How the Crime Branch painstakingly reconstructed the narrative behind the Delhi blasts
Unperturbed that they were not dressed in formals but simply in pyjama-kurta and slippers, two officers of the Delhi Police Crime Branch one day barged into a building where the then Police Commissioner T.R. Kakkar was addressing a club meeting in February 1998. To draw his attention, one officer gestured at the police chief by raising him thumb.
“What happened?,” asked the Police Commissioner, leaving the podium immediately. “Sir, we have cracked almost all the blast cases,” replied an elated officer. “What! Is it true?,” exclaimed the police chief.
Recounting the defining moment, after the alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba operative Abdul Karim Tunda’s arrest was announced on Saturday, the officer told The Hindu: “ Mr. Kakkar tapped the other officer (Ravi Shankar) twice saying he wanted to confirm that it was not a dream. We had arrested an Indian and two Bangladeshi nationals and made a huge recovery of explosives and raw material.” The officer said he was proud to be part of the highly motivated investigating team that cracked the Tunda module following a year-long probe.
Since 1996, bombs have been triggered in different parts of the city. “The blasts were getting more frequent. The most devastating was the one inside a crowded bus at Punjabi Bagh in December 1997, in which four commuters were killed and 24 injured. Then in January 1998, there was another blast outside the Police Headquarters. The force was under tremendous pressure,” said the officer.
It was a blast targeting Maharaja Agrasen procession in September 1997 that prompted the then Police Commissioner to involve the Crime Branch. “We had no inkling about the perpetrators. Since a Central Bureau of Investigation team led by Neeraj Kumar (who later went on to head the force) cracked a Lashkar-e-Taiba module in 1993 with the arrest of Jalees Ansari and others in Mumbai, we got some clues from there. The list of the suspects included Tunda’s name, but back then we had no evidence to link him to the Delhi blasts,” said another officer.
Entrusted with an arduous task, the Crime Branch took up the probe methodically, visiting each blast site to gather evidence. “Apart from the items used to configure improvised explosive devices, we found small pieces of papers scattered at almost all the blast sites. Bringing the various paper pieces together, we identified the newspaper, which provided us a crucial lead suggesting that those linked with the blasts were from Western Uttar Pradesh.
The investigators soon managed to reconstruct the explosive device being used by the module. “It was a unique device. The bomb maker used a metal case apparently manufactured using a lathe machine. It would be stuffed with potassium chlorate and then covered with a layer of sodium azide and ball bearings, following which a capillary tube filled with sulphuric acid would be inserted head-up and then there would be a layer of papers,” recalled the officer.
The prototype was circulated at all the police stations with a direction to ascertain the place where such a case was being manufactured.
Coupled with the legwork, the police then started analysing the calls made to Pakistan hoping for a clue. In the meantime, the police seized a compact disc from a terrorist arrested in Punjab, which showed various ways of manufacturing bombs using household goods. “We eventually found that it was prepared by Tunda, who was training terrorists at the Lashkar headquarters in Pakistan,” the officer added.
The combined efforts finally led to the breakthrough when the police zeroed in on the suspects in Sadar Bazar and arrested two Bangladeshi disciples of Tunda named Mato-ur Rehman and Akbar alias Haroon. They arrested another suspected terrorist Kamran. “We traced the lathe machine that was used to manufacture the metal cases. We identified the place from where they were procuring sulphuric acid and other items,” said the officer.
While the Bangladeshi national initially remained tight-lipped, Kamran purportedly confessed to his involvement immediately. “ For the next seven to eight days, he gave details on the Delhi blasts. He also identified Tunda as his Pakistan-based handler from his photograph. He also provided leads that helped crack another module,” recalled a senior officer, adding that 26 people, including eight Pakistanis, two Bangladeshis and a Burmese national were arrested during the operation. It was following the first arrests that the intelligence agencies joined the probe.
“After the arrests, not even a single blast was reported in the city for long. It was a huge success for the force, particularly for the investigating team, which worked on the case round-the-clock. I remember that an officer (Rajendra Bhatia) took just a day off on his father’s death. Another officer (Data Ram) would interrogate the suspects throughout the night standing on his toes. Then there were Subhash Tandon and others. All did a great job. It was a unique case where 30 police officers got out-of-turn promotions in one go. I have never come across such a complex case,” said Karnal Singh, who had supervised the Crime Branch probe in 1997-1998.
Although Tunda had by then escaped to Pakistan, searches for him continued for long. Last he was heard running a bomb-training centre in Bangladesh. “However, through the interrogation of his men we had prepared a list of about 5,000 people who had crossed over to Pakistan after the Babri Masjid demolition (1992) to undergo training. Most of them returned and stayed away from terror activities. We, therefore, did not touch them,” said another officer, adding that with Tunda’s arrest, it was a fitting finale to a probe that had began with little clues.