Crime Branch, once the pride of Mumbai Police, now just another unit of the force

After seeing off gangsters, force struggles with new crimes; experts say intelligence-gathering hit by transfers
After the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai, the Crime Branch had helped to uncover the conspiracy hatched by Tiger Memon and Dawood Ibrahim.(HT FILE)
After the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai, the Crime Branch had helped to uncover the conspiracy hatched by Tiger Memon and Dawood Ibrahim.(HT FILE)
Updated on Mar 09, 2019 03:15 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByManish K Pathak, Mumbai

Between 1998 and 2001, Mumbai Police’s Detection Crime Branch, popularly known as just Crime Branch, broke the chokehold in which the underworld had held the city for decades. Although some gangsters continued their operations, gangland activity would not regain the kind of dominance it had enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s. The Crime Branch seemed to have eyes and ears everywhere.

Yet, when the net was closing around gangster Ravi Pujari in February this year, the Crime Branch that was once an expert on the underworld, was kept out of the loop. The news of his arrest in Senegal was broken by Bengaluru Police. Sources in the Intelligence Bureau said agencies were unwilling to share information with Mumbai Police because there were rumours of Pujari maintaining close links with some of its officers. A senior police officer said on condition of anonymity, “The deterioration of the Crime Branch can be directly attributed to the officers who lead them.”Tasked with monitoring the underworld and terrorists as well as the investigation of serious crimes, the Crime Branch has been one of Mumbai Police’s most prestigious divisions. Today, however, it is a beleaguered version of its old avatar.

One reason may be the waning influence of the underworld. Joint commissioner of police Ashutosh Dhumbare said, “The nature of crime changed after 1999-2000. Violent offences have either stabilised or decreased. Underworld-related crime has gone down.” The new trend in Mumbai is cybercrime. “The criteria of posting in the Crime Branch are same... But society is evolving and the cases related to cyber and fake call centres are more,” said Dhumbare.

Serving officers say the Crime Branch has been hit hard by officials retiring or being transferred. A former official said, “Officers at crime branch should not be transferred every two years because developing a good network and informant base in an area is not easy and it takes time to build relationships and trust.” When an officer is abruptly transferred or comes under scrutiny, intelligence-gathering networks usually break down. In the 2000s, the Crime Branch’s reputation took a beating when its officers were accused in the Rs. 3,000-crore fake stamp paper scam masterminded by Abdul Karim Telgi and charged with being compromised by their underworld contacts.

Insiders also say the unit’s more recent entrants are struggling to fill their predecessors’ shoes. A serving Crime Branch officer said, “We used to have units with nearly 30 constables who were all clued into their areas and used to know each and every element – whether social or anti-social – in the area. Today out of the 30 constables, hardly five know their area.” Another Crime Branch officer said this impacts intelligence-gathering as well as everyday functioning. “There have been instances where officers could not reach the crime spot alone and needed a constable to guide them,” he said.

Meeran Chadha Borwankar, who headed the Crime Branch between 2004 and 2007, said, “We focused on two types of officials while selecting officers. The first category of officials was primarily to handle operations, where they would have an excellent network of informers. The second group comprised officers and men who were very good at documentation.” The latter is less talked-about, but arguably more effective in terms of cracking down on illegal activity. “Between 1999 and 2001, more than 1,500 gangsters from gangs of Dawood Ibrahim, Chhota Rajan, Arun Gawli, Amar Naik were arrested under the Maharashtra Prevention of Dangerous Activities and Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Acts,” said a retired IPS officer, pointing out that these arrests – rather than shootouts – were what crippled the underworld network.

Faced with a shifting criminal landscape, the city’s Crime Branch is struggling. Statistics show it has seen limited success in recent years. Of the 144 murders registered in the city in 2016, the Crime Branch was instrumental in solving three. In 2017, it solved only one murder out of the 127 registered. There were 39,872 first information reports (FIRs) registered in Mumbai in 2017 and Crime Branch investigated only 58 of these (and solved 49). In 2018, of the 41,901 cases registered, Crime Branch investigated 93 cases and solved 83. “The yesteryears’ Crime Branch was very different from today’s,” said a serving officer. The question is, what does the division need to do to reclaim its past glory?

Famous Crime Branch cases

Raman Raghav: India’s Jack the Ripper killed 41 people in Mumbai. His victims were all homeless and poor people. Raghav was finally arrested on August 27, 1968, when Ramakant Kulkarni was heading the Crime Branch, after a sub-inspector spotted Raghav in the city suburbs.

Charles Sobhraj: Nicknamed “the bikini killer”, Sobhraj had at least 32 cases of murder in different countries and had managed to slip out of Tihar Jail (with six inmates) in March 1986, by drugging the jail staff. Retired police officer Madhukar Zende, then with Mumbai’s Crime Branch, received information that Sobhraj was in Goa to celebrate his 42nd birthday and was able to arrest him in April 1986.

1993 serial blasts: Just a few hours after 12 bombs ripped through Mumbai on March 12, 1993, two young police sub-inspectors from the Crime Branch, Dinesh Kadam and Dhananjay Daund, found a Maruti Omni van in Worli with AK-47 rifles, ammunition and an identity card for one Rubina Memon. That card led the police officers to the Memon family home in Mahim and to Imtiaz Ghavte, whose arrest led the Mumbai Police to uncover the conspiracy hatched by Tiger Memon and Dawood Ibrahim.

Maria Susairaj & Emile Jerome Mathew: Aspiring actress Maria Susairaj was among the group of friends who reported television executive Neeraj Grover missing in May 2008. Only she knew he was dead – after all, Susairaj’s boyfriend Lieutenant Emile Jerome Mathew had stabbed Grover to death, cut up his body into pieces and Susairaj had helped Mathew dispose of the body and evidence. Susairaj’s possible involvement was suspected by then joint commissioner of police (crime branch) Rakesh Maria. She would eventually admit to the crime when she was questioned. The court found Susairaj guilty of destroying evidence and Mathew was sentenced to 10 years for killing Grover.

Arun Gawli: After years of giving the police the slip, Arun Gawli was finally arrested by the Crime Branch for his involvement in the murder of Kamlakar Jamsandekar. To encourage Gawli to drop his guard, both the joint commissioner of police (crime branch) and his deputy pretended to go on leave. Then on May 20, 2008, a team of officers from the Crime Branch entered Dagdi Chawl in Byculla, and arrested the gangster at night.

Chandrabhan Sanap: Esther Anuhya, 23, was last seen alighting at Lokmanya Tilak Terminus in Kurla on January 5, 2014. Twelve days later, her decomposed body was found off the Eastern Express Highway in Bhandup. Neither the Government Railway Police (GRP) nor Kanjurmarg police station could make any headway. Using CCTV footage, location data from mobile services and other tools, Mumbai’s Crime Branch identified Chandrabhan Sanap, a driver, as Anuhya’s killer and arrested him from Nashik, in March 2014.

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