Maharashtra: The travails of former home minister Anil Deshmukh

Two central investigation agencies, one state probe, and a letter with explosive allegations written by a top cop: Anil Deshmukh has been at the centre of a political storm for months. Here’s why
Former Maharashtra home minister Anil Deshmukh leaves the DRDO office after he was interrogated for hours by officers of the Central Bureau of Investigation, in Mumbai. (PTI FILE)
Former Maharashtra home minister Anil Deshmukh leaves the DRDO office after he was interrogated for hours by officers of the Central Bureau of Investigation, in Mumbai. (PTI FILE)
Published on Aug 09, 2021 01:18 AM IST
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ByVijay Kumar Yadav and Faisal Malik, Mumbai

When the Enforcement Directorate (ED) summoned Anil Deshmukh for the fourth time last week, the 71-year-old former home minister of Maharashtra sent a letter to their Ballad Pier office instead.

“I am more than eager to associate with the purported enquiry/investigations being carried out by your office so as to lay bare the hollowness, falsity and lack of substance therein,” his letter, sent through his legal representative, read.

He went on: “lt appears that the summons has been issued solely with an aim to create a prejudice so as to either serve the media or sensationalise the matter before the (Supreme) Court by alleging purported non-compliance thereof by me.”

“The matter before the court” which Deshmukh referred to, was the petition that he had filed on July 5, seeking a stay on his arrest by the ED, which has been probing allegations of corruption raised by former Mumbai Police commissioner Param Bir Singh.

According to the ED, there was merit to Singh’s allegation that Deshmukh ran an extortion ring. As per a remand application filed by the anti-laundering investigation agency, Deshmukh used paper companies to route money collected from Mumbai bar owners as donations to an educational trust.

The court had posted the hearing of Deshmukh’s petition to August 3, but the matter was adjourned. Deshmukh is clear: he isn’t going to attend any summons till the top court hears his petition.

Meanwhile, on August 6, the ED conducted fresh raids on engineering college Nagpur Institute of Technology run by Shri Sai Shikshan Sanstha, a trust that is headed by Deshmukh. This raid followed two others in the past two months conducted in properties associated with the politician.

What are the allegations against Deshmukh – a Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) politician who had to resign from his state cabinet post – and what has been its political fallout for the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition of which the NCP is part?

To answer this, one must return to a crime scene, its first investigating officer, a heated discussion in the state assembly, and the transfer of Mumbai’s top cop a week later on March 17.

A cop and a bomb scare

On February 25, the Gamdevi police station received a call. A Scorpio had been found abandoned outside businessman Mukesh Ambani’s south Mumbai residence, Antilia, and its number plate was incorrect – the registration number actually belonged to a car in the billionaire’s security detail.

Soon Carmichael Street was filled with policemen. The Bomb Detection and Disposal Squad discovered 20 sticks of gelatin – but no detonator or timer – in a bag in the SUV along with a crudely worded threatening note. As the case began to attract attention, Deshmukh, the then home minister, announced that assistant inspector Sachin Vaze who led the Crime Investigation Unit of the Mumbai crime branch would be leading the investigation.

Within days, however, the state’s anti-terrorism squad (ATS) joined the investigation. And then, on March 5, the body of Mansukh Hiran, a Thane businessman, washed up at a creek in Thane, which turned the investigation on its head. The SUV parked outside Antilia had belonged to Hiran, who had reported it stolen on February 18.

On March 9, former chief minister and leader of Opposition Devendra Fadnavis raised the matter in the Assembly. Holding Call Details Record in his hands, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader pointed out that Hiran and Sachin Vaze were closely associated and asked that the state probe Vaze’s involvement in Hiran’s death. He based his claims on the statement that Hiran’s wife had given to the ATS, which had taken over the probe into Hiran’s death. She had told them that she suspected Vaze might have had a role to play in her husband’s death.

Things happened quickly after this admission. Vaze was removed from the case, transferred out of the CIU, and called for questioning by the National Investigation Authority (NIA) which was handed over the investigation by the Union home ministry on March 8.

Vaze, who joined the police force in 1990 as a sub inspector, has a chequered past. He attained notoriety and fame as an encounter specialist in the 90s and 2000s. In 2004, he was suspended pending investigation for his alleged involvement in the custodial killing of purported terror suspect Khwaja Yunus. Three years later, he resigned and briefly joined the Shiv Sena before starting a business. In June 2020, Param Bir Singh reinstated him to make up for a shortfall of police personnel in the pandemic.

