On August 31, Mumbai Police Commissioner Rakesh Maria walked out of the Khar Police Station with beads of sweat dotting his fatigued face. He had just completed over 40 hours of interrogation of Indrani Mukerjea, Sanjeev Khanna and Shamwar Rai, arrested for the 2012 murder of Sheena Bora, Indrani's daughter from a previous marriage. Indrani is the wife of former Star CEO Peter Mukerjea and ex-CEO of INX Media.
As city police chief, Maria could have delegated the investigation but has chosen to lead it. Working round the clock with a core team of four policemen, he has set himself a deadline of a month to file the chargesheet though the rulebook provides him 60 days. This is because Maria wants to wind it up before he is promoted as the State's Director General of Police on September 30.
As a sleuth he is one of the best in the country, says Hussain Zaidi, author of Black Friday, a book on the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts - a case cracked and investigated by Maria. "He works on people's weakness. Even if he is short on information Maria behaves like he has it all. This intimidates the accused," said Zaidi.
Unlike many of his predecessors, Maria has the complete respect of his juniors, one even calling him a "a shot of viagra" to a demoralised police force. "Policing has found a new meaning. Maria sir is a task master but we know it is for the best as he has no political masters," said an encounter specialist who has worked closely with him.
It was the 1993 serial Mumbai bomb blasts that shot Maria into prominence. He had at the time been posted with the Traffic Branch as a deputy commissioner with its office in the in the suburb of Matunga. It was a position that wasn't connected to crime policing. However, on the evening of March 12, 1993, the day 12 bombs blasted simultaneously across 12 locations in the city, the Matunga police station received a phone from Dr Jaichand K Mandot, a skin specialist who had noticed a light blue scooter parked in front of his clinic at Dadar (East), a stone's throw from the crowded train station. It was there before the blast and continued to be there after.
A team led by Maria reached the spot and discovered the scooter laden with explosives. The same night an abandoned Maruti van was found off Worli by the Police. The van registered in the name of Rubina Memon, a resident of Al-Hussaini building in Mahim, was found with weapons, hand grenades and other weapons. Maria led a team to the Memon residence and found it locked. When they broke into the flat, he found the key to the explosive-laden scooter outside Mandot's clinic.
The key linked the scooter to Abdul Razzak Memon and his five sons including Tiger and Yakub Memon. Two days after the bomb blasts, Maria, despite being from the traffic division, had cracked the case. The state government created a post of Deputy Commissioner of Police (Detection) especially for Maria to head. His investigations into the bomb blasts led to 100 convictions and the hanging of Yakub Memon.
Since then Maria has gained a reputation as a formidable investigator. In August 2003, three bombs went off at two locations - Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazar. Heading the investigation, Maria had a lead within 24 hours. Soon three members of a family were arrested and all have got the deaths sentence.
Policemen say that Maria is soft-spoken cop but straightforward to the point of being blunt. "As an interrogator he does not believe in the third degree methods. He plays mind games with the accused like interrogating them at odd hours," said a senior police official.
Narrating an incident from the investigation of the 2008 murder of UTV executive Neeraj Grover, Zaidi says that Kannada actress Maria Susairaj would regularly visit Maria, who was then Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime), to find out the status of the case. "Once she asked him who his suspects were and Maria told her that she was his suspect number one. She turned ashen and lost her balance for a while. That was enough evidence for him to know that she was involved. She was arrested," said Zaidi. Maria Susairaj was let off with a lighter sentence because, while she helped in disposing the body, it was her fiancé, Emile Jerome Mathew, a Navy Lieutenant, who had done the murder. He got 10 years.
Zaidi says he has always felt Maria's mind is multi-tasking even as he speaks to you. "Every time I met him he presents even a small clue like a big one making reporters believe that they have got an exclusive. He knows how much to tell and what to hold back," said Zaidi.
During interrogation Maria also established an emotive bond with the accused. They start to trust him and give valuable information. That is how he got Ajmal Kasab, the lone Pakistani terrorist who survived the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai in 2009, to confess about the role of Pakistan's Hafeez Sayeed in the attacks. Maria's understanding of colloquial Punjabi and Urdu helped him interrogate Kasab who was later convicted and hanged.
