3 years

Crime

The Number Game: A Bollywood Drama

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Featuring actors, private investigators and a celebrity lawyer

THE ACTRESS AARTI Nagpal and her husband Anil Mistry have been going through a messy divorce. Married in 1995, and now with two children, the two have been living separately since 2012. Mistry wants a divorce, but Nagpal is holding out for a better settlement offer.

Nagpal, who is known by a number of screen names, from just Aarti to Aakruti and even Aackruti, works in regional language and Bollywood films, having appeared most recently in the Akshay Kumar-starrer Holiday. Last year, she upped the ante in her divorce case. She wrote letters to various government officials—from the offices of the Prime Minister, Maharashtra’s Chief Minister and the Commissioner of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corp, where Mistry worked as an engineer, to the Anti-Corruption Bureau—accusing her husband of being corrupt. She even detailed her allegations to newspaper reporters. This has led to Mistry losing his job and a disproportionate assets probe against him. It is another matter that she has also been named as a co-accused in the same case. It is an acrimonious spat that involves children, allegations and counter-allegations of harassment and threats, corruption and extra-marital affairs.

Nagpal says she was shocked at a hearing last year of their divorce case in Mumbai’s Family Court when Mistry produced a document with a comprehensive log of her mobile phone conversations. “It had everything,” she says, “a detailed list of all my conversation with friends and professional contacts, where exactly I was located, based on where I was making and accepting these calls. He was trying to tarnish my reputation. Character assassination— that’s what it was.” Nagpal does not elaborate the purpose for which her call records were brought up, but one of the things Mistry has accused her of is involvement in another relationship, apart from according her cinema career priority over the care of their children. “I was very surprised [when he produced phone call details]. I was very afraid that my phone was being tapped,” she says. “At that time, I did not know that you are not allowed to acquire such Call Detail Records.”

This issue of illegal access to such private information has begun to acquire scandalous proportions. In Mumbai, a big racket has been uncovered that has drawn into the spotlight private detectives, hackers and a celebrity lawyer. Also in the police’s glare are several Hindi cinema personalities other than Nagpal. There is Kangana Ranaut, who allegedly sought the call detail records of Hrithik Roshan with whom she had a public spat last year; there is Jackie Shroff’s wife Ayesha Shroff, who had acquired the records of her former alleged partner Sahil Khan; and there is Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who is said to have asked for the records of his wife.

The lawyer in question, Rizwan Siddiqui—who represents several film folk, including Kangana Ranaut, Ayesha Shroff and Nawazuddin Siddiqui—was arrested by the police and was detained briefly until a court ordered his release saying that proper processes had not been followed by them. According to the police, the lawyer had Call Detail Records in his possession, acquired either from his clients or on behalf of them—via a network of private detectives. Rizwan has refused to talk to the media about the case since he was freed.

The police say Shroff and Nawazuddin have been summoned to record their statements. All of the film personalities have denied allegations of wrongdoing, with Ranaut saying she had given various details to her lawyer, since she was acting in response to a notice (from Roshan). ‘...To assume that these details were used to violate law and make statements based on that assumption and defame an artist is super lame...’ reads her statement on the matter.

According to Nagpal, who filed a complaint against her husband and Rizwan recently, Mistry is a close friend of the lawyer, and he had been seeking his counsel in the divorce case against her. “When I came to know about the Call Detail Record racket, I realised that what my husband had done was also illegal,” she says. “This was how he had also got my call details,” she says, an apparent reference to the lawyer’s alleged nexus with private sleuths.

According to a police officer working on the case, so far they have found close to 300 Call Detail Records of various people. “And this is probably just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “The investigation is still on. Many more [records] are probably being acquired and circulated this way.”

The Call Detail Record of a person reveals phone calls made and received via a particular SIM card in his or her handset. It has the specific numbers with which contact was established within a period, apart from the time, date and duration of outgoing and incoming calls. Likewise, it contains SMS details. In addition, it reveals the location of the user during these calls, information that is often crucial in courtroom efforts to prove whether an individual was in the vicinity of a crime scene, for instance.

Since the right to privacy is independent of whether an individual has anything to hide, it is sensitive data. Under the rules, only an officer of the rank of Superintendent of Police or above from law enforcement agencies can ask telecom operators for someone’s Call Detail Records for investigative purposes. But in the current case, the individuals whose records appear to have been leaked were not under an official scanner. “It is completely illegal,” says the police officer, “and we fear that the purpose in some cases could have been to extort money.”

All the film personalities have denied allegations of wrongdoing, with Kangana Ranaut saying she had given various details to her lawyer since she was acting in response to a notice from Hrithik Roshan with whom she had a public spat

THE LEAKS FIRST came to light in February with the arrest of five private detectives accused of hawking Call Detail Records acquired unscrupulously. Among the first to be arrested was Rajani Pandit, a female private detective. She was let out on bail after spending almost two months in prison. “Something weird is going on here,” she says in Hindi. “I am not saying this because I am accused. And let me tell you, I don’t depend on call records. And I haven’t tried to get the records of any of the people mentioned [by the police to the media]. Call Detail Records are easily available. It is not legal, yes, but one can get them easily. The police have known this for a long time so why are they acting like they have found something new? Is it because this involves well-known people and hence it’s great publicity? Or have they found people within the force itself who are misusing these Records? They arrested a constable stationed at Yavatmal police station. But that’s too convenient. How does a constable access Call Detail Records? Only higher officers can ask for [them].”

