Mumbai: There was much drama outside Sagar Bungalow in Mumbai’s upmarket Malabar Hill Sunday, with television camera crews, journalists, and BJP leaders waiting for news. Inside the house, they believed, the Mumbai Police Cyber Cell team was speaking to Maharashtra Leader of the Opposition Devendra Fadnavis about a case in which he had been dubbed a “star witness”.
However, after about two hours, when the police team had left the Opposition leader’s residence, Fadnavis told a press conference that he had been interviewed as if he were a suspect.
“There is a qualitative difference between the questionnaire that was sent to me (by the Cyber Cell) and the questions that I was asked today. The tone of all questions today was to suggest that I have violated the Official Secrets Act. The questions were not those that are asked to a witness. The questions were such as to determine if I can be made an accused or co-accused,” the BJP leader and former Maharashtra chief minister claimed while speaking to reporters.
On cue, BJP leaders across the state cried foul and alleged that Fadnavis was being targeted for political purposes — a common refrain in Maharashtra politics, where both the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) and BJP have attacked and counter-attacked each other about using law enforcement agencies for political reasons.
The genesis of the case in which the cyber cell questioned Fadnavis Sunday was another press conference that the former Maharashtra CM had addressed, almost exactly a year ago.
On 23 March 2021, Fadnavis had alleged that there was “large-scale corruption” in police transfers and that the MVA government had buried a key report on the matter by police officer and former commissioner of intelligence Rashmi Shukla. Fadnavis had also said that he possessed as evidence 6.3GB of call data records obtained through phone tapping.
The same month last year, the Bandra-Kurla Complex cyber police station registered an FIR under the Official Secrets Act against unidentified persons for alleged illegal tapping of phones and leaking of confidential documents. The MVA government, too, cast aspersions on both Fadnavis and Shukla, and said they were trying to bring down the government.
However, the MVA government has insisted that Sunday’s questioning is not a bid to target Fadnavis.
Corruption in IPS postings and phone tapping
In his press conference in March last year, Fadnavis had cited the controversial report by IPS officer Rashmi Shukla about graft in the service’s postings and transfers, from when she was commissioner of intelligence. The BJP leader said he was in possession of the report, and shared the forwarding letter, which had the summary of the case, with reporters.
He said he also had 6.3GB of call data records that Shukla had intercepted, and handed the data over to the Union Home Secretary in Delhi later that evening.
According to Fadnavis, Shukla had submitted the report to the state government in August 2020, and the MVA government had allegedly not taken any action on it. Following Fadnavis’ allegations, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray directed then-state Chief Secretary Sitaram Kunte to submit a report on the phone tapping within 24 hours.
In this report, Kunte said that Shukla had misled the government to get permission to tap phones. He further noted that phone-tapping should be resorted to only in exceptional cases and that regular means of investigation could have been used to probe the alleged corruption in IPS postings and transfers. The report also suggested that Shukla had leaked confidential government documents.
Following the controversy, the Mumbai Police’s Cyber Cell registered an FIR based on a complaint by the State Intelligence Department. After being called for questioning in the case, Shukla approached the Bombay High Court saying she feared arrest and seeking an order that no coercive action be taken against her.
In October last year, Shukla, who is currently on central deputation, told the court that MVA ministers Jitendra Awhad and Nawab Malik leaked the evidence on which her report was based, while Fadnavis shared only two covering letters accompanying it.
In February this year, the Pune Police filed an FIR against Shukla for the alleged illegal phone tapping of state Congress president Nana Patole in 2016-2017. Earlier this month, the Colaba Police station in Mumbai also filed an FIR against Shukla for allegedly tapping the phones of two Shiv Sena leaders.
‘No intention of deliberately targeting Fadnavis’
State Home Minister Dilip Walse Patil, speaking in the state legislative assembly Monday, said the state government had formed a committee to probe illegal phone tapping even before Fadnavis had raised the issue last year.
Walse Patil said the FIR against unknown persons was registered based on the committee’s report and the investigating officers had already recorded the statements of 24 persons in the case.
He said according to Section 160 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, if the investigating officers want certain information, they have the right to call the relevant person for it. He added that the purpose of the questioning was only to understand how Fadnavis got the confidential data. The Mumbai Police’s Cyber Cell has also asked the Union Home Ministry to share the data that Fadnavis had handed over.
“In the first instance, a questionnaire was sent to the opposition leader, but for whatever reason, he was not able to respond to it. And that is why a couple of days ago, investigating officers sent him a notice under CrPC Section 160. It only means, in this case, please give your statement,” Walse Patil told the assembly.
“This is just a routine procedure. In criminal cases, nobody has immunity. The notice to the opposition leader was not sent as an accused — it was just to find out how he got the information. There is no intention to deliberately target the opposition leader,” he said.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)