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Since 1st March, 1999
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Encounter-buster cut to size
- Hoping to ward off criticism, Gujarat brings back former investigator

Ahmedabad, May 3: The Gujarat government today forced the hand of maverick chief investigator Rajneesh Rai, who arrested three IPS officers and was pointing the needle of suspicion to sensitive quarters in the political establishment.

Rai returned the files of the case to his superiors after police brought a senior officer, Geeta Johri, back into the picture for the investigation. Ironically, it was Johri’s inquiry report in end-2006 that spurred the investigations.

The Supreme Court today asked for the full inquiry report prepared by Johri after she first pointed to discrepancies in the account of the killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh as given by D.G. Vanzara and Co.

But while Johri’s was an “inquiry”, it was the investigation of Rai, who took over as DIG, CID crime, on March 1, which ratcheted up the case and pitchforked it into national glare. By getting Johri back, the Gujarat government will now be able to shed off criticism for her removal.

Johri, an inspector-general, is senior to Rai, a deputy inspector-general. Technically, Rai is in the probe team. But he will have been divested of the powers that allowed him to pursue the investigation with such gusto that the state government was beginning to worry for some of its senior leaders.

Till Rai was practically taken off the case, the investigators were spurred by the Supreme Court that gave Gujarat police two weeks for a final report in the fake encounter case. They were working to interrogate — and possibly arrest — more colleagues of Vanzara and members of the anti-terrorist squad.

Rai and his sleuths wanted to interrogate 11 policemen, intensify the search for the remains of Kauser Bi, the widow of Sohrabuddin, who was killed on November 26, 2005, and even question Gujarat’s political establishment for trusting its leadership with good policing.

Looking beyond colleagues Vanzara, Rajkumar Pandian and Dineshkumar M.N. whom Rai had known and worked with for years, the chief investigator was also going to ask for the accounts of at least seven other members of the anti-terrorist squad — deputy superintendent M.L. Parmar, inspector N.H. Dhabi, sub-inspector Balkrishna Choube, constables Santram Sharma and Ajay Parmar, and drivers Nathu C. Jadeja and Gurdial Singh.

Each of them were either present during the “encounter”, had shot Sohrabuddin or had facilitated the incident — albeit because of orders from the top.

Rai’s suspicion had been whirring like a compass needle gone mad but it was slowly settling to a point that may have marked out Modi confidant and Gujarat minister of state for home Amit Shah.

But before that Rai, originally an Orissa-cadre IPS officer and who is now in his early 40s, would have wanted to question officers of Gujarat and Rajasthan police and also an Andhra officer, E. Radhakrishnaiah, who had played host to Pandian. When Rai summoned Vanzara, Pandian and Dineshkumar for questioning, the session ended with their arrest.

By most accounts gleaned from within Gujarat police, whose officer cadre is riven into factions, Rai is an absolutely maverick with a track record of questioning superiors and politicians and, once, even raiding the house of a minister in Bhavnagar during a previous stint in a posting with the CBI.

What has worked for Rai so far is the perception that he does not seem to be aligned to any of the factions. His wife, too, works for the Gujarat government. She is an IAS officer, currently collector in Surat, with a reputation for being tough on a builder lobby that was working the administration to make a killing from state coffers.

On April 29, Rai walked up to director-general of police P.C. Pande and offered to be taken off the case after the DGP asked for his reports and actions to be vetted by an additional DGP, .P. Mathur.

Rai had offered to hand over the case files to Pande. But Pande, aware of the maverick in Rai, asked him to stick on.

There was the fear that Rai would spill the beans by filing an affidavit in court and alleging that there were political motives at work, something he had done in the past in another case.

Rai’s investigators have so far taken note of the linkages that Vanzara and his team members have had. Their mobile phone records are being studied and another team is beavering away in Vanzara’s village, Ilol in Sabarkantha district, to trace the remains of Kauser.

They believe they have already established that Kauser was killed and her body burnt.

The question now being asked is why did Shah, minister of state for home, tell police officers at a meeting in January that Kauser was not Sohrabuddin’s wife and that she had fled to Pakistan. Was it an attempt at a cover-up, a distraction or is that another line of investigation that has not yet been opened up' Gujarat police and the Gujarat government are not answering.

By arresting Vanzara, Pandian and Dineshkumar, Rai has taken many of his colleagues and superiors by total surprise. The dramatic details of those arrests can now be gleaned from within Gujarat police some of whose officers have seen the video footage of the questioning and the arrest.

Vanzara, Pandian — who is about four years junior to Rai in the IPS and was once a friend of his — and Dineshkumar were seated in front of the DIG during the questioning. During a lull in the conversation that had gone on since morning, Pandian got up, saluted smartly and said: “I now take your leave for lunch, sir.”

“Sit down,” said Rai quietly. “Be my guest. I will give you lunch.”

A nonplussed Pandian looked askance. “There is enough evidence to arrest you,” Rai told him.

Pandian looked at Vanzara and Dineshkumar. Vanzara said sarcastically: “Hear, hear, your friend is arresting you.”

Rai cut him short: “And you,” he told Vanzara. “And you, too,” he told Dineshkumar.

Rai then asked them for the telephone numbers of their family members. He was keeping to the book. A court had ordered that the police should inform family members of a person it was arresting.

“I am arresting all three of you,” Rai told them and called for his constables.

Shortly afterwards, he walked up to DGP Pande and informed his boss. Details of that exchange are not immediately forthcoming but, apparently, Pande felt he was in a hot seat.

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