Tied up in knots

The Karnataka government puts itself in an embarrassing situation by mishandling the investigation into the death of an IAS officer in Bangalore.

Published : Apr 01, 2015 12:30 IST

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah announcing a CBI probe into the death of D.K. Ravi, in the State Assembly on March 23.

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah announcing a CBI probe into the death of D.K. Ravi, in the State Assembly on March 23.

THE contrast was striking. On March 16, Doddakoppalu Kariyappa Ravi, a 35-year-old, middle-level, 2009 batch Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the Karnataka cadre, who had over the past few years earned the reputation of being a non-conformist and pro-people administrator prepared to change the system, was found hanging by the neck in the bedroom of his apartment in an upmarket area in Bangalore. The police, and no less a person than the City Police Commissioner, M.N. Reddi, announced, before investigations had actually begun, that prima facie it was a case of suicide. The political establishment followed suit, with both Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Home Minister K.J. George reiterating in the State Assembly that it was a case of “suicide” for “personal reasons”. Siddaramaiah, answering a furious opposition which demanded to know the truth, was quoted by a language newspaper as having said that Ravi “had made several calls to a batchmate, a woman IAS officer” before his death. The “police sources” continuously but selectively leaked to the media details about call records, conversations and WhatsApp messages between Ravi and her. The government sought to imply that it was an open-and-shut case of suicide for personal reasons. The Chief Minister said the State Criminal Investigation Department (CID) would conduct an inquiry.

Even before a post-mortem was carried out, Ravi’s family, including his realtor-politician father-in-law, H. Hanumantharayappa, a plethora of civil rights groups, and a vociferous opposition—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal (Secular)—began insinuating that the officer was “done away with” and that the Congress government was attempting a cover-up to shield certain influential people. They demanded an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to unravel the truth. Ravi had apparently stepped on the toes of a number of powerful people, including those in businesses such as sand extraction/transportation, real estate, and jewellery export.

Accusations and allegations, theories of dark deeds, and insinuations flew thick and fast, with those backing the suicide theory and those calling it a “planned murder” trying to buttress and bolster their arguments. While the government was in a hurry to declare that it was a case of suicide, the opposition parties were convinced it was murder and used the IAS officer’s death to score political points. The fact that Ravi hailed from the dominant Vokkaliga community also served to whip up sentiments.

According to reliable sources in the CID, preliminary investigations by the Bangalore Police and the CID have indicated that Ravi sent a text message to the woman IAS officer before his death hinting that he was going to take his own life. She was allegedly the last person he was in touch with before his death. There were apparently no external injuries on his body or any signs of a struggle. The door of the bedroom was locked from inside; the knot on the noose was on the left side of his neck; the ligature mark (scar on the neck) showed the imprint of the orange silk fabric used as a noose; there was dribble; and the room was undisturbed—all factors that point to a suicide. But as a senior CID officer took pains to highlight, it could theoretically be a murder as well, with someone having first drugged Ravi and then hanged him. The scene of death was not sealed off immediately; numerous people were allowed to trample all over the place.

The Siddaramaiah government embarrassed itself by transferring Pronab Mohanty, Inspector General of Police, CID, a day after the case was handed over to the CID. However, wiser counsel prevailed and the transfer was stayed. Having handed over the investigation to the CID, the government appeared to be in undue haste to announce its findings. Besides the numerous leaks, the Chief Minister himself was overtly keen to disclose on the floor of the legislature what the government called “the preliminary report of the CID”. However, the Karnataka High Court, on a petition filed by the woman IAS officer’s husband, ruled that there was no provision in the law for presentation of an interim or preliminary report that arrived at a conclusion post-haste. During arguments, the State’s Advocate General termed the petition “part of a politically motivated false propaganda”. He said that the petitioner’s wife had voluntarily appeared before the CID and given a statement. The Advocate General said: “Her statement to the CID would disclose that the officer had shared more than (a) cordial relationship that exists amongst batchmates. The statements would disclose that there were also financial transactions between the two. It [statement] would further disclose that the deceased wanted the relationship to progress into more than just friendship.”

