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Above: A representative image of a gutka shop. The illicit business of gutka in Tamil Nadu is worth several hundred crores

With the apex court upholding a Madras High Court judgment ordering a CBI probe into the gutka scam, many police officers who were involved in it are rattled 

By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai

The Supreme Court’s order justifying the Madras High Court’s judgment directing the CBI to investigate the multi-crore gutka scam has rattled the Tamil Nadu police. Right from the rank of director-general of police to inspectors, several of them are allegedly involved in this multi-crore scam.

According to conservative estimates by both central and state government agencies, the scam has been going on for the past four years and several crores were paid as bribes to at least a dozen police officers. This was confirmed by a senior IT official who didn’t want to be named. “I have clinching and prosecutable evidence about the involvement of one minister and at least a dozen top police officials from the ranks of DGPs to ordinary inspectors in the Tamil Nadu police department. My department had sent a detailed letter to the Tamil Nadu chief secretary just six months before Chief Minister J Jaya-lalithaa’s death on December 5, 2016.”

The story was brought to the light by a whistleblower, A Shankar, who in his website—savukkuonline—wrote on January 4, 2017 that a massive scam running into crores was unearthed by the Income Tax department when it raided a godown near Chennai. The manufacture, storage and sale of carcinogenic forms of tobacco such as gutka and pan masala were banned by Tamil Nadu in 2013.

During the searches, Shankar wrote: “Based on the inputs I got from my Income Tax (IT) top sources, it has been learnt that the IT officers during a massive raid on a gutka godown in northern Chennai had seized an import accounting ledger. It contained details of payments regularly paid to several police officers of the state police and a few central government officials too. The names include one sitting Tamil Nadu minister too. The Income Tax department had sent two letters, one to then state chief secretary P Rama Mohana Rao and a copy of it to the then DGP (Ashok Kumar who has since retired) for taking further action against all those involved in the scam.” He also said that though he wrote the story on January 4, 2017, the heat gripped mainstream media only in April 2018. In the meantime, Rao was shifted from his post after the IT department raided his house and office.

Meanwhile, sitting DMK MLA J Anbhazhagan filed a PIL in the Madras High Court asking for a full-fledged CBI enquiry into the issue. After elaborate arguments, a bench of Chief Justice Indira Banerjee and Justice Abdul Quddhose ordered a CBI enquiry on April 26, 2018.

The bench said: “This order is, in our view, not only imperative to stop the menace of sale of Gutkha and chewable forms to tobacco which pose a health hazard to people in general and in particular the youth and to punish the guilty but also to instill faith of the people in the fairness and impartiality of the investigation. Investigation by a centralised agency like the CBI would be more comprehensive and cover all aspects of the illegal manufacture, import, supply, distribution and sale of banned chewable tobacco items, including the detection of all those involved in such illegal import, manufacturing, supplying, distribution and detection of corruption and complicity of public servants and governments in this regard.”

However, an individual, E Sivakumar, went to the Supreme Court asking it to quash this Madras High Court judgment. After hearing all sides—Anbhazhagan, the state of Tamil Nadu, government of India and a few others—a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud unanimously dismissed the appeal.

In its 15-page sharp and crisp order, the Supreme Court said: “The question regarding the necessity to ensure a fair and impartial investigation of the crime, whose tentacles were not limited to the state of Tamil Nadu but transcended beyond to other state and may be overseas besides involving high ranking officials of the state as well as central government has now been directly ans-wered. For installing confidence in the minds of the victims as well as public a large, the High Court predicated that it was but necessary to entrust the investigation of such a crime to the CBI. Viewed thus there is no infirmity in the conclusion reached by the High Court in the impugned judgment for having entrusted the investigation to the CBI.”

Another development was the IT department submitting a detailed report to the Madras High Court in which it said that it had found and confiscated a “secret letter” connected with this case from the residence of deceased Jayalalithaa. It said: “We had found out and confiscated a letter which we wrote to the then Chief Secretary P Rama Mohana Rao and to the then DGP (since retired) Ashok Kumar. We recovered the letter in November, 2017, from the room occupied by VN Sasikala.” She was a close confidante of Jayalalithaa.

Meanwhile, the privileges committee of the Tamil Nadu assembly issued notices to 21 DMK MLAs, including MK Stalin, leader of the Opposition for bringing gutka in the assembly. They had brought in sachets to the assembly to prove that in spite of Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami’s assertion that gutka was banned in Tamil Nadu, they could bring it to the assembly.

Challenging these notices, all 21 DMK MLAs took the issue to the Madras High Court praying for quashing the Privilege Committee’s notices. Kapil Sibal, senior Supreme Court lawyer, argued for the DMK and said that though the gutka sachets were displayed in the assembly on July 19, 2017, the Privileges Committee sent notices only by August 23. He added that these notices were sent to the DMK MLAs after 18 AIADMK MLAs met the Tamil Nadu governor on August 22 and submitted a letter saying they had lost confidence in the chief minister. After this development, Stalin submitted a demand to the Speaker on August 26 asking him to direct the chief minister to prove his majority by moving a confidence motion. “Hence the timing of the notices prove the mala fide intentions of those concerned,” said Sibal.

Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu advocate-general gave an oral undertaking to the Court that the government would not precipitate this matter as of now and no action would be taken against the 21 DMK MLAs till there was a final outcome in the gutka case.

After the Supreme Court’s go-ahead for a CBI inquiry, all the police officers whose names were in the original IT Department letter were rattled.

“If the CBI conducts a genuine and firm investigation, all those named will be arrested and sent to jail. This includes two DGP-level officers (one retired few months back), an IG, a joint commissioner (DIG rank), a deputy commissioner and more than half a dozen assistant commissioners and inspectors. Already, one inspector has confessed to two senior journalists that if the top officers plan or attempt to make low-level officers the scapegoats, then he will openly announce the names of the top officers,” the IT officer warned.

“I have prosecutable evidence against top police officials whose names were mentioned in the original IT letter. If the CBI tightens the screws on me, then I have no option except to submit all evidence,” he added.

The police has no option but to wait and watch.

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