‘After the UK and US notified Dawood as an as an international drug trafficker, India and the UAE signed an extradition treaty because of which Dawood had to shift his base from Dubai to Karachi and operate under the benevolent arm of the ISI.’
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/KhabriBaba.com.
Once called the ‘Supersleuth’, the former director general of Department of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), Narcotics Control Board (NCB), Economic Intelligence Bureau (EIB), and member, Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC), and now author, Bolloju Vasanth Kumar in his new book, DRI & The Dons: The Untold Stories, sheds light on the challenges faced by the law enforcement agencies and high profile raids undertaken and cases solved by them when he was at the helm at these agencies.
A 1958 batch officer of the Indian Revenue Service, Kumar has other scholarly books to his credit, like The Darker Side of Black Money: An Insight into the world of Financial Secrecy and Tax Havens, and The Underground Economy: An Insight into the World of Tax Havens and Money Laundering, and The Preventive Detention Laws of India.
“The future is interception of cyber space. We should have the capability to monitor the cyber space and prevent our assets being hacked. We have to build cyber warriors to protect ourselves in the future,” Kumar tells KhabriBaba.com‘s Prasanna D Zore in an interview.
What kind of audience did you have in mind while writing this book, and what kind of research work did you undertake to write the DRI And The Dons?
Basically, the book was intended to chronicle the achievements of the DRI in the areas of seizures of contraband, drugs and antiquities.
No other book has been written in such detail about the men and material involved in such major seizures of contraband made by the DRI.
The book is also meant to inspire the present generation of officers joining the DRI and also to create awareness amongst the public at large to recognise the DRI, as an organisation in protecting the economic frontiers of the country.
My inspiration to write this book came from, Mossad written by Michael Bar-Zohar and Nissim Mishal and Kao’s Boys written by B Raman, an outstanding officer of the Research and Analysis Wing.
This book would also be an eye-opener to the public at large who read about such raids and seizures in the newspapers and electronic media. But they must know about the efforts that go into making a single seizure, or the amount of surveillance that precedes such raids, or the risk of assaults that the officers of the DRI and other law enforcement agencies take in the line of duty is not sufficiently chronicled.
What is the response you are getting for the book?
I think the book has been well received as could be seen from the reviews appearing in the press and the coverage given in the electronic media. Ultimately, the sales are the index and we have to wait for some time to find out as to how many copies have been sold. There have been some enquiries from the Bombay film industry but not from the right people.
Could you tell us some of the challenges you faced, and the exciting times you must have had, while chasing the gangsters who smuggled gold, narcotics, arms and ammunition during your stint as the DG DRI, the NCB and Member CBEC?
The challenge was when I was posted as DG, NCB. The NCB had no organisation and I was to set up from scratch. I requested that I will take up the assignment provided I am also given the charge as DG, DRI. The Government of India agreed and with the help of DRI, the NCB was set up with its units spread across India at sensitive places vulnerable for drug trafficking.
I was helped in a big way by the then home secretary, C G Somaiah, an outstanding civil servant, by sending communications to the chief secretaries of various state governments to assist the NCB in combating drug trafficking and preventing drug abuse.
The then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was a taskmaster and he would monitor every week the performance of the NCB, the DRI and other ministries. This was a challenge and the field officers rose to the occasion and major seizures of contraband including gold, silver and narcotics were made.
On January 8, 1986, the world’s largest seizure (for that year) was made at a place called Talasari, located at the Gujarat-Maharashtra border, involving seizure of 600 kg of heroin of high purity and 4.5 metric tonnes of hashish. It was concealed in a haystack.
After investigation it was found that in this seizure Iqbal Mohammed Mirchi, a hardened criminal, was involved and was working for Dawood.
The National Criminal Intelligence Agency of UK and the DEA of USA were not ready to identify and declare Dawood as a criminal and involved in serious crime because according to them he was involved only in financial crimes. After this seizure and after the investigation of the DRI revealed that Dawood was involved in this massive seizure of drugs, they notified Dawood as an international drug trafficker.
