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Friday, July 27, 2001

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Search on for missing driver

By Our Staff Reporter

NEW DELHI, JULY 26. The probe into the murder of Phoolan Devi reached a crucial stage today with the Delhi police asserting that they were on the lookout for the ``prime suspect Pankaj'', who disappeared after driving the Samajwadi Party MP to Parliament House in a green Maruti car (CIM 907), later used by the three assailants as a getaway vehicle.

The Delhi police Crime Branch, which is investigating the case, has rushed teams to various places across Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal in search of the three assailants and Pankaj.

The Additional Commissioner of Police (Crime), Mr. Qamar Ahmed, said that the getaway car was originally registered in Indore and belonged to Ms. Deepti Pillai, an Income Tax Officer. As per available information, the No-Objection Certificate for the sale of the 1986 model car was issued in the name of Mr. Mansoor Ahmed of Haridwar on July 30, 1999.

Mr. Qamar Ahmed said Pankaj had driven the car to Delhi from Roorkee on Wednesday with its ``owners'', Ms. Uma Kashyap, an activist of Phoolan Devi's Eklavya Sena, and her husband, Mr. Vijay Kumar, who is a Uttar Pradesh Government employee.

The police official said Ms. Kashyap had said during questioning that Pankaj was ``like a brother'' to her and was known to her for a year and a half. Pankaj had visited Delhi with her a couple of times earlier. This time, she said, she had come with her husband to discuss some party matter with Phoolan Devi.

While they stayed back at her residence, Pankaj had driven Phoolan Devi to Parliament House in the car on Wednesday morning. ``He dropped her at Gate No. 2 after which Phoolan Devi boarded a ferry car to go to Parliament building.''

From Parliament House, Phoolan Devi had gone to Parliament Annexe for a physiotherapy session. At about 1-15 p.m., she was dropped back at her residence by the Samajwadi Party MP from Etawah, Mr. Raghuraj Singh Shakia, in his Tata Estate car.

After the car drove off, the three masked assailants, who were apparently waiting in the Maruti car parked by the roadside, emerged and shot Phoolan Devi dead from close range.

Mr. Ahmed said the assailants fled in the same car and later abandoned it near Pant Marg. A Webley Scot revolver and a .32 bore English revolver with nine empty and 15 live rounds were recovered from the car, along with some personal belongings of Ms. Kashyap.

The assailants then ``hijacked'' a passing autorickshaw (DL-1R-F- 0235), which was tracked down by the police in South-West Delhi on Thursday. The driver was being questioned about the route taken by the accused.

PM pays tribute

Even as politicians and supporters queued up at the residence of Phoolan Devi to pay homage, angry party workers hurled stones at the official residence of the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Mr. Rajnath Singh, nearby, accusing him of ``murder''.

Since morning, there was a constant stream of visitors to 44, Ashoka Road where Phoolan Devi's body was kept in a `pandal' erected in the verandah. The Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, and the Leader of the Opposition, Ms. Sonia Gandhi, were among the early visitors. Besides paying floral tributes to her, they met her relatives and supporters, who demanded a fair probe into the case.

Still to come to terms with the incident, her spiritual guru, Dhamma Viriyo, performed the religious rites as per Buddhist tradition. He said Phoolan Devi always worked for the people despite repeated threats to her life. ``Once she told me that no one could dare attack her as my blessings were with her. She was indeed very brave.'' The Union Minister of Telecommunications, Mr. Ram Vilas Paswan, said it was shocking that a leader who was loved by the masses had met such a gory end. The Samajwadi Party leaders, Mr. Amar Singh and Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav, also offered their condolences.

The Lok Sabha Speaker, Mr. G.M.C. Balayogi, the Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson, Ms. Najma Heptullah, the Information and Broadcasting Minister, Ms. Sushma Swaraj, the former Bihar Chief Minister, Mr. Jagannath Mishra, and the Rajya Sabha MP, Ms. Shabana Azmi, were among those who paid homage to Phoolan Devi.

The issue of her cremation triggered a conflict among party workers and family members with her mother and sister demanding that the last rites be performed in Delhi. Party leaders, however, prevailed upon them, and it was decided to conduct the last rites in Phoolan Devi's Mirzapur constituency. Around 11.30 a.m, her coffin was lifted by supporters and amid slogan shouting, a hearse carrying the coffin and her relatives proceeded towards the airport. Angry supporters then started pelting stones at Mr. Rajnath Singh's residence. However, a heavy deployment of policemen prevented any damage.

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