New Delhi, March 6 (newsin.asia): In his book DRI & DONS written in a racy style and filled with factual material, a former head of the Indian Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), B.V.Kumar, describes the challenging tasks undertaken by the officers of the investigating agency. Among officers Kumar writes about in glowing terms is Kanakoor Shankar Bhatt, better known as K.S.Bhatt, who had spent almost 18 years in the DRI working in Madurai, Bangalore, Mangalore and Mumbai handling high profile cases.
Describing Bhatt as a “fearless officer with grit and determination,” Kumar says that when Bhatt came to the Mumbai Zonal Office in 1993 to lead it, he had already honed his intelligence and investigating skills working in Madurai, Bangalore and Mangalore. In Mumbai, Bhatt proved to be a worthy successor to B.G.N. Iyengar, carving a distinct niche for himself. In his seven year’s tenure there Bhatt was responsible for detecting some of the biggest cases of drug trafficking, gold smuggling and commercial frauds.
In 1992, heading a team of just four officers in Mangalore, Bhatt effected the seizure of 75 silver ingots smuggled and valued at INR. 2.5 crores (present day value would be INR. 9.60 crore). This proved to be an important case as the investigation linked the silver ingots to Mohammed Umar Dossa, better known for his role as a key conspirator in the Mumbai serial blasts case of 1993.
On the basis of evidence collected, orders for Dossa’s preventive detention were issued. But it remained unexecuted as he had already fled to Dubai. However, much after the Mumbai blasts, Dossa surrendered before a TADA (Terrorists) Court and was jailed. He died of cardiac arrest on 28 June 2017, even as the Court was hearing arguments on the quantum of sentence to be given to him and five others. While in jail, his order of detention under the COFEPOSA Act (Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act, 1974) was served on him. His appeals were rejected in the Supreme Court. The rejection paved way for the appropriation of his property under the Smugglers and Foreign Exchange Manipulators (Forfeiture of Property) Act. The law finally caught up with him.
Another important seizure of gold by Bhatt and his unit at Mangalore reflected how the smuggling of gold and silver had sustained itself through ruthless killings and fear, which increased in intensity in the eighties and after, Kumar writes.
‘On the basis of reliable intelligence, Bhatt and his unit kept watch near Thalapady on the Kerala–Karnataka border on 12 February 1989 to look for two suspected cars. Around 2.45 p.m., the two cars—a blue Maruti and a grey Ambassador (with registration CRX 3657) —coming from Kerala, were stopped for examination. A quick search revealed 800 bars of foreign-marked gold of ten tolas each (I tola is 7 gms). The gold weighed 186.56 kilograms and was valued at INR 6.089 crores at that time (present day value would be INR 30.02 crores). The seized contraband gold was linked to the notorious gangster, Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar.
During investigation, it came to light that the seized gold belonged to the Dubai-based operator from Kerala, K. P. Abdul Rehman, better known as “Pakistan” Abdul Rehman, a close associate of Dawood Ibrahim. He was one of the biggest and dreaded operators dealing in contraband gold. His agent for landing of contraband gold on the Kerala coast at that time was K. M. Hamza of Kasaragod. In April 1989, two months after the seizure by the officers of the DRI, Mangalore, Hamza’s body was found riddled with bullets on the national highway at Poinachi on the Kerala–Karnataka border. It was informally learnt from the police that the murder was committed by Hamza’s own boss.
A charge sheet for murder was later filed against Abdul Rehman and fifteen others by the CBI, who took over the investigation from the Kerala Police. The case had created quite a sensation and media reports at that time not only alleged interference in the investigation by some powerful politicians, but also cast aspersions on the Kerala Police. Three of the accused filed appeals in the High Court against their trial, which were rejected. The Supreme Court in 2001 also rejected their appeal filed against the High Court order. But Abdul Rehman had absconded.
Bhatt’s achievements became multi-faceted after he joined the Mumbai Zonal Unit. While he and his team detected remarkable cases of smuggling of gold and other traditional items, they broke fresh ground too, Kumar writes.
On 23 November 1995, Bhatt’s team seized 6 MTs of mandrax tablets and methaqualone powder from two factories in Akola and Amaravati. This was the biggest seizure of this illicit drug made by any agency at that point of time. The seizure of mandrax tablets weighing 2.08 tonnes at Mumbai and the seizure of watches and watch parts from post parcels valued at INR 2.04 crore in 1998 in Mumbai, are illustrative of his teams’ achievements.