The other thing that happened after the UK and US notified Dawood as an as an international drug trafficker, India and the UAE signed an extradition treaty because of which Dawood had to shift his base from Dubai to Karachi and operate under the benevolent arm of the ISI.
How did the smuggling syndicates and drug cartels in India operate then and how have they evolved over time?
The smugglers and drug cartels are experts in judging the demand and accordingly organise the supply of goods/contraband. The present day heads of the syndicates are having the benefit of fiduciary experts to advise them as to how the money earned in serious crime, should be deployed after laundering the same.
In the case of drug cartels they create a demand by inducing vulnerable sections of the population to become drug addicts.
Earlier, India was only a transit country where heroin would come through the Golden Crescent and pass through the Punjab, Gujarat and or Rajasthan border and come to Bombay and from where it was exported to the West and the United States.
The latest challenge is the demand and consumption of Ecstasy (MDMA), a party drug popular with the rich, the film stars and the younger generation who abuse the same at rave parties.
Till a few years back India was a transit country for drugs like heroin and hashish. However, now India has emerged as a manufacturing country for Mandrax, a mood altering drug and in a few states drug addiction has become a serious problem.
How global have Indian smugglers, arms dealers and drug cartels become as they evolved in their trade?
By definition smuggling is trans-national and they have organisations spread both in the source country and the receiving country where such goods are consumed. The contraband moves from a producing country to a destination country where the prices are higher and the profits are enormous.
They have a well-knit organisation in more than one country covering various operations including transport, storage, marketing and for deploying enormous funds generated in sale of drugs after money laundering.
What are the techniques that the law enforcement agencies in India use or used when you were DG DRI, NCB and EIB?
Well, it is not correct to disclose the techniques to gather intelligence. Suffice to say that the DRI tries to keep pace with the smugglers in the sophisticated methods adopted by them for smuggling, by constantly honing their skills and equipment.
We have all the sophisticated skills and equipment to match those being followed by smugglers. For example, when I was DG, DRI, we caught a boat that had a satellite telephone in it, at a time when satellite telephone was not known in India. Before that I saw a satellite phone being used during the Iraqi war where CNN used them to transmit the war live.
I really can’t disclose more than that.
Who were these smugglers who had access to such modern technology at that time? Was it the Dawood gang?
I can’t precisely say but he was one of the gangsters who had the wherewithal to use such sophisticated tools at that time. That was the reason he could become the top smuggler and build financial reserves in a very big way.
Could you, in brief, recount some interesting and challenging cases that you successfully handled leading to a serious setback to the drugs, arms and gold smugglers in India?
Every case is a challenge in itself, and in the book I have selected such important cases.
The biggest challenge was the detention of more than 104 top smugglers of Gujarat and Bombay in one day. We had to get the detention orders from the central government which we got very promptly. Mrs (Indira) Gandhi was the prime minister then.
Their detention was confirmed by the then chief justice of the Gujarat high court. It is very difficult to sustain a detention order unless the concerned high court is fully satisfied that all the conditions stipulated in Article 22 (5) of the Constitution of India are satisfied.
We knew that most of these top smugglers will be in their hometowns (in Gujarat) and with the help of the then DG of police V T Shah and with full cooperation and excellent coordination of the Gujarat police we were able to detain every one against whom detention orders were issued under the COFEPOSA.
The second major case was the raids conducted on the coal mafia of Dhanbad involving a major logistics exercise.
First of all, we had to get the political clearance for this raid on the Dhanbad mafia. We had to organise witnesses and the raiding parties from Kolkata, since it is impossible to get a witness in Dhanbad, against the mafia boss Suraj Deo Singh and his brother Ramachandra Singh, because we were told it that would be very difficult to get someone become a witness in Dhanbad against the coal mafia.
Even the district collector and superintendent of police were unable to exercise their authority and enforce the rule of law, since they were scared of these dons.
