The Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry is in the eye of a political storm set off by allegations of wrongdoing.
Lt. Governor Iqbal Singh after a meeting with Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram in New Delhi on April 27.
OPPOSITION parties in Puducherry would not have imagined that they were going to be engaged in a fresh political battle close on the heels of the April 13 election, this time seeking the removal of the Lieutenant Governor and Administrator of the Union Territory, Iqbal Singh, from the gubernatorial post. Iqbal Singh, who assumed charge as the 20th Lt. Governor of Puducherry on July 27, 2009, is mired in controversies, which include his recommendation for “expeditious issuance of passport” to Hasan Ali, the Pune-based stud farm owner who is alleged to be the country’s biggest money launderer and tax evader.
His name cropped up when Amalendu Pandey, the former All India Congress (Tiwary) secretary, was questioned by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in the Hasan Ali case. Pandey is currently All India Congress Committee (AICC) member from Bihar. On April 17, shortly after coming under the ED’s scanner, Iqbal Singh told journalists in New Delhi that he was ready to resign if asked to and face any kind of inquiry. The opposition parties started demanding his removal from office soon after the ED filed a 900-page charge sheet against Hasan Ali and his accomplice Kashinath Tapuriah under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) on May 6.
The outcome of the Assembly elections and the process of government formation had provided a breather to Iqbal Singh. N. Rangasamy, leader of the All India NR Congress (AINRC), was sworn in as Chief Minister on May 16. The Left parties have, however, decided to intensify the agitation demanding the recall of the Lt. Governor after the expansion of the Cabinet.
Iqbal Singh’s recommendation for issuance of passport to Hasan Ali was treated with concern because of the businessman’s alleged links with arms dealers and persons associated with terrorist activities. He is also said to be in possession of multiple passports. The ED questioned Iqbal Singh at Raj Nivas, after getting permission from the Prime Minister’s Office. The investigation process started on April 20 and concluded on April 26. The entire proceeding was videographed. According to informed sources, this was perhaps the first time that a Lt. Governor was questioned by the ED.
One of the allegations against Iqbal Singh was that he misused his official position to help in the formation of a trust in which his two sons had stakes. It was formed to set up a medical college-cum-hospital in the backward Karaikal region. The opposition also criticised him for allegedly clearing the allocation of a site in Ariyankuppam for the construction of a gurudwara.
When the then Congress Chief Minister, V. Vaithilingam, expressed solidarity with Iqbal Singh, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), an ally of the ruling party, chose to maintain a stoic silence on the issue. The AINRC, which fought the Assembly elections jointly with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Communist Party of India (CPI), also adopted a cautious approach. Having set his eyes on the Chief Minister’s chair right from the start of the campaign for the election, Rangasamy was keen to steer clear of the controversy revolving around the Lt. Governor.
The opposition parties, which had been staging protests independently, came together on April 23 for a joint action to demand the recall of the Lt. Governor. A dawn-to-dusk bandh was observed on April 27 by eight opposition parties, including the AIADMK, the CPI and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). It evoked near-total response.
Concomitantly, the opposition parties faxed a memorandum to President Pratibha Patil seeking her intervention to remove Iqbal Singh from office for his “alleged links with Hasan Ali” and also on the basis of a few other allegations against him. The CPI(M) sent a separate memorandum to the President more or less on the same lines on April 30.
Denying the allegations against him, the Lt. Governor submitted a written explanation to Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram in mid-April. He also met the Minister thrice. “I have explained everything to the Home Minister in my letter,” became his refrain. Dubbing media reports on his alleged links with Hasan Ali “totally false”, he said, “I have no links with Mr Hasan Ali Khan, the person mentioned in the news reports.”
However, he admitted that in 1997, when he was Rajya Sabha member, Amalendu Pandey had approached him “for issuance of passport for someone from the passport office in Patna on compassionate/health grounds as the brother of the person seeking passport was seriously ill abroad and the presence of the applicant for looking after his brother was extremely essential”. He had not known the applicant and had never met him. He said he had referred the case to External Affairs Minister I.K. Gujral on April 4, 1997. He received the acknowledgement from the Minister the next day “regarding issue of passport to H. Khan, intimating that necessary instructions have been issued to the passport officer in Patna”.
“[I] may reiterate that I have absolutely no link with Mr Khan, neither did I know his full name which I have now learnt of from newspapers only. Neither had I ever met him nor spoken to him, and the letter of 4th April 1997 was an isolated incident, neither before nor after that have I ever written anything for him,” Iqbal Singh claimed in his letter to the Home Minister.
On his acquaintance with Tapuriah, Iqbal Singh said the businessman had also been introduced to him by Amalendu Pandey “as a prominent and august personality of Kolkata, belonging to the Birla family”. As he was informed that many leading Congress leaders visited his house in Kolkata regularly, “I entertained Mr Tapuriah and he came to me two-three times in 1997 itself”.
Admitting that he had recommended renewal of the passport of Tapuriah’s wife on compassionate grounds on December 16, 1997, he said, “Since then I have absolutely no link with Mr Tapuriah or his family members and no one has ever contacted me on his behalf.”
S.J.P. Singh, Officer on Special Duty (OSD) at Raj Nivas, who has been the eyes and ears of the Lt. Governor, dismissed the allegations against him as “fabricated and untrue”. But opposition parties were not prepared to buy his explanation on recommending issuance of a passport to Hasan Ali without verifying the claims in his application. Members of Parliament and senior bureaucrats are allowed to endorse passport applications if they know the applicants personally and can vouch for them. Iqbal Singh’s claim that he did not know Hasan Ali at all is not convincing, they say.
