Pune, 25th December 2022: I was winding up my work at The Navhind Times office in Panjim on a Sunday evening when I received a telephone call from an excited reader. He said there was some frantic activity going on in Porvorim near Panjim. Being the crime reporter, I asked the caller for some details and assured him that I would check out what was happening there.
Then, I made a quick call to the police control room and I got the stock reply in Konkani, “Sogle shant asa, kai gadbad na! (No major crimes, all is well!)”. So I went on with my work and had no inkling of what was in store.
That was the first of the several calls on the office landline I received late in the evening on that Sunday, 6th April 1986.
It was past 8.30 pm. In the 1970s and early 1980s, there was almost no life on the streets of Panjim, the capital of Goa, Daman and Diu after 7 pm on weekdays. Sundays and public holidays would be worse. Therefore, a person informing the newspaper about something abnormal happening on the Panjim-Mapusa route on a Sunday evening rang the alarm bells in me, a crime reporter. I again rang up the police control room, Number 100, to know what was happening in Porvorim. “Kay Na,” prompt came the reply and I was assured.
I rang up a police inspector too, but he said there was nothing to report. However, within half an hour, I received more calls.
In those days there was a double-lane road for most of the stretch of the Panjim-Mapusa route and therefore many people on the move had noticed that something was cooking at a particular spot.
By 9 pm, there were many such calls, each phone call prompting me to ring up higher police officials and different police stations to verify if something strange or if some major incident was taking place. Thus I called up Mapusa police station, the public relations officer of the Goa Police and many others and each call drew a blank.
The calls of our newspaper readers puzzled me. It was a Sunday and normally I did not stay in the office so late. The deadline for filing stories for us reporters was 7.30 pm, a maximum of 8 pm by which time our News Editor M. M. Mudaliar would clear stories, mark their pages, and leave for home. Only stories meant for page one were accepted after that and they were cleared by Editor Bikram Vohra when the night chief sub-editor went to his Miramar residence in the office jeep with page one copies at around 9 pm. However, there was a reason why I was hanging around so late in the newspaper office that Sunday night.
With Mudaliar’s prior permission, that evening I had booked urgent calls to the Delhi headquarters of the Indian Federation of Working Journalists (IFWJ) to confirm my journalism diploma course in Bulgaria and a visit to Russia. In those days, the BSNL had ordinary, urgent and lightning categories for local and outstation calls. After the urgent call materialised two hours later, IFWJ President K. Vikram Rao asked me to fly to New Delhi the very next day as several journalists including me were to fly to Moscow within a week. My excitement due to the forthcoming foreign tour was now getting somewhat dampened by these telephone calls about some strange happenings in Porvorim. I sometimes wondered if it was a prank.
Soon, I got yet another call. This time the caller was more specific. Have the police caught a big fish near Porvorim, he asked. I then rang up the senior most police officer, the Goa inspector general of police (IGP). I apologised for calling him up on a Sunday at a late hour and asked him if there was any major arrest or happening near Porvorim. I felt assured when he replied in the negative. But when there was no end to the stream of inquisitive calls from readers, and there seemed no possibility of it being a prank, I once again called up the Goa IGP with more profound apologies.
This time, the IGP did not hide his annoyance. “Camil, you know it too well, if there is anything major, or arrest of a big fish, I will be the first person to know it,” he said, again denying that any major incident was taking place at that moment in Porvorim.
Normally, such a reply from the top cop would have been the last word. But this time I did not feel assured. Was the IGP holding up the news, for the time being, I wondered.
All this time, Jovito Lopes, our sports reporter, who was working on his stories on the typewriter had his ears tuned to the repeated phone calls and my efforts to verify them. Soft-spoken Jovito, who was also a school teacher, was much senior to me in journalism. By that time, the night chief sub had already left for the editor’s residence with a compiled bunch of stories from reporters.
After my second telephone call to the IGP, Jovito filed his last sports story, asked the peon to send it for linotype setting and turning to me, said, “Camil, there is really something big cooking up there in Porvorim. Let’s not waste time. Let’s move to that spot even if it is late night!”
Hurriedly, both of us climbed down the wooden steps of our two-storeyed tiled roof building and Jovito took out his scooter. In a few minutes, we had crossed both the Pato and Mandovi bridges and 10 minutes later arrived at O Coqueiro hotel in Porvorim, which had figured in some of those telephone calls. Some people, who were on the road outside the hotel, told us that the “centre of action” had moved from O Coqueiro to Mapusa. Without wasting a moment, we sped away on the scooter. Soon we arrived near the bust of Mahatma Gandhi in Mapusa and now there was no need to ask anyone for directions.
There was a huge crowd at the Hotel Residency run by the Goa Tourism Department Corporation, located just opposite the Mapusa bus stand. Jovito and I realised that a major event was indeed unfolding there. The crowd was watching as a group of persons with strong physiques made hurried movements from the hotel to the private taxis parked there.