We had to organise 20-30 mini buses from Kolkata and get hold of the witnesses from the customs, excise and income tax departments. Some of them were part of the raiding party and some were witnesses. I had to organise a force of 1000 CRPF men because we had to raid them in full strength knowing well that they were fully armed and ruthless.
Without firing a single shot we completed the raid successfully and seized cash, arms and ammunition. The consequence was that Surya Deo Singh who was politically very powerful, was so heartbroken that he died within six months of the raids. His mafia operations became very weak and what I read later in The Week, a few years back that the people who were working under these mafia dons took over their operations.
After I made a presentation about the proposal to raid the Dhanbad mafia, I was asked a question by the then cabinet secretary B G Deshmukh, an outstanding civil servant, who served three prime ministers, in a meeting in which the home secretary, revenue secretary, finance secretary, the director, IB, the representative of RA&W and other senior bureaucrats were present, ‘What do you plan to achieve by this raid (on the Dhanbad coal mafia)?’
I informed him that the rule of law or the writ of the state and central government doesn’t run in Dhanbad and we would be able to ensure that the writ of the state and central government would run in these areas.
While he gave the clearance to the raid, he did put a rider: subject to the IB (the Intelligence Bureau) giving you the clearance. The IB at that time was headed by an outstanding police officer, M K Narayanan, who later became the National Security Advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and later governor of West Bengal. He made me wait for six days but then I told him that I will call off the raid because it took me a lot of money to maintain a 1000-strong CRPF force, but then finally we got the clearance after the sixth day and the raid was conducted successfully.
Though this operation was done by me as the DG, EIB, and no contraband or drugs were involved, the case dealt with the mafia controlling the coal belt and indulging in serious crime. We were able to establish the writ of the central government and establish the rule of law.
In your entire career as the DGs of DRI, NCB, EIB, and member, CBEC, how many times did you face political interference?
It happened only once, when I was the member, CBEC. I had an excellent and outstanding minister of state for revenue, Mr Ajit Panja, who would never interfere. The finance minister at one point of time was S B Chavan, known for his integrity and was rule abiding.
The political interference came from Kalpnath Rai, who was at that time minister and member of Parliament from Ghosi. He called me up on the RAX telephone, which is a limited, automatic exchange, only for direct communication between the senior most in the political hierarchy up to the joint secretary level.
He told me that one of his friends had imported prime copper tubes and other material at Calcutta Port and the DRI had seized it. I told him that these materials cannot be imported by private individuals since it is a canalised item and can be imported only by MMTC or STC. But he said that at Bombay Port another importer has imported and has been allowed clearance. I informed the minister that if at Bombay Port similar goods were allowed import similar goods would also be allowed at Kolkata Port.
Then I rang up the Commissioner of Customs at the Bombay Custom House and he told me what was imported at Bombay was copper scrap and was allowed clearance on payment of duty. He sent me the photographs and I rang up the minister (Kalpnath Rai) and told him what was allowed at Bombay Port was copper scrap, whereas what has been imported by his friend at Kolkata was prime copper tubes.
He then told me, ‘isko bhi scrap declare karo aur jaane do’ (declare this consignment also as scrap and release it). I told him that we will not do that. We would auction the consignment and the money would be credited to the government.
For a minute or so there was a pause from his side and so I disconnected the phone thinking that he hung up the phone. He called me up soon after and said that I had insulted him.
Later, I found out that the person (the importer of prime copper) was sitting next to him was Didwania, one of the biggest hawala racketeers of the country.
I recorded the whole thing in the file as to what happened between me and the minister and put it up to the then revenue secretary Bandopadhyay, the finance secretary Venkitaramanan and marked it to the finance minister. The finance minister recorded on the file: You did the right thing.
Did you ever get any threats from the smugglers or drug traffickers?
Once they know you are an upright officer you don’t get such threats. Once I got a threat when I apprehended Alamzeb at Palanpur, the border town between Gujarat and Rajasthan. He wrote a letter threatening to kill me. The then DG of Police P N Writer provided me four commandos for my security but then he (Alamzeb) was shot dead in Surat in a police encounter.
