A senior police officer from the North East, known for his integrity and investigative skills, was once explaining to me"off-the-record, of course"the torture techniques he used in interrogation. When I argued in favour of psychological techniques instead of physical ones, the officer shot back in anger: "If I think somebody is involved in a crime in some way and I must question him, do you expect me to offer him a drink, a cigarette and then bow to him and ask with a smile: Sir, will you now please tell me the truth?"
But this convivial sort of interrogation is exactly what CBI officials investigating the Rs 10,000-crore Saradha chit fund scam might have to do in dealing with Kolkata police commissioner Rajeev Kumar. That's because the Supreme Court, in its commendable ruling on Tuesday that defused an explosive constitutional crisis, ordered the CBI not to take any "coercive" steps against Kumar including arrest. In other words, the court wanted the CBI to be nice to the officer. The judges said that the officer, on his part, must "cooperate" with the CBI and submit himself to questioning in the "neutral" place of Shillong.
With tongue firmly in cheek, the irrepressible Meghalaya governor Tathagata Roy tweeted his joy. He welcomed all concerned to Shillong where, he said, the "weather is glorious, the rhododendrons will start blooming in a while". To a suggestion on the partaking of scotch, the governor said: "Ah well..."
Hon'ble Supreme Court has very wisely chosen Shillong for CBI's questioning Rajeev Kumar. Weather now is glorious,the rhododendrons will start blooming in a while. I'm sure the government will arrange for a comfortable venue for the parties. Welcome to the Scotland of the East!
- Tathagata Roy (@tathagata2) February 5, 2019
The congenial interrogation that its officers must undertake in Shillong needn't overly worry the CBI because it's not always rough handling or "coercive" methods that produce results in an investigation. Nor should the agency unduly fret over West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee's claim that the apex court ruling was a victory for her, which is no more than the bluff and bluster of a street-fighter that she takes pride in being.
It was after the CBI swooped on the police commissioner's home in Kolkata on Sunday evening allegedly to arrest him that Mamata let loose policemen manhandle and intimidate the agency's officers. Then we had the spectacle of the live telecast of a dharna, not by the CBI, but by Mamata herself, and the nation didn't know who did what.
Even if the CBI can't arrest Kumar immediately and must even be hospitable to him during its impending encounter in Shillong, it has, at last, gained access to the allegedly elusive officer. The central agency's main grouse against Kumar"an ostensibly unproven claim"is that he has either destroyed or not handed over to it certain electronic evidence relating to the scam. Kumar had accumulated this evidence while he himself had investigated the case as the head of the West Bengal government's Special Investigation Team (SIT) before the CBI took over the probe on an order by the Supreme Court on 9 May, 2014. (Narendra Modi took oath as the prime minister on 26 May, 2014.)
Kumar is a tough nut to crack
But Kumar, who originally hails from Uttar Pradesh, won't be an easy customer for the CBI. A BE (Computer Science) graduate from Roorkee University (now IIT Roorkee) before joining the IPS ranks in 1989, he apparently possesses awesome knowledge of anything electronic.
Before he became a blue-eyed cop of Mamata, she had hated him for his alleged electronic surveillance of Opposition leaders during the Left rule of West Bengal. And BJP called him a "snooping cop" before the 2016 Assembly elections. Kumar is known to be smart but fiercely loyal to his political masters and even considered honest"if professional honesty and political loyalty can coexist.
Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi may have been overly optimistic when he observed:
"...if (electronic) evidence is destroyed, it can always be retrieved. It is electronic evidence."
Two monkeys and an elephant
What the CBI must be wary of now is how the Kolkata Police commissioner may define "cooperation" which the Supreme Court said he must extend to investigators. What's cooperation for him may be the opposite of it for the CBI. Historically, cooperation has never been an easy word to even mention, especially in situations akin to two monkeys fighting over coconut and the elephant trying to mediate. It's not difficult to imagine an eventuality of either the CBI crying 'non-cooperation' and the IPS officer screaming 'coercion' inside the "comfortable" venue that the governor is talking about.
It's, in fact, not the first time that the Supreme Court is talking of cooperation from state agencies in this case. In its May 2014 verdict which handed over the investigation to the CBI, the court said:
"Needless to say that the State Police Agencies currently investigating the cases shall provide the fullest cooperation to the CBI including assistance in terms of men and material to enable the latter to conduct and complete the investigation expeditiously."
It goes without saying that it was a course of collision but not cooperation that the officers of the West Bengal government chose in the past five years, and the CBI didn't make it any better by descending on Kumar's home on Sunday as if he were a petty criminal. There is no compelling reason now to believe that Mamata's favourite officer will decide to extend cooperation in Shillong, though it's a good thing for both him and the CBI if he does.
One possibility that's staring at us is that of either CBI or the Bengal government going back to Supreme Court and complaining about the way the interrogation went on. That's when we may end up with an unprecedented court-monitored interrogation, instead of"or along with"a court-monitored investigation.
As for a court-monitored investigation, this is how the Supreme Court concluded its May 2014 verdict:
"We do not for the present consider it necessary to constitute a Monitoring Team to monitor the progress of the investigation into the scam. But, we leave the exercise of that option open for the future."
At the root of the current West Bengal mess are two wrongs. First, we had Modi letting loose his CBI on political rivals. Second, we had Mamata unleashing her own policemen to rough up the bad guys of CBI, as if two wrongs make a right. The first one could only be inferred, and the second could be watched on TV screens. The first amounted to impropriety in politics. The second meant a brazen assault on the Constitution and federalism.
But with histrionics guaranteeing live TV coverage and a status"imagined or real"of a unifier of Opposition, Mamata is sure to revive a similar farce sooner than later. Sit back and hold your breath.
The author tweets @sprasadindia