Two years and a govt change later, the phone tap case that rocked MVA is in slow collapse

On Monday, a magistrate’s court allowed the CBI to close its probe into the alleged leak of confidential data from the State Intelligence Department (SID) that had led to a political storm in 2021. The CBI filed an ‘A’ summary report, which means that while the offence is true, it is undetected or that there is no clue about the culprits, or no evidence against any person to justify a trial.

The SID data leak happened when the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) was in power, leading to charges by ministers that their calls had been intercepted illegally. Three separate FIRs were filed by the state police related to data leak and call interception, two in Mumbai and one in Pune.

Since the MVA lost power though, the Eknath Shinde-led Sena-BJP alliance that replaced it has shown no interest in pursuing the cases. As a result, one of the three cases got dismissed on Monday, while the other two are in limbo.

The case had burst out in the open on March 23, 2021, when at a press conference, then Leader of the Opposition (LoP) Devendra Fadnavis claimed to have proof of heavy lobbying for plum postings by senior police officials with politicians in the MVA. Fadnavis said he had 6.3 GB data of call records, with names of those involved figuring, and announced that he was handing over the same to the Union Home Secretary for action. He also referred to a report written by then SID chief Rashmi Shukla to the then Maharashtra Director General of Police (DGP) Subodh Jaiswal. The report was forwarded by the DGP to then Additional Chief Secretary (Home) Sitaram Kunte for further action into the allegations.

Fadnavis’s reference to what was a confidential report by the SID chief had caused an uproar, with MVA leaders seeking an explanation on how the Opposition leader had got access to the secret communication. This led to an FIR being filed by the Mumbai Cyber Police on the complaint of an SID officer on March 26, 2021. The FIR was filed against unknown persons under the Officials Secret Act, Indian Telegraph Act, and Information Technology Act.

Freedom Sale

The issue was also raised in the Maharashtra Assembly. A high-level inquiry was ordered by the Maharashtra government after state Congress leader Nana Patole alleged that phones of several leaders of the Congress, Shiv Sena and NCP were illegally intercepted in 2016-17, during the then Fadnavis-led NDA government in the state. Patole said he had learnt that his phone was tapped under the pretext of it belonging to another person accused of involvement in the narcotics trade. He called it an attempt “to destroy political careers”.

An FIR was filed in February 2022 in Pune against IPS officer Rashmi Shukla, based on allegations made by Patole, under sections of the Indian Telegraph Act, claiming illegal interception of phone calls. In July, there was a change in government in the state. In October, the Pune Police filed a ‘C’ summary closure report, which meant that the FIR was found to be based on “mistake of facts”. In December 2022, the court refused to accept the report, directing the police to investigate the case further. Patole also filed a civil suit against Shukla.

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In the first FIR filed by it, the Cyber Police recorded the statement of Fadnavis in March 2022. The then MVA government said that his statement was being recorded as a witness. Fadnavis had then said that the manner in which his statement was recorded by the Mumbai Police made it look as if he was being made an accused or co-accused in the case, even though he was the one who had brought the corruption over transfers case to light. Before a chargesheet was filed in the case, however, there was a change in government in the state. Immediately thereafter, in July 2022, the case was transferred to the CBI, which filed a closure report in May 2023 which was accepted by the court on Monday.

In the third FIR, a case was registered by Colaba police in Mumbai, based on separate allegations of phone tapping made by NCP leader Eknath Khadse and Shiv Sena (UBT) MP Sanjay Raut. The police had filed a 750-page chargesheet against Shukla, stating that she, as the then SID chief, had sought permission from the then Additional Chief Secretary (Home) for tapping the phones of the two leaders by claiming that the phones belonged to two other individuals. After the change in government, the police claimed that it needed to get a sanction to prosecute Shukla. The current NDA government refused to grant this sanction. Meanwhile, in January, Shukla sought discharge from the case, stating that it couldn’t go on against her without the said sanction. The court has now posted the plea for hearing in November.

Shukla had also approached the Bombay High Court, seeking the quashing of the FIRs against her. She had said that she was being targeted by the then ruling alliance (MVA) for submitting a report disclosing involvement of various political leaders in transfers and postings of police officers in the state. She was granted interim protection by the court from arrest in two of the cases, while the pleas are pending hearing. In the Cyber case, the High Court has rejected her plea for quashing in December 2021.