There were no prizes for guessing that these were police personnel in plain clothes. They were obviously in a hurry to leave the place as early as possible and none of them were interested in talking to anyone, let alone presspersons. I noted that a few journalists from other newspapers in Goa were already at the spot before us!
I held my breath as I saw what was happening before my eyes and learnt what had taken place. Jovito, a seasoned journalist, had managed to speak to some of those persons and the gathered bits of information were just shocking: The plain-clothed persons we were watching putting their bags into the waiting taxis were Mumbai police personnel and they had just succeeded in recapturing the most wanted international criminal, Charles Sobhraj.
The serial killer had escaped some weeks back from India’s high-security Tihar Central Prison in Delhi. The daredevil team of Mumbai police had been on the trail of the fugitive for a few weeks.
What we gathered from the action spot was that the Mumbai police team headed by Madhukar Zende had nabbed Charles Sobhraj perhaps hours earlier at O Coqueiro hotel in Porvorim. The Mumbai police had for the most obvious reasons not given any clues to the Goa police about the big fish they wanted in their net. That explained why even Goa’s top cop, the inspector general of police was not aware of what was going on right under his nose in this tiny territory.
The Mumbai police team was in a hurry to leave for Mumbai along with their most prized catch. As a reporter who visited Panjim police station and also the Goa Bench of the Bombay High Court every day, I understood why the Mumbai police team was rushing out of Goa at the late night hour.
The notorious criminal they had just nabbed had to be produced in court within 24 hours after the declared time of his arrest. Obviously, they were not interested in producing their prized catch in a court in Goa and thus make Goa police a party to their extraordinary success of arresting the fugitive criminal.
The Mumbai police team, which was on a long hunt to locate the whereabouts of Charles Sobhraj, had gone incognito. They did not even use their official cars and were now leaving for their headquarters in Mumbai in hired private taxis.
Jovito and I were at the ground before Hotel Residency for not more than 10 minutes. We watched in awe as the six to seven taxis – Charles Sobhraj was bundled off in one of them – sped away one by one before our eyes towards Altinho and then straight to Mumbai.
A few seconds later, Jovito and I rushed to his scooter and we too sped away in the opposite direction – to Panjim – to inform our boss about the front-page news that we had to file at this hour, beyond our newspaper deadline.
Immediately upon arrival at the newspaper office, Jovito rang up Editor Bikram Vohra to inform him of our story. He in turn spoke to the night chief sub and asked him to accommodate the late story and thus delay the printing of the next day’s newspaper edition. By this time, Jovito was banging away speedily at the typewriter keys with his one-finger typing. Ten minutes later, the chief sub-editor had a quick look at the one-and-half pages news copy and sent it to the ground floor for linotype setting. I did not have much of a role in this.
The next day, The Navhind Times carried a front page eight-column news with a joint byline “Jovito Lopes and Camil Parkhe”, announcing the recapture of Interpol-wanted criminal Charles Sobhraj. No, it was not an exclusive scoop for The Navhind Times. A few other dailies in Goa also carried the news in that day’s edition. The national dailies however missed the news of the late-night capture of one of the world’s most celebrated criminals.
Thanks to the alertness of sports reporter Jovito Lopes, I, a crime reporter, was saved from the huge embarrassment of missing the major, international story of the re-arrest of Sobhraj.
The Mumbai police left Goa with their prized collection just before midnight. No, there was no encounter after the police team crossed the Maharashtra border. The Mumbai police in the 1970s and 1980s were regarded as the best in investigation and dedication in the world, next only to Scotland Yard. After reaching their headquarters, the Mumbai police proudly announced to the world that they had captured Charles Sobhraj and the news was carried the next day in all national dailies.
The day The Navhind Times carried the news of the arrest of Charles Sobhraj, I flew to New Delhi. I carried copies of The Navhind Times with me. I stayed with Padmanabhan, Special Correspondent of The Hindu in New Delhi, whose son, also a reporter in The Hindu in Chennai, was to attend the journalism course along with me in Bulgaria. The newspaper clipping impressed Padmanabhan, who the very next day arranged my interaction with some reporters in connection with the arrest of Charles Sobhraj. Thus, I too became a celebrity, basking in the reflected glory of the news of the celebrity criminal!
Charles Sobhraj, who was released after serving his term in the Indian prison, later lived in France. He was serving a prison sentence in Nepal for another crime he committed in that country before being released by the Supreme Court of Nepal. Now he has gone back to France.
By the way, Madhukar Zende, leader of the Mumbai police team, who nabbed Charles Sobhraj and who post-retirement settled in Pune, does not believe that capturing Sobhraj was the most extraordinary achievement in his career. There are other more significant cases investigated and handled by him, he says.
(Camil Parkhe is a senior journalist based in Pune. He started his journalism career in Goa and has worked in various newspapers in different capacities.)