M. Nageswara Rao: CBI Interim Chief Has Always Been on Right Side of the BJP

From communal speeches to corruption allegations, Rao's tenure as an IPS officer has not been free from controversy. Was his selection as the central agency's head by the Modi government an ideologically motivated decision?

New Delhi: While the Modi government’s decision to “divest” Alok Verma of his duties as director of the Central Bureau of Investigation has dominated the headlines, the rise of M. Nageswara Rao to the position of interim CBI director, say those familiar with his career graph, is arguably no less dramatic. The singular fact that the government unprecedentedly chose an I-G level officer to hold the reigns of India’s top investigative agency at a time when the organisation is beset with one of the worst crises in its history speaks for itself.

Rao is a 1986-batch Odisha cadre IPS officer.

In the last two weeks, the Modi government has been confronted with an apparent rebellion from a majority of the top brass of the CBI. It is being said that the war that unfolded between the two top bosses of the organisation – Verma and his deputy Rakesh Asthana – was nothing but an outgrowth of the government’s persistent attempts to politicise the CBI.

With both of them under the CVC scanner for the next two weeks, Rao is finds himself at the helm of affairs. While the Supreme Court has now clearly barred him from taking any major policy decisions in the interim period, one of his first moves immediately after taking over as acting director was to transfer 13 officers, all of whom were probing allegations of corruption and bribery against Asthana. In effect, he shunted out those who were on the side of Verma, providing Asthana some immediate relief.

Asthana’s connection to the Modi establishment goes back many years. As a Gujarat cadre officer, he occupied many important positions when Narendra Modi was the state’s chief minister. More importantly, he buttressed Modi’s theory that the 2002 Godhra train burning was a pre-planned attack despite going on the record as late as April 2002 that there there was no evidence so far of any larger conspiracy. In the CBI, he was being seen as the Union government’s face and was handling most cases that concerned charges against opposition leaders.

The significance of Rao can be understood from the fact the Modi government appointed him to come to the rescue at a time when Asthana has found himself in a corner after Verma slapped corruption charges against him and accused him of obstructing important cases.

Watch | Explained: The Ongoing CBI Controversy

So, what makes Rao so special? A look at his track record as an IPS officer explains why he has always been on the right side of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

M. Nageswara Rao comes from Warangal in Telangana. Before he cleared the civil services exam to be appointed in the Indian Police Services, he finished his post-graduation in chemistry from Osmamia University in Hyderabad and did a brief research stint in the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras.

He landed into controversy quite early in his career. As the superintendent of police (SP) of Nabrangpur district in Odisha, he was alleged to have circulated a letter among the headmasters of government schools urging them to discourage the students against religious conversion, an issue close to the hearts of the Sangh parivar cadres.

“His letter,” said Ali Kishore Patnaik, the Odisha state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), “written on March 4, 1994, targeted the minority groups in the area and sought to tacitly propagate an anti-minority feeling among children. By issuing such a letter, he was clearly bypassing the constitutional order. His communal colours were evident from the very beginning.”

In the year 1998, he landed into a similar situation, the consequences of which he had to face later. As the vice-chairman of the Berhampur Development Authority (BeDA), he was accused of making a communally inflammatory speech again. Patnaik recalled that as speaker on International Human Rights day, he said the authors of the Indian Constitution were “pro-minority”.

Also read: Exclusive: With CBI Chief Alok Verma Gone, Fate of Recordings Incriminating Top Officials Unclear

On December 10, 1998, an NGO named “The Humane” organised a public function and invited him as a speaker. In his speech, he is said to have stated that “Muslims, Christians and Marxists” were the biggest threat to human rights, almost reiterating what the second sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, M.S. Golwalkar, had articulated in his book Bunch of Thoughts.

An Odiya newspaper, Anupam Bharat, which covered the event quotes Rao as saying, “These forces believe in violence and are intolerant of others. Christians and Muslims do not respect any sacred text other than the Bible and the Quran. They give primacy to their religion over the nation. They lure and convert people by offering incentives.”

“Christians and Muslims form a very small part of the Indian population and their contribution to the country’s revenue is negligible. Taxes collected from Hindus getting deployed for the benefit of minorities is a violation of human rights,” he reportedly said.

The report further quotes him as saying, “Although 95% of the Constituent Assembly members were Hindus, they did not take any step to protect the interests of the majority community. This benefitted the minorities. Jawaharlal Nehru is to blame for such a situation.”

He also talked about why Article 370, which grants special status to Jammu and Kashmir, should be scrapped for the interest of the country.

Patnaik who was listening to the speech petitioned the Odisha high court in early 1999 objecting to the fact that a senior IPS officer violated the “Indian Service (Conduct) Rules” and the Indian Penal Code’s sections 295 and 295 A by inciting communal passion and hatred.

Patnaik’s petition, a copy of which is with The Wire, details how many in the audience objected to Rao’s remarks but he paid no heed to them  and continued with what he had to say.

Following his speech, the petition says, a unanimous resolution, which condemned the “irresponsible, unlawful and unconstitutional remarks of Shri Rao” was passed, a copy of which was circulated among different government authorities.

Rao had to bear the consequences of his act. Inquiries by the revenue divisional commissioner (RDC) and deputy inspector general of police (DIG) found him guilty and he was posted out of Berhampur immediately. “This issue also came up for discussion in the sate assembly. The state government had to transfer Mr Rao from the post of vice-chairman of BeDA,” Patnaik told The Wire.

