Political drama staged in West Bengal over ex-Kolkata top cop Rajeev Kumar may prove costly for CM Mamata Banerjee

Sreemoy Talukdar

A macabre drama is being played out in West Bengal over Central Bureau of Investigation's (CBI) pursuit of former Kolkata police commissioner Rajeev Kumar who has been trying to evade arrest and has gone incommunicado since the Calcutta High Court vacated an earlier order last Friday granting protection to Kumar from arrest in connection with the Saradha chit fund scam. It also quashed his appeal seeking relief from appearing before the CBI for questioning.

These legal developments triggered a game of cat and mouse between the CBI and the ex-Bengal top cop but the Mamata Banerjee administration has appeared on the scene as the joker in the pack, making it difficult for the central investigative agency to carry on with its work and claiming ignorance about the whereabouts of Kumar €" a former Kolkata Police Commissioner who is now posted as Additional Director General West Bengal Police (CID).

Officially, the senior IPS officer is "on leave" from 9-25 September. He has been defying repeated notices from the CBI asking him to appear before the agency. In an email last Saturday, Kumar had sought a "month's time" to present himself for some "personal reasons".

Kumar reports directly to Virendra, the director general of police (DGP), and as a senior IPS officer his leave application must mention contact details and "leave address" where he may be reached during an emergency. While the CBI has sought these details from the DGP and the administration (through separate letters), none among his cadre or the state seems to know where the "untraceable" senior officer currently is.

When CBI officers reached Nabanna €" the seat of Bengal administration €" to meet chief secretary Malay De and home secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay and hand-deliver the letters on Monday (after failing to do so on Sunday since Nabanna was "closed"), the administration finally received the letters after considerable drama.

According to local reports, CBI's letters, seeking whereabouts of Kumar, sparked off intense activity in Nabanna. The top bureacrats and state DGP had several meetings, including one with the chief minister just to finalise the format of State's reply to the CBI on Kumar. Officially, the state does not know the whereabouts of Kumar, the CID Additional Director General.

Even as the CBI has launched a manhunt in the city for the the former Kolkata top cop through a special 12-member team, the "untraceable", "on leave" and incommunicado Kumar has been fighting an intense legal battle with the CBI, filing petitions and appeals before district courts for getting legal immunity. His lawyer has filed an appeal before Alipore district court saying CBI needed permission from the Bengal government before prosecuting a public servant, while a separate report in The Times of India says Kumar may file a special leave petition in Supreme Court against Calcutta High Court's Friday order and is reportedly in touch with a senior Supreme Court lawyer who has represented him and the state earlier.

This is where the development lies at this juncture €" with CBI's manhunt, Kumar's evasion, State's interference and obstructionism (Kolkata police, dressed in plain clothes, are guarding Kumar's residence at 34, Park Street) running parallel with the legal tussle in courts. This, of course, is not the first time the State of West Bengal has adopted a confrontationist position against CBI's moves to nab Kumar, whom the agency has accused of "tampering with the evidence" in the Rs 2,500 crore Saradha scam during his role as a member of the Special Investigative Team (SIT) set up by the West Bengal government to probe the case in 2013 before Supreme Court handed over the case to the CBI in 2014.

The CBI, that had interrogated Kumar in Shillong earlier this year on Supreme Court's orders, accuses Kumar of not only tampering with the evidence, but also destruction of evidence that allegedly links top Trinamool Congress leaders with the multi-crore Saradha and Rose Valley chit fund scams in which lakhs of small investors from Bengal lost their life's deposit in the hope of heightened interest.

As the SIT head in 2013, Kumar allegedly provided tampered call detail records (CDRs) of suspects in the investigation that did not match with the CDRs submitted by the mobile service providers. "Kumar handed over electronic equipments including laptops to prime accused, Sudipto Sen (Saradha chit fund kingpin) when he was in SIT custody," India Today had quoted a source as saying.

It is also worth noting that a contempt case is pending at the Supreme Court against the Mamata-led Trinamool Congress government since the CBI has accused the state administration of non-cooperation in the probe despite a clear judicial decree. Few have forgotten the showoff that occurred on 3 February this year when Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee held a sit-in protest against CBI's move to question Kumar in the ponzi scam case. In an unprecedented turn of events, Mamata's police even detained briefly a few CBI officers, and there were charges that the sleuths were manhandled by cops.

The chief minister herself sat on a dharna, accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the then BJP president Amit Shah and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval of "political conspiracy", and Kumar, then a serving Kolkata Police Commissioner, was seen on the political stage with the chief minister.

Readers may also remember that Kumar had gone on similar "leave" and even failed to attend the Election Commission meetings following which the CEC sought an explanation from the state government and the Mamata administration had to apologise.

This pattern raises the question why the Mamata government is so desperate to shield a cop whose name has been repeatedly dragged into the scam, and what explains the spending of Mamata's political capital and risking confrontation with the Centre and central investigative agencies over a cop whom the CBI has called a "suspect". The Saradha scam probe has already seen Madan Mitra, a Trinamool Congress leader and minister thought to be close to 'Didi' (Mamata's moniker) being sent to jail. The politically sensitive case has also caused a TMC Rajya Sabha MP (Kunal Ghosh) and a TMC vice-president (Rajat Majumdar) being sent to jail.

The CBI had reportedly raised a question in court that "Why (is) the CM protecting him when she did not protect her own ministers who were arrested?"

While the answer to this question is not known, it is evident that Mamata will increasingly find it difficult to shield Kumar from probe heat by raising the bogey of "federalism" and "political witch hunt". She should also consider whether it is proving to be politically costly for her to keep sounding indignant over the penal actions against a tainted cop against whom the allegations brought by the CBI have been described as "very, very serious" by chief justice of India Ranjan Gogoi.

The Assembly elections, slated for 2021, are not very far away. TMC leadership's defensive posture over Kumar gives BJP all the ammo that they need.

Also See: Saradha case: Ex-Kolkata police commissioner Rajeev Kumar fails to appear before CBI, seeks month's time owing to wife's illness

Saradha case: Rajeev Kumar fails to appear before CBI for second time in three days; don't know his whereabouts, say top West Bengal officials

Saradha scam: CBI sets up special team to trace Rajeev Kumar; ex-Kolkata top cop failed to appear for questioning twice

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