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Six against seventy

Often I find myself at the center of inquisitive eyes when I tell people I served in Customs intelligence. Questions about the nature of my job, its modalities, and the most popular of them all, “Were there any cases that stumped you?”. The nature of The Customs intelligence department is such that one is trained to be light on their feet, to think quickly and act efficiently. Under the keen eye of superiors and from years of experience, one builds up a healthy repertoire of suitable actions. While unpredictability may be the name of the game, we have always been well-prepared to take up any challenge posed.

However, each new case brings up its own twists. For as many tricks one might have up their sleeve, there comes a moment when it all boils down to a single action. Therefore when the decisions weigh heavy, even the most adventitious of us are compelled to agree -The truth indeed is stranger than fiction. My tenor as an Intelligence officer and later as Superintendent of Customs in Rummaging and Intelligence Wing of Bombay Customs is interspersed by many such incidents. To act in the nick of time, to choose between alternatives that mimic the tango of the devil and the deep sea - requires ingenuity and courage. The magnanimity of risk taken could very well tread the line between life and death. Thirty years ago, a similar choice was put in front of me and my colleagues.

Between 1988 -1991, I was posted at the Headquarters section of R&I, Bombay. In this short span, I came across many brilliant gems of Mumbai (then Bombay) Customs as my colleagues. These gentlemen and women exemplified what it means to go above and beyond for one's duty. Well-honed in their craft, each member personified the ideals of dedication, perseverance, and steadfastness. Even so, it was the head of R&I Shri L D Arora, Additional Commissioner of Customs, who left an indelible mark on my memory as one of the finest officers of his generation. He had infused the department with vitality and vigor like none other. Under his command, the Customs became a force that would churl the stomach of even the kingpins of Mumbai's underbelly - earning him the monicker ‘Lal Topi’. His network of informants reached far and penetrated deep into the smuggling infrastructure. Some of the most famous seizures of smuggled goods in volume and gravity were recorded during his tenure. This particular mission too was under his helm of command.

On that fateful day of March 11, 1990, just as we were heading home a sudden briefing was called by Shri Arora.  Input had been received regarding the transportation of gold or silver somewhere around the infamous Heera Panna Market that night. Neither the time nor the location of the transfer was pinpointed, and the details appeared fuzzy around the corners. Our missive was to scourge the area, keep an eye out, and report back with more concrete information. No stone was to be left unturned - as Custom intelligence officers we had to pinpoint the golden needle in a haystack. We held implicit trust in Arora Sahib’s foresight, as his decision had never failed the mark. And thus without a single question, we set out for the field.

Considering that the lookout was supposed to be a routine affair, we picked up only the bare necessities of an anti-smuggling operation. Among these was an official revolver with few rounds, a flashlight, and a portophone for communication.

We proceeded to the area in our departmental vehicle but sent it back immediately as it carried the risk of being identified. All smugglers in the area were well-versed with the Registration number of the official vehicles and had even memorized the faces of our drivers. An identification of the same by even one of them could have jeopardized the entire mission in an instant. All of our movements had to be thought out to precision. As a famous quote goes, if you fail to plan, then you have planned to fail. Thus we outlined our strategy as follows - In order to cover maximum ground, we decided to divide ourselves into three groups with two members each. One group was to wait as commuters at a bus stop near Heera Panna Market. The second group was posed as devotees near the Haji Ali juice center, pretending to wait for the low tide in order to cross over to the dargah. The third group would loiter around the area of interest, keeping a broad lookout for any suspicious activity. The cardinal rule of intelligence operations states that any identity is prone to be compromised if maintained for longer than two hours. We, therefore, decided to exchange our rendezvous every one and a half hours.

As part of the first group, I was stationed at the bus stop. Minutes passed by without any activity, as people went in and about their daily charades. Looking over the crowd once again, I came across a face that was familiar to the customs department - Mr. Dhan. Dhan owned a customs-notified shop in the nearby area and was a small-time smuggler. In those days, customs-notified shops were those that had permission to sell notified goods such as cosmetics, watches, electronics, etc provided that all regulatory dues on such items including Redemption, Fine and Penalty were paid. Exploiting the loopholes in the law, shopkeepers such as Dhan would officially show duty and penalty-paid items as part of their unsold stock for years but continued to sell similar smuggled goods without a traceable receipt. By nature of their trade, these shops were hubs of smuggling activity - and the shop owners were well acquainted with those manning the smuggling operations.

