Gold has been interwoven into Indian traditions and culture from ancient times. The demand for gold is driven by other macro-economic factors as well. India has always been one the largest markets of gold consumption. Therefore a certain flow of illicit import of gold into India has been a continuing phenomenon. While serving in the customs department we have handled some very interesting and high profile cases of gold smuggling. I would like to narrate a case of seizure of gold in which I had participated in 1989 when I was a Preventive Officer and posted in Rummaging and Intelligence Wing, of New Custom House Mumbai.
I remember, it was Sunday, July 02 1989. I received a phone call from one of my colleagues to immediately join a team of officers who were already on their way to intercept a huge consignment of smuggled gold at Andheri. I was asked to reach a particular hotel in the area. When I reached there I saw that a team of about 10 officers headed by late Mr. L D Arora the then Deputy Collector of Customs ( Prev.) R &I, New Custom House Mumbai, had already assembled in lobby of the hotel. Some more officers were expected to join the team.
There was an information that two vehicles, one Mahindra jeep and one Maruti van laden with huge quantity of gold would reach a garage cum residence of a transport operator at Marol, Andheri (East ), that the gold would be concealed in specially made hollow metallic chambers under the vehicles, and that the gold would be removed with gas cutters. Criminals can sometimes be more creative than fiction writers.
We had also come to know that the persons who would be coming to take delivery of the said gold, were members of a gang of underworld who had on earlier occasions attacked our officers during our such anti-smuggling operations. Therefore, we all had become ready with loaded revolvers, so that we could deal with any kind of eventuality.
Mr. Arora was busy on a telephone available in the hotel lobby (there were no mobile phones in those days!) Apparently he was trying to keep a track of movement of the vehicles laden with gold and those of the persons escorting them, so that we could strike at an appropriate moment. Intercepting any offending goods and the persons dealing with them is often a more challenging task in the town, than inside the airport or docks. We were told to wait for some time and be prepared for the next move. In order to ensure that the gold laden vehicles had actually reached the garage, a team of officers was sent to discreetly survey the place. The officers came back to the hotel and confirmed that the vehicles had reached inside the garage compound.
This was the right time to swoop on the vehicles. All the officers were asked to ensure that their revolvers were fully loaded. A team of officers was instructed to guard the compound from outside as well as at the entry gate, and ensure that nobody could go out, or come inside to obstruct the operation. Another team of officers was ordered to go inside the garage compound and take over the two vehicles.
These were the most tense moments. A team of officers swiftly swooped on the two vehicles parked inside the compound and took charge of them. The driver of one of the vehicles and the transport operator who had kept the vehicles in his garage were nabbed swiftly, on the spot. On cursory examination of the vehicles in presence of witnesses, it was found that there were specially made metal chambers under the vehicles and a huge quantity of gold bars stitched in thick cloth belts/jackets were stuffed inside. It appeared that they had already started removal of the gold.
Further we came to know that the persons who had come to take delivery of the gold were sitting in a white Premier 118 NE car and that the car was parked somewhere nearby on Andheri Kurla road. Another team of officers was instructed to intercept the said persons. The said car was found parked at a cinema theatre nearby. The car was intercepted by our officers with the help of police personnel from the MIDC police station Andheri east. There were four persons in the car, who were apprehended on the spot. A fully loaded revolver, of foreign make, was also recovered from their car. They were detained at MIDC police station Andheri east, so that they could not obstruct our operation. After completion of the usual formalities, they were arrested and produced in the court the following day.
It would not have been safe to rummage the gold laden vehicles there, so they were brought to New Custom House, Mumbai escorted by our officers, police personnel and witnesses. The two vehicles i.e. the Mahindra jeep and the Maruti Van were thoroughly rummaged in presence of witnesses at new Custom House. It resulted in recovery and seizure of 4520 gold bars of 10 tolas each collectively weighing 527 kgs. and valued at Rs. 16.25 crores at that time. It remains to be the biggest seizure of gold made by Indian Custom so far. Even our senior officers in the team wondered at the quantity of gold and the ingenious method of concealing and transporting gold.
Further during investigations it was revealed that the gold laden vehicles were dispatched from Mangaon to Mumbai. Seven persons in all, including the organizer, the landing agent, the transporter and distributors of this smuggled gold were arrested within 24 hours of the seizure. The officers could secure detention orders against six out the said seven persons under COFEPOSA act 1974, due to their unremitting efforts and hard work. The detention order was executed within 10 days of their arrest. It was largely due the perfect planning and personal involvement of Mr. L D Arora that, such a big seizure of gold involving persons of the underworld was made in a smooth manner.
The then Minister of state for Revenue late Shri Ajit K. Panja commended all the officers and staff responsible for this seizure and desired that the commendation be placed in their service records. This seizure received its fair share of print media coverage on the following days. Some newspapers published the photos of the seized gold too.
Such seizures of gold were plenteous in those days. We had an interesting tradition, that whenever there was a big seizure of gold we would artistically join a bunch of the seized gold bars and proudly write the name of the seizing unit, for instance “BOMBAY CUSTOMS (PREVENTIVE.), R.& I., or A.I.U., depending upon name of the seizing unit. ( as shown in the picture). It was usually done for the purpose of press photographs. It feels great to see the name of our department literally written in gold letters. The tradition continues in department in the same spirit. I am confident that whenever the history of Indian Customs will be written, the name of Mumbai Customs (Preventive) will definitely be written in GOLD LETTERS, there too.