Maharashtra government stung by a Scorpio(n)

Sachin Waze and the scorpio SUV
Sachin Waze and the scorpio SUV. Photo: IANS

Maharashtra’s former chief minister and leader of opposition Devendra Fadnavis has dealt a near fatal sting to his opponents within the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) with dramatic exposes, both inside and outside the State Assembly, in the murky case of a Scorpio with 20 gelatin sticks and a threat letter parked near industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s south Mumbai residence, ‘Antilia,’ on February 25.

Left to lick his wounds ever since he was denied the chief ministership despite having returned with a comfortable majority along with old partner Shiv Sena in the Assembly polls held during the winter of 2019, Fadnavis should feel elated having returned the ‘favour’ to the Pawars and Thackerays for ditching him at the last minute during the prolonged and tense intrigues for government formation. But the former CM is not one to sit on his laurels inside the Assembly, where he declared having in his possession Call Detail Records (CDRs) relating to the explosive-laden Scorpio case and the subsequent, mysterious death of its alleged owner Mansukh Hiren that led to the arrest of controversial Mumbai police officer Sachin Waze.

Fadnavis now wants the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which is probing the security scare near the Ambani residence, to also take over the Mansukh Hiren ‘murder’ investigations from the Maharashtra anti-terrorism squad (ATS) as both are, according to him, closely linked. Moreover, he wants NIA to probe who in the MVA government was behind Waze’s contentious appointment and actions.

“It’s not the failure of police, it’s the failure of the government. Because it was this government that appointed Waze on the post, despite knowing his past…The way the Chief Minister defended him, the ministers defended him…there should be proper investigations,” Fadnavis told mediapersons in Delhi on Wednesday.

The MVA government tried absolving itself of blame by suspending Waze and shunting out Mumbai police commissioner Param Bir Singh, to whom he reported directly though holding a junior rank as an assistant police inspector with the Criminal Intelligence Unit, a specialised arm of the Mumbai Crime Branch.

Scorpio outside Antilia and its alleged owner Mansukh Hiren
Scorpio outside Antilia and its alleged owner Mansukh Hiren. Photo: IANS

Clearly, Fadnavis has put the Uddhav Thackeray-led government on the defensive with his singular performance as the leader of opposition. The way he exposed the ruling Shiv Sena and Nationalist Congress Party’s likely complicity and ineptness in handling the investigation into these sensitive cases could have the rival parties wondering at their own lack of killer instinct when it came to exposing the alleged BJP link in the deaths by suicide of Mohan Delkar, independent MP from Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and Anvay Naik, an interior designer, despite suicide notes naming specific persons for pushing them to take the extreme step.

In fact, it was the Congress, considered the weakest link in the ruling alliance, which mounted some pressure on the stinging rival. Alluding to Fadnavis’ statement in the Assembly that he possessed crucial CDR in the cases, Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) general secretary and spokesperson Sachin Sawant appealed to him to hand over details in the CDR to the investigators and help book the culprits.

Congress state unit chief Nana Patole was more forthright in questioning Fadnavis’ modus operandi: “I would like to know as to how Fadnavis get access to the call data records. Does he have the authority to obtain CDR?” Of course, that did not deter the leader of opposition who challenged the MVA government to investigate him.

Sachin Waze and a Toyota Prado that allegedly belongs to him
Sachin Waze and a Toyota Prado that allegedly belongs to him. Photo: IANS

NCP chief Sharad Pawar tried to make light of the Sachin Waze episode, saying a junior cop’s misdemeanours cannot impact the fate of a government. But the fact that he had to rush for a series of meetings with the chief minister, besides senior leaders of his own party within days of calling the whole affair a local issue and refusing to comment on it spoke volumes of the effects of the sting.

The Chief Minister and Sena chief initially tried defending Waze saying he shouldn’t be treated like Osama bin Laden. “A picture is being created like he is (Osama Bin) Laden. Let the probe finish first and then action will be taken,” Thackeray said.

