Bengal show Indian police pilfered and perverted
Only three months back in November 2018 (‘Central Bureau of Investigation: The War Within’, Uday India, November 18-24, 2018) in these columns I had analysed the crisis in the Central Bureau of Investigation in the context of a fracas between the then CBI chief Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana another senior IPS officer in the organisation, reportedly appointed on political considerations. As the feud became ugly, both were sent on leave. M. Nageshwara Rao, an IPS officer of Odisha cadre, was made the interim chief. Rao had to demit office when Verma was reinstated by the Supreme Court of India on 8 January 2019 and took over again when Verma sought retirement soon after being transferred as the Director General Fire Services by the Union Government and held the office till the new CBI chief Rishi Kumar Shukla took over on 4 February. However, in another low for India’s public security establishment, Rao was punished for contempt of court by the Supreme Court on 12 February for transferring an investigating officer against the apex court’s order. He was asked to sit in the corner till the court rose for the day and pay a fine of Rs. 1,00,000.
In the meantime, the unseemly feud of Verma with the powers that be and the government continues and is too complex to analyse in this short column. However, if this turmoil in the country’s premium anti-corruption and investigating agency, overburdened with several controversial cases, some of which it outsources to specially constituted Special Investigating Teams, was not enough, the public security establishment in the country has been rocked with controversies that show institutional perversion with political nod and is dangerous to say the least.
If these were enough, a fresh turmoil erupted when the CBI decided (or was ordered) to quiz Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar over Saradha Chit Fund Scam at his residence on 3 February 2019. Kumar, an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer of 1984 batch, was the head of the SIT set up by Mamata Banerjee in 2013. Saradha Group chit fund scandal was one of the major financial scams in India which duped 1.4 million investors of Rs 1,200 crore with its illicit money pooling schemes attractively and aggressively promoted with the promise of unfeasible high returns. The group was using collections from new investors to make payments to the previously-enrolled members, rather than from income generated through investments. Among others, the investigators found the activities of these companies in serious violations of the Companies Act, the Sebi Act, and several provisions of the Indian Penal Code. The case remains unresolved. On CBI’s plea, the Supreme Court rightly ordered Kumar to cooperate with the investigating agency and as a matter of relief, ordered that his interrogation should be carried out in a neutral state and Shillong was selected as the venue. His interrogation is continuing since 10 February and he has been brought face-to-face with Saradha kingpin.
Kumar is no stranger to political links, patronage and controversies that go with them. His efforts to get close to the ruling dispension is legendary, and no wonder that he got close to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, Didi (elder sister) to fans and supporters. As a forty-member (why a CBI army?) descended on Kolkata to quiz him, Kumar got ‘his’ police to arrest them on the pretext of checking their identity. They also charged that they did not have arrest warrant against Kumar. But the bizarre does not end there, Didi, under whose benign patronage he has lately been flourishing, accused the Union government of violating federal principles enshrined in the constitution and sat on a dharna (sit-in) against the authoritarian central government, where she not only held her cabinet meeting, but also awarded medals to police officers. Kumar and other senior police officials were visibly there with their boss.
What should we be analyzing or discussing about these bizarre goings-on? For, the issue goes beyond the over-discussed question of politicisation of police. The National Police Commission had suggested measures to insulate the institution from politics. Two distinguished top cops and an equally distinguished civilian went to the Supreme Court in 1996 to seek directive for police reforms. The judgment that came a decade later, directed the Union government to act on it. Soli Sorabji Committee set up in 2005 to frame a fresh Police Act, framed several safeguards for keeping the police from politics.
If in 2018-19, the IPS headed CBI comes under cloud and a city police chief in a state, also of the IPS fraternity, is in the dock in connection with a serious financial scam and appears being protected by none other than the CM of the state, the khaki in India appears fully smeared with stinking muck under political shadow across the country as India completes two decades of the twenty-first century, nay the new millennium.
For long, the Indian Police Act 1861 has been blamed for all the ills of the basic unit of public security; 72 years from independence that alibi does not stick. At his acerbic (the word is understatement) best in decrying the Congress and the dynasty for not doing anything, the Prime Minister is happy criticising the symptom to which he has amply contributed as the chief minister, and even now, has not only done nothing to keep the police away from politics. He is part of the actors who are stirring the pot of muck that is soiling the Khaki. It is difficult to be fooled by the rhetoric that policing is a state subject, because he was a chief minister himself, and till the recent loss of three states, the BJP was beating the drum of ruling most parts of India. Several of the aberrations in the police organisation left behind by chief minister Narendra Modi persist and he never took any measure towards police reforms.
