Chasing Chacha

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 35 No. 12, December 2015

How India's most notorious tiger-parts trader since Sansar Chand was caught.

By Cara Tejpal

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol.35 No. 12, December 2015.

Photo: Ranjit Deshmukh/TOI.


Karthik Shukul though neither a filmmaker nor storyteller, is the Special Counsel for the Maharashtra State Forest Department, and he exposes the story of India's tiger crime cartel and how significant steps are being taken to bring them to justice.

In February 2013, a tiger was poached in the Melghat Tiger Reserves Ghatang Range. As the news of the killing picked up mileage, and intelligence on organised poaching syndicates began to filter in, authorities sounded a red alert. Three months later, in May, four more big cats were poached in the Central Indian landscape, calling the efficiency of the presiding officials into question.

The first breakthrough came on June 6, 2013, when acting on reliable intelligence, authorities were able to arrest Mamru and Chika, two notorious poachers from the Baheliya community.

Mamru and Chika proved to be the loose threads in an unnervingly vast tapestry of wildlife criminals spread across the country. As their interrogation progressed, the tapestry began to unravel, and by the end of the year, law enforcement agencies had registered over 12 Preliminary Offence Reports, arrested over 25 individuals, seized crores worth of contraband as well as hard cash, and discovered that the syndicate had annihilated around 20 tigers in the Central Indian landscape in the past year.

As the network of criminals - ranging from poachers to skinners and carriers to traders - and their roster of crimes were exposed, the Maharashtra State Forest Department netted the biggest catch of all - Chacha, an international tiger-parts trader of alarmingly prodigious influence and reach.

Most people assume that a wildlife crime story ends with the arrest of the accused, but in reality thats just the beginning. Once wildlife crime cases enter the quagmire of India's judicial system, they languish for years and rarely result in convictions. Released on bail or acquitted, the accused coolly return to their brutal trade, leaving conservationists frustrated and helpless.

This though is a snapshot of the complex links between those who profit from tiger blood, and how with persistence, legal acumen, and the cooperation of invested bodies, the Maharashtra State Forest Department won a landmark round against Chacha. Presenting a potent case, the department succeeded in having Chacha's bail cancelled, effectively keeping India's most dangerous tiger-parts trader behind bars. This was no breezy victory. Chacha's bail applications traversed multiple courts over the course of a year, but were adroitly countered at each turn until ultimately being cancelled once and for all by the High Court in an order that was upheld by India's highest judicial forum, the Supreme Court.

File picture of Naresh alias Lala.
File picture of Naresh alias Lala. Photo: Ranjit Deshmukh/TOI.


Key Players

Chacha alias Suraj Pal

Conservationists concur that Chacha is India's most notorious tiger-parts trader since Sansar Chand. With contacts in Nepal and China, the 68-year-old has been at the nucleus of wildlife crime in India since 1972, eluding law enforcement authorities till 2013. He is currently lodged in Tihar Jail.

Sarju Bagdi alias Surajbhan

A well-connected middleman and carrier, his name appeared in the statements of various poachers arrested in Maharashtra in 2013. He is believed to have purchased at least five tiger skins from these poachers for Chacha. Evidence shows that he has contacts in Nepal. He was arrested along with Lala in 2013, and is lodged in Nagpur Central Jail.

Naresh alias Lala

Closely linked with Sarju, and also a trader and carrier, 35-year-old Lala served as a mule-ferrying contraband across the country on Chacha's instruction. He was arrested in 2013 along with Sarju. Lala was released on bail which was later cancelled by the Honourable Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court.

Mamru and Chika

Seasoned poachers from Biruhali, Madhya Pradesh, they were arrested in 2013. Call Detail Records (CDR) revealed that they were in touch with trader Sarju Bagdi, who spoke with Chika over 100 times. Both are currently lodged in Nagpur Central Jail.

Kartik Shukul

Wildlife lover and photographer, Advocate Kartik Shukul appears as the Special Counsel for the Maharashtra Forest Department. He provides his exemplary services pro bono in the interest of wildlife conservation.


