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Mumbai: Fourteen years ago, the senior militant Maoist leader Sriramulu Srinivas alias Sudarshan, a central committee member of the CPI (Maoist) was arrested in Malkangiri district of Odisha. The officer in charge of his arrest, Satish Gajbhiye, came in for tremendous praise. The 2002-batch IPS officer’s work was appreciated not just by the Odisha government but also by the Andhra Pradesh government, where Srinivas was wanted in multiple cases related to Naxal activities.
A few days later, however, the story changed. The Odisha police department accused Gajbhiye of “siphoning” off the reward money that was meant to be handed over to six police officers and two civilians who had acted as informers. A departmental inquiry was launched and Gajbhiye was “held guilty”. Subsequently, his promotion was stalled on at least three occasions.
However, Gajbhiye’s supposed guilt was “proven” without following any procedure laid down in law. And worse, Gajbhiye was not given an opportunity to defend himself.
It took the IPS officer a decade-long legal and administrative battle to get his name cleared. Recently, the Supreme Court observed that the disciplinary authority, Sanjeeb Panda, an IPS officer and the DIG of police (intelligence), had carried out the inquiry without any approved powers.
The state government, following the Supreme Court’s order, will now have to grant Gajbhiye the three pending promotions and other benefits that were earlier denied. He is now set to become an inspector general.
Srinivas, a wanted accused in several Naxal activities across different states, carried a large bounty on his head. In AP alone, the bounty was first fixed at Rs 5 lakh and subsequently raised to Rs 12 lakh. The amount was meant to be given either to civilian informers who provide information about the Naxalite or to be given to the Naxalite, in the event that they surrender.
The AP government released the full sum to the state police headquarters, which released Rs 3.55 lakh to the Malkangiri superintendent of police with instructions to pay part of it to the policemen. Gajbhiye had accordingly paid it to the six police officers involved in the operation and the two civilian informers. He paid Rs 1.55 lakh to the six constables, i.e. Rs. 25,833 each.
Though they had allegedly accepted the money, three of them later accused Gajbhiye of not paying them their share. Although Panda was the supervising officer at the time of disbursement of the said reward money, he had not raised any objection.
The complaint by the three policemen was taken up by the director-cum-ADG (intelligence). And Panda, who was Gajbhiye’s supervising officer, was directed to conduct a detailed preliminary inquiry. All of this was ordered without the disciplinary authority’s order, which is necessary for an inquiry to begin. At that time, the then chief minister, who also held the portfolio of the state home minister, was the disciplinary authority of the IPS officers as per the provisions of the All India Services (Discipline and Appeal) Rules, 1969. The rules clearly empower only the disciplinary authority – both at the state and Central level – to carry out any disciplinary action. These rules were flouted in Gajbhiye’s case.
Until 1969, only the Union government possessed the power to hand out disciplinary action. But as parties of all colours wanted to keep the executive under close check, the rules were amended.
The Odisha high court, when hearing Gajbhiye’s case, raised concerns over the amended rules. It said, “The validity of these rules doesn’t seem to have been successfully challenged till now.”
Gajbhiye’s case is emblematic of how subordinate officers are treated in the police department. Senior officials say there are several cases of seemingly arbitrary – or illegal – disciplinary actions similar to Gajbhiye. But those cases were not challenged and action remained as is and the state has continued to arm-twist subordinates who fail to fall in line.
The landmark judgment in Gajbhiye’s case will set a precedent for superior officers to strictly comply with procedure while initiating a departmental inquiry against IPS officers.
This particular case becomes even more complex when the caste dynamics – and the role it plays in the civil services – is explored. Gajbhiye belongs to a Scheduled Caste and Panda is a Brahmin.
While Gajbhiye told The Wire that he would not comment on his travails, officials who were privy to the proceedings said that caste played a crucial role in the officer’s ordeal. Gajbhiye, originally from Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, moved to Odisha as a civil servant. The IPS officers in the state, many say, are divided on caste lines and the subjugation of those from oppressed caste identities is common.
Gajbhiye’s case started as a departmental inquiry but he had to fight it out till the apex court to get his name cleared. When he approached the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) to have the disciplinary proceedings against him quashed, the tribunal refused to intervene and dismissed his plea. “The disciplinary proceedings are reaching the final stage; we do not find it appropriate to scuttle them at this stage. If the proceedings end up in any order adverse to the interest of the applicant, he can certainly challenge that raising all the grounds that range from the initiation to the conclusion of the proceedings,” the tribunal observed.
The tribunal’s order came even after Gajbhiye’s lawyer had pointed out the abscence of powers to conduct any proceedings against him. “The entire proceedings are palpably based on professional vengeance with the personal bias of the superior authority which breeds injustice,” Gajbhiye had contended.
Gajbhiye’s appeal before the Odisha high court was received well and the court, in December 2020, had rapped the state police department for carrying out a “vitiated” inquiry. The division bench of Justices S. Panda and S.K. Panigrahi observed:
“He (Panda) went ahead with his inquiry, like the proverbial predatory-prey exercise, without even granting an opportunity of being heard to the petitioner (Gajbhiye) as well as denying him the opportunity to confront the witnesses for eliciting the truth.”
The court said Panda conducted a “one-sided inquiry, which is unknown to law”.
The court also noted, “The appointment of the preliminary inquiry officer itself seems to be motivated and smacks (of) personal and professional bias since the golden thread of natural justice is missing.” And as a supervising officer, the high court observed that Panda was party to the transaction he was appointed to inquire about. “The Inquiring Officer became a judge of his own cause,” the judges said.
The high court’s order, however, did not deter the state police. The department filed an appeal before the Supreme Court. The apex court too supported Gajbhiye’s submission and ruled in his favour.