Do you think the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks could have been avoided by India’s law enforcement agencies?
It is difficult to tell. The terrorists choose their time and target. For the terrorists, the target is not important. What they want is worldwide attention and publicity. So, they choose their target and time. So, it is difficult to predict when and where they will strike.
It is impossible to cover every place and all the 24 hours, particularly in a large country like India. However, improved intelligence gathering techniques and identifying the sleeper cells and possible contacts made by the terrorists with such sleeper cells, could reduce the risk.
The sleeper cells representing the terrorists are very quiet and innocuous. It is difficult to identify them. Monitoring of sleeper cells can give some lead to the law enforcement agencies and without local help such terror attacks (like the Mumbai Terror Attacks of November 2008) are not possible.
The setting up of the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) can help in a big way. It is required to be activated for gathering intelligence for counter terrorist operations and also for cyber warfare.
The NCTC should be revived and could probably go a long way in preventing such attacks. After setting up of the Homeland Security Department in the US, hardly any attack of the scale of September 2001 attack has taken place from terrorists outside the US.
The other tool that the US effectively uses is to monitor over communications from the US to other countries and vice versa and checked.
Should India also build such a surveillance infrastructure?
We should at least make a beginning. That is what I have suggested in my book.
I have said that the future is interception of cyber space. We should have the capability to monitor the cyber space and prevent our assets being hacked. We have to build cyber warriors to protect ourselves in the future.
Finally, when did you think about putting your insights into a book form and what kind of efforts did you undergo in writing the DRI and The Dons?
When I was posted in Ahmedabad as commissioner of customs, Gujarat, between 1980 and 1985, I had to deal with the top smugglers of Gujarat and Bombay (Maharashtra) who would utilise the Kutch, Jamnagar and the Valsad/Surat Coast for landing contraband. We had a large posse of officers posted along the coast duly equipped with arms, 24 Arab dhows and 10 speed boats for sea based operations. Large quantities of contraband, valued at several crores, were being seized hitting the headlines of the print media and some cases recorded live by Doordarshan. (No other channels existed then).
We would discuss at home such cases at the dining table and both my son and wife would encourage me to record these cases in a book form. Though, I had collected some archives of such cases, it never took shape.
Later, I was posted as DG, DRI, in 1985 and was also concurrently holding charge as DG, NCB, and DG, EIB. I was promoted as member, Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC) in 1987 and I was holding additional charge as DG, DRI. While holding these charges, major operations were conducted resulting in large scale seizures.
However, the whole thing took shape in 2016. I sought permission from Najib Shah who was then the chairman, CBEC, and was also holding charge as DG, DRI. He readily gave me permission to access the archives of the DRI. I made two visits to DRI Headquarters in Delhi, but I was informed that the documents were transferred to the Bombay Zonal Unit (BZU) of the DRI, for digitalisation. I followed with two or three visits to Bombay and met the concerned staff.
S S Sekhon, who at one time was additional DG, DRI, Bombay and was also posted in Surat as DD (Deputy Director), DRI to cover Gujarat, had good knowledge about the underworld and he suggested the names of some important cases detected by the Bombay Zonal Unit. Mr A Venkatesh, senior intelligence officer, made sincere efforts in locating the records and after rummaging through them took out some of the important cases, which provided the basic information of some of the cases figuring in the book.
In addition, K Shankar Bhatt, who functioned as additional director, DRI, BZU, and at Bangalore and Mangalore had firsthand knowledge of some of the cases detected by him and was also instrumental in securing some of the archives with the assistance of some of his former colleagues. We sat and prepared the first draft of the manuscript, rewrote and edited and put them in a sequence.
Najib Shah, who by 2018 retired as chairman, CBEC, also went through the manuscript and gave constructive suggestions. The whole exercise took almost two and half years, till the book was launched on June 14, 2019, at Delhi and August 14, 2019, in Bombay.