NEW DELHI: A clandestine operation by a crack team of the Rajasthan Anti-Terror Squad (ATS) in Kupwara district of Jammu and Kashmir earlier this week has unravelled what a deep throat said is the largest gunrunning gang in the history of independent India. A top source confirmed that Kupwara alone has issued 50,000 suspicious arms licences in the last five years, a peculiar figure for any licencing authority in the country.
The hunt unveiled a plethora of information about how deeply the kingpins had penetrated all 22 districts of the strife-ridden state, as well as clues about where the cartel has been getting illegal sophisticated weapons since 2008. The ATS team has gathered reliable inputs that all the districts of the state might have issued a similar number of licences, which means the number of licences and arms under the scanner could go up to 11 lakh.
The initial probe in Kupwara till late Friday night revealed that the licencing office had no detailed records of applicants and processing details. Majority of the licences were issued to outsiders on the basis of fabricated documents. Investigators were shocked to learn that 24 legitimate gun dealers were operating in the Jammu district instead of two that is sufficient to cater to the local demand. Many sophisticated weapons have been sold to ghost army men by forging military documents.
The first phase of Operation Zubaida (high hills) covers four states—Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The investigators have seized around a thousand fake arms licences and 450 illegal weapons. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Till the time of filing this report, the operation was being carried out at other locations to neutralise the highly profitable criminal syndicate.
This is just the trailer, says a deep throat. “For each licence and weapon like a revolver, the network was charging Rs 12 lakh. For pistols, the price was more. The number of fake licences and guns could go up to several thousands as the gunrunners were operating for the last eight years. We have received reliable inputs about a few more modules of the same network in other states. It is very clear that the gang was distributing arms licences and guns like vegetables,” he revealed.
Top sources said the first tip-off came in April and technical surveillance was mounted in early May. The electronic input was verified through human sources before Operation Zubaida was launched with six-handpicked operatives of the ATS. All the six seasoned officers were placed under the command of a well-known terrorist-hunter and senior IPS officer. They started working in silos, and inputs were shared with each other only on a need-to-know basis. Operation Zubaida’s aim was to tack the entire supply chain—from manufacturing fake licences to the gun shops that sold weapons ultimately to the buyers.
The first is Zuber Mohammed, whose grandfather Wali Mohammed used to run a legitimate gun shop in Rajasthan till 2007 when the licence expired and it was not renewed. Since then, Zuber was acting as a ‘showroom’ for the gun-running cartel. The second player, Vishal, a resident of Abohar in Punjab, was working as a ‘transporter’. The third and key cog of the syndicate is Rahul, a Jammu native, who was acting as a ‘manufacturing unit’ for fake licences. To acquire weapons in bulk, the three had allegedly lured a legitimate gun shop owner in Dewas (Madhya Pradesh) to meet the demand and keep the supply chain up and running.
The supplier in Dewas, codenamed Ajmal, is under the scanner for two reasons. First, he is a close relative of Zuber aka ‘showroom’; second, most of the guns procured on the basis of fake licences were purchased from his shop. The hunters are going through Ajmal’s records and in the second phase, they will examine the records of Jammu’s gun dealers.
Sources said the number is so huge that the investigation may take over a year to ascertain the number of weapons that have been supplied on the basis of fake licences.
Besides the three key players, five to six others were hired on the basis of requirement. They had adopted six to seven modus operandi. The most startling one was making fake licences in the name of Army men that were sold to civilians to purchase prohibited weapons, pistols, revolvers and rifles. The cartel manufactured fake residence certificates of J&K.
They also manipulated names and photographs of local residences and purchased arms in other states. “Since it was supplied to other states and requires to be reported to the respective licencing authority, we have found the process was not followed even in a single case. The entire system was flouted and the possibility of government employees connivance cannot be ruled out,” sources added.
Some individuals, who were interrogated in Srinagar earlier this week, provided valuable information on how the cartel was using fake seals on a large scale. A deep throat confirmed they have seized seven types of seals that were used by the syndicate. These include fake seals of District Collector Kupwara, Home Department of Jammu and Kashmir, etc.
In some cases the addresses on the fake licences are incomplete but they were able to procure weapons. For example, on one such licence, the address is only Rajbagh, Srinagar. It doesn’t have the house number or exact locality, and subsequently, no verification was done by the authorities.
In Kupwara, a majority of the arms licenses have been issued to ‘army men’, who, ATS suspects, are merely ghosts. The ATS team has asked the authorities in Srinagar and Jammu to preserve all the records along with files from other districts.
“Scrutiny of records of just two districts—Jammu and Srinagar—would take at least eight to 10 days. We have also asked for the record from Kathua,” sources confirmed.
The spies and hunters on Friday picked up Sunil Sharma, a resident of Udhampur. Sharma is linked to Rahul, ‘the manufacturing unit’, and his primary task was to facilitate forged documents in bulk. Sharma reportedly revealed that he was merely a courier but he very well knew the working of illegal gun syndicate.
In majority of the cases, the fake licences and weapons were sold to the nouveau riche, big hoteliers and property dealers. A source quoting the interrogation of gunrunners said weapons were also sold to some most wanted criminals who are otherwise not entitled to a licenced gun.
“In a few cases, three weapons were purchased on a single licence by a big hotelier. We have questioned a variety of people, including mall owners, property dealers and a liquor baron. Many of them had a feeling of virtual insecurity, and some rich people wanted weapons just for fun,” he said, adding that 20-25 people have been questioned in about a dozen simultaneous operations.
Some businessmen and professionals from Delhi have also acquired weapons through the syndicate. Senior officials confirmed that the Delhi file will be probed in the next stage sometime in October and the people named by the ‘manufacturing unit’ aka Rahul will be questioned.
The deep throat revealed that ‘transporter’ aka Vishal from Punjab was also running his ‘showroom’ on the side. This could be the second layer of the cartel which, he said, would require further probe to unravel the entire supply chain—contacts, facilitators, traffickers and buyers.
“So far no terror angle has come out in the investigation but we are not completely ruling it out because the source of gunrunning syndicate is Jammu and Kashmir and some private individuals are part of our ongoing analysis. If we compare gunrunning rackets of Bihar and Nepal with this module, Operation Zubaida cracked the largest criminal syndicate,” he said.
Cocked And Loaded
For each licence and weapon like a revolver, the network was charging `12 lakh. For pistols, the price was more. The number of fake licences and guns could go up to several thousands as the gunrunners were operating for the last eight years.