On September 27, when Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray learned that the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) had issued summons to two of his top officials—chief secretary Sitaram Kunte and acting DGP (director general of police) Sanjay Pandey—in connection with a case filed against former home minister Anil Deshmukh, Thackeray’s response, sources say, was, “Give them a befitting reply.” The reply arrived in two parts. First, Kunte and Pandey refused to honour the three summons, which asked them to appear on September 29, October 2 and October 11, apparently because it departed from protocol in which senior officers under inquiry are questioned in their own offices. They asked the CBI to send its investigators to their offices instead; the central agency chose to email them its questions.
The second part appeared on September 29, when the Maharashtra government revitalised a dormant case involving CBI director Subodh Jaiswal’s probe of the 2003 counterfeit stamp-paper scam. Jaiswal, who was heading the special investigation team tasked with probing the case in 1997, was castigated by a Pune court for conducting a ‘shoddy investigation’. In 2007, Jaiswal had approached the Bombay High Court to have his record cleared, but the case had gone into cold storage. On September 29, the Maharashtra government filed a motion asking the HC to expedite the hearing of Jaiswal’s petition. Whether it clears Jaiswal or not, the public rehashing of the incident will have consequences for his reputation.
These incidents are just one episode in the drama playing out in India’s financial hub, drawing together members of the political class and the police. Maharashtra’s IPS (Indian Police Service) officers have been reduced to pawns in a political slugfest that has been raging since at least 2019, following the bitter split between the BJP and the Shiv Sena. The cast of characters includes former state home minister Deshmukh (arrested on November 2 on charges of corruption and money laundering), former Mumbai Police chief Param Bir Singh (on the run after accusing Deshmukh of using the Mumbai Police to extort city businesses), and most recently, NCB (Narcotics Control Bureau) officer Sameer Wankhede, who shot to limelight after his team arrested Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan for alleged drug consumption on October 3.
Behind the froth is the reality that Mumbai’s rich economy—from its overpriced real estate to its glamorous film industry—has provided a reservoir of black money that has fed corrupt politicians and their cronies in the state police for decades. Periodically, this nexus heaves into public view, as it did in 2003, when senior police officials were arrested for allegedly shielding scamster Abdul Karim Telgi. In 2021, senior officers are once again racing to corner each other, dividing the police force, tarnishing its reputation and battering morale. The consequences for the public are painfully visible—over the past eight months, the state has seen a surge in crime with real policing taking a backseat and top cops playing political games.
The current crisis can be traced back to 2019, when the Shiv Sena broke its 25-year partnership with the BJP to form the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government with the Congress and the NCP (Nationalist Congress Party). The political fallout impacted the state police as well, with tensions simmering between officers linked to senior leaders in various parties. These tensions spilled into public view after the ‘Bombgate’ incident in February, when an explosives-laden SUV was found near Antilia, the multi-storeyed residence of billionaire industrialist Mukesh Ambani in south Mumbai. The investigation revealed the involvement of an assistant inspector of police, Sachin Vaze, who is believed to be close to the Sena. Vaze was arrested on March 9, dismissed from service on May 11 and charged on September 7. The NIA (National Investigation Agency) has accused him of being part of a conspiracy to threaten Ambani, and of the murder of Mansukh Hiran, a Thane-based businessman who owned the SUV.
The fallout spread swiftly, engulfing more members of the state police force and revealing other, unrelated crimes. On March 20, the then Mumbai police commissioner Param Bir Singh, believed to be close to senior members of the state government, wrote to Chief Minister Thackeray, accusing the then home minister Deshmukh of running an extortion racket. On October 27 and 30, two magistrate courts in Thane and Mumbai respectively issued non-bailable warrants against Singh in other cases of extortion. In this period, four other senior IPS officers have also come under investigation for alleged involvement in illegal/ unethical practices (see Cops vs. Cops). The Bombgate incident alone has put several officers in the dock—apart from Vaze, four others, including ‘encounter specialist’ Pradeep Sharma, have been jailed for their alleged roles in the conspiracy.
At the heart of all this is a battle for control of the Mumbai Police. With 55,000 personnel, it was once regarded as India’s best police force, praised for its investigations and for maintaining law and order. The position of Mumbai police commissioner was considered a highly-coveted one among IPS officers, as it conferred authority over Mumbai’s 16 million residents, making the incumbent one of the most powerful authorities in the country.
