The police claim they have a case against this journalist. If so, they must prove it, not vilify and harass her
In recent years, fugitive underworld don Chhota Rajan has developed a new passion—interacting with the press corps. He has the phone numbers of crime reporters, editors, TV news channels and newspaper offices. From time to time, he has been remarkably accessible to journalists on the crime beat, only too pleased to offer his own version of a story. His calls to the media have been getting ever more frequent, of late, even as editors continue to tag every Chhota Rajan interview an ‘exclusive’ and reporters brag about their ‘closeness’ to the don.
Jigna Jitendra Vora, 37, deputy bureau chief of The Asian Age, was among those who saw in Chhota Rajan a chance of a career boost. Arrested last week and charged with aiding the gangster in killing her former colleague and senior crime reporter Jyotirmoy Dey on 11 June, Jigna might hardly have imagined that her career catapult could turn into her nemesis.
The police version of events is that Jigna and Dey were friends who fell out over their rivalry in cosying up to the fugitive. Dey’s murder, they allege, was a result of this falling out. The Mumbai Police has charged her under the harsh Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), particularly Sections 3(1), 3(2), 3(4) that deal with organised crime. She has also been booked on charges under Sections 302 (murder), 120B (criminal conspiracy), 34 (acts done by several persons), 201 (causing a disappearance of evidence or giving false information) of the Indian Penal Code; Sections 3, 25 and 27 of the Arms Act; and Sections 37(1)(A), prohibiting any public gathering of more than five people, and 135 (burning an effigy of the Central Government) of the Bombay Police Act.
The journalist’s arrest comes after months of speculative whispers that she’d acted as an informer for Chhota Rajan on Dey’s personal and professional life. But 54-year-old Dey was not only Jigna’s senior in the profession, he was by all accounts far closer to Chhota Rajan than she was. It is no secret that Jigna had once used Dey’s access to the don to gain her own. It is also highly likely that, in the years that Dey was in touch with him, the don had his own sources of information on the journalist. Would he have needed Jigna to spy on Dey?
Now, it is the don’s word against Jigna’s. Chhota Rajan, via phone calls to journalists, has not only admitted to having had Dey bumped off, he has also alleged that it was Jigna who supplied him with key details such as Dey’s email ID, daily routine and motorcycle registration number (the one he was shot on). The gangster has also told journalists that Jigna had forwarded him anti-Chhota Rajan stories done by Dey. However, not once has he said that Jigna asked him to kill Dey.
Soon after the killing, the police had pointed to the involvement of a rival gangster, Chhota Shakeel, whom Dey was reportedly getting close to. It was only after Shakeel rang journalists to refute these police allegations that Chhota Rajan claimed responsibility.
Though Jigna has been charged under MCOCA, the Mumbai Police has failed to establish a clear motive for her alleged actions. One theory has been that Chhota Rajan distrusted Dey’s dalliances with Chhota Shakeel, and wanted him out of the way, but there is nothing to explain how Jigna fits into this.
Recall, just a fortnight after Dey was shot, the police had claimed to have cracked the case with the arrest of seven men, including two of Chhota Rajan’s gang. The hit by motorcycle-borne assailants was allegedly carried out by Rohit Thangappan alias Satish Kalia. (In all, so far, 11 people have been arrested in the case.) Though the police were to file a chargesheet in the case in October, it was delayed, they say, after they stumbled upon new evidence linking Jigna to the case.
Now, Mumbai Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik describes it as a sensitive and murky case involving two journalists. “We have strong evidence to prove that the accused was involved in a conspiracy, based on which the court has allowed us to take her into custody. We had assured [the court] at the beginning of the case that we would arrest all those behind Dey’s murder and ensure that they are convicted,” he has declared.
The police have been highlighting her alleged supply of information to Chhota Rajan. According to Joint Commissioner of Police and Crime Branch head Himanshu Roy, Jigna has changed her statement on two occasions, and the versions contradict each other. “We have electronic and circumstantial evidence to prove that she passed on details to Rajan,” asserts Roy.
By the argument in court of Jigna’s lawyer Girish Kulkarni, the police had confiscated her mobile phone and laptop that could have been used to pass on information to crime syndicates. “But till now, they have not produced any evidence in court to support their case,” says Kulkarni, “This is a strong indication that there is no concrete evidence against my client.”
The slain journalist’s close friends say that he was paranoid about his safety, changed his route every day, and never disclosed details of self or family to anybody who didn’t already know. But this didn’t mean he lived a phantom life. If Chhota Rajan wanted Dey dead, he could have used his own vast network of informers to track Dey’s movements. “Dey’s bike remained parked in his office compound at Mid-Day. The number was no secret. He really did not need Jigna to keep him informed,” says a journalist known to both.
Perhaps most strangely of all, Jigna has also been slapped with Section 302 (murder), even though the police say that she was not in town on the day of Dey’s killing; they also say that she was unaware of the don’s intentions, as she was heard expressing shock and anger in call intercepts after the killing.
