The next morning, Kerala woke up to the police sketch of Babu that had flooded the media. The telephone numbers of the Malappuram superintendent of police, the Malappuram DySP and Manoharakumar (DySP special branch) were published in the daily newspapers for callers who had any information about the suspects.
Television channels and newspapers who wanted to ride the wave of this mammoth heist went all out to be relevant and grab eyeballs. There were reports about how the crime imitated the superhit Hindi movie Dhoom. The reports also attributed the crime to Maoist activity. The state was on high alert. Every Malayali worth his or her puttu was discussing the bank heist and Kerala was obsessed with it.
There was work to be done!
The Regional Transport Office (RTO) was housed in a couple of big bungalows with red tiled roofs. Quaint, but effective, the organization catered to the entire Malappuram District.
Shaukath Ali entered the Malappuram RTO on Civil Station Road and headed to the officer who could help him dig out information.
Bhim Bahadur Pradhan was a Nepali whose father had travelled to Kerala forty years ago from Darjeeling, to seek out a better life. Why Bhim’s father had chosen Kerala specifically still remains a mystery.
‘Maybe he liked the beef fry more than his gundruk and momos!’ was Bhim’s joke.
Born in Cochin, Bhim was perhaps the only Nepali in the world who spoke fluent Malayalam. Or at least that was how he advertised himself.
‘The bank heist has gotten everybody’s attention. We were shocked to hear of it. A sleepy town like Chelembra and such a huge robbery!’
Shaukath Ali handed him the number of the silver Zen. Bhim punched it in.
Bhim shook his head, frowned and muttered to himself, ‘Tch! I must have made a mistake.’ He raised the slip of paper with the registration number and keyed in the data again— slowly, this time.
‘Ningaal enthenkilum kando [Did you find anything]?’ Shaukath Ali asked impatiently.
‘Onnumilla. It oru kalla namparānennu thonnunnu [Nothing. This seems to be a fraudulent number],’ Bhim shook his head, scowling.
Shaukath Ali nodded to himself as if he had had a premonition about this, ‘Okay. Thanks, Bhim. Can you give me the details of all the silver Zen cars registered within Malappuram?’
The logic that Shaukath Ali used was this—the vehicle could either be stolen or borrowed for a few days from a local accomplice. The thieves would not risk travelling across the state in the same vehicle. Therefore, the vehicle had to be a local Malappuram vehicle.
The dot-matrix printer screeched as it went back and forth on the paper.
‘Twenty-two owners of silver Zen cars in Malappuram. Best of luck, sir.’ Bhim handed the printout to Shaukath Ali.
‘Thanks, Bhim!’ Saying this, Shaukath Ali left the RTO. He already felt dejected, but he knew that he had to track down all twenty-two owners, even if it meant that ultimately it would turn out to be a dead end. At least it would eliminate suspects and help tighten the net. Meen curry!
The number that Usman had given was a Reliance number. Anvar Husain sat at his computer. The call record was on his screen. It was a CDMA handset. The service provider had been contacted and the details were now in Anvar’s hand. The number and the phone were registered in the name of one Radhakrishnan.
Mohanachandran and two constables were immediately dispatched to Velliparambu in Kozhikode District, to get hold of this Radhakrishnan.
‘Sir,’ Anvar reported to Vijayan, ‘the call records of this phone number show something strange. This Babu has called only two or three numbers from this phone. And all the numbers belong to the people connected to the case. Kunheedkutty, Usman, Moideenkutty Haji. No other numbers. And there is something else, sir . . . there is one call that has come from somewhere near Nellore. The number is 49532000xx.’
Anvar had Vijayan’s full attention.
Nellore was a hotbed for Maoist activity. In 2006, it had been reported that Maoist Raghu, aka Tech Madhu, and his wife had found a safe haven in Nellore, where they lived for four years. The couple had been wanted by the Andhra Pradesh and the Tamil Nadu police in connection with the manufacturing of rocket launchers and missiles which they supplied to the Maoists.
On 7 September 2007, the former Andhra Pradesh chief minister, N. Janardhan Reddy, and his wife, N. Rajyalakshmi, who was also the minister for women development and child welfare in the Andhra Pradesh cabinet, escaped unhurt while three Congress party workers were killed and five others sustained injuries in a CPI-Maoist-triggered landmine blast near Chitwedu village in Nellore District. The remotecontrolled blast targeted the convoy of twenty-one vehicles for Reddy, a member of parliament (Lok Sabha) at the time, damaging the bulletproof car in which the couple was travelling. Reddy had been the chief minister when a ban was imposed for the first time on the Maoists (then known as the People’s War Group or PWG) in May 1992. He had featured on the Maoist hit list ever since. He had earlier escaped an assassination attempt in 2003.
Nellore, therefore, had a very close connection with Maoist insurgency. Vijayan was excited to hear that the call was from Nellore.
‘The call happened at 1 a.m. on 29 December. It was answered and lasted for thirty seconds. The date of the call, 29 December, means that, if Radhakrishnan is in fact the “Babu” we are looking for, then the call happened right at the time that they were conducting the robbery,’ Anvar laid down the facts.
‘So, this Maoist angle seems to be bearing fruit,’ said Vijayan. ‘Find out the caller’s identity. We need to know what was spoken and by whom. In all probability, Radhakrishnan has used the alias of Babu when interacting with the hotel owners.’ Vijayan thought for a bit and asked Anvar, ‘Have you verified ALL the numbers on Babu’s call records?’
This excerpt from ‘India’s Money Heist: The Chelembra Bank Robbery’ has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.