MUMBAI Syed Zabiuddin Ansari alias Abu Jundal, arrested at Delhi airport two weeks ago, was wanted by the police in at least three states—Delhi, Maharashtra and Karnataka—for plotting and executing bomb blasts there. However, now that he has been put behind bars by the Delhi Police, a bitter battle has begun over his custody.
The police forces of these states have been at loggerheads with one another for several years. Not only do they usually fail to share intelligence inputs and other information, cases abound of one trying to botch up the other’s operations. In the past, the anti-terrorism squads (ATSs) of Delhi, Maharashtra and Karnataka have fought over fugitives like the Bhatkal trio of Indian Mujahideen operatives: Yasin Bhatkal and the brothers Iqbal and Riyaz Bhatkal. They still do.
The fight over Ansari is the latest flashpoint of an ongoing war between the cops of Maharashtra and Delhi, states that have suffered numerous terror attacks. The Maharashtra ATS, unaware of Saudi Arabia’s extradition of the terrorist, had sought custody of Ansari by moving the court of Delhi’s Chief Metropolitan Magistrate. With the Delhi Police—which operates under the Centre—opposed to any such transfer, the request was turned down. The Mumbai Police and Mumbai Crime Branch have also been trying to get hold of Ansari at the same court. Not to be left behind, the Pune ATS has also made the same demand (though not in court); Lalbaba Mohammed Sheikh, the man who first identified Ansari’s voice on the 26/11 phone recordings, is lodged in Pune’s Yerwada Jail, and the city’s cops want to pursue their own probe.
However, the Delhi Police, whose custody of Ansari was due to expire on 5 July, seemed set to ask for an extension as Open went to press.
In Mumbai meanwhile, Additional Director General of Police Rakesh Maria, who is the current chief of the Maharashtra ATS, is pushing for quick action on other terror cases. Known as one of India’s best investigators, Maria has been in pursuit of Yasin Bhatkal ever since indications were found of his role in a series of explosions as their mastermind.
After Mumbai’s 13 July 2011 serial blasts, Maria redoubled his efforts to capture Yasin Bhatkal. Back then, it turns out, the Delhi Police had specific information of his living in a flat— along with two Pakistani associates Tabrez and Barkas—in a building in the central Mumbai locality of Byculla, less than a kilometre from Maria’s Nagpada office. The Delhi Police did not relay this information to Mumbai.
So, even as Maria was working hard on plans to arrest Yasin, it appears he and his flatmates managed to slip away to the capital to plant a bomb at Delhi High Court that killed 11 people and injured over 70 on 7 September 2011. If police sources are to be believed, then either Yasin was freely able to travel between the two cities z, or did not leave Mumbai after the 13 July blasts.
It was a couple of months or more after the Delhi High Court attack that the Delhi Police got confirmation of the details of Yasin Bhatkal’s Byculla home. It was in Habib Building. Owned by a lady called Rubina Qureshi, it had been taken on rent by the three. Yasin had even paid a security deposit and signed an agreement with the owner, and Tabrez and Barkas had presented PAN cards as proof of identity. Armed with such specifics, the Delhi Police sent a team of its Special Cell over to the area, but did not inform the Maharashtra ATS.
With its headquarters a short distance away, the ATS found out, and Maria ordered his forces to surround Habib Building. With both Delhi and Maharashtra teams at the location, lying in wait for Yasin, an angry confrontation took place between the two. The divide was not lost on Yasin, say Mumbai Police sources. The fugitivewas scheduled to turn up at the house to collect his security deposit, as he had said in a phone conversation (under ATS surveillance) with Qureshi. But he did not. Both teams ended up blaming each other for his getting away.
When Maria was confronted by the media about the Delhi Police’s claim that his team had let Yasin escape, Maria had retorted, “Do you think these suspects would come to Mumbai to collect the lease deposit on a flat?”
The Special Cell of the Delhi Police had brought along Mohammed Naqui, a small-time Delhi trader who had helped Yasin rent the Habib Building flat. The Special Cell was depending on Naqui to identify Yasin, since it had no photo of him. Once this information filtered its way to the Maharashtra ATS, it arrested Naqui while he was on a visit to his brother’s house in Mumbai Central. Sources say that the Special Cell requested the state ATS to release Naqui, but its pleas went unheeded.
There are other examples of clashes between the two cities’ forces. During the 2008 Batla House encounter in Delhi, sources say a Mumbai Police team had reached the location without informing the Delhi Police; the team was on the lookout for Yasin Bhatkal. In all the confusion, both Delhi and Mumbai cops agree, he managed to escape yet again.
There have been a few other points of agreement too between the police forces of these two states. Before Ansari was arrested, for example, the Delhi Police, Maharashtra ATS and Karnataka ATS all firmly believed that the suburban Mumbai train blasts of 7 July 2006, Pune’s German Bakery blast of 13 February 2010, Mumbai’s serial blasts at Opera House, Zaveri Bazaar and Dadar Kabutarkhana of 13 July 2011, Delhi’s High Court blast of 7 September 2011, Delhi’s Jama Masjid shootout and blast of 19 September 2010 and Bangalore’s twin blasts at Chinnaswamy Stadium on 17 April 2010 were all the handiwork of the Bhatkal trio.
In active operations, however, the police forces remain at odds with one another. After the German Bakery incident, the Maharashtra ATS arrested Yasin Bhatkal’s younger brother Abdul Samad Zarar Sidibapa from Bajpe airport in Mangalore without the knowledge of the Karnataka Police. The 23-year-old, touted as a “prize catch” by Maria, was reportedly interrogated for 40 days. At the end of it, the Maharashtra ATS did not find any evidence to link Samad with the blast, and later admitted its error.
In Ansari’s case, the Maharashtra ATS is up against not just the Delhi Police, but the National Investigative Agency (NIA) as well. The NIA also wants custody of the latest ‘prized catch’, and it rushed a team to the man’s hometown of Beed without intimating the state ATS (which considers this Maharashtra town part of its turf). There had been friction between the two in the past as well. After Mumbai’s serial blasts on 13 July last year, the Maharashtra ATS had refused to cooperate with the NIA, which flew a team down to take charge of the case.
There are divisions even within Mumbai’s security set up. Mumbai Crime Branch Chief Himanshu Roy has been exchanging cold vibes with Maria, and the two have tried to wrest several cases away from each other.
All this police enthusiasm to take charge of key terror cases might impress casual onlookers. But the only winners in this war of cops will eventually be the terrorists who get away.