Bailing On Chacha - A Timeline of the Case

June 6, 2013: Mamru and Chika are arrested from Amdi Phata in Nagpur, Maharashtra. During interrogation, they confess that five tiger skins were procured from in and around Nagpur by trader Sarju Bagdi.

September 7, 2013: Acting on intelligence, the Maharashtra Forest Department and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) with the assistance of Delhi Police (DP) arrest Sarju and Lala after a short car chase. Eighteen kilogrammes of tiger derivatives and cash to the tune of Rs. 2.75 lakh is recovered from their car. During interrogation, they name Chacha as their buyer.

September 7, 2013: Later that day, the Forest Department, WCCB and DP raid Chacha's house in Adarsh Nagar, Delhi. They arrest Chacha and recover Rs. 50 lakh, animal nails of undetermined origin and Chinese currency from him. Chacha confesses to his part in the wildlife trade since 1972.

October 2013: Chacha applies for bail in Delhi where he was arrested, as well as in Nagpur where he was arrested thereafter.

January 16, 2014: After listening to arguments for over two hours, the Judicial Magistrate First Class rejects Chachas bail application. The court supports Advocate Shukul's argument that Chacha is a hardened criminal.

April 17, 2014: Stating that there has been no change in circumstance since his last plea, the Judicial Magistrate First Class once again rejects Chacha's bail application.

July 30, 2014: Chacha appeals against the last rejection and after reserving his decision, District and Sessions Judge S.D. Jagmalani goes on to grant him bail.

December 12, 2014: Justice S.B. Shukre of the Nagpur Bench of the Honble Bombay High Court cancels Chacha's bail under Section 439 (2) of the Criminal Procedure Code on the basis of arguments put forth by Advocate Shukul.

July 16, 2015: A Supreme Court Bench, headed by Chief Justice of India H.L. Dattu, upholds the order of the High Court, once and for all putting an end to Chachas bail pleas.

The Problem With Bail

The problem with granting bail to those involved in wildlife crime, especially poachers and traders, is simply that once bail is posted, they disappear. Many of these individuals hail from the nomadic Bawaria, Baheliya and Pardhi communities and are difficult to trace. With no permanent address, constantly changing identities, assets in cash, the lure of high profits, and knowledge of low conviction rates, wildlife poachers and traders find little reason to obey the law of the land.

The perfect case study to illustrate this problem is the abysmal track record of the brothers Keru and Ajit Chhiyalal Rajgond. The siblings have repeatedly been arrested in tiger poaching cases, and each time, upon getting bail, have vanished into thin air, only reemerging the next time they are arrested. In the most recent incident, the brothers had killed two tigers in Umred in 2013 by means of a steel trap and a spear to the mouth. It was the skins of these tigers that were supplied to Chacha through Sarju.

Currently, Ajit is in jail while Keru is absconding.


Chachi's Plea

When Chacha was arrested in Delhi in September 2013, authorities from the Maharashtra Forest Department and Wildlife Crime Control Bureau seized Rs. 50 lakh in cash and a cell phone from him.

Chacha's wife Chandadevi sought the release of the money claiming that it was received from the sale of a property, but her appeal was rejected first by a trial court and then the sessions court. For their part, the Central Bureau of Investigation and state of Maharashtra, who are jointly probing the cases involving Chacha, opposed Chandadevis application and sought custody of the money as case property.

Reportedly, the serial numbers of and fingerprints on the currency can provide fresh leads to the whereabouts of two Tibetans, Sonam and Phasang, who are believed to carry tiger skins across the Indian border into Nepal and Tibet.


A Kick In The Teeth

In the hope of a lenient trial, Mamru and Chika claimed to be underage at the time of committing the crimes they were charged with, and asked to be tried under the Juvenile Justice Act. The two submitted birth certificates to this effect to the Judicial Magistrate First Class. However, the Forest Department challenged the legitimacy of the documents and during a cross examination of the issuing officer Dinesh Patil, sub-registrar, Biruhali, proved that the documents were invalid. “I issued the certificates as my senior had asked me to do so. I had only asked some elderly persons in the village about the duo," Patel told the court.