As for the question of Jigna’s motive, even her interrogation has not yielded any. But the whispers go on. At her residence in Ghatkopar, her mother Harshaben Vora, 61, and grandfather Tulsidas Hargovindas Sanghvi, 81, are trying to come to terms with her arrest. Harshaben is too teary to speak; forced into an unfamiliar world of IPC charges, policemen and lawyers, her health has worsened, and even once-sympathetic neighbours have begun distancing themselves from the family.
Sanghvi seems in a daze. “I met her after she was sent to jail and she appeared calm,” he says, “She did not talk much, asked about her mother, and told us to keep her eight-year-old son safe and away from the news… She would come home very late and wake up late. We knew she was a crime reporter. We never asked her questions and she never discussed her work with us.
Legal experts are surprised that Jigna has been charged under MCOCA, saying that its harsh provisions cannot apply to such a case. But the police are relying on a 2008 Supreme Court ruling that allows communication intercepts—oral, written or telephonic—as admissible evidence under the Act.
The Act’s efficacy itself is under question. While the city police have been invoking it to curb organised crime, the conviction rate under it has been very low. While the police say that high acquittals in these cases are explained by witnesses turning hostile and delayed trials, the truth is that the police have rarely come up with convincing evidence, says a lawyer. “MCOCA has lost its effectiveness due to its misuse. It happened with the Terrorists and Disruptive Activities Act (Tada) as well.” The Act is typically used for the cynical purpose of keeping people behind bars for sustained periods, since the police get more time than usual to file a chargesheet and it takes very long to secure bail under it.
A high-profile acquittal under the Act was that of diamond merchant and Bollywood financier Bharat Shah. Arrested in January 2001 and charged under it for allegedly using the strongarm services of Chhota Shakeel to force actors into working in his film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke, he was also accused of passing on money to the Mumbai underworld through hawala channels. Shah challenged the constitutional validity of MCOCA. In 2003, the Bombay High Court declared that phone-taps were illegal under it. Since these were the only evidence against him, he walked free. About a year later, the Maharashtra government appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled phone-taps legal under the Act.
The list of those charged and acquitted under this special law is long. In 2005, four members of Chhota Rajan’s gang were acquitted by a special court in Pune; there were discrepancies in the prosecution’s case. In November 2009, the Bombay High Court took the Maharashtra government to task for failing to file appeals in time against acquittals in MCOCA cases. Around the same time, a 37-year-old man called Sajid Sayed who’d been booked for alleged ties with Shakeel’s hitman Fahim Machmach was acquitted by a special MCOCA court. The prosecution failed to present evidence of his alleged extortion calls and links to Machmach.
In September 2010, alleged Shakeel gangster Anjum Fazlani was acquitted as the Mumbai Police failed to establish his role. He’d been arrested for allegedly threatening actor Salman Khan at Shakeel’s behest to reduce his fee for Chori Chori Chupke Chupke. Bharat Shah’s accountant, an alleged hawala operator, was also acquitted in 2010.
Lawyers handling such cases say that vested interests often manage to get the Act invoked against enemies, and even if a case is genuine, law enforcers fail to do the spadework needed to secure a conviction. Shoddy investigations, it is alleged, led to the acquittal of former Mumbai Police Commissioner RS Sharma, who was also arrested under the Act for alleged underworld links in the Abdul Karim Telgi case.
In Jigna’s case, police sources say that they needed to take her into custody to interrogate her on a sustained basis. However, despite this, no new clues to Dey’s murder have surfaced. “I know Jigna personally,” says lawyer Abbas Kazmi, “She was not only efficient and sincere, but also a very persuasive reporter. It is common knowledge that a crime reporter gets in touch with the underworld as and when required for a story. She too has done a similar thing. It is a professional hazard.”
Kazmi says that it will be difficult for the police to prove the MCOCA charges levelled against Jigna. “The police always put forward a conspiracy theory and then fail to establish the chain of circumstances. The Act is an arbitrary and high-handed tool used by the police. Unlike the IPC, where they get only 14 days’ remand, here they can get longer remand and investigate [the case] at their own convenience. They can also get an extension for investigations.” He recollects a 2002 case, in which the Mumbai Police had arrested Mohammed Afroze, an alleged Al-Qaida operative, from Vashi, a bustling suburb. He was charged under the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (Pota) for playing an alleged role in the attacks of 9/11, but was later acquitted. There was no evidence.
There is little doubt that Jigna’s black book has a vast network of underworld contacts. Once a court reporter, Jigna had a knack of netting sources. Sharp and witty, she worked hard to get stories from behind the scenes. While other reporters hesitated, she would boldly interact with criminals and gangsters outside courts. It helped her do her job.
Now, however, her strengths have returned to haunt her, even as she suffers a whisper campaign. For some strange reason, her phone was under surveillance even before Dey’s death. And now she finds herself accused of murder. The police, whose MCOCA record speaks of incompetence and worse, say they have a case they can prove. Until they do, under the law, Jigna is innocent.