Seventy years after India gained its freedom, the Ashoka Chakra has become a symbol of national unity – one that every child in the country is familiar with. But there is a darker side to the unity that Ashoka created, which few care to remember.
Beginning in the 14th year of his reign, Ashoka attempted to make his subjects change their traditional customs to bring them in line with dhamma – the Buddhist ‘right path’. To oversee this, he appointed a socio-religious police, the dhamma mahamattas. Initially the dhamma mahamattas used persuasion, but as Ashoka grew more introverted later in life, they began to abuse their power and use coercion.
As the historian Romila Thapar has noted, their high-handedness created a wave of discontent. After Ashoka’s death, first the outlying and then the inner principalities began to ignore central edicts. In less than half a century, the Mauryan empire passed into history.
What happened then has been repeated many times since. It happened when Aurangzeb tried to re-establish Muslim pre-eminence in the Mughal empire and alienated the Rajput princes who supplied his army with most of its soldiers.
It happened when Achyuta Raya, the weak and self-centred son of Krishnadeva Raya, the greatest of the Vijayanagar kings, tried to hold together his father’s far-flung empire through the use of threats and force.
It almost happened to the British Raj, when Lord Dalhousie imposed the doctrine of lapse upon the princes who had entered into subsidiary alliance with the East India Company.
India is on another such fateful cusp today. Since the 1994 Bommai judgment of the Supreme Court, which practically ruled out the use of president’s rule to keep state governments in line, executive power has been shifting steadily from the Centre to the states.
Most of this shift has taken place in a spirit of cooperation, to the end of improving governance and strengthening democracy. But on February 3, that cooperation gave way to open conflict between the Central government and the state of West Bengal.
The CBI’s record in West Bengal
A fortnight earlier, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had accused the Kolkata police commissioner, Rajeev Kumar, of ‘deliberately delaying and diluting an SIT [investigation] of two notorious chit fund Ponzi schemes,’ the Sarada and Rose Valley scams. It said he was ‘absconding’, a clear warning that his arrest was imminent.
The CBI’s accusation was strongly refuted the very next morning. Javed Shamim, the additional commissioner of Kolkata police, pointed out that Kumar had been in office every day, including on weekends. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee accused the Modi government of resuming its campaign to bring the Trinamool Congress to its knees before the general election.
Mamata had good reason to believe this. In 2014, the CBI had come to Kolkata in a similar manner and arrested two Trinamool MPs, as well as the state’s minister for transport and sports, and the state director-general of police. They were subjected to intense cross-examination on charges of collusion in the chit-fund scams.
Thirty months later, on April 17, 2017, the CBI registered a first information report (FIR) against 13 persons – including 12 top Trinamool leaders – who were allegedly caught accepting cash on camera in a sting operation carried out by the news portal Narada News. The sting was carried out just before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and was made public in 2016, just days ahead of the Bengal assembly elections.
When the investigators are suspect
The West Bengal police had therefore been seething at the high-handedness of the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate for some time. So on Sunday evening, when a team of CBI officers arrived unannounced at the commissioner’s house, and asked to be let in for “official work”, the police at the bungalow asked them to wait.
Word spread through Kolkata police stations that the CBI was about to arrest their chief. In no time, the CBI officers were besieged by hundreds of state police. They had to call in the CRPF to be rescued.
Mamata went straight to the police commissioner’s bungalow, accused the CBI of being Modi’s political tools and began a dharna, claiming that this had become necessary “to save democracy, the Constitution and the country.”
Commenting on the confrontation, a senior official of the Kolkata police said, “The CBI and ED have always acted as agencies above law. There are certain rules which all agencies need to follow while investigating. If they look for cooperation from us, they too need to cooperate with us.”
Protection for new partymen
Narendra Modi’s misuse of the CBI and other agencies had also been exposed when the CBI dropped its investigations against the former Trinamool railway minister Mukul Roy, and Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, after they joined the BJP in November 2017.
While the evidence then was inferential, fresh evidence seems to have emerged that both Roy and Biswas struck explicit deals with the BJP to get the West Bengal and Assam police off their backs.
In a taped conversation apparently with the BJP’s general secretary for West Bengal, Kailash Vijayvargiya, Roy is heard asking him to ‘fix’ four West Bengal police officers who were creating trouble for him. Vijayvargiya denounced the recording as a forgery, but Roy has so far only accused the police of illegally taping his conversations – stopping short of challenging their veracity.