Opposition parties have also raised two other issues – the Lt. Governor’s alleged role in helping the South Educational Trust (SET) to get the approval for establishing a medical college-cum-hospital in the Karaikal region and clearance for a project for constructing a gurudwara at Ariyankuppam. Notwithstanding the denials, the “deed of trust” registered by the SET on March 25, 2010, clearly shows that the six-member board of trustees included the Lt. Governor’s sons, Amarjot Singh and Abhay Singh. S. Chetan Pal Singh, son of the Officer on Special Duty, S.J.P. Singh, was also on the board headed by the Ludhiana-based Tejinder Pal Singh. The deed, signed by all the six trustees, also said that Amarjot Singh would be the secretary of the SET for his “whole lifetime”. Among other things, the trust had plans to open a medical college and hospital, engineering colleges, a dental college, a nursing college and pharmacy colleges, and dispensaries.
Interestingly, without losing much time, the very next day the trust moved the Union Territory government for issuance of a no-objection certificate (NOC) to start a medical college and nursing college in Karaikal. Even as the opposition accused the government of granting “in-principle” approval for the medical college project without the consent of the Cabinet, Revenue Minister Malladi Krishna Rao denied on April 21 that approval for the NOC or the Essentiality Certificate had been given by the Cabinet to the SET.
Chief Secretary to the Union Territory government, R. Chandramohan, issued a clarification on April 20 that the government had issued only an “in-principle NOC in March-April 2010 without any commitment”. But the government could not concede the SET’s demand for issuance of the Essentiality Certificate as it had not fulfilled the Medical Council of India’s (MCI) norms such as the establishment of a 300-bed hospital with adequate clinical material, he pointed out.
The Chief Secretary, however, admitted that the government had obliged the trust by issuing a “modified Essentiality Certificate” modelled on the one prescribed by the MCI on February 25 as the “trust had then requested for a certificate to enable it to raise bank financing for the project based on the undertaking given by it to fulfil the MCI conditions in due course”.
However, T. Murugan, Tamil Nadu State committee member of the CPI(M), and V. Perumal, the Puducherry unit secretary of the party, who jointly addressed a press conference on April 21, called for the resignation of the then Chief Minister alleging that he had no control over the government’s decisions, which was obvious in the way officials had cleared the proposal for the medical college without getting Cabinet approval.
The SET announced at a press conference on April 22 that the sons of the Lt. Governor and the son of the OSD had resigned from the board of trustees “within four days” of signing of the trust deed. They took the decision to quit as they would not be able to make frequent visits to Puducherry from Punjab, it was claimed.
Intriguingly, president-cum-managing trustee of the SET, Tejinder Pal Singh, who was asked if the resignations were forwarded to the registering authority, stated that it was enough if the government was informed about the change in membership of the board. He denied that rules had been bent to facilitate issuance of necessary certificates to launch the medical college by the SET.
The opposition parties had questioned the wisdom of the government in clearing the medical college project when as many as 40 such applications had been pending before it for over seven years. There were already seven medical colleges in the private sector in the Union Territory, which had a population of less than 11 lakh, and there was absolutely no need to start a new one, they said. Criticising the decision to clear the project, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi demanded a CBI probe. The Union Home Ministry has reportedly sought a report from the Union Territory administration on the medical college project.
The other issue that is being taken up by the opposition is the allotment of 0.26 hectare of government land for the construction of a gurudwara on a 10-year licence for an annual fee of Rs.35,000. An agreement to this effect was signed on November 24, 2010, between the Sukhmani Saheb Sabha and the revenue authorities.
Smelling a rat, several opposition parties, including the AIADMK, the CPI and the CPI(M), demanded a probe. Recalling that the Sabha’s pleas for land allotment for the gurudwara went unheeded in 2002 and 2008, informed sources said it had submitted a fresh application incorporating a community service centre in the project. The opposition alleged that the process of land allotment was completed after pressure was applied by the Lt. Governor. The allotment went against the Supreme Court’s direction in July 2009 that no place of worship should be allowed on public land, they said.
Even as the Congress leadership at the Centre took a stand that the party would not give advice publicly to those who held constitutional posts, Vaithilingam opined on April 26 that there was no need for the Lt. Governor to resign as the ED was still in the process of investigating the case. He denied that the Congress was trying to shield Iqbal Singh.
The secretary of the Puducherry unit of the AIADMK, A. Anbalagan, said persons occupying gubernatorial positions should be above suspicion and that the office of the Lt. Governor was sacrosanct. He accused the Vaithilingam government of trying to protect the Lt. Governor. The party’s Puducherry unit had earlier planned to send a delegation to New Delhi with the permission of the party general secretary to meet the President and the Prime Minister and seek their intervention in the matter.
Now the AIADMK appears to have decided to put the issue on the back burner in view of the anticipated changes in the political scenario in the Union Territory and at the national level, particularly against the backdrop of Chief Minister Rangasamy opting to keep the party out of the government despite an electoral alliance.
V. Perumal, secretary of the CPI(M) unit, said there would be no let-up in the opposition’s moves to take the issue to the people. The CPI(M) launched a padayatra and a signature campaign to highlight the demand for the Lt. Governor’s recall. He accused the previous government in Puducherry of “shielding [Iqbal] Singh with a view to covering up its commissions and omissions”. He demanded a thorough probe into the alleged irregularities in the implementation of various projects by that government.
Referring to Iqbal Singh’s admission that he had recommended Hasan Ali’s passport application, secretary of the Puducherry unit of the CPI, N. Kalainathan, said it would be appropriate for the Lt. Governor to resign immediately, without which a fair investigation into the matter would not be possible.
The secretary of the Federation for People’s Rights, Puducherry, G. Sugumaran, charged Vaithilingam and his team of Ministers with “violating the oath administered to them by openly supporting the Lt. Governor”.
FRONTLINE / June 4-17, 2011