The Jammu and Kashmir government has sacked a high-ranking police officer for allegedly locking horns with the powerful and mighty in the state – triggering an unusual wave of public sympathy in support of the cop in the restive North Indian state.
Inspector General of Police (IGP) Traffic, Basant Rath, who is also a celebrated writer and alumni of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, is widely thought of as one of the most upright officers in the department.
He has now been fired from his position attached to the state’s Armed Police and replaced by his Indian Police Service (IPS) counterpart Alok Kumar. Kumar is an officer whose career has been marked by accusations of corruption, and who was once suspended over graft charges.
When contacted, Rath declined to comment on the issue.
After his posting as the IGP Traffic in February, Rath had emerged as a strict disciplinarian of traffic rules, something which drew unusual public goodwill as well as criticism.
But tiffs with the captain of the Indian cricket team, Virat Kohli, and with the recently elected mayor of the state’s summer capital Srinagar, Junaid Azim Mattu, proved costly for the senior officer.
Amid prevalent hostile relations between India and Pakistan, the twin nuclear powers in the south Asian region, Rath seemingly offended New Delhi by coming down heavily on the Indian skipper for his controversial ‘leave India’ remark in response to a cricket fan over his liking for Australian and English batsmen.
Rath Tweeted on November 8:
Dear Virat Kohli, I love Javed Miandad. You please keep your cricket patriotism to yourself. And to your advertisement contracts.
— Basant (@KangriCarrier) November 8, 2018
In a country governed by the Hindu nationalist right-wing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), the police officer’s public display of admiration for a Muslim cricketer from the “enemy country” quickly made headlines.
Interestingly, his very next tweet that day created an even bigger fuss. Rath launched an attack on the Srinagar Mayor Junaid Azim Mattu, calling him a “cabbage.”
After being elected as mayor on November 6, Mattu caused a stir by allegedly undermining the ecological importance of water bodies in the state. Assuring that he wished to “strike a balance between development and ecology”, he said commercial construction should be allowed in wetlands as such those in low-lying areas “not meant for bird-watching.”
Mattu’s remarks drew public outrage, and Rath took to Twitter to vent his feelings: “Wetlands are precious and a vital part of our ecosystem. Only a cabbage will think otherwise.”
Only a few hours after assuming power, Mayor Mattu trained his guns on Rath’s police. “I have received numerous complaints about traffic mismanagement issues in the city. I have spoken to the SP Traffic (Urban) and sought a review of current traffic diversions and plans. The SMC (Srinagar Municipal Corporation) has been directed to help with decongestion of alternate routes for some relief,” he tweeted.
The top cop hit back instantly, tweeting: “Not your domain. Traffic diversion at Jehangir Chowk is a compulsion. The vendors have created a mess on Amira Kadal – HSHS – Maharaja Bazar – LD Hospital stretch. SMC needs to clear the mess.”
The controversy gained Rath over 2,000 new Twitter followers overnight.
The verbal brawls between Mattu and Rath go back months. As the then NC spokesman Mattu had once called Rath “mentally sick”.
But sources said this time New Delhi took serious note of a public servant taking their elected representative head on.
Sources said the BJP government at the Center asked the state government headed by Governor SP Malik to immediately initiate “exemplary action” against Rath, even though his term as the IGP Traffic was still “premature.”
Officials said top brass in the state administration are generally transferred after two years, considered a “mature stay.”
Initially the proposal of “premature transfer” leaked on to social media, triggering massive public support in favor of Rath.
Apart from the general public and the Kashmiri Muslim youth, even the former Director General of Police SP Vaid publicly came to his support and tweeted:
Social media agog with rumours of transfer of Basant Rath @KangriCarrier IGP Traffic; I hope it isn’t true. He may follow unorthodox ways, but his honesty and dynamism is appreciable & commendable.
— Shesh Paul Vaid (@spvaid) November 12, 2018
But unfazed by the public sentiment, the Raj Bhawan went ahead with the decision.
As per the orders issued on November 13, Rath has now been attached to the Home Guard wing of the state’s Armed Police. His successor Alok Kumar, however, does not have a good service record. He was suspended in 2013 for allegedly demanding 100 million rupees as extortion money from a liquor trader during his stint as the Chhapra-headquartered DIG of Saran range.
Sources said there was so much political pressure on the state government to transfer Rath that they didn’t even wait for a night to discuss the matter at the State Administrative Council meeting, scheduled to be chaired by the Governor on November 14.
The government however denies any pressure to sack him. “Transfers are a routine matter done in the interests of administration,” said one official.
A year 2000 graduate of the country’s elite IPS, Rath had emerged as a social media sensation for his strict enforcement of traffic laws. He was known for sparing none, including politicians.
But his ruthless discipline has often earned him ire.
Just recently media persons in Jammu accused him of manhandling their colleague. The protesters demanded registration of a police complaint against Rath, a demand which the government resisted.
Prior to this, he was caught on camera slapping a man in Kashmir who had tried to video an informal conversation with the police officer.
Usually seen donning black casuals, he occasionally travels by public transport to gain first-hand experience of the transport services.
Last weekend, he was seen boarding a bus in Srinagar’s congested Batamaloo. There, he asked some male passengers to vacate seats reserved for women in order that two women could be seated.
The women passengers duo reportedly thanked Rath for making “Kashmiri men understand the importance of women.”