Singh, a 1988-batch Indian Police Service (IPS) officer was appointed as Mumbai’s police commissioner on February 29, 2020.

On March 13, Vaze was arrested for masterminding the bomb scare. An NIA official told HT that Vaze did so to regain his “lost glory”. Vaze, who is currently in custody, denied all charges.

An explosive letter

By mid-March, the lead investigator in the Antilia bomb scare case was now the prime accused in it. A state agency was also probing his role in Hiran’s murder. During its investigation, the NIA discovered police vehicles that were purportedly used in the commission of the crime.

Amid sharp attack by the Opposition, the Maharashtra government transferred Singh on March 17, who was deputed as Commandant, Maharashtra Home Guards while Hemant Nagrale took over as the city’s police commissioner. It was presented as a routine transfer, and not as a fallout to the Antilia and Hiran murder probes.

Yet, a day later, Deshmukh said at an event organised by a media channel: “The transfer of the Mumbai commissioner was to ensure that the ongoing probe by the National Investigation Agency and the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) is not hampered.”

Singh’s reaction was swift. On March 20, he shot off a letter to the Governor of Maharashtra, the chief minister and senior bureaucrats, levelling serious allegations of corruption against Deshmukh.

Singh alleged that Deshmukh summoned Mumbai Police officers including the then deputy commissioner of police (enforcement) Raju Bhujbal, assistant commissioner of police Sanjay Patil (social service branch) and Vaze and gave them a target of 100 crore, which was to be collected each month from dance bars, hookah parlours and bars and restaurants in Mumbai.

Deshmukh strongly denied all charges levied against him. The NCP too stood behind him: party supremo Sharad Pawar held press conferences to clarify that the allegations were “incorrect” and the party would not seek his resignation.

Singh did not stop at the letter. He moved the Supreme Court on March 23, seeking an impartial probe by an independent agency like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The Apex court, however, refused to entertain the plea and asked him to approach the Bombay HC. Others like advocate Jayashri Patil joined Singh in petitioning for a CBI probe.

On April 5, the HC ordered CBI to undertake a preliminary enquiry to ascertain if there was any substance in the allegations. In a strongly worded judgment, the court noted: “There can be no independent probe if it is given to the police where Deshmukh is the home minister. The interest of justice will be done if the director of CBI is allowed to conduct a preliminary inquiry. Such an inquiry be conducted in accordance with law and be concluded within 15 days. Once the preliminary inquiry is complete, it will be at the discretion of director CBI to decide on the further course of action.”

The same day Deshmukh resigned. He also moved the SC against this order.

Two investigations

If a central agency probes a sitting minister based on allegations, what would that hold out for the stability of the state government: this was the question at the heart of Deshmukh’s plea.

He sought an immediate stay on the order stating that a preliminary inquiry by the CBI would lead to irreparable loss to his reputation.

He also maintained that the HC order ignored that there was no substantial evidence in the allegations made by Singh. Pointing out that the CBI is a Central government agency, he argued that if the court accepted statements without substantive evidence then this could pave the way to destabilise state governments in future.

The Maharashtra government too filed a petition arguing that the high court bypassed the investigation agencies in the state and showed no confidence in the Mumbai Police, which affected their morale. Both the petitions were rejected by the Apex court on April 8.

CBI conducted a preliminary enquiry and registered a First Information Report on April 21 against Deshmukh and others for “attempting to obtain undue advantage for improper and dishonest performance of duty.” The agency also carried out searches at Deshmukh’s residence in Mumbai and Nagpur.

On May 3, Deshmukh moved the Bombay HC to quash the CBI’s FIR contending that it was registered without the consent of the state government, as mandated by the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946 and without prior approval as required under section 17C of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. The HC dismissed the petition on July 22.

Deshmukh’s lawyer Kamlesh Ghumre refused to comment on the HC order.

And while there has been no further movement on the CBI probe since then, another investigation was initiated against Deshmukh.

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) on May 11 registered an Enforcement Case Information Report (ECIR) against the NCP leader to probe the money laundering aspects of the case.

ED officials recorded statements of hoteliers and orchestra bar owners from Mumbai. They even recorded former assistant inspector Sachin Vaze’s statements twice in May.