Some of the successful seizures carried out by Bhatt and his team are:
● Seizure of 1,596 gold bars belonging to Dawood Ibrahim at Cannnanore, Kerala, on 25 February 1989.
● On 11 July 1990, DRI, Chennai, effected seizure of contraband silver weighing 7,559 Kilograms (240 silver bricks) valued at Rs 5.5 crore, an Arab dhow Al-Badaar with crew members, 2 trucks and a car at Bheemavaram on the Andhra Coast on the basis of information provided by Bhatt.
● Seizure of mandrax tablets at Belgaum in August 1993. The Central Excise Collectorate in Belgaum, Karnataka, seized 2,300 kilograms of Methaqualone tablets acting on a tip-off from the DRI, Bombay.
● Seizure of 1,350 kilograms of hashish (sourced from Pakistan) at Surat in July 1994, and detaining the primary accused, Santosh Shetty, one of India’s biggest narcotics operators. He was subsequently booked under the PITNDPS Act.
● Seizure of about 2,000 kilograms of mandrax tablets worth over Rs 23 crores in the international market by the officers of the DRI, in Mumbai (March 1995). The mandrax consignment which was to be shipped to South Africa in a shipping container was intercepted by the DRI officers in Govandi, in northeast Mumbai. Three persons were arrested during this operation.
● Seizure of 11,500 kilograms of mandrax worth US $6 million by the Dubai Police in a search operation in 1997 and the subsequent arrest and life imprisonment of Vijaygiri alias Vicky Goswami. During the search operation, Dubai Police unearthed 4 mandrax manufacturing units.
● Seizure of contraband gold bars dispatched by the infamous Dossa Brothers using crew members working in feeder merchant vessels shuttling between Dubai and Mumbai.
● Detection of misuse of banking facilities by gold smugglers as in the case of Syndicate Bank, Mumbai.
● Bhatt was also responsible in detecting and investigating a number of cases involving the undervaluation of goods, misuse of export incentive schemes, mis-declaration of goods—all of which otherwise would have resulted in not only loss of duty, but valuable foreign exchange to the country.
Kumar points out that for the effective discharge of their duty, the DRI team endured many personal threats from the smugglers, the drug mafia and the underworld.
“In earlier days, the threats were to brow beat the officers, but now, the times have changed. The threats made by the underworld were precise, raw and intended to send a chill down the spine. These were not empty threats. A couple of investigating officers of the unit had ‘supari’s (contract killing) assigned against them. Once assigned, these were rarely recalled. It was like an arrow which once released could not be brought back.”
“So effective was the intelligence system of the Mumbai Zonal Unit that they would succeed in tracking down the arrow before it was fired. They had true grit. Everyone stuck together in any crisis and subversion from within was unheard of. Threats shadowed Bhatt, too. But he left the Mumbai unit unscathed in 1999 after serving for seven years,” Kumar notes.
When Bhatt was Deputy Director in Bangalore, one of the cases detected by him at Bangalore in 2003 was that of M/s Sansri Trading, an EOU (Export-Oriented Unit). Such units are allowed to import raw material free of customs duty on the condition that they use such material in the manufacture of items and re-export them. The item of import in this case was raw silk, an item in high demand. However, raw silk imported duty free in this case, was sold in the market for a high profit instead of being used in the manufacture of garments and other items of silk. To meet the condition of re-export, consignments of rags and the like of no commercial value were exported by falsely declaring them as genuine items. What made this case different was the fact that one of the officers of the Department, an Inspector, was in cahoots with the owner of this company—in which his wife, too, had substantial interests. Further, he had one-third share in the company in Dubai, which supplied the raw silk.
Investigations conducted by Bhatt established that the firm had evaded customs duty to the tune of INR 5.5 crore. All persons involved in the case, including the officer and the owner of the firm, were detained under the COFEPOSA Act. Some of the orders were later set aside by the Karnataka High Court on technical grounds. The same officer was earlier found involved in a similar fraud by a different company, too. He was dismissed from service.
The group involved in this case decided to retaliate. The dismissed officer took the lead, and Bhatt was the target. He met Bhatt on the pretext of giving him reliable information about a similar fraud by some other party. As it was not unusual for one group to give information about the other group due to business rivalry, revenge, reward or for other reasons, Bhatt, without suspecting anything, agreed to act on his information and asked him to come and meet him with the necessary details. After all, with his background, this man was capable of giving such information.