Noticing our presence, Dhan's entire demeanor changed. He cautiously approached us, nevertheless an amicable smile still present on his face. “What brings the sirs here today?”, he asked trying to sniff out our intentions. We responded with a practiced ease that we were on our way back home after serving summons in a case. To seal his suspicions, we even boarded a bus bound for Dadar. Such narrow escapes cannot be planned, but they must be improvised on scene. Once sufficient time had lapsed, we returned to our positions, with Dhan none the wiser.

The vigil continued till midnight. As per plan we changed our positions continuously and remained discreet by mingling with the crowd. The hours melted away into darkness and soon it was midnight. The streets soon thinned out, with the day weary having returned to their abodes. Even if the day was at a close, we could not afford to let down our guard. Soon, our vigilance paid off and we were given a  substantial piece of information from our colleague IO who was taking rounds of the area. Out of breath, he recounted to us that a huge crowd had formed inside the Heera Panna Market. Goods were being loaded onto vehicles at  a tremendous speed, with an estimate of around 100 people on the scene. Compared to our collective strength of six, the odds were clearly stacked against us.

A moment in hesitation is a moment acted too late. We quickly analyzed the presented situation.

It would take a minimum of two hours for help to arrive optimistically. In comparison to 100, a mere muscle power of six surely could not stand. There was apprehension that some of the smugglers may be carrying fire arms also. This was a catch-22 situation. A head-on raid would carry risk to our lives while waiting for backup to arrive would mean slippage of smuggled goods from under our noses. However, thinking in blacks and whites is not the way of a customs officer. We may not have had the comparable numerical equivalence, but our experiential knowledge far surpassed any of those at Heera Panna.

As per protocol, we contacted the Control Room and asked them to pass on the relevant information to Arora Sahib. Assessing the materials on hand with us, we devised a plan to counter the operation at its heart. Only the element of surprise could give us an added advantage here.

Reaching the location, we assigned one officer to be stationed at the terrace. He was to man the flashlight. This particular light was used in naval operations and has a blinding flash that could travel up far and wide. On our signal, the officer was to point the beam toward the smugglers, petrifying them to their spots.

Not wasting a single second, the five of us ambushed the scene. We used the assigned revolver to strategically fire into the air and made loud sounds, creating the scene of an ambush. Dazed by the sudden light and startled by the deafening gunshots, the smugglers panicked. Lady luck had smiled upon us, and the smugglers thought a big force had surrounded them. In haste, they fled the scene, leaving behind even their chappals and shoes. When the dust settled, we inspected the scene before us. The area was deserted, except for two vehicles left behind. A matador and a Jeep were laid bare, their floor metal sheets removed. Inside, we could see tailor-made gaping cavities filled with silver ingots. They were in the process of loading silver into these cavities and refixing the metal sheets thereafter. It was an ingenious modus operandi that would have been difficult to detect. In total 32 silver ingots weighing more than 1000 kilograms and valued at Rs. 68.25 Lakh were seized from the spot.

When we counted the shoes left behind, 70 pairs materialized before us. The sheer magnitude of the people involved dawned upon this. This operation may not have yielded the highest in terms of value, but dare I say it was a celebrated feat of the mind over matter.

Soon Arora Sahib arrived with help. When all the formalities were done and dusted, we stepped out to the beginning of a new day. The night had passed without a hitch, the city sleeping peacefully unaware. The excitement of the night soon wore heavy on our shoulders, and we were off to our own homes to rest for some hours. After all, our duty would yet again call us this fine day to serve to the best of our abilities.

Years later, I still recall every detail of that night with alacrity. It was not the number of goods seized or even the fear of death that permeates this event in my mind, but rather the underlying message of it all. As officers beholden to our duty, we have to face every obstacle in our way as a stepping stone. Our accountability lies not just to our superiors but to every citizen of this nation. In the greatest example of this devotion, Shri L D Arora was later killed in an ambush by Smuggling kingpins and gangsters in Allahabad. He truly epitomized the spirit of service to his post.

When asked if I have faced any cases that stumped me in my career as an Intelligence Officer of Customs, I have a single answer to them all. No case can ever ‘stump’ the department, for if a mountain is high, we will go around it. If it is wide we will climb above it. And if both wide and tall, we will simply go through it.


25/01/2023 10:04:42 AM

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