By Ashim Jain, 14th Feb 2010
Cops were wiring me with two tiny hidden video-cameras, two audio recorders, stuffing thousands of Rupees in my pockets, and briefing me like a military commander does his cadets prior to an offensive. One pocket had thousand-Rupee notes sullied with detective powder that would turn pink as evidence if dipped in treated water. A cameraman was recording this process. Had it not been for missing flood lights and makeup artists, it could have been mistaken for a 007-style film shooting.
This was Wednesday, 3rd Feb. 2010, Bangalore city — With instructions from Add’l Director General of Police, Mr. Rupak K. Dutta and Superintendent of Police, Mr. K. Madhukar Shetty, inside the Lokayukt Building the police were preparing a trap for a known corrupt senior officer of the Department of Stamps and Registration, Karnataka — the office that typically registers real-estate transactions.
Weeks ago, I had approached the Lokayukt — a Karnataka Govt. anticorruption agency — complaining that this officer was demanding Rs. 32,000 in bribes to put a few hundred Rupees worth of revenue stamps on court documents, blackmailing me that otherwise he would rule the papers to be real-estate sale deeds that would attract tens of lakhs in taxes and penalties. This had left me with few options: a) Pay the bribe, b) File RTI applications and suffer accompanying delays, or c) Use a more direct method through police – this last one had appeared worth trying.
“Anti-police sentiments and irresolute courts that favor the accused,” a police officer had told me, “…have made us reluctant to conduct chancy operations, lest it further discredits our department. So I’m not sure if we can help you, Mr. Jain.” He was also apprehensive that my lawyer, who had declined my request to cooperate with the police to nab the crook, could leak this info, which would surely foil the dragnet.
However, when the police saw a video that I had recorded a week ago using my own hidden camera of the same officer negotiating down the Rs. 32,000 to Rs. 18,000, they became more interested. When I disclosed the name, one Mr. Mehaboob Khan, SP Shetty immediately recognized him as the accused in another pending corruption case. Shetty showed greater keenness in my case noting that I had no personal agenda against Khan.
With cautionary advice to me, police agreed to set up a trap. An F.I.R. was filed and preparations were on, including video-taping all procedures for court evidence later.
After some rehearsals, we, including some 7-8 plainclothesmen, set out in a police van and my car. Both vehicles stopped 200meters from the target building. An officer disguised as a lawyer walked with me to the Shivaji Nagar District Registrar building. While the ‘lawyer’ waited in the hall, I went inside Khan’s office and tried hard to get him to repeat his demand of bribes.
For 40 minutes straight, while another aggrieved citizen like me came and left Khan’s office in disgust, he denied having ever asked unofficial money! The fear of someone having spilled the beans turned into joy when ultimately he came around and told me to hand over the bribes to his typist. To ascertain his voice got recorded properly, my repeating the question promptly resulted in his reiterating the amounts of bribes and official money.
Blowing the whistle meant giving a missed call to the police team waiting outside but the police inspector’s phone was continuously busy at that time! I frantically redialed repeatedly. By that time, the typist had discovered that the notes were soiled with detective powder, had alerted Khan and had himself run upstairs to wash hands. Khan also become increasingly nervous and was perpetually ringing his office bell to summon his office staff. He was beckoning me to say that he would give the receipt for the entire amount now.
Fortunately, one of the calls to the police had gone through and the swat team stormed in within two minutes although these were the longest 2 minutes of my life. Ironically, it was the concern and anxiety of a senior officer from the Lokayukt who was calling the team to monitor progress that was keeping the critical phone line busy!
Like trained commandos, every member of the crack team got busy in something — video-graphing evidence, detecting traces of the powder, searching the office for cash, removal of cameras from my body and analysis of the recordings. Two hours later Khan and the typist were formally under arrest being led out of the building into the waiting police van.
Police helped in getting my paperwork stamped with appropriate taxes the very next day. An officer from the Stamps and Registrations department had been specially sent for me to the now empty DR’s office where Khan had castigated me and my lawyer. Now they treated me with coffee and got the work done in a matter of minutes. Legally only Rs.2000 was required on the documents.
With only five District Registrars in Bangalore, Khan was probably an officer of the rank of a highly paid judge and who also has a side export business — his greed to accumulate yet more led to his shameful fall.
When asked how the public could felicitate the Lokayukt and their police for this capture, ADGP Dutta’s reply was humble — they want more public coming forward with their complaints so culprits can be brought to book. With spy cameras readily available at low costs, he was right that public can play a huge role in reducing corruption. RTI, whistleblowing, etc. work done earlier by others is saving us time today in dealing with the govt. We can payback by taking up one such initiative ourselves, perhaps just once in a lifetime.
Just as traditional fear of air-travel over road-travel is statistically unsubstantiated, perceived risks in such operations are infinitesimally miniscule. Adventure-loving people can attempt such acts in their own teams and police will usually help. Arvind Kejriwal, known social activist says, with people’s participation, such acts can be turned into a movement that would scare the corrupt.
While we are quick to denounce the police when they botch, it is imperative that we commend the police at Lokayukt for their professional performance in such cases. ADGP Dutta, and SP Shetty, senior IPS officers, have always been readily approachable even on the phone — contrast it to the impossibility of getting through to most govt. officers as the lower staff forms an impregnable firewall around them. Had it not been for these officers, God knows where my papers would have been and where Mr. Khan.
By Ashim Jain, 14th Feb 2010