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Inside the thriving world of India's private detectives

By Nikita Puri
July 27, 2018 11:30 IST
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There's a certain amount of drama to the profession.
Sample these taglines: 'We can see the unseen'; 'I can plant my detective in your guest bedroom.'
One agency has even ensured that all its phone numbers end in '007'.
Nikita Puri reports.
Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh/

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

It's 10.45 pm and Rajani Pandit has just wrapped up work and returned to her Mumbai residence.

Clad in her usual cotton salwar-kameez, she sells the image of an innocuous Maharashtrian maushi (maternal aunt) with ease.

Warm and affable, she looks like someone you'd easily spill your secrets to.

It's not out of the ordinary for Pandit to keep irregular hours.

It's also not unusual for the 56 year old to pretend to be someone she isn't.

"I've pretended to be visually challenged, or speech- and hearing-impaired. I've also spent days impersonating a beggar," she says.

Pandit is part of a thriving world of detectives -- unlicensed, unorganised, often operating outside the law, and yet enjoying an informal legitimacy.

It's difficult to fathom the range, reach and strength of this world. Numbers are hard to come by.

The Delhi-headquartered Association of Private Detectives and Investigators, which is recognised by the Government of India as a representative body of private investigators in the country, has about 600 members, among whom are retired army personnel and former policemen.

Unverified accounts put the number many times higher. According to a report in The Guardian, there are about 3,500 detective agencies in Delhi alone.

There was a time when investigating family affairs was this industry's bread and butter: Collecting data on cheating spouses, conducting pre-marriage verifications and even helping paranoid parents keep tabs on their teenage children.

But the nature of the beast is rapidly changing.

The industry now finds sustained patronage from corporate houses to carry out pre-employment checks, authenticate the financial standing of a prospective partner and also look into thefts in the business and 'anti-management activities' such as unrest against the management.

It is not unusual for banks, too, to turn to private sleuths.

On April 25, the Punjab National Bank invited applications from detective agencies through a public notice with the aim to 'significantly supplement efforts of the field officials in recovering bank dues in non-performing assets'.

Tracing the whereabouts of an absconding borrower and his guarantors would fetch the agency Rs 30,000, read the advertisement posted on the bank Web site.

And, if it succeeded in locating the properties of the defaulter, other than those mentioned in the bank's records, then the agency could bag up to Rs 150,000.

Applicants were required to have at least three years of experience and to be a member of the Association of Private Detectives and Investigators.

Private detective agencies have now become 'risk consulting firms' to ensure one has 'correct information' before making any kind of deal, personal or professional, says Kunwar Vikram Singh, chairman of Delhi-based firm, Lancers Network.

Singh is also the chairman of the Association of Private Detectives and Investigators.

There's a certain amount of drama to the profession.

Sample these taglines: 'We can see the unseen'; 'I can plant my detective in your guest bedroom.'

One agency has even ensured that all its phone numbers end in '007', the code for the fictional British secret service agent, James Bond.

A documentary made on Pandit, who is widely accepted as India's first female detective, is even titled Lady James Bond.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

Detectives didn't always enjoy such acceptability.

When Secunderabad-based D K Giri, a former army officer trained in intelligence gathering, started his agency, Sharp Detectives, in 1978, he was forced to offer security services alongside.

"Lending out security guards was my primary source of bread and butter. I did it just to be a detective."

Many of the larger agencies still provide security and surveillance for residential as well as office buildings, alongside investigative services.

Giri has come a long way from those early days. One of his clients today is the Pune-based Kirloskar Group.

A few years ago, the company realised that a rival firm always seemed to be one step ahead of them. They'd launch products similar to theirs, but often at a cheaper price.

A little digging proved that some of the company's employees were selling its research to the rival outfit.

Like Giri, Pandit was determined to be a detective.

The daughter of a policeman who worked with Mumbai's crime branch, she was in college when she solved her first case.

A classmate's frequent absences and suspicious behaviour led Pandit to follow her.

"This was 1986," she recalls. It turned out that her classmate was offering sexual favours for money.

When Pandit first proposed the idea of becoming a detective, everyone, including her father, told her that a woman couldn't do this work. "'What, you want to be a spy?' they’d ask me."

Pandit formally started her her own agency, Rajani Investigation Bureau, in 1991.

In the years to come, Pandit, who lives with her mother and two brothers, would go on to become the subject of films and countless news stories.

For Delhi-based Bhavna Paliwal, becoming a detective wasn't the plan.

She was working with a newspaper when she chanced upon an ad from a detective agency looking to hire a woman.

