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The Curious case of Prosenjit Hazra - Part 1

Disclaimer: This is a purely fictional amalgamation of several real-life incidents I've read in the past several days formed into a contemporary tale running across threads of misinformation, cyber-security, terrorism et al. The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this series of posts are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred. [0]

Mumbai Police Headquarters

Part 1: ACP Vaman Chandrakant

ACP Vaman Chandrakant just couldn’t settle his mind on how he should present the case of Prosenjit Hazra. He had taken this case on the recommendation of his mentor ADGP Padmanabhan. “Just like a case on the Underworld was a stepping stone to promotions in our times, it is going to be terrorism and cybercrime in yours – and this case has a perfect blend of both” – Padmanabhan Sir had said.

Padmanabhan himself had risen through the ranks of IPS to become the DIG and then the ADGP. He was a legend in the police department for his ability to solve cases of serial Bomb blasts in Mumbai in the 1990s. He had not only found the much-needed evidence to prove the links between the underworld and the bomb blasts, but he was also instrumental in arresting the growth of underworld in Mumbai in that period. Coming from him, this case was a mandatory assignment of sorts and even a golden opportunity.

When he took up the case, the case brief made it look like a case which could conclude very fast. It was just about arresting Hazra and getting him to confess, Vaman had thought – after all Hazra was just a History Professor, not some hard-boiled criminal. And again – Hazra was small fish; had it not been for Hazra’s presence in Mumbai for last few years, his arrest and interrogation would possibly have been part of another larger case for Assam or UP police. Vaman had planned to close the case in 3 months, and then hand over the evidence to Assam Police or UP police or (as he thought was more likely) to the NIA for further investigation on the larger canvas of Maoist terror cases.

Unfortunately, by the time the cobwebs of state elections cleared, and Vaman was able to get pace on the case, Padmanabhan Sir had retired and migrated to the United States where his daughter lived. Given that he had just become a grandparent, chances of him visiting Mumbai in the near future were bleak and his availability even on the phone was very low. So, Vaman was fending for himself – the new ADGP was a different man with ambitions different than Padmanabhan sir. There was a rumour that he was making moves to get into politics after retirement. If Vaman went to him with his dilemma about the Hazra case, he was sure his case could get into political headwinds which he wanted to avoid at all costs.

So, what was the Hazra case all about – on the surface it was simple; Prosenjit Hazra was a ‘suspect’ handler for Maoist terrorists in North Eastern belt of India [1]  – from Assam to Meghalaya and Sikkim. The accusation on Hazra, a professor of Bengali by the day, was that he was a handler for Maoist terror groups by the night. He would be contacted by ‘higher-ups’ online with instructions which he would then relay over to operatives on ground. The narrative tied well with the recent media reports which accused several ‘intellectuals’ – many of them artists or educationists – being involved in supporting Maoist activities in North East. Or did it?

The original case file was based on information collected by Assam Police. Assam Police had discovered a money trail from the Maoists operatives to a local handler in Nongpoh in Meghalaya midway between Gauhati and Shillong 50 kms from each. The local handler was a sports teacher at the local High School in Nongpoh [2] – Assam Police had recovered weapons from the school’s sports room. The handler had also opened a Bank account in a local cooperative bank and money had travelled via a series of cash dealings into his bank account which later was made to pay out ‘connections’ in Burma who were apparently the arms suppliers. The most amusing part of the local case was the name of the handler – Adolf Lu Hitler Kharmalki [3]!

The boss of the local handler was apparently someone with a first name ‘Prosenjit Da’ – who would be in touch with him through ‘email’ and ‘messaging’. The group used a Switzerland based encrypted email service to communicate in addition to encrypted messaging using Blackberry phones earlier and other messengers are Telegram later. It was this cyber-angle which made the case interesting for Vaman, who was an IIT-Delhi alumnus [4] before he joined the Indian Police Service (IPS). While he was a chemical engineer by qualification but had a good grasp on information technology given his technical bent of mind – good enough to understand the nuances of what encryption meant and how it was being used by the terrorists.

But this is where the case became difficult – there was little that the Indian Police could do to influence the Swiss or American email and messaging service providers to provide them with further data. So they had to go blind on this one – the only inroad was access to the Adolf Lu’s email account. Assam Police passed on whatever information they could from this and identified Prosenjit as the handler. For almost 4 years thereafter, the whereabouts of Prosenjit were unknown - Prosenjit is a common Bengali name. The hunt started for several Prosenjit’s – their backgrounds were checked, their family histories and their income sources checked. But nothing came of it.

Finally, two things happened serendipitously – first, the IB relayed a message to the Assam Police about a certain Prosenjit Hazra then employed with a local graduate college in Varanasi had quit his job, sold his ancestral house in Benaras and had migrated to Mumbai. Mr. Hazra fit the bill of a typical Maoist sympathizer – he was a professor of ‘East Indian languages’ at Benaras Hindu University and taught students of Theatre Communications. He was keenly interested in Theatre otherwise and would often organize plays on topics which were considered close to separatists. More so, he was unmarried though 55 years old now and hence moving cities at such a late age was suspicious.

The second serendipity was information arriving from Assam about the involvement of a government official [5] in syphoning government funds to terrorists. The government official interestingly got his instructions from someone in Mumbai – Assam police put the and two together and concluded that Prosenjit Hazra was the handler ‘Prosenjit’ and his Mumbai move was to connect directly with the ‘higher-ups’ in Mumbai now that the government official was arrested.

Assam police relayed both sets of information to the Mumbai police and stage was set for Hazra’s arrest. Vaman, along with a team of Assam Police deputies arrested Hazra and work started – the idea was to extract information from Hazra and add to the case against those involved in illegal arms purchase case. The deputies from Assam police returned after the arrest and hoped that Vaman would be able to soon pass the necessary information.

But the more Vaman interrogated Hazra, the more confused the case became – either Hazra was a master at feigning ignorance or he was indeed innocent. Hazra first denied all charges – his own story was very convincing and indeed one with which Vaman not only related, but he also developed sympathy for Hazra – if indeed his story was true.

Continued in Part 2.

References

  1. https://fountainink.in/reportage/a-mutiny-in-assam
  2. https://ribhoi.gov.in/public-utility-category/schools/
  3. http://www.nancy.cc/2014/01/06/colorful-names-meghalaya/
  4. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/IPS-officers-with-medical-engineering-degrees-are-changing-the-face-of-policing/articleshow/48137820.cms
  5. https://www.timesofassam.com/headlines/nc-hills-scam-court-sentences-3-life-imprisonment-8-12-years-others/

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