Former DGP A.N. Roy says the crisis in the Maharashtra Police is a result of the politicisation of the force. He points out that many senior appointments have been made in violation of the rules, which conveys the message that political patronage is more important to career advancement than obeying the law. “Officers [have been caught] in the [political] crossfire, but a lot of it is of their own making,” he says. “The larger point is that [this] is not good for the state. Nobody is thinking of the safety and security of the state.” He says the only way to stop the rot is to stringently follow the rules. “The Supreme Court has laid down the rules for the appointment of officers,” he points out. “Just follow them. Most problems will be resolved.”
At the heart of it all is a battle for control of the Mumbai police. With 55,000 personnel, it was once India’s best police force. The post of Mumbai police commissioner was a coveted one, as it conferred on the incumbent authority over 16 million Mumbaikars
The rules Roy refers to pertain to the appointment of DGPs and the police commissioner. The Supreme Court had ruled that only officers who have served an uninterrupted 30 years and held the rank of inspector general should be considered for the post of DGP. The current acting DGP, Sanjay Pandey, does not qualify—he had quit the force and joined a private firm for a year. Despite his clean record, this means he should not be allowed to hold the post. Another example is Hemant Nagrale, who was appointed the Mumbai police commissioner this year, despite being accused of domestic violence. Other examples include Jaiswal, who was made police commissioner in 2017, despite having been out of the force for a decade and a half to serve in the Research & Analysis Wing, and D.D. Padsalgikar, who was brought in from the Intelligence Bureau to serve first as Mumbai police commissioner and then Maharashtra DGP.
A senior officer, requesting anonymity, says the politicisation of appointments and the violation of service rules has left senior officers demotivated. He offers the example of V.V. Lakshmi Narayan, an officer who was part of the 2G scam probe in 2013 and retired after being overlooked for the post of joint commissioner of police (crime). Narayan had also investigated corruption cases pertaining to Jagan Mohan Reddy (now chief minister of Andhra Pradesh) when he was with the CBI. “He was the natural claimant for the crime branch,” the officer says. “[This is a major] example of the politicisation of the police force.”
The Continuing Crisis
One of the key players in the current crisis is 1988 batch IPS officer Param Bir Singh, now the director general of the Maharashtra Home Guards. Singh has been missing since May, when he sought leave on medical grounds. Two non-bailable warrants have been issued against him, one by a Thane court and another by a Mumbai court. Ironically, both relate to cases of extortion—he has been accused of demanding Rs 1.25 crore and Rs 11.92 lakh from builders Bimal Agarwal and Ketan Jani in two separate instances.
Another central character is 1988 batch IPS officer Rashmi Shukla, additional director general of CRPF (Central Police Reserve Force), posted in Hyderabad. The state government believes she was behind the leak of a confidential report relating to a cash-for-postings racket in which state politicians were demanding/ accepting bribes for plum IPS postings. Deshmukh had ordered the investigation of the data leak case in September. Upset with the bad press resulting from the Deshmukh episode, the state government had filed an FIR (first information report) in March against unknown persons for leaking confidential information.
CM Thackeray, flanked by Anil Deshmukh and Param Bir Singh at a function in remembrance of 26/11 martyrs in November 2020 (Photo by Mandar Deodhar)
Though the FIR does not name her, sources say Shukla is the main suspect—in her capacity as the then head of the Maharashtra state intelligence department (SID), she had overseen the tapping of several phone calls by politicians and their aides in the interest of national security. These conversations revealed the cash-for-postings racket, following which Shukla had sent a confidential report on the matter to the then home secretary Sitaram Kunte. While the state believes she leaked the report to the leader of the opposition Devendra Fadnavis, Shukla’s lawyer Mahesh Jethmalani told the Bombay High Court on October 30 that it was NCP ministers Nawab Malik and Jitendra Awhad who had leaked the report.
The Mumbai Police is also investigating Wankhede, the 2008 batch IRS (Indian Revenue Service) official who is currently Mumbai zonal director of the NCB. On October 14, Prabhakar Sail, the bodyguard of Kiran Gosavi, a witness in the Aryan Khan case, claimed that he had heard his master telling intermediary Sam D’Souza that Wankhede had to be paid Rs 8 crore.
Gosavi had allegedly arranged the bribe from SRK’s assistant Pooja Dadlani to dilute the case against Aryan. However, on November 2, D’Souza accused Gosavi of lying, telling a Marathi news channel, “I gave Rs 50 lakh on behalf of Dadlani to Gosavi, who pretended to be in touch with Wankhede. Later, when I realised he was lying, I made him return the money.”
A day earlier, Thackeray seemed to be his usual unruffled self while interacting with reporters at his official residence. However, his mood turned sombre when someone asked him about the infighting with the Union government. “Leave it. Why discuss these things on Diwali?” he said. He may have deflected the question for the moment, but there is no doubt that it will return to haunt him sooner or later.