Cops were wiring me up with two tiny hidden video-cameras, two audio recorders, stuffing thousands of rupees in my pockets and briefing me like a military commander does his cadets prior to an offensive. One pocket had 1,000-rupee notes sullied with detective powder that would turn pink as evidence if dipped in treated water. A cameraman was recording this process. Had it not been for missing flood-lights and makeup artists, it could have been mistaken for a 007-style film shooting.
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This was on Wednesday, February 3rd. Inside the Lokayukta building, with instructions from Additional Director General of Police Rupak K Dutta and Superintendent of Police K Madhukar Shetty, the police were preparing a trap for a corrupt senior official of the Department of Stamps and Registration, Karnataka – the office that registers real-estate transactions.
Weeks ago, I had approached the Lokayukta – a Karnataka government anti-corruption agency – complaining that this officer was demanding Rs 32,000 as bribe to put a few hundred rupees worth of revenue stamps on the court documents; blackmailing me that he would otherwise rule the papers to be real-estate sale deeds attracting tens of lakhs of rupees in taxes and penalties.
This left me with a few options: a) pay the bribe, b) file RTI applications and suffer accompanying delays, or, c) use a more direct method through police. The last one appeared worth a try.
"‘Anti-police sentiments and irresolute courts that favor the accused’ one officer had told me, have made us reluctant to conduct chancy operations, lest it further discredits our department. So I’m not sure if we can help you, Mr Jain," SP Shetty said. He was also apprehensive that my lawyer, who had declined my request to co-operate with the police to nab the crook, might leak this info which would surely foil the dragnet.
However, when the police saw a video that I had recorded a week ago using my own hidden camera of the same officer – one Mehaboob Khan – negotiating down the Rs 32,000 to Rs 18,000, they became more interested.
Following cautionary advice to me, the police agreed to lay a trap. An FIR was filed and preparations were on including video-taping all procedures for court evidence later.
After some rehearsals, we, including some 7-8 plainclothesmen, set out in a police van and my car. Both vehicles stopped 200 meters from the target building. An officer disguised as a lawyer walked with me to the Shivaji Nagar District Registrar located in Baneswadi. While the ‘lawyer’ waited outside, I went inside Khan’s office and tried hard to get him to repeat his demand of bribe.
For 40 minutes straight, while another aggrieved citizen like me came and left Khan’s office in disgust, the official denied having ever asked unofficial money! The fear of someone having spilled the beans turned into joy when ultimately he came around and told me to hand over the bribe to his typist. To make sure that his voice got recorded properly, my repeating the question promptly resulted in his reiterating the amount of bribe and official money.
Blowing the whistle meant giving a missed call to the police team waiting outside but the police inspector’s phone was continuously busy at that time. I frantically redialed repeatedly. By that time, the typist, who had discovered that the notes were soiled with detective powder, had alerted Khan and run upstairs to wash his hands. Khan also become increasingly nervous and was perpetually ringing his office bell to summon his office staff. He was beckoning me to say that he would give the receipt for the entire amount now.
Fortunately, one of the calls to the police went through and the team stormed in within two minutes although these were the longest two minutes of my life. Ironically, it was the concern and anxiety of a senior officer from the Lokayukta who was calling the team to find out the progress that was keeping the critical phone line busy.
Like trained commandos, every member of the crack team got busy with a task – video-graphing the evidence, detecting traces of the powder, searching the office for cash, removing cameras from my body, and analyzing the recordings. Two hours later, Khan and the typist were formally under arrest and being led out of the building into the waiting police van.
The policemen helped in getting my paperwork stamped with appropriate taxes the very next day. An officer from the Stamps and Registrations Department had been specially sent for me to the now empty DR’s office where Khan had castigated me and my lawyer. Now they treated me with coffee and got the work done in a matter of minutes. Legally, only Rs 2000 was required for the documents.
With only five district registrars in Bangalore, Khan was probably an officer of the rank of a highly paid judge and also apparently had a side export business. His greed to accumulate further led to his shameful fall.
When asked how the public could felicitate the Lokayukta and their police for such deeds, ADGP Dutta’s reply was humble: they want more public coming forward with their complaints so culprits could be brought to book. With spy cameras readily available at low costs, he was right that public can play a huge role in reducing corruption. In my opinion, it is in fact the duty of the educated middle-class to step forward as the marginalized poor cannot in such situations.
Most often we are quick to denounce the police when they botch up cases, but it is imperative that we commend them at Lokayukta for their brilliant and professional performance in such cases. Senior IPS officers Dutta and Shetty were readily approachable even on the phone — contrast it with the impossibility of getting through to most government officers whose lower staff forms an impregnable firewall around them. Had it not been for these officers, God knows where my papers would have been and where Mr Khan!
My objective of writing this report is to spread a message that it’s easy enough for lots of people to do such acts when they face corrupt, rude, or slow government officials. Any perceived risks in such operations are infinitesimally miniscule and police usually helps. It reminds me of Magsaysay awardee Arvind Kejriwal words: "With people’s participation, such acts can be turned into a movement that would scare the corrupt." ⊕