| Chatterjee at the police station. (Fotocorp)
Mumbai, Feb. 5: A celebrated name from Corporate India has made it to an infamous hit-and-run list usually associated with Bollywood night owls.
Neel Chatterjee, a vice-president of Standard Chartered Bank, was arrested last night for fatally knocking down a 60-year-old watchman and speeding away in a culmination of multiple mishaps in central Mumbai.
A grave charge against Chatterjee, considered by peers to be an authority on corporate social responsibility, is that he did not stop to help the accident victim and report the incident to police.
Eyewitnesses alleged that the 49-year-old Chatterjee was drunk but police said no conclusion could be reached until blood test results are out.
Investigating officer Suhas Raikar of Dadar police station said Chatterjee’s Mercedes hit another car travelling in the same direction around 10.30 last night on Cadell Road, which connects central Mumbai to the western suburbs.
“It was not a severe bump, but the two cars stopped, and people and police gathered. The police asked both drivers to park their cars to make enquiries. Chatterjee tried to park his car and was about to hit another. To avoid bumping into that car, he swerved and hit the watchman,” Raikar said.
Ramakant Dhuri, the watchman of a nearby temple, was waiting to cross Cadell Road, which at night turns into an undeclared freeway frequented by speed devils. The road has no dividers ' a white line separates the two-way traffic.
Dhuri fell on the pavement and suffered severe head injuries. Bystanders rushed him to a hospital where he was unconscious for about an hour before he died.
After hitting Dhuri, Chatterjee continued to drive. The policemen on the spot tried to follow him on motorcycles, but could not catch up with the Mercedes.
A wireless message was then flashed, and a police team from the neighbouring Mahim station intercepted Chatterjee on the Mahim-Bandra road. The police said Chatterjee initially misbehaved with them, for which he has been separately charged under Section 353 (assault on public servant) of the Indian Penal Code.
The Mahim squad handed him over to Dadar police station, where an angry crowd gathered on hearing that the watchman had died.
Chatterjee later told The Telegraph: “I was driving from my Worli home to the suburbs when the car hit the man on the side of the road.” He is a resident of Samudra Mahal, a skyscraper facing the Haji Ali mosque on central Mumbai’s Haji Ali waterfront which houses several corporate chieftains.
Asked about the police version that his Mercedes hit another vehicle before ramming into Dhuri, Chatterjee said: “I am not aware of it.”
However, Vikram Trivedi, among the battery of lawyers who appeared for Chatterjee in court, confirmed that the Mercedes had a minor accident before it ran over Dhuri.
Chatterjee spent the night in the police station and was produced in court this morning. He was granted bail on surety of Rs 10,000.
Victim Dhuri’s son Rajesh said: “I heard Chatterjee claimed that the accident happened because he was speaking on his mobile phone. It is completely false. He was drunk, and many people saw that his car swayed violently from left to right, hitting my father standing on the dividing line.”
But the police refused to confirm the mobile phone claim. “We don’t know yet if Chatterjee was speaking on the mobile phone because the windows of the car were tinted. The investigations are on,” Raikar said.
Chatterjee had held senior positions with a soft drinks giant in Colombo and with another company in Delhi and Singapore before he joined Standard Chartered in 2000.
At Standard Chartered, he works as vice-president, corporate affairs, South Asia. Managing corporate communications, he became the public face of the bank and a familiar fixture on Mumbai’s social circuit. Chatterjee had coordinated the brand association of the bank with the high-profile Mumbai Marathon last month and the Afro-Asia Cup played in South Africa in August 2005.
Lawyer Trivedi said: “All the sections applied were bailable. Therefore, the court granted him bail. The police have taken my client’s blood samples for alcohol test, but we are yet to receive the report.”
Besides the sections relating to speeding away and misbehaviour, the banker has been charged under 304 A (rash and negligent driving causing death) of the Motor Vehicles Act. The last section carries a maximum punishment of imprisonment up to two years. If he tests positive for alcohol, more charges will be applied.
In most cases, the police use their discretion and do not apply the more stringent section 304 A (II) relating to culpable homicide not amounting to murder, punishable with 10 years of imprisonment.
The tough section was applied only in the hit-and-run case involving actor Salman Khan after a public outcry and a public interest litigation demanding severe punishment for the actor who was initially let off after paying a bail of Rs 950.
In 2002, the actor was accused of running over sleeping bakery employees in Bandra, killing one person -- one of the most infamous accident cases involving celebrities. An exception was Saif Ali Khan who took the boy his vehicle hit to hospital and informed the police.
Following a spurt in hit-and-run cases in Mumbai, the state government had begun considering a proposal to make drunk-driving a non-bailable offence. Deputy chief minister and home minister R.R. Patil had mooted the proposal but no decision has been taken.