Wriggling out of the skin

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Photo: AP
Photo: AP

He joined the wildlife trade before turning 13 but it wasn’t until more than three decades later that the law caught up with Sansar Chand. In January 2003, the police in Bhilwara, Rajasthan, nabbed him with two leopard pelts from a train. Until then, Sansar Chand was never caught in possession of any contraband, a key condition for prosecution under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. In the summer of 2004, he was convicted. Soon, he skipped bail and remained wanted till 29 June 2005, the day Delhi Police finally got hold of him near his longtime den in Sadar Bazar.

In many ways, the aura of Sansar Chand has been larger than life. The 57-year-old is blamed for killing at least 250 tigers, 2,000 leopards, 5,000 otters and another 50,000 lesser wild cats and foxes. (Sansar Chand is India’s deadliest poacher. Here is how he has escaped legal traps for 40 years, by Raman Kirpal, 7 August 2010).But to call him a poacher is to undermine his empire of networks. And to portray him as the kingpin running the country’s biggest wildlife trade syndicate is to overlook his rustic, hands-on approach.

In 1990, none of a dozen-odd ‘witnesses’ saw him jump off the terrace of his ancestral home in Delhi’s Sadar Bazar to evade policemen. He loved his ‘sunglasses’ and even posed in them for press photographers while in custody. Tree-huggers and animal-lovers form instant lynch mobs on social media at the mention of his name. And senior journalists in the Hindi press fight over whose “authoritative” crime report Sansar Chand follows to keep track of the cases against him.

Since his arrest in 2005, Sansar Chand has secured bail, over time, in all the cases pending against him. He also served sentences handed out in two cases. On 16 July, a Delhi court refused to charge him under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) that can be evoked only for repeat offenders who have been convicted more than twice in the past. The court apparently disallowed a case under MCOCA because it was filed as a supplementary charge. As a result, he is likely to walk free by the time you read this.

This has upset many who find it incomprehensible how the “butcher of Sariska” and “Veerappan of the north” is being allowed to regain control of his sinister trade. But, to be fair, Sansar Chand has already served more than eight years — a year more than the maximum punishment of seven-year imprisonment under the Wildlife (Protection) Act. In fact, he was arrested before the 2006 amendment to the Act that increased the maximum term from five to seven years. Technically, the maximum punishment is the same for killing one and killing a hundred.

Had the agencies wanted to prolong his confinement, they could have coordinated better and saved a charge or two to be pressed after the previous ones failed. But that would not be fair play and anyway could not have compensated for shoddy investigation and weak prosecution. A high-profile accused like him must have been pleasantly surprised when State lawyers repeatedly missed court hearings. The canny operator that he has been, it was anyway extremely difficult to catch him with wildlife contraband.

However, there is one angle of investigation the agencies could have tapped more convincingly. Sansar Chand or his family has no front business and their only significant legal source of income is from the rent of more than three dozen properties across north India. A possible case of disproportionate assets, it could have been probed if and how Sansar Chand inherited or acquired so many properties.

Moreover, Sansar Chand is represented by one of the country’s most expensive law firms, one that also appears, possibly for a nominal fee, for a top conservation NGO. If there is no reason to believe that the firm extends the same courtesy to Sansar Chand, it would be interesting to probe how he can afford his lawyers’ hefty fees. He does not even have a bank account.

jaymazoomdaar@gmail.com

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