The TMC also claims that Sudipto Sen, the promoter of the Sarada chit fund, actually wrote to the CBI office in-charge in Kolkata to complain that Himanta Biswa Sarma took Rs 3 crore from him to facilitate the spread of his chit fund in Assam, and did not keep his promise.
Crushing the CBI’s autonomy
The conflict between Delhi and Kolkata widened into a more general conflict between the Centre and states only after the Modi government broke with all precedent and summarily removed Alok Verma from the post of CBI director in October 2018.
Verma was removed because he had locked horns with Rakesh Asthana, a “special director” chosen from the Gujarat police cadre. Asthana is known to be close to Modi, who almost certainly brought him in to be his eyes and ears in the CBI.
The sordid accusations that Verma and Asthana levelled against each other led to both being sent on leave. Verma’s place was taken by M. Nageswara Rao, whose first act as interim CBI director was to transfer 13 officials – many of whom were investigating a 2011 bribery allegation against Asthana.
A week later, the CBI cleared the former Madhya Pradesh education minister, Lakshmi Kant Sharma, of complicity in the Vyapam scandal, in which 42 persons mentioned in the police records had met accidental, or inexplicable, deaths. The CBI had also declared that there had been no conspiracy behind those deaths.
In the 77 days that followed Nageswara Rao’s appointment, and the 23 days for which he was brought back after Modi sacked Verma for good (on January 10, 2019), his decisions made it clear that the CBI would not stand in the way of Modi’s vendetta against political rivals.
Modi’s cynical vendetta Raj
Modi had already shown the lengths he would go in his sustained assault on Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, as on Mamata and the TMC in Bengal. (And earlier, too, by threatening to expose Nitish Kumar’s sources of funds, and forcing him back into the BJP’s fold.)
In November, sensing that he might be next on the list, M. Chandrababu Naidu took the fateful step of withdrawing Andhra Pradesh’s ‘general consent’ to Central enforcement agencies, to operate in Andhra without prior, specific permission, under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act.
Days later, the West Bengal government did the same. On January 11, a day after Modi sacked Verma for the second time, the newly-elected Chhattisgarh government also followed suit.
This withdrawal of permission was not unprecedented: Deve Gowda had done it in Karnataka. But this is the first time that the Central government has faced three states doing so at the same time, with others ready to follow. In this moment, the Indian state confronts the rebellion that Ashoka, Aurangzeb and the British faced in the past.
The tragic cost of banishing the CBI
The tragedy of Indian democracy today is that the opposition’s battle to protect political freedom will simultaneously destroy the little capacity the state has left to prevent and punish crime.
This is demonstrated by the timing of Andhra’s withdrawal, only days before the CBI was to spring a trap to capture a ring of central government employees who were accepting bribes for permissions and favours.
When the CBI asked for specific permission to lay the trap, and asked the state to keep its plans secret, the state home ministry instead informed its own Anti-Corruption Bureau. What followed is not clear – but rather than capturing the entire ring, the CBI could make only one arrest. Its bitterness at the failure made it go public with a detailed statement about the cause.
The banner of resistance that Mamata has raised in Bengal will shelter an entire system for siphoning money from the poorest into the pockets of politicians and their henchmen – for there are at least 60 other ponzi schemes in Bengal alone, which have collected an estimated Rs 30,000 crore from around 1.7 million investors.
As the Cobrapost exposé of the Dewan Housing and Financial Scheme has shown, non-banking financial corporations are lending tens of thousands of crores to shell companies that finance political parties, among their other “investments”, but have directors with few, if any, assets. This means nothing can be recovered from them when these companies go broke.
Nearly all the major political parties joined Mamata’s protest against Modi, and reaffirmed their determination to put up a united front against the BJP in the coming elections. If they stay united, they will push the BJP out of power.
But if they do not follow up their victory by creating an election financing system that frees parties from the need to plunder money – as happened through the Sarada scam – then they will give the BJP a powerful platform fight from in 2024. And if the BJP resumes its attempt to create a monolithic Hindu rashtra, then India’s descent into the age of the later Mughals will be swift.
Prem Shankar Jha is a Delhi-based journalist and writer.