AS scams go, Bihar's vardi ghotala is relatively small: the kickbacks would fit into a moderate-sized suitcase. But for the unprecedented, indeed bizarre, defiance of court orders by senior IPS officers accused in the Rs 86-lakh uniform scam, it may not have ballooned into a headline-grabber.
The scandal has severely embarrassed the Laloo Prasad Yadav government, which has laid itself open to charges of double standards and partisanship by refusing to suspend the IGs and DIGs chargesheeted by the CBI for alleged embezzlement of state government funds meant for purchase of police stores, including uniforms, in 1983-85.
When the CBI belatedly decided to act on arrest warrants issued against five serving and two retired IPS officers last fortnight, the affair became something of a soap opera. On August 10, IG Ram Harsh Das cowered in his toilet for two hours while a CBI team waited patiently outside. Only when they threatened to break down the door did he emerge, heading straight for the telephone over which he pleaded (futilely) with CBI DIG Ranjit Sinha for a respite.
V.M. Diwaker, DIG (BSEB), rudely awakened from an afternoon siesta by CBI men, prevailed on his womenfolk to block the front door while he slipped out the back. Unfortunately for the portly officer, he failed to clear a ditch and fell in, emerging bruised and covered in slime. His colleagues, CID IG Anil Kumar, IG (Railways) Ramchan-dra Khan and DIG (Bhagalpur) Ajit Dutta, led the CBI a merry dance, remaining underground while assuring the media they were not. Of the two retired accused, O.T. Minz and Rajendra Sharma, there was no sign.
A day earlier, the redoubtable Khan had staged a press conference full of sound and fury within the precincts of the police headquarters, warning the CBI that he had more men and "arms and ammunition" than they did. It was well within his powers, he warned, to pick up the CBI men and subject them to a "thorough interrogation".
Not surprisingly, the salvognited tempers in New Delhi, notably those of Union Home Minister Indrajit Gupta and CBI chief Joginder Singh, who had just returned from Hong Kong. An incensed Singh demanded that the arrest warrants be executed within 24 hours. The concerned officers went underground, emerging one by one to surrender before the court and seek bail. The bail was easily granted—even to Diwaker, who had been accused by the CBI of tampering with evidence. Lower-ranked police personnel, like sergeants and stenos, were less fortunate; they were packed off to jail.
The piece de resistance came when Laloo, despite pressure from the Home Ministry, ruled out action against the chargesheeted officers—even though Khan charges Laloo with persecuting him: "He runs a gang, not a government". Since chargesheeted police personnel have been suspended earlier, Laloo's decision was "curious", a senior IPS officer said.
The fact that chargesheets in the animal husbandry scam are imminent might have had something to do with Laloo's decision, say observers. Suspending Khan and the others would mean setting a precedent which would have to be followed in the case of all bureaucrats and politicians cha-rgesheeted in the animal husbandry case.
Not surprisingly, the police chief has chosen to maintain a distance from the affair. In fact, when the CBI forwarded the arrest warrants to him on July 29, he declared they were invalid and promptly sent them back. "It is a matter for the CBI. We have nothing to do with it. I have not communicated with the concerned officers. It is their personal matter," said DGP S.K. Saxena.
The high-profile Khan maintains the chargesheet against him is not a "personal matter", but the result of a vendetta by a mafia of police, criminals and politicians. Former DGP Jagad Ananda, at whose instance the probe was started, and four other police officers who were involved with it "conspired" to drag his name into the scandal, according to Khan.
Few in the police and bureaucracy—including CBI officers— believe that Khan is corrupt; his image is that of an upright, if arrogant officer. " Bhrasht nahin, bewquoof hai (he is foolish, not corrupt)," declared an IAS officer, pointing out that the charges against him are of negligence, of omission rather than commission.
His outburst last fortnight is reminiscent of the attack he launched on Laloo in April, 1990, soon after he came to power, six years ago. The chief minister had sanctioned prosecution against Khan and the other officers involved in the uniform scam at the CBI's request. An infuriated Khan launched a verbal attack on Laloo and the CBI but relapsed into silence when matters died down. This was not surprising: a high court judgement absolving him had initially given him the high moral ground, but it was swiftly set aside by the Supreme Court. Laloo and Khan were said to have come to an understanding.
The decade-old investigation is entangled in a complex web of vested interests, raising a number of questions to which there appear to be no answers. Why, for instance, did the CBI delay execution of the arrest warrants for four months? "We were hoping the IGs and DIGs would surrender on their own," is the unconvincing reply of a senior CBI officer. Why did it take the Centre four years, after Laloo approved prosecution of the officers, to send its clearance? Why, in 1986, were some IPS officers arbitrarily excluded from the probe? Why is the Centre delaying sanction for the prosecution of DIG B.S. Jayant against whom the CBI has prepared a chargesheet?
The scam has its roots in a 1980 recommendation by the then head of the Bihar police's central purchase committee, Santosh Kumar, that purchase of police stores be decentralised for one year, to meet crippling shortages. In effect, he allowed superintendents of police and commandants of the Bihar Military Police (BMP) battalions to buy stores locally instead of getting them from the police headquarters.
The one-time exception became the norm. By 1983, several SPs were buying 'centralised' items locally, at prices higher than the approved rates and from traders who had not been approved by the central purchase committee. The items included boot polish, garden umbrellas, hoses, chairs, ground sheets, vests, greatcoats, ropes for tying up prisoners, batons and helmets.
The investigation identified two sets of accused: those in the field (SPs and commandants) and those at headquarters (the assistant inspector generals—AIGs). The SPs and commandants were charged with having made the illegal purchases, while the then AIGs (Khan, Das and Kumar) at the headquarters were accused of helping them do it by allotting funds. There were two kinds of AIGs—B (budget) and Q (quartermaster)—and it is the former who have been charged with embezzlement.
Khan, for his part, points to a letter from CBI SP dated 1991 in which prosecution against B.S. Jayant is recommended while that against Das, Khan and Kumar is rejected. He charges Jagad Ananda with having protected the AIG (quartermaster) Ram Swaroop, who was severely criticised in the AG's report. The high court had ordered that while the AIG (B) was in the clear, it was the AIG (Q) who ought to have been probed.
As one of the chargesheets observes, the SPs and commandants "conspired with some traders and subordinate staff to purchase several items in bulk quantities from such traders which were not approved." Former DGP Jagad Ananda stumbled on the racket when he was chairman of the central purchase committee in 1985: "I found that arrears for police stores were three or four times the allotted budgets and I brought the matter to the attention of the then DGP G. Narayan. He wrote to the DIGs to stop this practice and also to investigate the matter. After I became DGP, these internal audit reports had come in. I also asked for a probe by the accountant general's office. Subsequently, I handed over the entire matter to the CBI."
He points out that "many persons have been left out of the probe. The CBI claimed it could not wash all the dirty linen of the Bihar police and the matter should be taken up by the state Vigilance Department. This was four days before I retired. After that, nothing has happened". In 1986, a list of 15 IPS officers was read out in the assembly, but only eight were chargesheeted.
Responding to Khan's charges, he said: "I am anguished he is saying this. I never targeted anyone. He is a volatile man. If abusing me helps his case, then I am very happy. Unfortunately, I think he is just hurting himself".