Politics

Assam IPS Officer Investigating Louis Berger Bribery Case Arrested

R. Rajamarthandan was suspended on April 5, on charges of having given away “classified” information while responding to an RTI application inquiring about the sensational Silapathar case.

R. Rajamarthandan was arrested for responding to an RTI application in relation to the Subodh Biswas case. Representational image. Credit: Victor/Flickr CC BY 2.0

R. Rajamarthandan was arrested for responding to an RTI application in relation to the Subodh Biswas case. Representational image. Credit: Victor/Flickr CC BY 2.0

New Delhi: An Indian Police Service (IPS) officer of the 2006 batch of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre, who was investigating some sensitive cases in Assam – including the high-profile Louis Berger bribery case – was suspended, and thereafter arrested on April 7. He was charged with giving away “classified information” while responding to an RTI application related to the sensational Subodh Biswas case.

The arrest of R. Rajamarthandan – posted as the special superintendent of police (SSP) in the CID, and widely considered “an honest police officer” – has created an uproar among many quarters in the state. Local media reports have highlighted instances of his “upright character” and have hinted at a  high level “conspiracy” behind the entire issue.

Among other cases, Rajamarthandan was heading the special investigation team (SIT) formed by the state government to probe into the March 6 attack on the office of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) in Silapathar town of the state’s Dhemaji district.

The attack was allegedly carried out by supporters of a Bengali Hindu outfit, Nikhil Bharat Bengali Udbastu Samannay Samiti (NBBUSS) after a meeting held in support of the Narendra Modi government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016.

It was alleged that the NBBUSS leader, Nagpur-based doctor, Subodh Biswas, was the mastermind of the attack. On March 22, Biswas – said to be close to a lot of central and state BJP leaders and the RSS – was arrested by a team of Assam police in West Bengal and brought to Guwahati. On April 4, he was remanded to seven days of judicial custody by the court of the judicial magistrate in Dhemaji.

Subodh Biswas, the main accused in the Silapathar case. Credit: Twitter

Subodh Biswas, the main accused in the Silapathar case. Credit: Twitter

As per local media reports, Rajamarthandan, also the public information officer of CID, allegedly furnished information from a report compiled by the state police on the Silapathar incident to Biswas’s lawyer and NBBUSS official Ambika Roy, without informing his seniors. The information was reportedly used by Biswas to apply for bail on April 4.

State director general of police Mukesh Sahay told The Wire from Guwahati, “Not all departments of Assam police are under RTI. However, I wouldn’t say the entire CID is exempted of it but certain information is sensitive – particularly this report which should have been shared only with the permission of the court.”

On April 4, Rajamarthandan was suspended and an FIR was filed by his immediate senior and DIG (CID) Raunaq Ali Hazarika at the Paltan Bazar police station in Guwahati, leading to his interrogation for two days. On April 7, he was arrested. “He will be presented in the court today,” Sahay said soon after his arrest.

An April 7 report, published in the Assamese daily Niomiya Barta, however, claimed that Rajamarthandhan was “trapped” as part of a “conspiracy” hatched by “two topmost police officials to unseat the state DGP.”

It claimed, “They trapped the officer in the highly sensitive case to trigger a public demand for the removal of the DGP for not being able to gather enough evidence against Biswas and thereby facilitating him to get bail.” The report said it would then clear the way for one of them to “replace” him.

Besides staging state-wide protests since March 6, AASU, along with other student and civil society organisations, have been demanding “exemplary punishment” for Biswas.

The newspaper report claimed that Biswas’s lawyer was sent to procure information from Rajamarthandan by one of the two higher officials “which pushed him to go the extra mile, thinking that he was known to his senior.”

The report further said, “The suspended officer agreed to give away information from the report only through RTI. Since Roy was the guest of his senior, he sent an orderly to buy an IPO and thereafter himself filled up the RTI application. The application was attached to the bail plea by the lawyer at the court to claim that there was no evidence against Biswas and he, therefore, be released.”

Assam DGP Mukesh Sahay says the arrested IPS officer will be presented in the court on April 7. Credit: PTI

Assam DGP Mukesh Sahay says the arrested IPS officer will be presented in the court on April 7. Credit: PTI

Reacting to the newspaper report, Sahay told The Wire, “I [would] rather not comment on it as I don’t quite believe in conspiracy theories.” He said, “We will go by the law as per which he was suspended and a departmental inquiry was initiated and an FIR was lodged. On finding enough evidence against him, he was arrested. The law will take its course.”

