Sachin Vaze being taken to a court by National Investigation Agency (NIA) for a hearing in connection with a probe into the recovery of explosives from a car parked near industrialist Mukesh Ambani's house, in Mumbai. (HT Photo)
Sachin Vaze being taken to a court by National Investigation Agency (NIA) for a hearing in connection with a probe into the recovery of explosives from a car parked near industrialist Mukesh Ambani's house, in Mumbai. (HT Photo)

A month later, 9 unanswered questions in the Antilia-Hiran-Vaze case

Two investigation agencies have worked on both cases; the NIA took over both probes from the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad last month, following orders from the Union home ministry
By HT Correspondent
UPDATED ON APR 05, 2021 10:04 AM IST

It has been 37 days since a Mahindra Scorpio was found abandoned near the residence of industrialist Mukesh Ambani on Carmichael Road in Mumbai with 20 loose gelatin sticks and a threatening letter addressed to the Ambanis.

April 5 also marks a month since the body of auto parts dealer linked to the Scorpio, Mansukh Hiran, washed up ashore the Reti Bunder creek in Thane district.

Two investigation agencies have worked on both cases; the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over both probes from the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad last month, following orders from the Union home ministry. Sachin Vaze, a Mumbai cop, has been named as prime suspect in both cases, and two men have been arrested for Hiran’s murder. Several people have been questioned over the weeks, and the investigation is still ongoing as new evidence is unearthed.

Here are nine questions pertaining to the two interlinked cases that still remain a mystery.

1. Why was the SUV abandoned near Ambani residence, Antilia?

Senior NIA officials believe that Vaze, the former head of the Crime Intelligence Unit (CIU) of the Mumbai Crime Branch and the first lead investigator of the case, orchestrated the security scare outside billionaire industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s house, as a ploy to restore his reputation as a successful cop and regain lost glory. “He wanted to prove to Mumbai Police brass that he is still as good by solving a bomb conspiracy so he planned this whole episode to plant explosives outside Antilia. He wanted the limelight again,” a Delhi-based NIA officer has said.

Also Watch | Sachin Vaze’s brother reacts to NIA custody extension

However, it still unclear as to why the Ambanis were targeted at all — from the car being parked outside the road across Antilia, to the threatening note to the industrialist, to the fact that the vehicle bore the number plates of Ambani’s security detail. The explosives were not assembled into a bomb, nor was a detonator or a timer found in the vehicle. Meanwhile, Vaze has denied his role in this case.

2. Did suspended Mumbai police officer Sachin Vaze work alone in allegedly planning the security scare?

The NIA has questioned several persons and recorded the statements of about 35 witnesses in connection with the Antilia security scare case, but the agency has only arrested one person so far: Vaze. However, on February 26, a Telegram channel was created by “jaishulhind” [Jaish-ul-Hind] and a message claiming responsibility for parking the vehicle outside Antilia was posted from that channel. A message seeking payment in bitcoin, a crypto currency, was also sent out on this channel, which reportedly had 10 members. The identity of the members is not immediately known as the maker of the channel closed the group the following day.

During the course of their investigation, the NIA discovered the Telegram message and traced it to the Tihar jail. The jail authorities also questioned an inmate, Tehsin Akhtar, the last known chief of the now dormant home-grown terror outfit Indian Mujahideen (IM), after two smart phones were recovered from his barrack in Tihar’s jail number 8, one of which reportedly sent out the message. However, officials are sceptical about this so-called terror outfit, and say that it’s unlikely such a group exists.

3. Where were the 20 sticks of gelatin procured from?

Gelatin sticks are cheap explosive material used typically in quarries and can be stored easily. They cannot explode without a detonator and are easily available in the grey market. It is, however, not clear as to where the 20 loose gelatin sticks found in the green Scorpio were procured from. The gelatin sticks found in the SUV were manufactured by Solar Industries Limited, Nagpur, a leading manufacturer of commercial explosives. The manufacturing, sale and use of gelatin is regulated under provisions of the Explosives Act, but the regulations are not strictly implemented. However, it’s still unclear where these sticks were bought, when and by whom.

