Journo who knew too much

I did not know J Dey well. While he was part of the original team that launched the Bombay edition of the Hindustan Times – a launch that I handled – he was not the sort of guy who spent a lot of time chatting to his editors or editorial directors, for that matter.

My memories of him are of a tall guy in a bush shirt who spoke little and was elusive at the best of times. He did the page one story for the launch issue – on stars and their underworld links – but wanted no special credit for having helped announce the HT’s arrival in Bombay with such a bang. Even when the story dominated news channels for a fortnight after its publication, he was reluctant to go out and talk about it. His position was: I’ve done the story and now my work is over.

The team that launched the HT in Bombay was close-knit in the way that start-up teams often tend to be. But while Dey was not short of friends in the office, he was not the kind of guy you would find gossiping in the corner of the newsroom or offering to take everyone out for a drink. During the period when we launched, he had a relative who was seriously ill and told us that he needed to attend to the illness. We recognised how much this meant to him and agreed that as long as the stories kept coming we would not worry too much about what time he came to the office or how many hours he spent at his desk.

Much has been said, over the last week, about Dey’s contacts in the police and the underworld. It has been suggested that he was totally plugged in with top cops and notorious gang leaders. This was not my impression during the period that he worked at the HT and I checked with Sujata Anandan, the paper’s political editor and the longest-serving journalistic employee of the HT in Bombay. Sujata’s view accords with mine. Dey was well-connected at the inspector level of the police force. The people who gave him his information rarely went above the rank of ACP. In the underworld too, his contacts were small-time gangsters rather than the big Dons. Because small-timers often know what’s going on, Dey was able to keep a close watch on the police-underworld link. On the other hand, because he was not pally with the big shots, he had no real axe to grind and did not run the risk of being suborned by the mighty and the powerful.

When he was at the HT, he accused a police officer of maintaining links with Dawood Ibrahim’s sister. Dey’s view was that even as the police spoke of a global hunt for Dawood, his sister was running an extortion racket in Bombay and was a key member of the land mafia. Dey believed that she got away with it because she was paying off relatively senior police officers. At least one of the officers involved sued the HT for defamation when we ran the story and my recollection is that the case is still winding its way through the courts.

Many crime reporters are reluctant to accuse police officers of corruption because they are dependent on the cops for the information that goes into their stories. Dey was the exception. He knew that his network of lower-level policemen would keep the information coming and so, he went ahead and revealed the truth with impunity.

Naturally, this did not endear him to many senior police officers. Sujata says that he often complained about the kinds of threats he received from the police. One officer – whose name has cropped up repeatedly in the aftermath of Dey’s murder – swore to fix him, a threat that was made again and again.

None of this is to suggest that the police bumped Dey off. It would be irresponsible to do so in the absence of any evidence. But it does explain why so many journalists are reluctant to let the Bombay Police be the sole investigators in this case. Assume for a moment that Dey’s murder emerged out of anger at the stories he was doing about the links between the police and the underworld. If this was indeed the case – and I stress that we are just speculating here – then the police personnel in question would have told the underworld to go ahead and eliminate him. Certainly, the murder bore all the hallmarks of a gangland hit: young professionals on motor-cycles who sped away once Dey had been shot.

It did not help matters much that some members of the police force speculated that Dey’s killing was the result of what they called ‘some personal enmity’. As Dey’s personal rivals were other journalists and journalists do not, on the whole, hire hit squads, a personal angle seems improbable. The police then threw dark hints – off the record, naturally – that perhaps Dey was having an affair and the murder was the result of jealousy. This is so pathetic that I won’t even bother to explode this contemptible explanation.

But it is only if you realise what kind of stories Dey did that you will understand why journalists are threatening fasts and holding demonstrations outside the chief minister’s office. Dey was not a businessman or a land shark or a Lothario who would make the kinds of enemies that hired hit squads. There is only one explanation for his murder: that it was a gangland hit.

And given what we now know about Dey’s repeated exposes of the links between the police and the underworld, is it surprising that journalists are so sceptical that the truth will ever emerge? At most, we fear, the cops will track down the shooters and will declare that they were poor boys who were paid Rs 5,000 for the hit but had no idea who the mastermind of the operation was.

When a system is rotten from top to bottom, justice is hard to find. And it is the innocent who bleed to death on the streets.

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