The Current Imbroglio
Since the matter began as police versus police, the CBI descending in Kolkata on February 3 to question the city’s Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar, who had not responded to three summons sent to him by the CBI, it is important to look at the circumstances that prompted the action and the reaction to it. Since Kumar ignored the summons, the step did not appear motivated, but the question still remains as to why the CBI did not wait until the new, and regular, Director Rishi Kumar Shukla joined. It was a question of only a few days; what was the hurry? The interim Director M. Nageshwar Rao, about whose appointment questions were raised by several experts, could have left the matter, dragging for four years, to be taken up by the new head, whose appointment was in the pipeline. Why did he show such an urgency; was it his own initiative, or was he nudged from above?
If this was not enough, the media was reportedly fed with the news that the Kolkata Police Commissioner was absconding, making his arrest inevitable. Naturally, the West Bengal Police wasted no time refuting it and asserting that the news was false, and Kumar was very much in Kolkata attending his duties and he had taken one day leave for personal reasons. If true, why was this done?
The CBI was also reportedly prepared to search the premises of Kumar, if necessary. However, the CBI team had come without a search warrant and was prepared to conduct the search under Section 165 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which permits search without a warrant ‘Whenever an officer in charge of a police station or a police officer making an investigation has reasonable grounds for believing that anything necessary for the purposes of an investigation into any offence which he is authorised to investigate may be found in any place with the limits of the police station of which he is in charge, or to which he is attached, and that such thing cannot in his opinion be otherwise obtained without undue delay, such officer may, after recording in writing the grounds of his belief and specifying in such writing, so far as possible, the thing for which search is to be made, search, or cause search to be made, for such thing in any place within the limits of such station.’
Obviously, the CrPC expects and stresses caution in the use of this section, indicating that it should be used only under difficult circumstances; under normal circumstances arrests should be made only with a warrant. Since there was a possibility of arrest of Kumar, the Supreme Court while directing Kumar to cooperate with the CBI investigation, restrained the agency from arresting him.
However, neither the West Bengal chief minister, nor the state police comes out with any glory in this episode. The chief minister of a state going on dharna to defend a city police chief and crying violation of federalism is politics by spectacle. She was either party to the orders to search the CBI team and take them to a local police station for identity check or closed her eyes on it. Either way, this act, rather than the CBI inquiry on a suspected IPS officer, was a violation of federal spirit. Indeed, Mamata Banerjee, who single handedly dislodged the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in 2011 after 34 years of uninterrupted rule, is not new either to politics by spectacle, or to mobilising cadres and voters by playing to the gallery. The CPM-led left front government in West Bengal was known for politicising the bureaucracy and the police. Didi has done the same.
The media reports indicate how she accused the same Rajeev Kumar of snooping on the opposition leaders when she came to power in 2011 and how she refrained from it on the advice of senior cops. In the next eight years Kumar has apparently pleased her so much that she took the extraordinary political step to sit on a dharna to defend him. No wonder the accusation of her, along with Kumar’s, involvement in the Saradha scam was hurled by Union ministers and senior BJP leaders, which did credit to neither.
If the political leadership was accused of partisanship and abusing its position to patronise the police and the bureaucracy, the West Bengal police at the highest level did not come out with any professional distinction. The fact that a senior police officer, well versed in criminal law, did not respond to repeated summon from the CBI, reflects adversely both on his professionalism and integrity. Worse, on his orders, could not have been otherwise, the CBI team was dragged to a police station for their identity check. In a show of strength, the local CBI office was seiged by the local police. Senior police officers, obviously of the IPS cadre, sitting on a dharna with the chief minister of the state looked demeaning of the elite cadre as well as the police establishment. It is immaterial whether they did it on their own, or on the prompting of the chief minister. The IPS is one of the two elite all-India services, which is recruited and trained at great public cost in Mussoorie and Hyderabad and other professional institutions created to train them; they are supposed to know the service conduct rules and abide by them. This tragic episode was a reflection of loss of spine of the cadre, which has grave implications for public security in India. The lame defence of the chief minister that the police cadre was at the dharna site for her security and for the award ceremony, which she appears to have organised cleverly.
The CBI has just emerged out of a turmoil; it has yet to regain its professional sheen. The ‘caged parrot’ had a quiet and non-controversial two years under Anil Sinha, the first Director to be selected by the collegium of the Prime Minister, the leader of the largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha and the Chief Justice of India, after the turmoil it underwent with the previous Dirctor Ranjit Sinha. Anil Sinha was selected under Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government and yet no charges of partisanship and professional misconduct were ever hurled ever at the premium investigating agency. Then what went wrong following the appointment of his successor, selected with similar procedure and unanimously?
