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MVA claims mischief in Maharashtra phone tapping saga, but BJP slams reading of law

MVA claims a network of brokers in an alleged transfer racket could have been probed using regular methods. But IPS officer Rashmi Shukla’s ex-colleagues describe her as conscientious.

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Mumbai: In another twist to the ongoing string of controversies in Maharashtra, officials from the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government said IPS officer Rashmi Shukla’s “misrepresentation” of her request to tap phones over an alleged transfer racket raised suspicions of mischief.

The opposition, however, slammed the MVA government’s reading of the Telegraph Act as inaccurate even as Shukla’s former colleagues described the officer as conscientious.

Senior officials from the MVA government told ThePrint that the emergence of a network of brokers in IPS postings and transfers could have been investigated using regular methods of the police and did not require phone tapping, which is meant for exceptional circumstances.

“In February last year, there was a lot of talk about suspicions of phones being tapped for political rivalries and there was a demand for an inquiry within the government, but nothing happened later. Instead, the state home department tightened its systems in place to grant permission for phone tapping. We started making officers submit a written request in more detail,” an official from the home department official said.

Shukla’s written request sought permission for intercepting phone conversations citing a threat to public order.

“Only in her report she said she was looking into the emergence of a network of agents for police transfers. She and the state DGP should have inquired by other means, not by phone tapping. The report too was sketchy. Everything put together raised suspicions of mischief,” the official said.

He added the government did not intend to stall the investigation, but was of the opinion that the 35-odd IPS officers listed in the report did not require an inquiry by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), which Shukla headed.

Shukla’s report, which the state government claims to be “top secret,” was submitted to the Thackeray-led government in August last year. Opposition leader Devendra Fadnavis shared its findings with the media on 23 March, alleging the state government’s inaction on corruption in IPS transfers and postings that involved senior politicians and high-ranking officials.

The controversy kicked up a storm within the MVA with ministers alleging Shukla to be an “agent of the BJP” and having illegally tapped phones.

Earlier this week, CM Thackeray asked Maharashtra Chief Secretary Sitaram Kunte to submit a report on the phone tapping within 24 hours. According to Kunte’s submission, the officer misled the government to obtain permission for surveillance.

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Criticism over Kunte’s report to CM

Kunte, who was additional chief secretary, home, in 2020 when Shukla had sought permission to intercept phone calls, in his report to the CM, contended that according to the Indian Telegraph Act, permission to intercept telephone conversations can only be obtained in cases involving national security, seditious acts or cases involving public danger.

Opposition leader Devendra Fadnavis Friday slammed this report.

“Sitaram Kunte is a straight person. I don’t think he will prepare such a report. It looks like Jitendra Awhad or Nawab Malik would have prepared the report and Kunte merely signed off on it. You can see so many inaccuracies in this report. It says that phones can be tapped only in cases related to national security. That is wrong. Phones can be tapped if there is any possibility of incitement of commission of offence,” he said.

Section 5 (2) of the Act includes incitement to the commission of an offence as one of the reasons permissible to intercept telephonic conversations.

A former Mumbai Police chief told ThePrint that transfer rackets involving brokers was an open secret within the force and a complaint regarding it had once come up on the state government’s ‘Aaple Sarkar’ portal too. The portal is for the public to register their complaints, grievances and service requests with the state government.

“As intelligence chief, Shukla was merely discharging her duty by inquiring into it and submitting a report to the government. I was surprised at the chief secretary’s report. The Mumbai Police has used this the most to deal with the underworld, which was organised crime,” the officer said.

“The state government should have ordered an inquiry instead of the chief secretary directly giving a report that Shukla misled him,” he added.

Speaking to ThePrint, Kunte defended his stand. “A plain reading of the Act is not sufficient. It has to be seen in context of Supreme Court rulings on right to privacy. Interception of telephonic conversations should be used very sparingly,” he said.

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‘Brash officer, good administrator’

A senior retired IPS officer who has worked with Shukla told ThePrint that she is not a very sophisticated or well-networked officer and worked her way up the ladder without any godfather.

“She is not a greatly sophisticated officer. She comes from a simple lower middle class semi urban background. She hasn’t had pedigree education. She has done all kinds of postings — staff, field. She was treated roughly, and has moved up on her own merit without any godfather,” the retired officer said.

“If she had any political leanings, they were never seen in her work or conduct,” he said.

Officers said Shukla hails from Uttar Pradesh and got married much before she came into the service. Her husband, late Uday Shukla, was also an IPS officer posted with the Railway Protection Force.

Another officer who was Shukla’s subordinate while she was the Commissioner of Police (CP), Pune, said, “She was brash in her demeanour, but overall a very good administrator. She had a great relation with all her juniors, right from the joint CPs to the inspectors. She had a good crime branch team as well and we had a strong detection rate during her tenure.”

Shukla is known as only the second woman police chief of Pune after IPS officer Meera Borwankar. It was during her tenure as Pune CP that the police started the Elgar Parishad probe, which ultimately led to the arrest of several lawyers and activists alleged to have Maoist links.

Shukla, a 1988 batch IPS officer, is said to have been sidelined by the MVA government when she was transferred out of the office of the Commissioner, CID, to the civil defence wing in early 2020. Last month, she went on central deputation as additional director general of the Central Reserve Police Force.

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