The January 2 attack on the Pathankot airbase by Pakistani terrorists and the suspicious conduct of a senior police officer have revived some old truisms. Terrorism rarely operates in a vacuum. It enjoys a cosy, often symbiotic, relationship with smuggling and corruption. What is startling is how quickly these lessons learnt in the 1993 serial blasts of Mumbai have been forgotten.
On January 25, 1993, SK Bhardwaj, the customs collector (preventive) received the single most momentous tip off of his two-decade-long career. A "big quantity of weapons would be smuggled into India by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), alongwith gold and silver". The consignments, the alert said, were likely to be landed in the next 15-30 days around Mumbai and three locations, Shrivardhan, Bankot and Ratnagiri, around 200 kilometers away on the Konkan coast. The alert came just weeks after a horrific spell of communal riots in the country’s economic capital had killed more than 900 persons leading to the army being called out in the streets of the city. Bhardwaj alerted the Indian Navy and sent a copy of the alert to the Additional Collector of Customs, Somnath Kakaram Thapa, who headed the Marine and Preventive Wing which policed the seas.
Thapa, who received the input on January 27, deployed his men along the Konkan coast, the roads along the tiny landing spots and seaside villages that dotted the western coast where the Dubai-based Dawood Ibrahim gang frequently landed gold, silver and electronics. Yet, despite specific intelligence, Dawood’s lieutenant Ibrahim Mushtaq "Tiger" Memon transported 1.5 tonnes of RDX, hundreds of Type-56 assault rifles, pistols and grenades, at Shekhadi on the Konkan coast on February 3 and 7. On March 12, 1993, these explosives were used to trigger off 13 serial blasts across the city that killed 257 persons, injured more than 700 and, in the words of a 1996 Supreme Court judgement, attempted to "to break the backbone of the nation".
A CBI investigation into the bombings unravelled the startling truth as to just why Bharadwaj’s inputs had failed to prevent the bombings. Tiger Memon’s men had greased their way through a multiple security tiers manned by customs and police officials, driving their deadly shipment into the heart of the city with impunity. The fence had eaten the crop.
Sub-inspector Vijay Patil, in charge of the Shrivardhan police station, and four constables - Ashok Muleshwar, PM Mahadik, Ramesh Mali and SY Pashilkar - took bribes of Rs 7 lakh to allow the deadly consignment to be transported from Raigad to Mumbai. Senior customs officer SK Thapa and four other officers — assistant commissioner RK Singh, customs superintendent Mohammed Sayyed, customs inspector Jaywant Gurav and customs superintendent SS Talwedkar — facilitated the passage of the arms consignment.
Thapa, a 1996 Supreme Court verdict noted grimly, “had knowingly facilitated the commission of terrorist acts by intentionally aiding and abetting Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar.”
A 1994 tape recording of Tiger Memon’s conversation with blast accused Taufique Jaliawala indicated that Memon had paid Thapa Rs 22 lakh for allowing the smuggling to take place.
Thapa left an escape route for the smugglers by not maintaining vigil - not at the main exit point after the landing, but at two other points on the nights of January 30th and 31st. He lifted the checkpoints two days later without any specific reasons and did not contact the source who told him that "some chemicals" had landed in Shekhadi on the night of February 3, 1993. Thapa had information about the landing of RDX (described as "Kala Sabun" in the under-world) at Shekhadi and Shrivardhan on February 3. He was sentenced to life in prison, but died of cancer, in April 2008, while the trial was still on.
Upholding the conviction and sentences awarded to these ten officials in March 2013, the Supreme Court noted that "corruption among public servants indicates a failure of our systems where pursuit of personal gratification subdues public interest" and warned of "frightening ramfications" for the country’s security. Ramfications the country continues to grapple with more than two decades later.