"They felt it would make their women clients more comfortable. Later, I started working on cases too," she says. Now in her early 40s, Paliwal runs the Tejas Detective Agency.

The cases these sleuths deal with are varied.

An animal rights activist once approached Giri to investigate where the donkeys of Andhra Pradesh were disappearing.

"There is high demand for donkey meat, especially in Guntur. Donkeys were even being brought in from neighbouring states," Giri says. "The leather was being exported to China."

Pandit once spent days as a domestic help in a woman's house. "Her extended family believed she had killed her husband and was having an extramarital affair," says Pandit. They were right.

When Pandit realised the woman's accomplice was going to flee the city, she dropped a kitchen knife on her foot to buy time for the police to arrive.

The distraction, as her foot started bleeding profusely, worked. The woman was arrested.

Not all cases, however, require improvisations with kitchen knives on cue, but all of them require surveillance.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

This places the work of private investigators in a grey area, says Delhi-based Sherbir Panag, partner at Law Offices of Panag & Babu.

When the police carry out surveillance, they have to follow a process that includes filing a First Information Report, which may lead to a chargesheet being filed.

But when a private investigator conducts surveillance, there is potential abuse of the process in the absence of regulated safeguards.

"This raises significant concerns about the right to privacy and potential misuse of personal data," says Panag.

"This data, after all, is not being collected as part of a lawful process."

Panag recalls a case when a private investigator tried to obtain information using the Right to Information Act.

When denied, he attempted to obtain the records illegally. This sleuth would also continuously show up at the workplace of the person he was supposed to 'shadow'. His 'target' filed a case citing a threat to his life.

Most private detectives take on cases that are outside the domain of police scrutiny, like corporate and matrimonial espionage, says Praveen Sood, director general of police, Crime Investigation Department, Karnataka.

They might get unofficial referrals, says Sood, but "more often than not, they end up employing illegal means to obtain information, so we don't work with them."

But there are those who do.

Every week, Giri gets about three to four cases as referral from the police. These are largely cases where someone wants proof of a spouse cheating.

Bengaluru-based Puneet Kumar, one of the directors of Globe Detective Agency, recalls that this is how his father, Prem Kumar, also got work for his company in the initial days.

Prem Kumar had set up the agency in 1961 on returning to India after studying criminology in Chicago. He walked into the office of Delhi's crime branch department and requested access to the files of unsolved cases.

Today, the third generation of the Kumar family is joining the business. They no longer have to go hunting for cases.

"We usually have our hands full," says Puneet Kumar.

The job requires training, at least in intelligence-gathering.

Most detectives, however, learn on the job. Others, from a specialist, like Kolkata-based S R Banerjee.

Call him on his phone and he responds: "I am S R Banerjee, world famous detective."

Now in his 80s, Banerjee, a former policeman-turned-detective, offers one-on-one coaching for Rs 15,000 at his Anapol Detective Agency.

Over the course of six months, he trains wannabe detectives in handwriting analysis, civil and criminal laws, understanding body language and use of surveillance equipment.

For those who are able to put the training to good use, the career can be a lucrative one.

Some charge Rs 6,000 to Rs 8,000 per day for short-term surveillance. Others have a flat fee of between Rs 30,000 and Rs 50,000 per case.

For corporate clients, the bill can run into a couple of million rupees.

The question of the legality of their work, however, remains unaddressed.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

Prashant Mali, lawyer at the Bombay high court, says private eyes often commit privacy violations by obtaining call data records.

"You cannot commit a crime to find a crime." Earlier this year, about 12 detectives were arrested for obtaining call data records. Pandit was one of them. She spent 40 days in judicial custody.

The Private Detective Agencies (Regulation) Bill of 2007 has long been pending. "Lawmakers have had discussions with us and we are hoping it will come through in the next Parliament session," says Singh.

As private agencies mushroom, con artists have also entered the business.

Kumar recalls how a potential client wanted him to sign on background verification forms for 70 people without actually carrying out those checks. This man's boss was based in the US, so he thought he could fake the records.

Giri was once asked to give a report on how to set up a factory for an aspirin-like drug.

The people who approached him wanted specific resource materials from the company they wanted to rival. "That would mean corporate espionage. Our aim is to protect people’s property, like in the Kirloskar case, not help others steal it," says Giri.

Another detective might not have taken the ethical route.

In less complex, plain vanilla cases, people's money has simply disappeared, along with the private eye they hired.

The call for regulation and licensing has never been louder.

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Nikita Puri
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