Later in the day, Rajamarthandan was presented at a Guwahati court and remanded to two days of police custody till April 9. Guwahati commissioner of police told local reporters that they would file a charge sheet soon.

Nath also said that after an investigation, “we didn’t find any role of senior police officers or conspiracy hatched against him in the case, as reported in a section of media. ”

As per reliable sources in the Assam Police, the arrested officer “was handpicked by DGP Sahay” to head the SIT. “He reported the progress of his investigation to the DGP on a day to day basis,” the sources said, adding “Rajamarthandan’s arrest has led to a sense of fear and confusion among the IPS officers. Importantly, the DGP also disbanded the SIT on April 1, three days before the lawyer of Subodh Biswas mentioned about the SIT report in the Dhemaji court to seek bail which in turn led to Rajamarthandan’s arrest.”

Meanwhile, on news channels and social media, Rajamarthandan’s “honesty” is being widely discussed.

“It is very hard to believe that the officer will act against the interests of the Assamese people. He is the son- in-law of Assam. While most Assamese people and our senior police officers would send their children to English medium convent schools, his daughters come to an Assamese medium primary school like ours. That should say a lot about his upright character,” the principal of an Ulubari primary school told the Assamese news channel Pratidin Time.

Importantly, Rajamarthandan’s arrest is likely to cause further delay in the investigation of the Louise Berger bribery case.

On January 7, the Guwahati high court sought a status report from the state CID on the progress of its investigation in to the case.

Based on confessions made by two officials of the New Jersey-based construction management company Louise Berger International Inc, farmers right activist Bhaben Handique had filed a PIL in July 2015. As per the officials, the company had allegedly paid bribes to corner an Assam government water management consultancy project in Guwahati. In August 2015, the CID registered a case in response to Handique’s PIL.

The officials, booked by the US court under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in July 2015, also spoke about making similar payments in Goa and West Bengal, as well as elsewhere, in other countries. In August 2015, the Modi government ordered a probe by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to uncover the money trail in the case. Accordingly, cases were registered in Goa and West Bengal which led to some arrests. The ED is also probing the money trail in the Guwahati part of the case.

On January 7, in an affidavit submitted to the court, Rajamarthandan said the US authorities, in a letter to the Indian government, dated September 10, 2016, had agreed to divulge the details of alleged bribes made by the company officials to the Indian investigators through video conference. The high court, thereafter, gave the CID four weeks’ time to file a status report after conducting such a video conference.

“However, the CID, in a verbal affidavit, informed the court this past February 12, that the video conference had not taken place. The court thereafter gave it more time. Still, on March 20, the CID couldn’t present the status report to the court and sought more time,” Handique said.

Himanta Biswa Sarma was the then minister for Guwahati Development Department. Credit: PTI

Himanta Biswa Sarma was the then minister for Guwahati Development Department. Credit: PTI

Himanta Biswa Sarma held the development portfolio in the previous Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government under which, falls the Guwahati Development Department (GDD) that gave the said project to the US firm. Having defected to the BJP, Sarma holds the same portfolio, besides other departments in the present Sarbananda Sonowal government. Sarma is also the convener of the party’s North East Democratic Alliance.

As per the US court documents, the construction firm and its several consortium partners paid bribes of Rs 6.1 crore for two water projects in Goa and Guwahati. Media reports quoting then Guwahati Municipal Development Authority chairman Dhiren Barua said the authority “was not involved” in the selection of consultants, and was done by GDD.” Baruah said when Louis Berger was selected as a consultant, “Himanta Biswa Sarma was the GDD minister and Ashish Kumar Bhutani was the GDD secretary. The selection took place between 2008-2009.”

As per media reports, on April 2, the enforcement directorate reportedly conducted raids on 14 shell companies in Kolkata in connection with the Louis Berger case.

“I am surprised by the news of sudden suspension and arrest of the SSP, CID. Not just the Louis Berger bribery case but some other high profile cases, including that of Assam board exam papers destroyed in a fire in early March, were being handled by the same officer. Anyway, the investigation of the Louis Berger bribery case slowed down in the state after the BJP government came to power. Many conspiracy theories are in the air after Rajamarthandan’s arrest. Therefore, I feel, considering the case is in a critical stage, the state government should allow a judicial inquiry into the entire matter,” Handique told The Wire on April 7.

Who handles the case hereafter has not been decided yet, sources in the state CID said.

(The story has been updated with additional information.)