Last week, news reports claimed that the centre has asked the West Bengal government to act against five police officers who were present at a demonstration led by chief minister Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata.
But multiple conversations with serving and retired IPS officers suggest that this is mere bluster, with the centre’s threat of action being easier to issue than carry out.
An IPS officer familiar with the situation in Kolkata told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity that he was not aware of the existence of any such order and that the government’s alleged efforts to penalise the officers were “bunkum”.
On 8 February, The Indian Express published a report stating that the Ministry of Home Affairs had written to the West Bengal chief secretary, asking for action against the police officers who attended Banerjee’s dharna, which she began after a dramatic showdown between the Kolkata Police and CBI. The altercation had erupted after the CBI attempted to question Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar in connection with chit fund scams in the state.
The BJP has been struggling to make inroads into the former Left bastion of West Bengal, which sends 42 MPs to the Lok Sabha. Banerjee, who is among a number of regional leaders eyeing the top post if the BJP fails to drum up the required numbers, has been thwarting them at every turn. The CBI-state police tussle was the latest in a long list of conflicts, but retired police officers were worried enough by it to call it a breakdown of India’s federal structure.
The Indian Express report also claimed that the central government is considering punitive action against the five officers and would consider stripping their meritorious awards and banning them from “central deputation”. The officers named include Kolkata Additional Commissioner of Police Supratim Sarkar and Vineet Goyal, who heads the chief minister’s security team, according to the report.
“I doubt any bureaucrat will sign such an order. They simply can’t issue such an order without conducting an inquiry,” said the IPS officer cited above, adding that he has not seen any such order or is aware of a colleague receiving any such intimation from either the Centre or the state.
Any disciplinary action, said the officer, has to be initiated by the state government, which then sends relevant documents to the MHA for approval.
Lawyer and service law expert Gaurav Mehrotra concurred.
“At most, the centre can complain to the state government, but they cannot take any action against the officers,” he said. The centre cannot take back medals and awards conferred on IPS officers by the state either, he added.
It is also strange that the order was purportedly issued to the state government, when it was the chief minister herself who organised the protest in question.
HuffPost India has sent an email to the MHA and will update this story if we receive a response.
The police officer told HuffPost India that it was puzzling that only five people were named in a circular demanding disciplinary action when at least 15-20 senior IPS officers had been present at the demonstration venue.
“They are trying to send some kind of a message, but these are empty threats. Any junior-level bureaucrat would know these have no weight,” he told HuffPost India.
While the presence of IPS officers in uniform at a demonstration seems inappropriate to Shankar Sen, a former officer, threatening to strip someone of his awards based on one incident, he said, was an overreaction.
“An officer earns an award following years of stellar work. To link it with one incident is not right,” he said, adding that even it was not right to even announce this until after a proper enquiry had been conducted.
Vappala Balachandran, an author, columnist and former IPS officer, said that the threat arose from nothing but a “display of ego”, and that the centre’s reported efforts to penalise the officers were “infantile” and ‘imbecilic’.
Stripping medals or threatening to do so, Balachandran said, is a form of extreme humiliation reserved for ‘crude misdemeanours’ in the ranks of Army and police. Considering a penalty like that for men who were seen at a demonstration was no less than a demonstration of ignorance, he said.
“Were they shouting slogans? Were they waving flags or something? They are police officers, and they have to be present at places to maintain law and order, especially if the chief minister of a state is stationed herself in public,” he said.
If the matter were to reach the courts, Balachandran said the centre could be pulled up for making irresponsible statements.
“There are police officers present at VHP rallies and when those cow bullies (gaurakshaks) run amok, to maintain order. Will the government pull them up as well?” he asked.
Backing a ‘brother’
Another IPS officer, who has also served in the CBI in the past, told HuffPost India that he couldn’t understand why 41 CBI officers had to turn up at the West Bengal police commissioner’s house to arrest him.
“If an influential person is not turning up for an enquiry, you always have the option to go to court and send a summons,” he added, saying the CBI’s ‘raid’ seemed more like an ambush than a formal police procedure. Even former officers such as Sen, who otherwise considered police officers being present at a demonstration ‘disgraceful’, termed the impasse between the CBI and West Bengal police a complete breakdown of the federal structure of the country.
Derek O’Brien, a Rajya Sabha MP from Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, denied that the dharna was even political in nature.
“It was a demonstration by the chief minister of the state to show solidarity with the administration—the IPS, IAS, IES, IRS and various other officers who serve the state,” he told HuffPost India.
The police officer mentioned earlier in this article said that it was surprising that the Centre would want to haul up people like Sarkar, ACP, traffic, and Goyal, who is in charge of Banerjee’s security.
“If a top cop in the traffic department and the CM’s own head of security is not present at the site where she is sitting for a demonstration, who will?” he said.
Terming the reaction to the CBI action against Commissioner Kumar as an ‘outpouring of emotions’, he said that police officials across ranks had been ‘agitated’ following the arrest attempt. There was no organised plan to attend the ‘demonstration’ and most people turned up independently to support a ‘brother’, he said.
“It’s absolutely wrong to say that they were participating in a dharna. What happened was not right. We are not criminals and the CBI are not goondas, they can’t act that way. We have to stay together,” he said.
Calling the entire fracas a ‘political propaganda’, he said that the the centre’s notice, if there was one, was especially problematic since it was directed at people who weren’t a part of any ongoing investigation. “This was clearly designed to give a moral boost to a certain party,” he said.
Former officer Sen concluded that the threats against the police officers were clearly a result of people ‘acting in anger’.
“Many people went to meet Rajeev Sir after this CBI thing happened. If not on the streets, they’d have gone to his house to show solidarity as well. That’s what happened. Even the civil police follows procedure and the CBI completely jumped the gun here. That’s why the community was showing him support,” said the IPS officer quoted in the beginning of this article. “This was not a ‘dharna’. Labelling it one is the work of a political person.”