from Dubai. My work was done with half the money. You didn’t agree).’ Moheb Ali was then the Additional DG, DRI, in Bombay. Later, he retired as Member Customs, Excise and Service Tax Appellate Tribunal, Mumbai Zonal Bench. The Union of India filed an appeal against the order of the High Court. The Supreme Court set aside the order of the lower court and remanded the matter to the Bombay High Court to consider the petition once again. This meant the Detention Order could be executed on Haji, provided he was available within the jurisdiction of the detaining authority. He wasn’t. He was having the last laugh in Dubai, while the DRI was holding on to the Detention Order in Bombay. ‘All the paths of glory lead but to the grave’, as Thomas Gray had said. Haji Ahmad Ibrahim Merchant later moved to Pakistan and died there.