4. Why was Mansukh Hiran murdered?

This crucial question still remains unanswered almost a month after the 48-year-old businessman’s death. Hiran knew Vaze for years; according to his wife’s statement to the ATS, Vaze had even borrowed the Scorpio from Hiran for four months and returned it to him on February 5. Hiran’s older brother, Vinod, was in touch with Vaze on the night Hiran went missing after leaving his home at 8.30pm.

Officials speaking on condition of anonymity said that one likely reason was that Hiran may have known too much of the accused in the explosives case. That explains why none of his belongings were found on him when his body was recovered from the creek.

5. Where are Hiran’s belongings?

When Hiran’s body was recovered from the creek in Thane district, his face was masked and his mouth had several handkerchiefs stuffed inside it. All his personal effects, including a gold ring, a wristwatch, a wallet, and the mobile phone — which he had on him when he left home at 8.30pm on March 4, according to wife Vimla’s statement to the police — were missing. The investigators have searched several places, including a godown allegedly belonging to Vaze located at Majiwade junction, as well as the houses of Shinde in Kalwa. Even Vaze’s house in Thane’s Saket Complex, has been searched a few times. However, Hiran’s belongings are not reported to have been recovered as yet.

6. Why did Hiran meet Vaze on February 17?

Based on the statement that Vimla, Hiran’s wife, gave to the ATS, we know that Hiran had taken the Scorpio on February 17 because he had some business in south Mumbai. We also know that Hiran left the car on the side of the road at Vikhroli, because the steering jammed. He then hailed a private taxi and went towards his destination.

According to CCTV camera footage captured outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT), Hiran met Vaze outside the Crime Intelligence Unit office; the two sat in Vaze’s Mercedes for a short while, and then Hiran left. The following day, according to Vimla’s statement, Hiran reportedly went to the site where he had left the Scorpio and finding it missing, registered a stolen vehicle report. What did the two talk about in the car?

7. Who is the woman discovered in the CCTV footage of Trident hotel where Vaze stayed in February 2021?

The NIA has recovered a CCTV grab from Trident hotel, where Vaze stayed in February 2021, capturing a woman in her early 30s speaking to Vaze in the hotel corridor and carrying a currency notes counting machine in her hand. Another grab showed the woman leaving the hotel the next morning. NIA traced the woman and recorded her statement. Her identity is still a mystery.

8 Was the stolen Maruti Eco involved in the entire episode?

On March 28, the NIA recovered from Mithi river one laptop, one printer, two hard discs, two Central Processing Units, two Digital Video Recorders etc. which were allegedly damaged and thrown in the river. Besides this rich evidentiary haul, the federal agency also recovered a set of number plates of a Maruti Eco that was stolen from Aurangabad in November 2020. The vehicle was owned by Vinay Nade, who reported the vehicle stolen from Aurangabad on November 20, 2020. The question still remains: did the vehicle have anything to do with this crime?

9. Do former Mumbai police commissioner Param Bir Singh’s allegations regarding the Home Minister and Sachin Vaze have any bearing on the case?

On March 20, Singh, who had recently been transferred out of his post, wrote a letter to the chief minister alleging that Anil Deshmukh, the state’s home minister, had set a target for certain police officers, including Vaze, to collect 100 crore from bars, restaurants, and other establishments in the city. Deshmukh denied these allegations and said that the investigators had probably come close to unearthing Singh’s role in the Antilia scare conspiracy.

A one-person committee to be headed by retired justice KU Chandiwal has been constituted to probe Singh’s allegations. The Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party alleged that senior politicians were protecting Vaze; but CM Uddhav Thackeray has said that the probe by investigation agencies will reveal the truth and no guilty party will be spared.

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