Was it the appointment of Rakesh Asthana? What is that he did that led to both the CBI chief and Asthana taking legal action against each other? The reports and analyses available in the public domain do not sufficiently bring out facts for an honest appraisal of the murky situation. It, however, adds to the larger disturbing picture emerging of the soiling of the khaki leadership; the elite IPS cadre. Indeed, it would be wrong to blame only the present set of leadership either at the Centre or in the states. The story began after 1967, with the loss of power of the Congress in eight states. Both the Congress and the parties that coalesced to form the non-Congress fronts, were party to it. The story in Tamilnadu, the first state to come out of the Congress influence completely in 1967, is equally murky; it got worse with the splits and competition among the Dravidian parties. The IPS cadre over decades walked tight rope generally, as some got influenced by politics. The current story running from the CBI to the West Bengal police indicates a sordid tale. The Congress staging demonstration at the removal of the CBI chief in Delhi and the opposition support to Mamata Banerjee indicate political atmosphere that is not conducive to non-partisan civil service conduct and vitiated for policing by the law book. An issue that would always be discussed in this context whether corruption is a non-partisan issue in the Indian public life.
In the mean time, things got tough also for the then interim CBI chief M. Nageshwar Rao, whose term ended after the new Director Rishi Kumar Shukla joined on 4 February 2019, on two fronts. First, the Supreme Court served a contempt notice to Rao for transferring the agency officer heading the Muzaffarpur shelter home probe despite its order barring this on 7 February and ordered him to appear personally before a bench headed by the Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi on 12 February. Second, Kolkata Police raided two premises of a non-banking finance company Angela Mercantile Pvt. Ltd. owned by Rao’s declared ‘long-time family friend’ Praveen Aggarwal on February 8. Though both Rao and Kolkata Police denied the Rao link, association of Rao’s wife with the firm has been reported. Whether or not the two cases substantiate the doubts raised on Rao’s appointment as CBI’s interim Director, these clearly substantiate that a substantive number of officers in the IPS cadre have been sucked into politics either willingly, or compulsively either to save their career, or are lured to advance their career by pleasing the political masters.
It does not matter in the process whether they are bending the rules and the laws or not. As the party system in India gets fractured and mandate fragmented across states, the process of politicisation becomes relentless.Politicisation, the Continuing Bane of the Indian Police The story thus far indicates inexorable politicisation of the police in India, and the rot has reached the top to such an extent that police agencies are now pitted against each other, which is inescapable as the police leadership represented by the IPS cadre heads the police departments and agencies across the country. We had witnessed a confrontation between the CBI and the Intelligence Bureau in 2013. That unseemly situation emerged because the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was using the CBI to corner the Gujarat government headed by Narendra Modi and several BJP leaders. As the situation reverses, it is again the CBI, which pitted against a state police officer. Whether or not it is to embarrass the state government, would be known in due course.
Police reforms have been an agenda in India since independence. Soon after the constitution was enacted, elected governments were installed at the Centre and in the states and the reorganisation of states was complete, all the states appointed Police Commissions. The discourse on politicisation of police has been on since then, 1960s, as all the commission reports referred to it and suggested various measures to insulate the police from politics. These commissions were appointed by states keeping in view the federal nature of the Indian polity designed by the framers of the Indian constitution. However, none of the state governments took any substantive step for police reforms, let alone to introduce any measure to insulate the police from politics.
The emergency in 1975 brought out the worst face of politicised police, leading to the appointment of the first National Police Commission in 1977 by the Morarji Desai led Janata government. However, even before the NPC could begin its work in right earnest, the country witnessed a first ever countrywide police strike by the constabulary in May-June 1979 after a Member of Legislative Assembly in Punjab slapped a cop. The NPC naturally devoted itself to the issue of politicisation.
It analysed in great detail each dimension of the misuse of the police as an instrument. It also criticised the tendency of some of the state governments to issue instructions that contravened law. The long-term impact of such acts on the police cannot be underrated. While endorsing the general superintendence of the police by the respective State governments, the NPC suggested measures like tenured office of the chief of Police, selected from a panel drawn by a Committee consisting of the Chairman of the Union Public Service Commission (Chair), the Union Home Secretary, the senior-most amongst the Heads of Central Police Organisations, the Chief Secretary of the State and the existing Police Chief of the State. Another important measure suggested by the NPC was the constitution of a statutory State Security Commission, constituted for a term of three years with State Minister for Home as the ex-officio Chairman and six other members. It functions included, among other things, evaluation and review of the performance of the police on a yearly basis.
The discourse on police reforms, including appointments at the apex level continued to be part of the discourse with the Prakash Singh case (1996) and judgment (2006) that prompted appointment of J.F. Rebeiro Committee, Padmanabhaiah Committee and Soli Sorabji Committee. Each one of these has suggested measures to insulate the police from politics, but the process is on and each political party and leader is contributing to it with vengeance.
By Ajay K. Mehra
(The writer is Director, Centre for Public Affaris, Noida, and is former Principal, Shaheed Bhagat Singh Evening College; University of Delhi)