Pandit is a lean woman who claims she is 54 years old, although the police say she is well over 60. Dressed in a salwar kameez, she sports a large red bindi and outsized jewellery on her ears. She seems like someone who could easily blend into a crowd. She has a nervous tic about her, the air of someone looking to and fro as if looking to cross a busy street. Pandit suddenly rises from her chair to point a finger at the ceiling and speak her only sentence of English. “A detective is not made,” she declares, “A detective is born.”

Behind her, the chair swivels in circles. She catches hold of it, takes her seat again, and resumes her conversation in Hindi. We are in her office, which resembles the living room of a middle- class house. “I like my clients to feel relaxed,” she says, “as though they are confiding in a sister at home.” A spinster who lives with her mother and a brother, she says her gender works to her benefit, with people less inhibited while talking to her.

Pandit’s father, who worked as a CID officer, was initially against her career choice. But she developed a fascination for solving cases in her college days that determined her choice of profession. She speaks of several colourful cases, of following people, once even working as a house maid. “Most cases are family- related, like working on behalf of a wife to see if her husband is having an affair, or doing a background check on a prospective groom. Sometimes we get corporate-related work to check an employee’s background. These are cases you can’t go to the police for. Either they won’t investigate or they won’t be discreet. So that’s where we [private detectives] come in,” she says. “To me, it’s all follow, follow, follow, use a camera to take pictures and find evidence maybe. Not getting Call Detail Records or anything. Our profession has changed a lot in the last few years. But I prefer doing things the old way—following.” Pandit does admit she had the records of two numbers in her possession provided by some other detective, but says these are not related to the cases the police has spoken about.

Since India has no regulation of professional private eyes, a vast number of them are shady operators. The methods they employ have changed in recent years. The job was once mostly about tailing targets physically, but now involves the use of various technologies to spy on people. Bugs are used for eavesdropping and hidden spycams for the capture of visual evidence. The acquisition of Call Detail Records is not uncommon. A few years ago, a private investigator told me how he had tailed a man for over 15 days on the request of his fiancé; he bribed the staff of a hotel to install a spycam in a room his target had booked, and caught footage of him having sex with a woman. All of it reeks of privacy violations.

“That is what I am trying to say,” Pandit says, “we need a law that regulates our profession and a sort of regulatory body to mark out what is legal and illegal, and to check the authenticity of people who claim they are detectives.”

In the current case of leaked Call Detail Records, the interrogation of the five private sleuths led the authorities to a 24-year-old Pune-based hacker, Ajinkya Nagargoje, who the police say had accessed the records by hacking into the account of Yavatmal police station’s superintendent. An officer investigating this case claims that Nagargoje was the go-to-person for private detectives willing to pay for such records.

However, Nagargoje’s fiancé Siddhi Shelar, a law student in Pune, says he is not a hacker but has worked as a consultant with that station’s cyber cell. If a few records have been found in his possession, she says, it might only be because his job required it. “Any cyber and tech-related work at the police station went to him. It was his job to deal with it. [The police] have come up with a story saying he was a hacker, he had hacked into the SP’s email account. Is it possible to hack into an account without someone like the SP knowing about it, without him getting an SMS saying someone has requested a new password?”

According to her, the police are trying to crack down on private detectives who are known to acquire call records. She points to the case of Radhesham Mopalvar, an IAS officer in Mumbai who was being blackmailed by a private detective. The former chief of Maharashtra State Road Development Corp, Mopalvar has been accused of seeking bribes. According to news reports that appeared last November, the IAS officer had employed a private eye called Satish Mangle to help him in a divorce case against his wife. However, Mangle and his wife, a Marathi actress named Shraddha, took the opportunity to record their client’s phone conversations and then reportedly used these (their details are not public) to extort money from Mopalvar. Mangle and his wife were arrested late last year on the officer’s complaint.

The IAS officer’s case has a link with the current scandal. Someone called Kling Mishra, it seems, had called Mopalvar on Mangle’s behalf. Mishra, also an accused in the case, is said to be absconding. “What probably happened is, they have these detectives who are known to acquire Call Detail Records. They find one of them has a vague link to Ajinkya (one of the arrested detectives, Jigar Makwana, also dealt in second-hand cars, and had sold one to Ajinkya, says Shelar). And Ajinkya’s profile fits. He has a background in technology and cyber crime. And when they search him, they find Call Detail Records on his computer, but mind you, these are records related to his cyber crime work and not the current cases. So they just connect the dots in a very loose way and come up with a story,” says Shelar. “There are Bollywood names in this case, good publicity for the police, so they go on and sell this story to everyone.”

In Mumbai, Nagpal says the scandal has shaken her. “My phone is probably being tapped. I am sure. And now I know [private detectives] were probably being used to get my Call Detail Records. It’s all very scary.”

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