Sources close to the woman IAS officer rubbished the claims made by the government. A family member, on condition of anonymity, said: “The government is looking for a scapegoat, someone they can pin the blame on, and the lady officer fits the bill; declare that it was all a personal friendship gone wrong and close the investigations; malign and sidetrack the issue. All we are saying is let the investigations be completed. Then the facts will come out. Why these leaks and media trial. Why this hurry to rush the investigation and table a preliminary CID report, when as per law there is nothing like a preliminary CID report. The Chief Minister lied when he made the statement that Ravi made 44 calls to the lady officer before his death. Call records will easily prove this. Media leaks have damaged the lady officer’s reputation. [She has sent legal notices to two leading dailies for defamation.] While it is a fact that Ravi was a dear friend and colleague, it is equally factual that they were just [emphasising] friends. In fact other [IAS] batchmates are surprised at all the rubbish coming out since Ravi and the lady officer did not even speak much to each other when they were at the [Lal Bahadur Shastri National] Academy [of Administration].”

Sources close to the woman officer disclosed that she was “devastated by all the muck that was appearing in the media and felt let down by the system”, and that even her appeal to the Chief Secretary (as the head of the administrative service in the State) and his assurances to her that he “was behind her” did not help. Her husband wanted to speak to the Chief Minister but it did not happen. Informed sources said the Chief Minister’s Office had telephoned the woman officer and “asked that she leave the district for a while”. “Do they want it to appear that she has run away?” asked a batchmate. Said an IAS officer: “The deliberate leaks by the government alluding motives were in violation of the fundamental rights of the lady officer.”

A family member said: “Her husband had no option but to ask the court to intervene and stop the government from tabling a preliminary report. The lady officer had, in fact, pleaded with the Chief Secretary that she was left with no choice but to go to court.”

Despite the clamour for a CBI inquiry, the government had initially remained steadfast in its opposition to it. It is not surprising because the premier investigative agency lacks autonomy and its loyalties lie with the government at the Centre. The CBI could very well investigate areas just to embarrass the Congress government in the State. Several Congressmen, including senior Ministers, and even BJP and Janata Dal (Secular) leaders have deep business interests in an area that Ravi was keenly looking into—real estate.

On March 23, after a week of non-stop slanging matches, protests, provocative speeches, signature campaigns, and candlelight vigils and, crucially, a gentle prod from Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Siddaramaiah announced in the State legislature that his government was handing the investigations into Ravi’s death over to the CBI. The agency has been given three months’ time to probe the case.

Rise to fame Ravi came from a humble background. His father was a marginal farmer, and his mother said recently that she had even sold fruits on the streets to fund his education. A postgraduate in agriculture, he had initially worked as an excise inspector but quit the job to pursue his ambition to join the civil service. He was Additional Commissioner of Commercial Taxes (Enforcement) at the time of his death, a post he assumed last October. In that capacity he managed, in the words of a colleague, “to conduct raids and mop up revenue in campaign mode”.

Crucially, he was also able to identify areas of revenue leakage and issued notices for tax evasion/default to a number of prominent builders. Records show that during the first three months of 2015, the Commercial Taxes Department issued notices to three companies for tax liabilities of Rs.30 crore, Rs.10 crore and Rs.8.5 crore respectively. The real estate firms, however, refuted the claims by the Commercial Taxes Department stating that the raids on their premises were conducted without serving notice. Some officials also pointed out that Ravi had directed officials of the enforcement wing to prepare a report on VAT/service tax violations by real estate projects that had been completed and those that were under way. Last December, under Ravi’s directions, numerous branches of a jewellery group were raided for suspected tax evasion. In January, more than 50 of his officials raided shops selling imported electronic gadgets and garments in and around Gandhinagar in Bangalore, again for tax evasion.

However, Ravi rose to fame during his tenure (2013-14) as the Deputy Commissioner of Kolar district. The revenue adalats he conducted, where he was able to streamline the process for the subdivision and demarcation of land belonging to various owners in a particular survey number, made him quite popular. He was seen as an administrator who was prepared to bring the government to the people and be among the masses, be it eating a meal at a Dalit’s house, visiting Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe colonies or supervising the removal of garbage. He single-handedly took on the thriving illegal sale and transport of sand in the district and almost stopped it despite threats from politicians and the sand mafia. In 2014, he had run-ins with an MLA and a real estate promoter over issues concerning the ownership of land, primarily a parcel of 17.6 hectares (the dispute is yet to be decided by the High Court). Ravi was also responsible for the recovery of wasteland that had been occupied illegally.

There were protests against Ravi’s transfer out of Kolar. The popular opinion at that time was that the government had succumbed to pressure from local politicians who were in the cross hairs of Ravi’s administrative measures. But in the aftermath of his death, Siddaramaiah disclosed that Ravi had been transferred not because of any pressure from politicians or the sand mafia but “because of a request from his [Ravi’s] father-in-law”, who is an old friend of the Chief Minister.

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