On June 26, the agency arrested Deshmukh’s personal secretary Sanjeev Palande and personal assistant Kundan Shinde, claiming that they had accepted money collected by Vaze from some bar owners. The two were booked under various provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA).

Deshmukh moved the Supreme Court on July 5 questioning the agency’s probe and repeated summons issued to him and his son. The NCP leader has also sought orders restraining the agency from taking any coercive steps against him – this is the case that is before the Supreme Court.

Following the paper trail

According to the ED, Vaze who is lodged in Taloja jail in connection with his role in the Antilia bomb scare and Hiran murder case, disclosed that he had collected 4.7 crore from bar owners for “smooth functioning of bars” and handed the money to Shinde in two installments in January and February 2021.

“On behalf of 60 bar owners, Shri Jaya Poojari and Shri Mahesh Shetty, bar owner/ manager had paid 40 lakh to Sachin Vaze in December 2020 as ‘good luck’ money,” ED had said in one of its the remand applications. Subsequent to Vaze’s meetings with bar owners, “in January and February 2021, orchestra bar owners from Zone I to Zone VII of Mumbai police paid sum of 1.64 crore to Vaze and orchestra bars owners from Zone VIII to Zone XII paid him 2.66 crore during this period.”

ED claimed that while collecting money from bar owners, Vaze told them that part of the money was to go to “No.1”, whom ED officials suspect referred to the then home minister. The agency also claimed that Deshmukh had used shell companies to route the money as donations to an educational trust headed by Deshmukh which runs engineering and polytechnic colleges in Nagpur.

The money, according to ED, was first sent to a Delhi-based sibling duo, known as the Jain brothers who reportedly created shell companies to house cash received as donations to Nagpur-based Shri Sai Shikshan Sansthan, a trust controlled by Deshmukh and his family. Both Deshmukh’s son, Hrishikesh and personal assistant, Shinde are associated with the trust.

The ED contended that they identified 24 private entities controlled by Deshmukh family -- directly and indirectly -- and found that huge sums of money had moved among them without any rationale.

“From the analysis of the bank accounts of these companies, it is clear that there is no rationale for the transfers and can thus be said that these series of transactions were meant for inflating balance sheets and layering of money from one company to other,” ED had said in the remand application submitted to the special PMLA court.

In July, the anti-money laundering agency provisionally attached Deshmukh’s properties worth 4.20 crore, including the NCP leader’s flat at Worli valued at about 1.54 crore and 25 land parcels Dhutum village in Uran-- held in the name of Deshmukh’s wife Aarti and a company named Premier Port Links Pvt Ltd – with a book value of 2.67 crore.

According to ED officers, Deshmukh acquired 50% ownership in M/s Premier Port Links Pvt Ltd including its assets, i.e. land and shops, “totally valued at approximately 5.34 crore (book value) by merely paying 17.95 lakh, that too after a substantial gap.”

ED has issued summons to Deshmukh and Hrishikesh and claimed that the father-son duo has not honoured any of the summons yet. Deshmukh’s lawyer, Kamlesh Ghumre however visited the agency’s office as Deshmukh’s representative.

Political battlefield

NCP leaders believe that the allegations against Deshmukh are part of the efforts of the Opposition party, which is in power in the Centre, to defame the state coalition government, which also comprises the Shiv Sena and Congress.

NCP national spokesperson Nawab Malik maintained that the charges against Deshmukh are politically motivated.

“The allegations made by Param Bir Singh against Anil Deshmukh ji are baseless. They were made only after Singh was transferred out from his position as Mumbai commissioner of police. The BJP is misusing central agencies to create trouble for Deshmukh but we are hopeful that he will get justice from the judiciary. NCP is with Deshmukh in these testing times,” Malik said.

“Even if the NCP decides not to back Deshmukh, this vindictive politics of the BJP will not end with him as they want to target other senior MVA leaders to defame the state government,” said another senior NCP minister who did not wish to be named.

“In the beginning, Deshmukh promised to cooperate with the central agencies in the probe but did not do so. He also approached courts at times but did not get any relief thus far,” BJP spokesperson Keshav Upadhye said.

Political analyst Hemant Desai said the political fight may end up being more posturing than anything else. “It will be difficult for the investigation agency to prove Deshmukh’s direct involvement in the extortion accusations.”

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Thursday, January 20, 2022