IN A SERIES of jolts to the Karnataka government over the last week, a senior IPS officer was arrested in the police recruitment scam, the credentials of a second IPS officer who is the head of the state Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) came under a cloud, and an IAS officer who was the deputy commissioner of the Bengaluru Urban region was arrested in a bribery case.
At the heart of all three incidents was Karnataka High Court judge Justice H P Sandesh.
A former district judge who was elevated as an additional judge of the High Court in November 2018 and made permanent in February 2020, 57-year-old Justice Sandesh has been questioning investigations by various police agencies in the state, in cases of corruption that have been meandering for long.
While Additional DGP Amrith Paul was arrested in the recruitment scam, Justice Sandesh’s remarks on ADGP Seemanth Kumar Singh’s handling of the ACB cases led to the arrest of IAS officer J Manjunath the same evening.
Justice Sandesh has relied on past orders of the Supreme Court to justify the High Court’s intervention in police investigations during the hearing of bail petitions. He has stated that the court can monitor cases “if the Investigating Agency failed to consider the public interest which is sole consideration”.
ADGP Amrith Paul
Around the start of 2022, allegations surfaced of large-scale fraud in the recruitment of 545 police sub-inspectors. As many as 54,287 candidates wrote the recruitment exam on October 3, 2021, and the selection list was published on January 21, 2022.
In March, Karnataka Home Minister Araga Jnanendra told the Legislative Council that there was no scam in the recruitment. The next month, amid growing complaints from candidates who were not selected, Jnanendra finally asked the CID to conduct an inquiry into one candidate, Veeresh, from Kalaburagi who got 121 marks out of 150 in the exam despite answering only 21 out of 100 questions (as per the carbon copy of his Optical Mark Recognition sheet).
The CID inquiry found prima facie malpractice, and registered a case on April 9 in Kalaburagi. The consequent investigations unveiled large-scale rigging of the exam, with candidates paying Rs 30 lakh to Rs 80 lakh to middlemen and agents. In many cases, OMR sheets were found to have been filled by people who were not candidates at the strong room of the police recruitment cell where the answer scripts were sent.
Thirty-two candidates were arrested in Bengaluru and Kalaburagi, including nine top 10-rank winners. The CID also arrested nearly 25 others, including owners of an exam centre in Kalaburagi (a former president of the local BJP Mahila Morcha, Divya Hagaragi), agents with links to the Congress like R D Patil and his brother Mahantesh Patil, and several policemen, including a DySP at the recruitment cell, Shanthakumar. The CID also questioned ADGP Amrith Paul, the former head of the cell, on two occasions, but did not pursue an immediate arrest.
On June 23, while hearing a bail petition filed by an arrested candidate, Justice Sandesh sought the presence of the CID chief, DGP P S Sandhu, “to furnish all the details with regard to how many persons are involved… and the progress of investigation till date”. On June 30, Justice Sandesh directed the CID DGP “to monitor the matter personally”, saying he should be given a free hand and that the fraud “amounts to an act of terror to society”.
Three days later, on July 4, the CID placed Paul under arrest.
Bengaluru Urban Deputy Commissioner J Manjunath
There has always been a whiff of corruption around the office of deputy commissioners in Bengaluru, with hundreds of disputes over high-value land dealt by it. On May 20, a person filed a complaint with the ACB saying he was forced to pay Rs 5 lakh bribe at Bengaluru Urban DC Manjunath’s office, to get orders passed in his favour. The complainant had recordings of his conversations with the DC and his staff, but while Manjunath’s personal assistant P S Mahesh and an office staff member were arrested, the ACB did not name the DC or arrest him.
The matter reached the High Court when a bail plea was filed by Mahesh. At a hearing on June 29, Justice Sandesh lambasted the ACB, called it “a collection centre” for bribes, and referred to the head of the ACB (ADGP Seemanth Kumar Singh) as a tainted officer, in oral remarks. The court also sought the details of the investigation in the case.
At the next hearing on July 4, Justice Sandesh stated that he had received the hint of a threat from the ACB head. The same evening, the ACB arrested Manjunath. At a hearing on July 7, the judge observed that Manjunath had only been arrested after the court intervened.
ADGP Seemanth Kumar Singh
During the course of the ACB bribe case hearing, Justice Sandesh came down heavily on ACB chief ADGP Seemanth Kumar Singh, whose department comes under Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai. He called the ACB chief a tainted officer and called for his service records, after indicating links to an illegal mining scam in the Ballari region of Karnataka. Later, at the July 4 hearing, the judge suggested he had been threatened, saying: “Your ACB ADGP seems to be a powerful person. I was told by my fellow judge that I could be transferred for the remarks. I will record the threat of transfer in the order.”
On July 7, as Kumar moved a petition to expunge remarks made by Justice Sandesh against him, the judge recorded his anguish over “the state of affairs in Karnataka” in a written order. He said he had made remarks against the ADGP because the ACB did not act against the DC in the bribery case despite evidence.
Justice Sandesh also called for the status of an illegal mining-linked investigation from 2009-2010 against the ADGP. Kumar had been investigated by the CBI with regard to the case when he was an SP in Ballari, on the basis of a Lok Ayukta report. The CBI had later referred the investigation into officers who allegedly supported the illegal mining operations to the Karnataka government.