The Gujarat Government's Attempt to Target a Police Officer Has Backfired, Badly

In exonerating Rahul Sharma and criticising the government for wrongfully targeting the former police officer, the CAT has shone a spotlight on the state's lack of interest in punishing the perpetrators of the 2002 riots.

Rahul Sharma police officer

File photo of Rahul Sharma in police uniform, before he took early retirement in 2015.

“And now to add insult to injury, a charge sheet is issued to an officer who had apparently aided the cause of truth. Have not the words ‘Satyameva Jayate’ no meaning?”

This is the conclusion reached by the Central Administrative Tribunal (Ahmedabad Bench) in its judgment quashing the departmental charge sheet against the retired Indian Police Service officer Rahul Sharma. The charges stemmed from the Gujarat government’s attempt to take action against him for having submitted incriminating call data records from Ahmedabad during the period of the 2002 riots before the Nanavati Commission of Inquiry.

The trumped up charge against Sharma fell somewhere between destruction of evidence and its fabrication but lacked any substance and failed to withstand proper scrutiny. But though the Gujarat government failed to make out a case against the police officer, its ham-handed efforts at persecuting him for actually trying to serve the cause of justice  will only strengthen the suspicion that it has something to hide.

It was a matter of record that the police had sought the records of all calls made from Ahmedabad by certain individuals during the relevant period. However, this information was subsequently ‘misplaced’. Much to the consternation of the Gujarat government – which was headed by Narendra Modi as chief minister at the time – it turned out that Rahul Sharma, who had received a set of the CDRs, kept a copy, analysed them and produced this data before the Nanavati Commission.

Targeted for telling the truth

Call data records (or call detail records, as they are sometimes referred to) are an increasingly important part of criminal investigation as they not only show who was in contact with whom but also the general location of a person at any given point of time. This helps investigators and courts establish physical locations and movements.

The Gujarat government sought to attack the unexpected emergence of this evidence in two ways. First, it alleged that Rahul Sharma had fabricated the call data records – an allegation which could not pass muster as there was no indication of fabrication and the government, in fact, did not ever dare to prosecute him for fabricating evidence as that would have led to even greater focus on the call records. This was the reason for the second line of attack – that the originals had been ‘misplaced’ or ‘lost’ and because Rahul Sharma had obtained a copy of the same he should be held responsible for the loss of the original.

This was the specious reasoning on which the departmental chargesheet was based. To simplify the Gujarat government’s case, they admitted losing the crucial evidence and then sought to blame the police officer who was actually able to produce a copy of the same. The importance of the CDRs was realised by the Nanavati Commission in its report and is also a crucial piece of evidence in ongoing trials relating to the riots.

The CAT, in its judgment, has come down harshly on the Gujarat government and has held not only that its actions against Sharma were motivated by “malice in law”, but that the state government has, in attacking the sanctity of the evidence produced by Sharma, done a great disservice to the cause of justice and public good. It has noted that if Rahul Sharma were to be blamed for the loss of the original CDs, then other officers who dealt with the original information received should also have been questioned and prosecuted. Needless to say, not one question was raised against any other officer.

The judgment of the tribunal makes for interesting read as the bench tries to make sense of the government’s case against Sharma.

In fact, the case against him was so insensible that the CAT was forced to speculate on the actual content of the allegations against Sharma. The bench wondered, “Is it obtainment of the CD – that cannot be because the request for the CD has gone to the mobile service providers before the applicant has come into the scene. Unless somebody has told him about it, there is no possibility of him to come to know about this. If we assume that someone lower in the totem-pole had informed him, that would not have stopped Shri S.S. Chudasama from trying to access it again from the service provider unless he knew positively that the CDs have been handed over to Rahul Sharma. But had it been so and since the CDs were very important Shri Chudasama would try again to get a copy or ask Shri Rahul Sharma in one of the meetings.”

The bench then speculates on whether the government has a case against Sharma because of suspicion that he had fabricated these call data records but concludes, “If we extend our enquiry a little more further, nothing prevented the state from claiming fabrication of documents if it had a case following examination by its own Forensic Science Laboratory that fabricated evidence had been tendered by the Commissions process, the stipulation under Sections 193-195 of Cr. PC could have been adverted to by the state government at that time itself and having not done so, the only presumption available is that (1) the CD is genuine (2) the CD is relevant and (3) it is placed before the Commission during the cross examination for which the applicant had been legitimately and legally summoned and through the process of follow up action of the Commission, the relevance of [the] compact disks” has been established.

There was no other conclusion for the bench but the one that they have reached. The government of Gujarat tried to bully and victimise an honest police officer. The bench asks itself, “What is an honest police officer supposed to do, in the circumstances? In which direction should his loyalty lie?”

Call Data Records are seen as crucial and incontrovertible evidence and are extremely hard to doctor. Once this information is received, it cannot be changed and has all the weight of modern technology and automatic information generation to support it. This is what has prompted the CAT to wonder about the state government’s obduracy in belittling the evidence produced by Rahul Sharma. The judgment observes, “Had the CDs been put to good use, the actual offenders would have been apprehended and the issue of conspiracy as alleged in the pleadings could have been set at naught. Why this great opportunity is given a go bye was not explained by the state in the pleading or in the hearing.”

‘Malice and illegality’

This is not only an indictment of the Gujarat government’s handling of Rahul Sharma but of that government’s utter failure in implementing the rule of law. The judgment concludes that the government’s action “is tainted by mischief, mala fides and malice and coloured by arbitrariness, illegality and designed to defeat proximate and pertinent matters blessed by constitutional compulsion and designed as an engine of oppression.” These are unusually strong words which cannot, and should not, be ignored.

Rahul Sharma, who took voluntary retirement from the IPS in 2015 after constant harassment by the state government, is one of the many upstanding officers targeted by the Gujarat government. A similar chargesheet against Kuldip Sharma was quashed in 2011. The CAT and other courts are hearing many other cases in which the Gujarat government’s actions against its own police officers have been questioned. That all these police officers have taken actions that are considered inimical to the interests of BJP and Gujarat government leaders cannot be considered a mere coincidence.

In fact, the pattern continues. On January 12 this year, i.e. much after Rahul Sharma’s retirement, he has been served with another show-cause notice for asking the government to make an “unnecessary payment” of Rs. 3,000  because he asked his driver and gunman to stay back in Gandhinagar in February 2012 while he was on sanctioned leave. The other charge in this show-cause notice pertains to delay in payment by him for using his government vehicle for a personal trip. To clarify, the charge is not of illegally using the vehicle but for delayed reimbursement. The absurdity and pettiness of these charges is obvious to anybody, let alone the fact that if this is the worst that a vengeful Gujarat government can find against him, it just shows that Rahul Sharma is indeed an honest officer who has nothing to hide. Can the same be said about those who are targeting him?

Sarim Naved is a Delhi-based advocate