Calcutta, Feb. 14: Mamata Banerjee was staring at her darkest night in power after the chief minister shunted out police commissioner R.K. Pachnanda for ignoring the ruling party's diktats and earned a damning rebuke from the governor.
A crackdown that netted several Trinamul supporters and brought the police within striking distance of bigger fish during investigations into the murder of sub-inspector Tapas Chowdhury was said to be the immediate trigger for the transfer.
So audacious was the transfer that governor M.K. Narayanan felt compelled to speak out within an hour of the formal announcement.
"There may be several reasons why a police commissioner is removed. But if he is removed for what happened in the last few days, quite clearly there is something wrong and we need to look at them," Narayanan said.
The state government sought to complete the humiliation of Calcutta police ' Bengal's most high-profile law-enforcement agency ' by taking away the Garden Reach murder case and handing it over to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).
All major cases in Calcutta are handled by the detective department of Calcutta police while the CID deals with crimes in the rest of the state. That territorial distinction has been undermined now.
The transfer of Pachnanda and the handover of the case to the CID fuelled suggestions that the government wants to slam the brakes on action against Mohammad Iqbal alias Munna, a Trinamul councillor who has been referred to in the FIR on the murder of Chowdhury.
But the ill-timed transfer appeared to have landed the government in a mess it had not bargained for and reopened a chapter that was closed after Narayanan referred to "goondaism" when CPM leader Abdur Rezzak Mollah was assaulted allegedly by a Trinamul leader.
Governor Narayanan said something that is certain to trigger a larger debate on Trinamul's capability to run a government after winning a massive mandate.
In reply to a question, Narayanan said: "We have an elected government and the government has been elected with a massive mandate. So, I presume they should be asked whether they are capable of running a government or not. The governor can't answer that. The governor only acts, doesn't talk."
The chief minister managed to achieve another unlikely feat: Pachnanda, often described as too soft an officer who could not stand up to the government, left in a blaze of glory for pursuing the probe with spunk.
The outgoing police commissioner got the "ultimate applause" on Thursday evening when several senior officers trooped into his room and saluted him for "leaving with his head held high". "We salute you, Sir, for doing what was right. The force stands behind you," an officer told the chief on behalf of the others.
Pachnanda, a 1983-batch IPS officer who was accused by Mamata in the 1990s of biting her, has been replaced by Surajit Kar Purakayastha, two years his junior in service. The former commissioner has been made director (security), including the chief minister's security, chief secretary Sanjay Mitra said while announcing changes in the force.
Mamata dropped two clues during the day on how the government is viewing the police action.
"Law will take its own course. My one line is enough…. Some more people are involved, why their names were not included in the FIR is being probed," Mamata said after visiting the family of the slain officer.
It was clear from the chief minister's statement she was echoing her close aide and minister Firhad Hakim, who had alleged that Mukhtar, a Congress activist, had pulled the trigger. It appeared that she was unhappy Mukhtar's name did not feature in the FIR.
In the evening, Mamata sought to put a more saleable spin to the transfer of the commissioner.
"The culprits should have been arrested from wherever they were. Despite their names featuring in the FIR, they were not arrested, that is why I have been forced to take strong action," the chief minister said, seeking to suggest that she was unhappy Munna, who belongs to her party, had not been arrested.
But sources said she had made it clear to officers behind closed doors that she was not happy with the reference to Munna in the FIR.
The governor's statement also put strain on the theory of insufficient arrests. "Most of the accused have been arrested, I thought?" Narayanan said.
The governor added that he hoped Munna would be arrested but his replies suggested he did not think the police were found wanting in this particular case.
If insufficient arrests were the reason for Pachnanda's transfer, minister Hakim stands guilty of the same charge. The minister had virtually ruled out the need for any more arrests yesterday. "As far as I know, all those who were involved in the violence and the firing, as was evident from the footage, have already been arrested. I do not know if there is a need for more arrests," Hakim had said.
An officer said this evening: "Hakim had instructed Pachnanda not to arrest Trinamul activists but he went ahead and had to pay a price."
He, however, added that Pachnanda didn't have much of an option as he was under pressure from the force to act.
"As the force did not show any signs of sparing Munna, the decision to replace Pachnanda was taken and executed without any delay," said a Writers' source.
A senior officer raised a larger issue. "The police commissioner has paid the price for standing up to the ruling party and doing his duty. The message from the government to the force is: even if your colleague has been shot dead on duty, the commissioner does not have the right to order arrests unless the ruling party gives the go-ahead. This is one of the darkest days in Calcutta police's recent history," he said.
The die, according to him, was cast on Tuesday evening itself. "After the TV footage showed the killer, the message from some Trinamul leaders to the top cops was clear: if you dare touch our men, heads will roll."
Later on Tuesday, it was conveyed to the police commissioner that the Trinamul leadership, right from the top, was "very, very unhappy" with the arrest of criminals with direct links to the party. But the police force, for once, refused to blink.
"Today, any goon with links to any Trinamul leader feels he can do whatever he wants with no fear of police action," said an officer.
An officer said Pachnanda was "too soft" over the past year while dealing with criminals backed by Trinamul minions. "If only the commissioner had taken a tougher stand earlier, things would probably not have come to such a pass."
But the officer added: "For the last 48 hours, he led the force like a true commissioner. This has allowed him to leave as a hero to the force."