Interestingly, ossification tests were also carried out to determine the age of the poachers. Dentists from the Government Dental College first claimed that Mamru and Chika were juveniles when they committed the crime, but later did an about turn during cross-examination, stating that they were at least 19-years-old at the time.


A Conservation Victory

This is the first time that a High Court has laid down the parameters for the grant and cancellation of bail for offences under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972). It is also the first time that the High Court has clarified that the quantum of punishment (in this case, a maximum of seven years of imprisonment) shall not be the sole guiding factor in the consideration of bail. The gravity of the offence has to be taken into consideration while entertaining bail applications for offences under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972).

By endorsing the judgement of the High Court, the Supreme Court has granted finality to the order and set a stunning precedent. In fact, after the judgement was passed; the High Court allowed the cancellation of another bail application, one pertaining to an accused whose role was limited to transporting wildlife contraband for just 50 m.

Buttressed by a strong prosecution, India's judiciary has sent a clear warning that wildlife crime operators, whether big or small, will be dealt with an iron fist.


Wielding The Law - A brief interview with Special Counsel Kartik Shukul

In your view, what are the main loopholes in laws related to wildlife crime in India?

The biggest hurdle in the present law would be the quantum of punishment (three to seven years) under the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA). Criminal courts evaluate the seriousness of a crime on the touchstone of the quantum of punishment; ergo, offenders under the WPA were considered at par with petty thieves. While arguing this case, it was my endeavour to showcase the WPA as a special law that must not be subjected to such broad propositions. My attempt was to make the gravity of the offence and its overall impact the prime considerations that must guide the courts while dealing with offences under the said act. By this judgment, we have removed this hurdle for all future cases and it has been settled now that the quantum of punishment shall not be the dominant guiding principle for offences under the WPA.

What was the most challenging aspect of having Chacha's bail revoked?

It is almost impossible to exhaustively cover all the challenges I faced; but one of the major issues was the age of the accused (68 years), especially since he claimed that he was suffering from various ailments. Through our investigations we knew that these grounds were false, but proving this was a rather difficult task. In addition to this, we had with us only the statements of the co-accused to establish the nexus between Chacha and the others. All these issues were overcome by the use of forensics to establish beyond any doubt the direct involvement of Chacha in the crime. I argued before the courts that the accused is the kingpin in this illegal syndicate and his release would adversely impact not only the investigation but also the trial. Chacha, being in a dominant position, could prevail over the witnesses and possessed the power to tamper with the evidence as well.

How can state Forest Departments strengthen their cases to ensure more convictions?

At the outset I must say that the new state government has taken the cause of “conservation through prosecution" seriously. Various changes (ex-appointments of Special Counsels and Supervisory Committees for poaching cases) have been made with the singular objective of increasing the conviction rate. Recently, the Maharashtra state government has created three ‘Cyber Cells dedicated to poaching cases and in the brief period that they have been operational, the state Forest Department has utilised the Cells with great efficiency. However, much remains to be done in this field; the officers who are appointed as Investigating Officers must be given specialised training since the scene of the crime in most poaching cases is deep inside the jungle. Locating and collecting evidence in these places is challenging, therefore, establishing a direct nexus between the offender and the crime becomes rather difficult. Specialised training in the field of forensics must be imparted to these officers to establish a strong foundation for the prosecution. I also strongly feel that the Forest Department needs to set-up a dedicated legal department to tackle the thousands of pending cases.

What is the impact of these cases on poaching activities in the state?

It is reliably learnt that since this criminal litigation has been initiated, the number of poaching cases have gone down in the state. The fact that the accused are still behind bars (even after two years) is perhaps acting as a deterrent in addition to ensuring a fair and free trial. This therefore establishes a belief that I have long nurtured, effective prosecution is a tool for conservation.

Read more: The Wildlife Crime Nexus

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