It appeared the Maharashtra Chief Minister had enough of his former ally BJP’s old ploy of maligning and hanging its opponents without allowing the truth to be established. The MVA government had been at the receiving end of malicious campaigns since inception and Waze had led the counter charge in several of the contentious cases like the TRP scam involving Republic TV and the alleged death by suicide of Anvay Naik, in which its editor Arnab Goswami was arrested, besides the Hrithik-Kangana email case and fake social media followers case.

NIA officers inspect the seized Benz car
NIA officers inspect the seized Benz car. Photo: IANS

However, there were too many chinks in the armour of the government owing to the suspicious conduct of its chosen cop probing the ‘Antilia’ explosives case, which led to a series of exposes, his arrest and final suspension from police service. This wasn’t the first for Waze. In fact, the assistant police inspector was controversially reinstated in June last year after being under suspension for 16 years for his alleged role in a custodial death case.

Waze faces charges of murder and destruction of evidence for the death of 27-year-old software engineer Khwaja Yunus, who was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Ghatkopar blast in 2002. Waze claimed that Yunus escaped while being ferried in a jeep that met with an accident and fell into a gorge in 2003. But the men arrested along with Yunus testified that they had last seen him alive on January 6, 2003, vomiting blood after being allegedly tortured in the police cell by Waze and is team.

Family members of Yunus approached the Bombay High Court for a probe following which the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) filed a complaint against four cops including Waze. The High Court in 2004 directed that the men be suspended and a disciplinary inquiry be started against them. Waze applied for reinstatement in police service in 2007 but his request was turned down.

Antilia, Mukesh Ambani's house in Mumbai
Antilia, Mukesh Ambani's house in Mumbai. Photo: Reuters/File

In 2008, the cop resigned from the force and joined the Shiv Sena before venturing into businesses from “import-export” of goods to private investigative agencies. The trial in the Khwaja Yunus case continued to drag but then in mid-2020 Waze came to be reinstated in the Mumbai Police as per rules at a meeting held periodically to review decisions on suspended officials. It was chaired by city police commissioner Param Bir Singh and the prevailing COVID situation was stated as the grounds for taking him back on duty.

Waze, as head of the Mumbai Crime Branch’s CIU, came to investigate the Scorpio car carrying 20 gelatin sticks with no detonator or timer, after it was found near Antilia. He reportedly summoned the owner, Mansukh Hiren, who had filed a complaint with Vikroli police after the Scorpio had been stolen on February 17. Hiren’s body was found floating in a creek on March 5 and the needle of suspicion turned on Waze when the deceased’s wife revealed that the police officer was a friend of her husband and the Scorpio was being used by him for the past few months.

The case took another turn after it was transferred to NIA on March 8, on grounds that a terror module operating from Tihar Jail was involved in the conspiracy. The NIA investigators though ended up arresting Waze on March 13, stumbling upon bizarre evidences of his involvement, and arriving at a conclusion that it was the Mumbai cop who had orchestrated the whole episode to restore his reputation as a successful cop, contending that the mystery around the explosive-laden SUV had been solved.

Uddhav Thackeray
Uddhav Thackeray

According to the NIA, the Mumbai cop himself drove and parked the Scorpio on February 25, and left in an Innova that belongs to Mumbai police. They had also seized a Mercedes car purportedly used by Waze and recovered more than Rs five lakh cash, a currency counting machine, a pair of clothes and the original registration number plate of the Scorpio along with some kerosene and diesel in containers.

It seems the seized CCTV footage obtained from the spot near Antilia led the NIA to unravel the truth and rule out a “terror angle” in the whole episode.

So will this high profile matter now die its natural death with the blame being fixed on a disgraced cop? The BJP, especially Fadnavis, has an axe to grind with the Shiv Sena, especially Uddhav Thackeray, who’s denied him a second run as the chief minister of Maharashtra. A case like this or the older ones involving Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput, mean sweet revenge.

(Anosh Malekar is an author and independent journalist based in Pune.)

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