Column | From Mumbai to Middle East private squads of govt agencies are a disturbing trend

Maharashtra Minister Nawab Malik. File Photo: PTI

The arrest of two conmen who posed as officials of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) with fake identity cards on charges of abetting the suicide of a Bhojpuri actress in Mumbai has triggered allegations that the central agency's Mumbai unit is running a private army. The allegation by outspoken Maharashtra Minister Nawab Malik that the two arrested men were part of a private army maintained by the unit under its high-profile head Sameer Wankhede has triggered denials.

The NCB's Delhi headquarters has denied that the duo have anything to do with the agency which fights drug menace in the country. But Mumbai Police which arrested the accused men, based on CCTV and call record evidence, has accused them of extorting Rs 20 lakhs from the actress, by raiding a hotel room rented by the actress and her friends in a five-star hotel. They had claimed to be NCB investigators and offered to hush up the case if the actress and her friends paid Rs 40 lakhs.

Aryan Khan's case another instance
Earlier Malik, who has had a running battle with Wankhede, had made a slew of charges against the Customs official now deputed to the NCB, saying that the recent arrest of Aryan Khan, son of superstar Shah Rukh Khan from a cruise ship in the Mumbai Port, was not over drug possession. He has claimed it was an elaborate plot by the NCB's private army to kidnap the younger Khan and extort a huge amount of ransom money from the rich actor. Wankhede's family and supporters have accused Malik of harbouring a deep grudge against the officer, as Malik's son-in-law was arrested earlier over drug possession charges. The NCB central office had transferred six high-profile cases, including the charge against Khan to its Delhi headquarters but otherwise it has not disturbed Wankhede. There was also a departmental inquiry by a senior official from Delhi into Malik's charges, but the report has remained under wraps in the home ministry.

But Malik's questions raise a disturbing question on the tendency of investigative agencies of both state and central governments maintaining private squads to help in undercover work among criminals and foreign agents. While it has been accepted to have informers, either from within the criminal groups or from among the general public, there has been questions when raiding teams are accompanied by private individuals, who are not recruited into the concerned force or agency. In insurgency-hit areas, it is known that security agencies employ private armies to take on the violent groups in their home turf. While these armies in Naxalite areas and India's border states name themselves as a revolutionary group, an arms distance is kept by the agencies when the mercenaries are either caught or exposed by the separatist groups.

The Mumbai Police has employed its own sets of private investigators to get information on the plans and successes of the gangs led by notorious criminals like Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan. But a complaint has been made against four persons who were allegedly present at the party attended by Aryan Khan on board the cruise liner. The Mumbai Police also alleges that these four, along with two others are part of a private army raised by the NCB to trap high-profile personalities in minor drug possession cases and extract huge sums. The police have so far not made any arrests in this complaint nor have they confirmed that the six of them are members of a private army of the NCB.

Sameer Wankhede
NCB Mumbai Zonal Director Sameer Wankhede arrives at Narcotics Control Bureau office in New Delhi, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. PTI

No immunity to mercenaries
While the Mumbai unit of the NCB has a secret fund like every policing outfit in the country, these funds are used for getting information as well as payment and protection to informants. But if these private recruits are used in raids or formal activities of the NCB, they do not get any legitimacy as protection from prosecution for doing official work is given only to those who are full-time employees. This is why there was a hue and cry years ago when the Chhattisgarh government supported formation of vigilante group Salwa Judum to take on Naxalites in the Bastar region. The Supreme Court had ruled that the private militia was unconstitutional and asked the Chhattisgarh government to disband it.

Private armies abroad
Private armies are in operation in many countries, especially in Africa, during civilian wars. France has just now complained that Russia has heavily supported the mercenary group Wagner Group to fight the proxy civil wars in the Middle East. The Group, allegedly controlled by a businessmen close to President Vladimir Putin, has been accused of sending armed mercenaries to fight against rebel forces in Syria and Central Africa that work against regimes supported by Moscow. While Wagner Group has heavy weapons, the private army in Mumbai uses blackmail.

Kiran Gosavi's (L) selfie with Aryan Khan while the latter was in NCB custody

Govt's stand
But the central government says that fraudsters have a tendency to claim they belong to central agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation, Income Tax Department and Enforcement Directorate, apart from the NCB. Some of these agencies have provided helpline numbers and email ids. The government admits the menace continues though several conmen have been arrested and prosecuted. Yet there is need for the Centre to come clean on the role of the eight men named by Malik and some complainants in Mumbai so that trust in the Narcotics Control Bureau is restored.

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