The said former officer was, however, simultaneously in touch with the local CBI officers, and gave them a story that Bhatt had called him and proposed that he would not process and propose his name for preventive detention if INR 20 lakhs was paid to him as a bribe. What gave credence to his story was perhaps the fact that a proposal for detention recommended by DRI, Bangalore, was in fact under process by the detaining authority, namely the Government of Karnataka at that time. What the ex-officer did not know was that the proposal put up by Bhatt had already been cleared by the Screening Committee of the State Government constituted for preventive detention and the orders of detention were to be issued any day. More importantly, Bhatt was not in a position to influence the decision of preventive detention in any manner.
The former officer turned up a few days later, apparently to give information. Bhatt went for this meeting after informing his superior, the Additional Director General, clearly indicating the purpose of the meeting. They met in a restaurant. The man had a large envelope in his hand, which he said contained documents relating to fraudulent exports by a party through Cochin Port. On opening the envelope Bhatt saw currency notes in it and became suspicious. He immediately threw back the packet at the former officer and left the restaurant. This person had expected Bhatt to take the envelope, but his plan had badly misfired.
He then followed Bhatt with the packet and threw it in front of him. In the meanwhile, a few persons immediately came to the spot, and after disclosing their identity as CBI officers, took Bhatt and the dismissed official, along with the packet, back to the restaurant where necessary formalities to seize the currency was completed. Bhatt was told that he was under arrest. He was, however, released on bail the same day.
Nevertheless, his residence in Bangalore and his father’s house in his native village were searched that day as well. At his residence, some two thousand and odd rupees, which he had withdrawn from his bank the previous day for day-to-day expenses, were recovered. The frugally furnished house hardly had any other assets. Neither was anything found in his father’s house at his native village.
Winner of Top Awards
The people in the village were, however, both shocked and confused. They had watched his career over the years with admiration. They knew that he had been awarded the Presidential Award for Meritorious Service on the Republic Day in 1990. In the year 1999, he also received an Appreciation Letter from the British High Commission in connection with the seizure of 11,500 kilograms of mandrax worth US$ 6 million by the Dubai Police in a search operation carried out with the British DLO and the Dubai Police and the subsequent arrest and life imprisonment of Vijaygiri alias Vicky Goswami. In the search operation, the Dubai Police unearthed 4 mandrax manufacturing units.
The DRI has some credibility in the public’s eye. The news of Bhatt’s arrest by the CBI in a corruption case was flashed in the media rather prominently. The reports only gave factual details of the case and some brief explanations from both the DRI and the CBI. But they were damning enough. However, the media has a way of getting to the truth. It found that the case had been foisted upon Bhatt by the complainant. The media then came out strongly in Bhatt’s support and sought justice for him. The media’s view was confirmed by the CBI later. Arusha Vasudev, the steely Additional Director General, had stood by Bhatt throughout this whole ordeal.
On completion of the investigation by Bhatt, adjudication proceedings were initiated against all persons involved in the case, including the former officer. All of them were penalized heavily on being found guilty by the Commissioner of Customs, Bangalore. The penalty imposed on the former officer, taking into account his role and the gravity of his offence, was Rs 45 lakhs. A penalty of Rs 35 lakhs was imposed on his wife as well. An appeal filed in the Appellate Tribunal against this order was dismissed. The prosecution case launched against them under the provisions of the Customs Act, 1962.
However, Bhatt’s case hung on with the CBI for quite some time as they close a case only after thorough inquiry. Perhaps an immediate inquiry regarding the status of the proposal for the preventive detention could have clarified the matter at the inception itself. The impeccable antecedents of Bhatt, his impressive achievements over three decades of his service, and the dubious antecedents of the complainant were neither taken into account, nor considered relevant or adequate, Kumar recalls.
“The CBI took its time, but was fair. They closed the case a little before Bhatt’s retirement in 2004 as they found nothing against him. His upbringing and training had taught him to deal with the unscrupulous and ruthless world of economic and serious crime with commitment and without fear. Giving in was never an option. Anyone with similar inclinations is aware that he could be targeted and hit, more often than not, below the belt. Bhatt was hit and hurt, too. However, Mumbai had steeled him and his spirit remained unbroken,” Kumar writes.