Hasty conclusions over a tragic death

A hyper-active media and a narrow-minded polity act as inadvertent roadblocks to a proper investigation into IAS officer D.K. Ravi’s death

When was the last time we saw spontaneous protests and crowds in their thousands pouring out into the streets to mourn the death of an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, or for that matter any government official? In a country where government offices and officers are treated with fear and suspicion, this happens very rarely.

The circumstances in which 2009 batch IAS officer, 36-year-old D.K. Ravi, died are mysterious and tragic. The outpouring of emotion for the young officer, last posted as Additional Commissioner of Commercial Taxes (Enforcement), is testimony to the love he earned from the people.

It was in Kolar district in Karnataka, known for its fierce caste conflicts and land mafia, that he earned his reputation as being an outstandingly honest and endearing official when he was deputy commissioner between August 2013 and October 2014. Anecdotes of how he served the people and how he cracked down on the land mafia have filled newspaper pages and television airtime. People’s groups in Kolar even launched a strong protest when he was transferred.

So, when an officer of such high reputation, who took on several large lobbies in his career as well as real estate giants during his last posting in the commercial taxes department, is suddenly found dead in his apartment, there is bound to be shock, confusion and suspicion of foul play. What the situation demanded and continues to demand is a thorough investigation.

The circumstances in which Ravi was found dead on March 16 are reminiscent of how the young and upright civil servant Satyendra Dubey, an engineer in the National Highway Authority of India, and the Indian Oil Corporation sales executive, S. Manjunath were killed in 2003 and 2005, respectively, for exposing organised crime and corruption.

Irresponsible polity Unfortunately, the death of Ravi has turned into a slanging match between the main political parties in Karnataka and the harbinger of a 24X7 speculation show in the media. The former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, R.K. Raghavan, told this correspondent that the prime mistake in the investigation was how the government and the police declared his death as a case of suicide even before a proper post mortem was conducted.

Bangalore city police commissioner M.N. Reddi told television crew, just a few hours after the body was found, that “prima facie it appears to be a case of suicide”.

This was followed by the State Home Minister, K.J. George, reiterating to a furious Opposition in the Legislature that it was a case of suicide and that it was because of “personal reasons”. These statements were made even before the officer’s body was buried. Chief Minister Siddaramiah, who claimed that it was “personal reasons that led to Ravi’s death”, also claimed in the House that “Ravi was transferred out of Kolar because of a request from his father-in-law”. These statements were uncalled for, especially as they were made even before the body was buried and an official report on investigations was released.

It begs the question why the State government was in such a hurry to declare the cause of death. Was it not the responsibility of the government to wait for a basic investigation to be completed before making such categorical statements on a platform no less than the floor of the house? Least of all, was there not a need to be a little more sensitive to the emotions that the officer’s family and his admirers were going through?

“Ravi’s immediate family members have been vociferous in their demand for a CBI probe, but the Home Minister has ruled one out”

For the Opposition, this was a powerful issue to raise the political pitch. None of Ravi’s admirers would trust Opposition politicians more than they would trust the government, but the latter queued up to make a point by stalling legislative business.

Former Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (Secular) even went to the extent of saying that “the ceiling fan from which Ravi’s body was allegedly found hanging was intact” and asking how it could be a “suicide”. When politicians turn into investigators, the facts of a case are often major casualties.

Another former Chief Minister, Jagadish Shettar of the Bharatiya Janata Party, seemed convinced that it was “not a case of suicide” and his party decided that it would take the matter to New Delhi and “carry on the fight on behalf of the family”.

The media’s constant attention on the case, highlighting every allegation that was made by anyone, has only added to the prevailing confusion. Some television channels even showed graphic video footage of the officer’s body being lowered from the fan in his house.

These videos and the beeline that top politicians and officials made to his house within hours of the incident revealed how much evidence could have been lost or disturbed from the spot. The first priority for the police was to secure the area and collect evidence. Unfortunately, they seem to have been in a hurry to “conclude and not investigate”, according to a senior IAS officer.

The Chief Minister has even been quoted by a local language daily as having said in an interview that the “officer had made several calls to a woman IAS officer before his death” and “police sources” were sharing details with the media about call records and conversations.

Given such fodder, the media seems to have forgotten that the least that the officer and his family deserve in such circumstances is that the officer’s dignity is preserved and his and his family’s privacy respected.

The irony is that the government is in haste to declare it a suicide and the Opposition is convinced that it is not. This is exactly why an impartial investigation is the least that can be done. The counter question posed by many in the State government is how the CBI can be trusted and how one can be sure that they will not be under political pressure from the ruling BJP in the Centre.

It may be a valid question, but it is also questionable if there is any investigating agency in the country that is “politically independent”.

Mr. Raghavan pointed out, when interviewed, that “…if they have nothing to hide, there is no reason for the State government to resist a CBI probe.” He added that it would be important for the investigations to rely on forensic analysis and call records.

While the State police force may have the resources for a detailed probe, any investigation by the Crime Investigation Department (CID) would still be viewed with suspicion because of the pre-emptive statements made by the city police chief, the Chief Minister and the Home Minister declaring the death as a case of suicide.

Ravi’s immediate family members have been vociferous in their demand for a CBI probe, even as the Home Minister has ruled one out. Several IAS officers in Karnataka have also signed an online petition addressed to the Prime Minister, seeking a CBI probe.

Given the overall context, while a CBI probe may not be a guarantee to the truth, it seems to be the only way to send out a perception of seriousness and fairness in investigations; if not to the public, at least to the family

veeraraghav.tm@thehindu.co.in

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Originally published at www.thehindu.com on March 20, 2015.

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