The confrontation between the Central government and the government of West Bengal over the investigation of Saradha and Rose Valley chit fund ponzi scam has thrown up a number of critical issues. Some of them are obvious and some require deeper examination.
Let us start with the obvious. It was a face-off between the CBI and the West Bengal Police — the crisis being precipitated by the CBI’s raid of the official residence of Rajeev Kumar, Commissioner of Police, Kolkata, on February 3. Apparently, it was to question him on the scam because he had refused three summons sent earlier by the CBI. On the face of it, the action appeared unexceptionable. However, there are several unanswered questions in this context.
First, if such a strong action had to be taken, why could it not wait until the regular director of the CBI, Rishi Kumar Shukla, whose appointment had already been announced, took charge? An investigation which had dragged on for more than four years could have been delayed by a couple of days. It was indiscreet on the part of Nageshwar Rao, the interim director, to have shown the urgency he did. Second, prior to the raid, the press was told that the police commissioner was absconding and that his arrest was imminent. This was strongly refuted by the West Bengal Police, which clarified that he was in Kolkata attending to his official duties, and he had taken leave for just a day. If that is true, why was such a canard spread? Third, it is true that the police has the power to arrest an accused, and search a premises without warrant under Sections 41 and 165 of the CrPC. However, these powers are to be exercised with great circumspection. In the present case, the CBI would appear to have overstretched action under Section 165 of the CrPC. No wonder the Supreme Court, while asking the police commissioner to “faithfully cooperate” with the investigating agency, has, at the same time, restrained the CBI from arresting him.
Having said that, did the Kolkata police and the state government go overboard in their conduct? The picture here is even murkier. It is a sad commentary on the state police if the CBI has to issue summons repeatedly without getting a satisfactory response from the concerned police officers. What is worse, the Kolkata Police had no business using their manpower to drag the CBI team to the police station on the ostensible plea of checking their documents. The reported siege of the CBI office by the local police was a crude show of strength. Events took a dramatic turn with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee jumping into the fray and sitting on dharna to demonstrate her support for the police. It is distressing to see chief ministers indulging in such theatrical gestures, forgetting the dignity of their office. The conduct of senior police officers of the state, who are also said to have sat on dharna, was also reprehensible. Politicians will remain politicians, but the All India Service officers are supposed to know the conduct rules and abide by them.
The CBI does not seem to have learnt any lessons even after the turmoil it has gone through. The Kolkata Police and the government of West Bengal also gave an impression of stonewalling investigation into a ponzi scheme in which about 17 lakh investors are said to have been defrauded of about Rs 3,500 crore. The state police are expected to cooperate with the central investigating agency and not intimidate and humiliate its representatives. Banerjee’s gimmickry was regrettable, and so was the conduct of the senior police officers of the state.
The opposition leaders ganging up in support of Mamata Banerjee was political opportunism of the worst kind. Have these people ever thought of the lakhs of people who lost money in these ponzi schemes? Corruption is obviously not an issue with them.
Having analysed the obvious, let us go a little deeper. The fact of the matter is that the police across the country is, today, generally acting as agents of the ruling class, and not as upholders of the rule of law. The central police organisations are not immune to politicisation, though they are comparatively better off. In the Kolkata confrontation, policemen on both sides were the pawns. What happened was a kind of shadow boxing. The real fight was between the Centre and the state government, one pushing its agenda through the CBI, and the other resisting it with the state police. Such misuse of police can be prevented if it is insulated from extraneous pressures, but then, who wants to give up his zamindari over the police? The SC issued directions as far back as 2006, but the executive of the country has a remarkable genius for frustrating judicial directions.
It may be recalled that in 2013, there was a confrontation between the CBI and the Intelligence Bureau over the Ishrat Jahan encounter killing. That happened because the then UPA government was allgedly using the CBI to corner Gujarat’s BJP leaders for their alleged involvement in the killing. The shoe is on the other foot today. It is high time that the CBI is given a legal mandate and allowed to function with a fair measure of autonomy. The Government of India should also seriously think of bringing “police” and “public order” in the Concurrent List. There has been a radical change in the law and order scenario since the Constitution was drafted. The states are not able to discharge even their normal functions, let alone deal with crimes which have inter-state ramifications, without central assistance. Bringing “police” and “public order” in the Concurrent List would only amount to giving de jure recognition to what obtains de facto on the ground.