Mumbai: To control the damage caused by the controversy surrounding former Mumbai Police chief Param Bir Singh’s explosive letter that accused the state’s home minister of running an extortion racket, the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government is strategising to be on the offensive.
Far from succumbing to the opposition’s demand asking Home Minister Anil Deshmukh to resign, the three-party government led by Uddhav Thackeray appears to be turning its ire on officials allegedly acting against the government, directing the chief secretary to submit a report on possible “illegal” phone tapping by IPS officer Rashmi Shukla, a senior minister told ThePrint.
It also plans to set up a judicial probe into the contents of Singh’s letter, bringing the IPS officer under the scanner, besides Deshmukh.
The government has taken legal opinion on how to combat Singh’s case in the Bombay High Court too, the minister added.
Two days after his transfer as Mumbai Police chief, Singh had last week sent a letter to CM Thackeray alleging that Deshmukh had directed some of his officers, including Assistant Police Inspector Sachin Waze, to collect Rs 100 crore from the city’s bars and restaurants. Singh then approached the Supreme Court challenging his transfer and asking for an inquiry into his allegations.
The top court Wednesday said he should approach the Bombay High Court, instead.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Devendra Fadnavis has said he is in possession of one report by IPS officer Rashmi Shukla who “exposed” corruption in transfers and postings. The report, which allegedly names certain officers, politicians and brokers and admits to tapping phones to establish evidence, was submitted to the MVA government in August 2020.
‘Could not gauge bureaucracy’
In the cabinet meeting Wednesday, first since Singh’s letter, the sentiment largely was that this government had failed to understand the officials it was working with, sources who attended the meeting said.
A few ministers lamented how certain officials could be helping the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and feared their phones being tapped “illegally”, the sources said.
“The CM has asked Chief Secretary Sitaram Kunte to submit a report into phone tapping by Shukla. It seems absolutely illegal,” the minister quoted above told ThePrint.
Home Minister Deshmukh, a Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader, also attended the cabinet meeting, though he walked in an hour late. He told his colleagues that he was innocent, the sources said, adding that CM Thackeray appealed to ministers from all the three constituents of the government — the NCP, Shiv Sena and Congress — to stand together in this controversy.
Meanwhile, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) minister Jitendra Awhad went on record to say Shukla was tapping phones illegally.
Speaking to reporters after the cabinet meeting, Awhad said: “If anyone’s phone has to be tapped, it requires the permission of additional chief secretary, home. When asked if Rashmi Shukla had sought permission to tap this one number to which Kunte saheb (who was then the additional chief secretary, home) has said no. Rashmi Shukla had a bad habit of tapping phones. When this letter came before the government, she had gone and apologised. She said I was wrong and the government being big hearted decided to act mildly.”
He added: “But, this is a big conspiracy to defame the Maharashtra government using the same letter. Permission was taken in the name of one person, phones were tapped of another. And we have grave suspicion that phones of a number of ministers were also tapped. This is breach of right to privacy.”
ThePrint tried to reach Shukla through a phone call and a text message, but she did not respond.
Judicial probe likely
Following the state cabinet meeting at Mantralaya, a small group of senior ministers met CM Thackeray at his official residence, Varsha, to decide the strategy on how to deal with and counter Singh’s allegations.
The minister who spoke to the ThePrint requesting anonymity said the state government is likely to set up a judicial probe under the Commission of Inquiry Act that will not only look into Deshmukh and the allegations against him, but also into Param Bir Singh and the letter that he wrote.
“The probe will look at whether everything the letter says is true in the first place, the WhatsApp chats and text conversations that he has referred to… the officers mentioned in it will be called and questioned,” he said.
Late Wednesday night, Deshmukh tweeted a 21 March letter written by him to the CM asking for an inquiry to have “doodh ka doodh and paani ka paani (separate water from the milk).”
“If the CM sets up an inquiry, I will welcome it. Satyameva Jayate,” he posted.
मी माननीय मुख्यमंत्री महोदय यांना परमबीर सिंग यांनी माझ्यावर जे आरोप केलेत त्याबद्दल चौकशी लावून, "दूध का दूध, पानी का पानी" करावे अशी मागणी केली होती. माननीय मुख्यमंत्री महोदयांनी याची चौकशी लावली तर, मी त्याचे स्वागत करीन.
सत्यमेव जयते… pic.twitter.com/f2oJjFhO8A
— ANIL DESHMUKH (@AnilDeshmukhNCP) March 24, 2021
The meeting at Varsha was also attended by Maharashtra Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni, who is said to have opined that Singh’s petition challenging his transfer is not maintainable in the Bombay High Court and he should have first approached the Central Administrative Tribunal, state government sources said.
(Edited by Sanghamitra Mazumdar)