Maria has been in controversies twice. Once when Vinita Kamte, wife of fellow officer Ashok Kamte who died in the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, accused Maria of not sending enough policemen to help her husband and other officers at Cama Hospital during the attack there. Maria was subsequently absolved of all charges by the Pradhan Committee set up to probe the charge. He was ready to resign from the force because the then Home Minister R R Patil was not keen on defending Maria. The second controversy was during his appointment as the city's police commissioner. Other senior contenders to the post, Javed Ahmed and Vijay Kamble (both Additional Director General), went public about their disappointment at Maria getting the top job. The State's director general of Police Sanjeev Dayal was also reportedly not too keen on Maria getting the job.
Maria took the job with two priorities--making Mumbai's streets safe for its citizens and cleaning the police force of corrupt elements. Through his journey from the traffic department to the crime branch to anti-terrorism squad to city police commissioner, inspector Dinesh Kadam has always moved with him. Kadam helped Maria investigate the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts case, now he is the investigating officer in the Sheena Bora murder case.
In the Sheena Bora murder, when Maria received a tip off from a woman, he transferred Kadam to Khar Police Station discreetly because he knew a bigger scandal was about to erupt. In the three months since that tip-off, the Maria-Kadam combination had been building a case against Indrani Mukerjea. He has barred all policemen from leaking information to the media on crucial cases.
Former Times of India Mumbai Bureau chief S Balakrishnan, who has interacted with Maria since the early 90s says one of Maria's strengths is his vast network. He is one of the few IPS officers to have a good network of informants assiduously cultivated over the years. "This network has held him well through the years and even after his elevation to the top job he continues to get the best tip-offs from them," said Balakrishnan.
A senior policeman says Maria has a razor sharp memory. "He knows even the smallest players in the underworld. We tend to forget but Sir gives us the details along with the latest status of the criminal. He remembers names of criminals including their middle names, age, addresses and their crime sheet. All this without anything written down," said the officer.
Senior crime reporter Prabhakar Pawar, who has been interacting with Maria since 25 years says he has interrogated culprits for over 10 hours at a stretch without losing his cool. "He is easily the best investigator in the country. Besides, the conviction rate for the cases he has investigated is 100 per cent," said Pawar.
Maria's father Vijay Maria came to Mumbai in the months after Partition aspiring to become a film actor. He became a financer and producer. Maria's family still owns the production house Kala Niketan and a sea facing Bandra bungalow.
Maria is said to have a keen interest in films, ghazals and qawwalis. According to sources, during an investigation into the terrorist group Indian Mujahideen in an eastern UP town, Maria was told that a well-known qawwali singer was performing through the night at a known dargah. Once he finished his work for the day, Maria went across to the dargah and enjoyed a night of qawwali.
A number of movies have characters based on him. Actor Anupam Kher is a close friend of Maria and his role as Prakash Rathore in the Hindi flick A Wednesday is one of them. Anurag Kashyap's Black Friday on the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts saw actor Kay Kay Menon depicting Maria. "What I like about the man is that he is silently confident and does not boast about it," says Kay Kay, who has never met Maria but found it a challenge to get into the character's skin. "I understood that Rakesh Maria is a man with a tremendous sense of perception, anticipation and strong intuition." Actor Nana Patekar's character in Ram Gopal Varma's The Attacks of 26/11 is also based on Maria.
A graduate from St Xavier's College when he appeared for his UPSC exams, he listed his preference in the service option column as IPS not once but five times! A keen basketball player and cricketer he has also represented Maharashtra in the National Games in Karate. A 1981 batch officer, Maria's first posting was in Khamgaon in rural Buldhana in Maharashtra. He came to Mumbai in 1986.
Maria is also credited with helping solve the cricket betting scandal involving South African Hansie Cronje in the mid 90s. Focused to a point of being obsessed with a case, his detractors within the force accuse him of "hijacking" cases. Rubbishing such accusations, his colleagues say that such talk started after Maria - as Crime Branch chief - ordered that all cases of every police station in the city be routed to his office. Since he was directly maintaining a watch on the city's crime graph, policemen pulled up their socks and detection of crimes got better and quicker.