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Kolkata top cop to face CBI questioning in ‘neutral’ Shillong, orders SC

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee said the order was a victory in her fight against the Union government, and called off her sit-in protest that she began on Sunday in response to CBI’s attempts to question Kolkata police chief.

india Updated: Feb 05, 2019 23:52 IST
HT Correspondents
HT Correspondents
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Mamata Banerjee,Kolkata top cop,Mamata Banerjee calls off strike
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee during her 'Save the Constitution' dharna in Kolkata on February 5.(ANI Photo)

The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the Kolkata Police commissioner must cooperate with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), but added that no “coercive action” can be taken against him, easing a standoff between the two law enforcement agencies that has become the latest flashpoint between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Opposition parties, particularly West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC).

Rajeev Kumar, the officer in charge of the police in Bengal’s capital, will have to appear for questioning by the CBI but the meeting will need to take place at a “neutral” venue, which the judges decided will be Shillong in Meghalaya.

The CBI is probing allegations against Kumar relating to a chit fund scandal in which at least two million people were cheated out of their savings by the Saradha Group. The case involved financial irregularities to the tune of Rs 10,000 crore. The scam came to light in 2013 when the company, which had several other business interests, collapsed.

The agency’s charge against Kumar is that he compromised evidence in the probe.

Ministers in the BJP-led Union government saw victory in the top court order. Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the order demonstrated that nobody is above the law, including the police commissioner, and that it was a moral victory for CBI.

Read more| Both Mamata Banerjee and Modi govt see moral win in Supreme Court order

But, hours after the court ruling, chief minister Mamata Banerjee also said the order was a victory in her fight against the Union government, and called off her sit-in protest that she began on Sunday in response to CBI’s attempts to question Kumar.

Banerjee said earlier in the day that she would continue the dharna till Friday.

“We see no reason why he will not make himself available for investigation,” chief justice Ranjan Gogoi, who headed the bench, said, while also issuing contempt notices against Bengal’s chief secretary, director general of police, and Kumar.

All three have been asked to respond to CBI’s contempt petition by February 18, and the court may take a decision to summon the three in person on February 20, the next date of hearing.

Tuesday’s order came after dramatic developments on Sunday evening in Kolkata, where a CBI team out to arrest Kumar was briefly detained by the local police while an angry Banerjee began the sit-in protest against what she said was undemocratic intimidation of rivals by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP.

“The court gave a positive judgement today. Next week, we will continue to take up the issue in Delhi,” Banerjee said on Tuesday evening, sharing the dais with several Opposition leaders, including Andha Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu.

Earlier in the day, shortly after the top court order, she said that her government’s case was “very strong”. “We never said we will not cooperate. This is political vendetta,” she said from the makeshift stage erected in front of Metro Cinema in the heart of Kolkata. At least 14 Opposition parties, including the Congress, have supported Banerjee and criticised CBI’s actions. But the government questioned the Opposition’s intentions in supporting the police officer.

“The larger question that we have to ask on behalf of the party is that what happens to the lakhs of small investors who were cheated and looted of their money? Is it not our moral obligation for an investigation? Why is Mamataji silent on this? Why are the other political parties silent on this?” law minister Prasad asked.

Union minister Smriti Irani said the order was “egg on the chief minister’s face”. “To celebrate it as a moral victory is a dichotomy that is only available in the realms of Mamata Banerjee’s politics,” Irani said at a briefing in New Delhi. Turning up the heat on Kumar further, the Union home ministry issued orders to the Bengal government to initiate action against the Kolkata Police commissioner, an Indian Police Service officer, for participating in Banerjee’s street protest. The ministry of home affairs manages the IPS cadre, including taking decisions related to disciplinary proceedings.

“Kumar sat in a dharna along with some police officers with Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee which is prima facie in contravention of the extant provisions of the All India Services (Conduct) rules, 1968 and All India Services (Discipline and Appeal) Rules, 1969,” the home ministry said in a letter to the Bengal government dated February 5.

During Tuesday’s hearing in Supreme Court, attorney general KK Venugopal and solicitor general Tushar Mehta alleged that the SIT that probed the Saradha case was not handing over complete documents to CBI and that some that were received had been doctored. CBI said that, for instance, the state SIT did not give complete call data details. In response, the judge said Kumar will have to cooperate with CBI.

Senior advocate Abhishek Singhvi, representing Kumar, denied any evidence had been compromised. “Where is the destruction of evidence after five years? After five years no FIR against Kumar for destruction of evidence under section 201 of IPC has been lodged,” he said.

According to experts, Banerjee may have succeeded in projecting herself as a strong leader. “There are three angles to this entire controversy, legal issues notwithstanding. CBI’s credibility was never great to begin with, and the fact that they ended up being detained by state police makes them look incompetent in addition to biased. Mamata has used this episode to further her image as a strong national leader from a strong regional leader. Narendra Modi used CBI in his manner because he feels the need to increase the BJP’s tally at all costs in 2019, lest not just the Opposition but even leaders within the BJP might undermine his position. Institutional sanctity is the least of the BJP leadership’s concerns right now,” said Neelanjan Sircar, assistant professor at Ashoka University and visiting senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research.

First Published: Feb 05, 2019 23:52 IST