Has the toxic shroud cast by Mumbai's organised crime cartels over the city tainted the press also?

Less than four weeks after a mafia hit team shot dead investigative journalist Jyotirmoy Dey, investigators are claiming to have in their custody the eight men who brought about his death on a rain-splattered road in Mumbai.

The men, police say, were paid by Rajendra “Chhota Rajan” Nikhalje, the fugitive East Asia-based ganglord, to murder Dey. But about why those men were paid to assassinate Dey, or the circumstances that led up to the killing, there are still no answers.

Emerging evidence, though, suggests that the killing had little to do with Dey's work: he kept no notes or tapes which suggest he was working on a life-threatening exposé; asked no questions of long standing colleagues and friends in the police force; mentioned nothing to his editors.

The investigation has, instead, begun to raise an uncomfortable question: has the toxic shroud that Mumbai's organised crime cartels have cast over the city's police and politics also tainted its press?

Early on June 7, police say, Vinod Goverdhan Asrani called Dey to request a meeting. The two men sat down that that evening, along with local television reporter Sanjay Prabhakar, at the Uma Palace, a nondescript bar in Mulund.

The Mumbai Police allege Mr. Asrani is among Rajan's key confidantes, funnelling proceeds from extortion and cricket betting into construction projects. In 2005, he was arrested on organised crime charges along with Sujata Rajan, the mafia baron's wife. The prosecution, however, failed to stand judicial scrutiny.

An article

Mr. Asrani, investigators say, claims he conveyed a request from Rajan not to write articles hostile to his mafia — an account broadly corroborated by Mr. Prabhakar. Bar staff do not recall any acrimony, but there is no independent account of the meeting; Dey does not appear to have kept notes.

The article in question had appeared on June 2, painting a picture of a mafia in decay. Large numbers of Rajan's lieutenants, Dey had written, had “gone on pilgrimage,” fearing attacks by his Karachi-based rival, “Chhota” Shakeel Ahmad Babu.

In the machismo world of Mumbai's gangsters, the charge of cowardice is the deepest possible insult — in this case, even betrayal, because Dey's work had historically cast Rajan as a patriot, fighting off the Inter-Services Intelligence backed Karachi mafias which had carried out the 1993 serial bombings in Mumbai.

For reasons that aren't clear, Dey never discussed what others might have seen as a threat with friends or colleagues. It is entirely possible he didn't see it as one.

Police say a man named Rohit Joseph — Satish Kalia to those who didn't know him — was also sitting in the Uma Bar, waiting to see what the man he would kill with a .32 automatic looked like. The hit is alleged to have been arranged by D.K. Rao, Rajan's principal lieutenant in Mumbai.

There's little reason to believe, though, that the article in itself would have been the cause of Dey's murder. Mumbai journalists have often gone considerably further in criticising mafia figures. Asian Age Husain Zaidi's racy “Mafia Queens of Mumbai,” for example, records that Shakeel had an affair with an incarcerated colleague's wife.

London visit

Part of the answer might lie in a somewhat mysterious visit Dey made to London on April 27. The holiday was booked through Raj Travels, a Mumbai tour operator which specialises in package holidays to families and couples. Dey travelled alone; others on the tour, interviewed by the Mumbai Police, have said he kept to himself.

No one knows quite why he went: even the young woman journalist he had become involved with as his marriage disintegrated, has told investigators he offered her no explanation.

Inside the Rajan gang, though, there was speculation that Dey had used the trip to speak with Iqbal Mirchi, a 1993 bombings fugitive who has successfully battled Indian extradition proceedings for years. Mr. Mirchi was granted leave to remain in the United Kingdom in 2001 — even though his name figures on a United States government list of key global narcotics traffickers.

No evidence to support these rumours has emerged: if Dey did speak to Mr. Mirchi, he didn't do so either from his cellphone.

But the unexplained visit, investigators speculate, likely set alarm bells ringing in the Rajan gang. Ever since he was almost assassinated in Bangkok back in 2001, by a Shakeel hit-team member posing as a pizza delivery boy, Rajan's paranoia has been legendary.

His life

Efforts to uncover the truth have till now been frustrated by the extraordinary opacity of Dey's life. “He was a secretive man,” says a colleague who worked with him at the Indian Express. “Each time I'd call him, he'd hang up and call back from a landline. I didn't even know who he was married to or where he lived, until the day of his cremation.”

Dharmesh Thakkar, among his closest colleagues, concurs. “He was my mentor,” Mr. Thakkar said, “but he'd never tell me who he'd been meeting, or what he was working on. That's just not how he was.”

Fresh out of a job at Hindustan Lever, Dey began working at Mid-Day in 1994. He had earlier been an occasional contributor to the Afternoon Despatch and Courier, writing up accounts of his expeditions into the Himalayas.

His journalistic work, mainly on the sex industry in Mumbai's Kamatipura area, earned him a job at the Indian Express. “I taught him crime reporting,” recalls Mr. Zaidi, “and he taught me how to lift weights.”

Dey built his career as a crime reporter as part of a small group of journalists admitted to the inner circle of Pradeep Sharma and Daya Nayak, two of the Mumbai Police's so-called “encounter specialists.”

Both men, were dismissed from service on charges related to corruption and organised crime links — but have won reinstatement after protracted legal battles, though other cases are still pending.

The two men, prosecutors allege, worked closely with Rajan, profiting in the process. In 2002, though, the relationship between Mr. Sharma and the Rajan gang fell apart after the execution of mafia money launderer Omprakash Singh — allegedly after he failed to pay back Rajan several million rupees of drug money.

There is no evidence to bear out media allegations that Dey profited from his contacts. The home he purchased in Mumbai's upscale Powai area was part-paid for with a loan which does not appear to be consistent with its full market value. However, property transactions in Mumbai are routinely undervalued for tax purposes, and Dey could well have saved enough to make the purchase legitimately.

Fairly or otherwise, though, Dey came to be identified as part of Mr. Sharma's caucus — possibly fuelling Rajan's fears that he, too, had defected to the other side.

Last week, a man claiming to be Rajan himself called up NDTV, offered something of an explanation. Dey, he said, had invited him to the Philippines, where the journalist was due to make a visit at the invitation of that country's tourism board. The man claimed to have learned through underworld sources that he was being lured into a trap, set up by his Karachi opponents.

No one, however, can independently corroborate how, or even if, Dey's relationship with Rajan deteriorated. Dey's estranged wife, Shubha Sharma, declined to be interviewed for this article She had earlier told reporters, however, that she had no knowledge of Dey's affairs.

“You're asking me to guess,” says a senior officer on the murder investigation, “so here's my guess: I think once the rumour got around that Mr. Dey was double-crossing Rajan, he wouldn't have done a lot of cross-checking.”

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