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The plot thickens

india Updated: Dec 10, 2006 03:01 IST
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A handful of letters that her husband had written to the police since 2004 are all that Nina Khanna is left with. In one of them, written on August 16, 2006, her husband Ashok had complained to the chief of police’s vigilance wing that the local police were helping the land mafia in grabbing his house — a one-acre mansion on Hailey Road in the heart of New Delhi, worth about Rs 200 crore. Less than a month later, on September 11, Khanna was bludgeoned to death in the same mansion, his teeth fractured and his face bashed in.

His security guard, Mithilesh Pandey of Bihar, has been missing since the night of the crime. The murder remains unsolved.

Flanked by two apartment complexes, the house is a picture from the past. It was designed by Edward Lutyens — a friend of Ashok’s grandfather, Puran Chand. Today, a muddy path leading from the rusty gate is the driveway. The lawn it circumvents lies forgotten.

In 1987, Ashok’s father and uncles signed a deal with a private firm to build a housing complex. While his uncles sold off their share and moved out in 1999-2000, Ashok and one of his two brothers, Amrish, cancelled the deal on the plea that the firm had failed to build the complex in the stipulated time and that the property was worth much more. The firm moved court against the ‘one-sided’ cancellation. The case is in arbitration.

Crime and investigation

The ancestral property was one of the main reasons Ashok, an exporter, had returned to India from Germany in 1990. His wife Nina was then expecting their second child. Their older son Shiv was seven. Sixteen years later, it was Shiv who found his father lying dead, face down in a pool of blood in the house where Ashok had shifted in 2003. Nina, a textile consultant, and their sons lived in Greater Kailash I. The couple had decided to live separately, but they met every other day and went on holidays together. On the fateful day, when Ashok did not respond to phone calls, Nina sent Shiv to look him up.

Then the police came and took over the house for seven days for investigation. The investigating officer was Tilak Marg station house officer Satya Pal Singh — the same officer whose transfer Ashok had sought in his complaint to the vigilance chief. The SHO was finally transferred to Mayur Vihar three weeks after the murder. Additional Commissioner of Police (Connaught Place) Gurbax Lal Mehta says, “It was a routine transfer.”

Police investigations, meanwhile, indicated that Ashok was beaten to death with his own golf club. One of the clubs was found lying away from the set.

The ‘missed’ weapon

When the police handed back the house, Nina took some helpers to clean it. “As we moved a chest of drawers, out came an axe with blood on it,” says Nina. The police had missed it. “The policeman who came to collect it picked it up with bare hands. I kept shouting that there could be fingerprints, but he said, ‘You cannot pick fingerprints from wood’,” she recounts.

That might not be entirely correct, counters an official in the CBI Central Forensic Science Laboratory. “It is possible to lift fingerprints if the wood is polished,” he says. Nina claims it was. The axe has now been sent for forensic examination.

The missing brother

Next to the bedroom where the murder happened is another room now packed with dusty furniture. On one cabinet in it is a picture of a thin man with a wild mop of hair. This is Ashok’s elder brother, Arun. Today, no one knows where Arun is. He simply disappeared one day in 2001. There has been no news ever since. Ashok and his younger brother Amrish had lodged repeated complaints with the police. Amrish says, “The police did not lodge a case because they said there was no prima facie evidence suggesting that someone was behind his disappearance.” The police say Arun was mentally unstable and that there is no telling where he might have gone.

Paranoid or threatened?

Ashok started focusing on the property and on tracing his brother. “It was around this time that my father started talking about threats to his life,” says Shiv, who returned to India last August after graduating from the University of Nottingham, England. “He started saying things like, ‘If I am not around, you and your mother must take over matters’. He also said attempts were being made to tarnish his image.”

Ashok had filed a number of police complaints alleging harassment and threats too. One was alleging that some drunk autorickshaw drivers had started abusing him and making obscene remarks when he returned in the evening. In the same complaint, Ashok had alleged that someone had contaminated his water tank because of which boils had erupted on his body. He also alleged that his domestic help left after the police threatened him. “Repeated threats have been made at my life,” read the August 2 complaint.

The absconding guard

The guard, according to the police, is the key to the case. But he has not been traced. Mithilesh Pandey, who Ashok had hired from Sterling Security Services, was allegedly drunk the night of the murder. When Ashok found him in that state after returning from dinner, he called up the agency and told them to send a replacement. “Because it was around 11 pm, we had no immediate replacement. But Mr Khanna wanted the guard to be removed immediately,” says an official at the agency. So they sent the supervisor to bring him back. “The guard told the supervisor he would go to his relative’s house in Rohini. But he never went there and has been missing ever since,” says the official.

The police maintain Ashok had a fight with the guard, but the agency denies that. The family says he had no motive — not even robbery. “Why else would he leave the expensive silverware?” asks Nina.

The police have sent teams to his hometown in Bihar. A reward of Rs 25,000 has also been announced for a tip-off.

The manhunt

Deputy Commission of Police (Crime and Railways) Neeraj Thakur is confident the guard will be found and the case will be cracked. “We have some clues that he is moving around, but he is not in Delhi. We know he is trying to evade the police,” he says.

Earlier, the case had been handed over to the crime branch after a month-long investigation by the New Delhi district police. One of the reasons cited for the transfer was the inability of the police to crack the mystery of the murder weapon.

The New Delhi district police claim to have reacted to Ashok’s complaints of threats. “An assistant sub-inspector was sent to investigate, but Khanna and his domestic help locked him up,” says ACP Mehta. A case was lodged against Ashok and the help. Nina counters: “The case was part of the build-up to soil his image.”

It adds to the list of unanswered questions, the ones that have Nina returning to 7 Hailey Road every other day.

Email Veenu Sandhu: vsandhu @hindustantimes.com

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