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Patnaik further alleged that Rao’s “communal ill-deeds” did not stop there. His most damaging decision came in 2008 during the Kandhamal riots. “As Inspector General (IG) of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Mr Rao was in Kandhamal district during the communal riots in 2008. Immediately after taking charge, he passed an order restricting the movement of CRPF platoons between 6 in the evening to 6 in the morning. The lack of security allowed the violent miscreants of the Sangh parivar to continue arson and rioting against the Christians during the night hours. A proper enquiry can easily reveal his misdeed in Kandhamal district,” said Patnaik.

A vehicle burns inside a church in Nuagoan village in the Kandhamal district of Orissa August 25, 2008. Credit: Reuters/Stringer/Files

A vehicle burns inside a church in Nuagoan village in the Kandhamal district of Orissa August 25, 2008. Credit: Reuters/Stringer/Files

Rao’s links with the Sangh parivar continued while he was posted in Delhi. A recent report in the Economic Times details his connections with think-tanks associated with the RSS. It says, “Rao has also been working with various organisations on causes such as freeing temples from state control, scrapping laws that “favour the minority and discriminate against Hindus” and lobbying the government for a ban on beef exports that these groups believe is necessary to maintain the “cultural fabric of the country”.

He also allegedly helped frame the controversial  “Hindu Charter of Demands” which was issued by a group of activists and scholars in September this year. The group believes in ideas like the “Hindu Renaissance” and are opposed to the the study of Indian History, which it thinks is dominated by the ideas of Marxists, a criticism that the Sangh parivar has historically been peddling. The ET report also says that Rao frequently attends events conducted by influential right-wing think-tanks such as the India Foundation and Vivekananda International Foundation. The interim CBI director is also known to have cordial relations with Ram Madhav, the influential RSS leader who is said to be taking major policy decisions of the Modi government, especially in Jammu and Kashmir and the north-eastern states.

While his proximity to the Sangh parivar may have catalysed his rise in the government, Rao’s service record has also been mired in accusations of corruption.

Also read: The Crisis Is Not About CBI, It’s About the Rule of Law

After communalism charge comes allegation of corruption

Nageswara Rao faced an inquiry by the Odisha’s finance department in November 2015 for alleged misappropriation of Rs 3 crore in the purchase of new service uniforms for fire department personnel during his tenure as the additional director general of the Odisha fire brigade until 2014. Binoy Behera, who was appointed as the director-general of the fire department in 2015, blew the lid off the scam. “I found that there was no approval from the state government for introduction of yellow uniform in addition to the existing khaki. Besides, the cloth for uniforms were procured without convening the purchase committee and without any fresh tender for 2015-16,” Behera told the Times of India at the time.

In December 2014, Rao introduced two new sets of uniform for the fire personnel as he thought that the move would motivate the firefighters. But when it came to light that procedures were not followed in the purchase, an inquiry found that there may be financial irregularities in the deal and asked the vigilance department to conduct a probe. However, the final result of the probe is not yet out.

In July this year, the Tamil portal Savukku in a report alleged that Rao buried a multi-crore scam investigation involving top officials of the State Bank of India, the public sector undertaking Hindustan Teleprinters Ltd, VGN Developers Private Ltd and Tamil Nadu government in a controversial land deal. The report said that despite ample evidence of money-laundering in the land deal, Rao did not initiate a probe to allegedly save his Telugu-speaking friends, who were accused of siphoning off funds.

Alleging that Rao deliberately tried to bury the case, the report said

…Shri.Nageswara Rao had instructed the I.O Shri.Velayutham to give a closure report in the above RC and accordingly a report stating that the bank has not suffered any loss, the amount due is recovered and no further action is required has been given and the same has been approved and sent to Delhi by Shri. Nageswara Rao. Sources also reveal that Shri. Nageswara Rao, is strongly connected with the Telugu officers in Tamil Nadu and is in the habit of passing on several sensitive information to the officers.

M. Nageswara Rao’s wife, Mannem Sandhya, has also been accused of laundering money through a shell company in Kolkata in which she was an investor. The Savakku report says that Sandhya allegedly loaned Rs 20 lakh from one Angela Mercantiles Private Limited to purchase a piece of land in Pedapalakaluru village, in Guntur District, Andhra Pradesh. However, it turned out that she had also invested around Rs 60 lakh in the Kolkata-based company. Alleging that Rao acquired a benami property through illegal routing of funds, the report said, “M. Nageswara Rao’s wife had invested money to the extent of more than 60 lakh in Angela Mercantiles and obtained Rs 25 lakh as loan.”

It was these allegations against Rao which CBI director Alok Verma was probing before he was removed from his position. The Savukku report also indicates that CVC K.V. Chowdary failed to act against Rao despite several complaints against him on the matter. Chowdary, incidentally, also recommended Verma’s removal to the Modi government.

Rao’s tenure as an IPS officer is not free from controversy. A former Odisha-cadre IPS officer, who preferred not to be named, told The Wire, “Rao was known to be a firm officer, a short-tempered person who always courted some controversy. I do not want to comment on the specific allegations of corruption against him but I would say that his image of being an anti-minority officer is not without any basis.”

Another Odisha-cadre colleague of Rao concurred with this view. “He is undoubtedly a tough officer. The allegations against him floating around now may have some merit. He was sympathetic to the Hindutva cause but I cannot say whether that affected his performance as an [IPS] officer. Throughout his career, he preferred to be on deputation outside Odisha. His quick rise to the top suggests that he maintained strong links with the powerful people in the government.”

In the eyes of many who have followed his career, the selection of Rao as the interim director of CBI by the Narendra Modi government appears to be an ideologically motivated decision rather than a merit-based resolve. The prime minister has indicated that despite facing allegations of politicising the agency, his government has no intention to back down. In such circumstances, it seems unlikely that the agency will free itself of further controversies soon.