‘Charles Sobhraj was cruel; wore many faces’

Retired IPS officer Amod Kanth on interrogating Sobhraj and why he thinks the criminal justice system is in disarray

April 14, 2023 09:02 am | Updated 10:04 am IST

‘Sobhraj betrayed the trust of people closest to him,’ says Amod Kanth.

‘Sobhraj betrayed the trust of people closest to him,’ says Amod Kanth. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In the second volume of the Police Diaries series, Khaki on Broken Wings, former director general of police Amod K. Kanth unravels a host of cases that dominated national headlines. From the sensational escape of Charles Sobhraj from Tihar Jail in Delhi to the BMW hit-and-run case that left several dead, Kanth also lays bare the loopholes within the criminal justice system, and how the influential exploit it. Excerpts from an interview:

What is the significance of ‘broken wings’ in the title?

The book is in continuum to my previous work which reflected the violent decade of the 1980s. Through this I have reflected on the point that although the police are supposed to be one of the wings of the criminal justice system, the other wings being judiciary and the prison system, the police assume an overarching role. Be it investigation, detection, prosecution, collection of evidence — police have a role to play apart from maintenance of law and order. The criminal justice system happens to be in disarray, and most people find that the system has broken at its seams; the police, being the prime mover, are sitting on the broken wings of a criminal justice system.

There are four very important cases which I investigated and are mentioned in the book, the escape and arrest of Charles Sobhraj being one of them. I have tried to explain that the criminal justice system is in a crisis and unsuitable for the present times.

You interrogated Charles Sobhraj, nicknamed the ‘Bikini Killer’, following his arrest after an audacious escape from Tihar jail in 1986. He recently walked free from a prison in Nepal. Can you tell us more about the escape and re-arrest?

Charles Sobhraj escaped from Tihar jail in 1986 and exactly 22 days later, was arrested in Goa. It is a telling story of the failure of the prison system; Tihar jail was almost taken over by Sobhraj, he was running it like his fiefdom. He operated in so many countries with impunity. He has served more than 40 years in jail so far. He was first in Tihar for 10 years before he ran away. He was re-arrested and remained there for another 11 years. In 1997, we managed to deport him to France. He fled from Tihar as he wanted to escape a red corner notice pending against him in Thailand as he suspected that if extradited to Thailand, he will be served a death sentence.

By planning the escape, he was able to go beyond the 20-year period of the validity of the red corner notice as he had to serve the jail sentence for the crime. After the notice lapsed, he was deported to France. He went to Nepal where he was arrested again and remained in jail for another 19 years.

What struck you the most about Charles Sobhraj? He took advantage of a legal loophole to avoid extradition to Thailand.

He had befriended many foreigners in jail. He had a knack of presenting himself as a law expert and an intellectual; he wore many faces. He planned the escape when he failed to get an order in his favour from Delhi High Court. The extradition was due in December 1985. Even prior to the final escape, he had hatched a plan. He was the cruellest crook I have come across. More than 20 innocent people were drugged, robbed and killed by him and his companions — what the victims had in common was that they were all known to him and trusted him. He betrayed the trust of people closest to him. When he was in my custody for almost a month, I never allowed him to sit on a chair.

You emphasise on the need to reform the criminal justice system — do you think the police act under political pressure in certain cases?

India’s criminal justice system is a complete carryover from 1857; in those times the British ran the system to keep people under colonial subjugation. Today, the rich and powerful — politicians, bureaucrats, senior police officers and the government as a whole who rule the country — have taken over the system; and the police report to them. Although it is believed that any investigation should be insulated from any kind of influence, it is true that a probe is often under the influence of powers that be.

What is the remedy for such kind of influence?

The Constitution of India is an antithesis to the archaic criminal justice system. Every police officer should stick to the rule of law which also flows from the Constitution. May be they will have problems here and there, there may be times when powers that be may be uncomfortable with them but in the end they will be victorious... major harm cannot be caused to them; of course, they have to be careful. Rule of law is both a sword and shield. I have concluded the book with the Preamble to the Constitution.

You have named a certain TV journalist for helping Charles Sobhraj in his escape, was this person ever arrested?

He was prosecuted. He had crossed the limits of journalistic ethics. He got into an area of pure crime and he was chargesheeted.

Khaki on Broken Wings: Cases That Shocked India; Amod K. Kanth, Bloomsbury, ₹559.


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