With the ruling Left Front government suspending senior IPS officer of DGP rank, Jacob Thomas, hailed as its “anti-corruption mascot”, is it curtains for action against those facing graft charges in the state? For, Thomas as Director of State Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau for almost ten months had famously initiated action against high and mighty, both in political and bureaucratic circles. Thomas, who was in the dog house during the previous Congress led-United Front government, was brought in as vigilance chief by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan soon after his ministry assumed power in May 2016, much to the consternation of many. Now at the time of suspension he was holding the post of Director, Institute of Management in Government.
Thomas started off with aplomb, flashing red and yellow cards, saying he would spare no one when it comes to corruption. But within months he annoyed the CPM leadership by slapping nepotism charges against the then Industries Minister and Pinarayi’s right hand man E.P. Jayarajan. Following public outcry over the minister’s appointment of close relatives to plum government posts, the strongman from Kannur was forced to resign, though a vigilance court had acquitted him of any false doings later. Much trouble was in store when Thomas turned his attention to certain fellow IAS officers. Following this the state faced an unprecedented stand-off between IAS and IPS lobbies, with the former even threatening to go on a flash strike.
After the initial flurry, the Vigilance Department soon slipped into old ways of dragging its feet in many important cases with one court making the caustic remark that the agency is continuing to be the “caged parrot” even under the CPM-led LDF government. However, the Chief Minister, who is also the Home Minister, continued to defend Thomas amid rumours of his imminent removal from the post. But it was all too clear that political masters of the day will not give him a free hand, while the legion of Thomas’ critics argued that all his actions were just a “show to hoodwink the public”. What was more obvious was the government reluctance to go ahead with action against heavyweight ministers in the previous regime facing grave corruption charges. This included former Finance Minister K.M. Mani and Excise Minister K. Babu. The LF, which came to power promising action against those corrupt politicians, instead asked Thomas to go on a “long leave”. Soon after leave, he was unceremoniously eased out of the post. Even after ten months of his removal the government is yet to find a successor to Thomas, with the current DGP Lokenath Behra, said to be a confidant of the CM, holding the post of Vigilance Director and most of the cases safely put in cold storage.
While on leave Thomas came out with a semi-autobiography, Sravukalkkoppam Neenthumbol (Swimming with Sharks), which itself was considered a breach of service code. The Chief Minister, who was supposed to release the book, backed out at the last moment. Though the government ordered a departmental inquiry against Thomas, no action was taken against him. In fact, in due course, he had written a sequel to the earlier book too. An outspoken officer, some say that Thomas has consciously cultivated this image of an honest officer, even though some grave charges have been levelled at him including one that of acquisition of hundreds of acres of forest land in neighbouring Karnataka. Though he has kept silent about these allegations, Thomas continued to air his views on corruption and the need for good governance much to the annoyance of the government.
The immediate provocation for the government to suspend him from service, first of an officer of DGP rank, was a speech he delivered at the Thiruvananthapuram Press Club on the occasion to mark the world anti-corruption day on 9 December. While addressing the event, Thomas was highly critical of the government’s failure in rescue operation during Cyclone Ochki that hit the coastal districts early this month. Though over 80 bodies have been recovered from the seas, the government has no clue as to how many fishermen are still missing, leading to widespread protests along the coast, making even the Chief Minister make a hasty retreat when he came visiting aggrieved families.
“Nobody knows how many fishermen died in the Ochki tragedy. Had the missing persons belonged to rich families, what would have been the reaction of the government? Why do those who cannot look after the concerns of the poor continue in power?” Thomas had asked. But it was on corruption that he nailed the government. Citing that law and order in the state had collapsed, Thomas said that people are afraid to speak against corruption in these days. “What is going on is the attempt to silence those who speak against corruption,” he said.
He did not stop there. Taunting the government, Thomas said: “They (government/party) may not cut you into 51 pieces, but will definitely silence you.” This was a direct inference to the sensational murder of CPM rebel T.P. Chandrashekharan in 2012.
The suspension order did not refer to this particular charge and instead charged Thomas with “making inflammatory speech” which could have had serious repercussions on law and order and peace along the coast.
But Thomas’ reaction is ominous for the present government. “Those who speak against corruption are being silenced everywhere. This is quite natural when you swim with sharks. I am not in a mood to remain silent,” Thomas said.