Held for corruption, chief of Assam public service panel thrived under Congress rule

From giving him the top job despite questions over his eligibility to stalling a probe in the face of court orders, the Gogoi government looked the other way as complaints piled up.

Written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap | Guwahati | Updated: November 8, 2016 12:34 pm
assam, apsc, apsc scam, assam public service commission, apsc chairman, rakesh kumar paul, assam government jobs, india news, indian express Rakesh Kumar Paul (left) being taken into custody on Friday night. (Source: PTI)

FORMER Congress Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi was not available for comment today but it was his government that fueled the rising fortunes of Rakesh Kumar Paul, the chief of the Assam Public Service Commission, who was arrested last Friday under the Prevention of Corruption Act. From giving him the top job despite questions over his eligibility to stalling a probe in the face of court orders, the Gogoi government looked the other way as complaints piled up. Including from a top Vigilance official who alleged way back in 2013 that Paul was running a “jobs bazaar.”

In 2008, when Paul was named APSC member, many in the Congress were surprised because eligibility criteria called for an “outstanding” and “competent” candidate and Paul’s legal prowess wasn’t so well-known. What was known, however, was that he was secretary of Satsang Vihar, a religious institution which has a fairly large Bengali Hindu (read voters) following across Assam.

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By the time Paul, 53, was elevated to the APSC chairman’s post in 2013, he had become so powerful that a few months ago, he openly challenged present chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal when the latter expressed his dissatisfaction over the functioning of the APSC. Paul is currently in police remand for 14 days; raids in his house and in a printing press owned by his brother have led to alleged seizure of question papers as well as answer scripts of different exams conducted by the APSC in recent years.

Gogoi wasn’t available for comment but veteran Congress leader and former MLA Haren Das minces few words. “I don’t know what prompted then chief minister Gogoi to nominate Paul to the APSC when rules specifically say that chairman and members of the APSC shall be competent, honest and impartial persons of outstanding ability, integrity and high reputation… I feel ashamed of the kind of damage our own government had done to an institution like the APSC by appointing him and later making him its chairman.”

Paul, incidentally, belongs to Tura in Meghalaya (where his father was a school headmaster), and came to Guwahati only when he enrolled himself in the LLM class of Gauhati University. As a member, Paul was low-profile. When then chief Geeta Basumatary retired in 2013, Paul, by then made acting chairman, wrote a letter to the chief minister asking for elevation to the post. A senior officer in the personnel department pointed out that if Paul was made chairman, he would get an unprecedented 11 years in the APSC, first five years (that he had already completed) as member and then six years as chairman.

Despite this, the government made him chairman on December 7, 2013. Sworn in a couple of days later, there was no looking back for Paul until he was arrested last week on the basis of statements made by Nabajit Patir, an assistant engineer in the Town & Country Planning department, who was arrested red-handed by the police in Dibrugarh while taking a bribe of Rs 10 lakh from a candidate, reportedly on behalf of Paul.

While there have been many allegations against Paul over the past several years including at least two petitions in the High Court, an order of the Gauhati High Court of October 15, 2015, asking the state government to hand over to the CBI an inquiry against Paul continues to remain unheeded. The High Court recommended a CBI probe into the alleged disproportionate assets case against Paul’s relatives, too, including his wife Sunanda, brother Rajiv and his driver.

Even before that, in December 2013, Mukul Saikia, an SP of the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption department of the Assam Police, carried out a preliminary enquiry against Paul, which clearly said that the APSC chairman had opened a “job bazaar” that extended from his office to a religious temple in Guwahati. Paul had engaged two persons Sudip Das and Sanjay Saha to “bargain and collect money” from candidates, the SP’s report said, adding that Paul had already acquired flats in Guwahati, Kolkata and Bangalore after becoming APSC member. The SP’s report suggested a “detailed enquiry” but the report, which was forwarded to the state government, did not evoke any response. Instead, the SP was transferred out.

On March 15, 2015, the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption wing of Assam Police received a letter from the CBI in which it said that one Kamal Kanti Das had alleged manipulation of records in the Assam Civil Service recruitment process and that APSC chairman Paul was collecting “Rs 10 lakh to Rs 40 lakh” from candidates, thus collecting “between Rs 20 crore to Rs 40 crore” in cash. The complaint was sent to the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption wing of Assam Police which forwarded it to the state government. But nothing happened.

A few months later, Akhil Gogoi, leader of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), filed a PIL seeking a thorough enquiry against the alleged disproportionate wealth of Paul and into the functioning of APSC. The High Court put on record that of the candidates selected for the Assam Civil Service in 2013-14, one was an ex-minister’s son, one son of a minister, one son of a DIG, two daughters of two different MLAs and two close relatives of two journalists.

While the state government, following the HC’s orders, said that an SP had conducted a preliminary enquiry into Paul’s assets, the HC ordered bringing SP Saikia back to the Vigilance & Anti-Corruption wing and asked him to submit a detailed report on Paul’s assets. As he submitted this, the Court asked him to probe the assets of Paul’s relatives. It was during this case that the Gauhati High Court bench comprising then Chief Justice KS Rao and PK Saikia ordered a CBI probe into Paul’s alleged disproportionate assets.

By the same order, the HC also asked the state government to institute a judicial enquiry (headed by a retired HC judge) into the anomalies in the APSC. That was on October 15, 2015, when the Congress was in power.

In the meantime, Paul went to the Supreme Court and on November 21, 2015, obtained a stay order on the Gauhati High Court’s order, one that kept him in office until he was arrested last Friday.

No wonder, when present chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal called the entire Commission to his office on June 17 (within three weeks of taking charge as CM) and pulled it up over the allegations, Paul hit back at him and said a chief minister can only suggest, but cannot issue directions to him.

APCC spokesman and former minister Pradyut Bordoloi said there was no question of defending Paul if he was found guilty. “Then chief minister Gogoi wouldn’t have known that Paul was allegedly doing such things as reported,” he said.

Paul’s lawyer Angshuman Bora said that there was a conspiracy against the APSC chairman. “He has been arrested on the basis of a statement allegedly made by a co-accused. I wonder whether it will be considered valid in the court.”