Mumbai, Sept. 5: The man who can claim to be the real hero of the Mumbai blasts is Shiv Narain Pandey. But he is not there to take the bows.
Pandey, the driver of the taxi that was used in the blast at the Gateway of India, survived the explosion to help police nab three of the suspects with his detailed descriptions. Alleged mastermind Sayyed Mohammed Hanif Abdul Rahim, his wife Fahmida and daughters 16-year-old Farheen and four-year-old Shakira were travelling in his taxi for two days.
But since August 25, no one has seen Pandey. He has gone into hiding and no one knows when it will be safe for him to resurface.
Pandey’s name evokes more fear than awe in his neighbourhood, a sprawling slum at Poisar East in Kandivli, a northern Mumbai suburb. Everyone knows the house of the taxi driver whose name came up in the blasts, but hardly anyone will volunteer to show the way.
Pandey lived with his two sons in a rented room in a cramped two-roomed house in Chauhan Chawl. But his room is locked. His sons, who work in Andheri, are not there either. More than that, the neighbours will not say anything.
The police, keen to keep Pandey’s whereabouts secret, say they do not know where he is. “He must be with one of his relatives,” says assistant commissioner Suresh Wallishetty of crime branch, one of the chief investigating officials in the blast probe. Pandey is not under police protection, he adds, but he is safe.
Pandey’s neighbours are scared of the terror that may rub off on them. They are afraid that a revenge attack may follow and are doing their best to distance themselves.
The fear is pronounced in the way any question about the taxi-driver is greeted. The neighbours, who jam the narrow water-logged passage leading to Pandey’s door, gather to take a look at the visitors. They say there have been too many people here since the blasts, some of them strange.
“Since the blasts, there have been so many people. I have taken so many reporters through these passages to this door,” says a young neighbour, who will not identify himself nor admit to knowing anything about Pandey. “There have been many reporters. But some others we are not sure of. All sorts of people have come looking for him.”
They are as ignorant about the sons, they say.
“They are not here. They are grown up and work in Andheri in factories,” says another neighbour.
Pandey’s wife lives in a village in Uttar Pradesh, from where he hails. A boy of about 10 says he knows where one of Pandey’s sons works, but his mother shuts him up.
A young mother, who first says she doesn’t know who the taxi driver is but then deputes another person to show the way, asks: “Was he really involved in the blast' God knows what is happening since then.” She says the people around are tired of policemen, reporters and strangers thronging the lane.
Pandey was driving the taxi hired by Hanif for the blast. He had booked the taxi for two days at Rs 600 a day. The previous day, Hanif, with Fahmida, Farheen and Shakira, had taken Pandey on the same route — from Andheri to the Gateway of India, where they had been away for an hour — and back to Andheri. On the day of the blast, the family got up from an Andheri lane and took the taxi to the Gateway.
Around 1 pm, they reached the Gateway and asked Pandey to go for lunch while they shopped. The driver of the taxi used in the blast at Mumbadevi, Umesh Yadav, was not as fortunate. He was asked to wait in the cab and was blown up.
But Pandey survived and helped the police make the detailed sketches that led to the swift arrests. Hanif has reportedly told the police that he regrets the fact that Pandey is alive — he should have been more careful and made him stay in the taxi.
Wallishetty says that though Pandey is not in police custody any more, he is in touch with the police. “He has all our numbers. He can get in touch with any one of us any time. We promise full protection whenever he feels it necessary.”
Police said the hunt was still on for Nissar, the key man in the twin blasts conspiracy and the possible link with the Lashkar-e-Toiba. “He is Hanif’s main contact. Hanif doesn’t know or will not tell which bigger terror network is involved. He has only been in touch with Nissar. We are focusing on finding out where he is,” Wallishetty said.
Nissar is likely to be in the southern part of India, from where the explosives used in the blasts might have been brought in, he said.