A Gujarati man masquerading as a senior officer from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) – and deceiving the J&K administration into providing him a high-security cover normally reserved for VVIPs – has snowballed into a national controversy with the Opposition parties, including the Congress, taking a dig at the Narendra Modi government.
On 2 March, the J&K police was alerted by the CID, its intelligence gathering and espionage wing, about one Kiran Patel who had been availing the government-funded stay at Taj Vivanta, a 5-star hotel on a small hill in Srinagar overlooking the majestic Dal Lake.
Patel has a verified Twitter handle and routinely posts videos of the escorts of the armed police and paramilitary forces surrounding him as he tours different parts of the Valley, especially the tourist resorts.
On Friday, a J&K police spokesperson, while describing Patel as an impersonator, said that a team led by the Superintendent of Police (East Srinagar) arrived at Taj Vivanta and took Patel into their custody.
“The particulars of this person were found as Kiran Bhai Patel, son of Juddesh Bhai Patel, resident of Ahmadabad, Gujarat, who was impersonating himself as Additional Director (Strategy and Campaigns), PMO, New Delhi,” the spokesperson said. “As his replies were found suspicious, he was taken to Nishat police station wherein he admitted his crime. Ten fake visiting cards and two mobiles were seized from him.”
Allegations of Security Threat
The incident is now all over on social media with the commentators questioning how a man could assume a counterfeit identity to the point of tricking the security apparatus in Kashmir into trusting him. It has also called into question, as the critics allege, the reliability of anti-militancy structures in the strife-torn Valley where the forces and their operational command are supposed to be in a state of alert round-the-clock.
The debacle has also been associated with the hyper-nationalist public relations drive that has characterised the government’s engagement with the public in Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370.
Over the past three years, elaborate programmes and public events in Kashmir have focused on the idea of conveying a sense of normalcy, accompanied by ostentatious displays of patriotic fervour. Patel's social media videos, too, appear to be pivoted on themes of nationalistic grandstanding.
The Congress was prompt to emphasise Patel’s alleged links with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), based on the examination of his social media posts. On Saturday, Pawan Khera, who heads the Congress’ Media and Publicity Department, released a series of pictures and video footage purporting to show Patel’s connections with the BJP.
One picture showed his family sharing a moment with BJP President JP Nadda. Other pictures show Patel wearing a saffron colour T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan 'NaMo Again’ – a campaign slogan for the party as it seeks a third term for Modi as the Prime Minister ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. There’s also a picture of Patel with Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
‘Not an Intelligence Failure’
On Sunday, J&K police refused to call the fiasco an 'intelligence failure' but admitted that Patel’s act of posing as a PMO official while evading law enforcement was a mistake.
“We don’t provide security cover to anyone on verbal communiqué or order,” ADGP Kashmir Vijay Kumar said. “A proper FIR has been lodged and the conman was interrogated. At present, he is behind the bars under judicial remand.”
Following the lapse on Friday, a local court in Srinagar sent Patel into judicial custody. He was produced in court through video conferencing.
Patel first visited the Valley in October last year and has since travelled several times along with his family members as well as a few more persons who, too, have introduced themselves as officers from the PMO.
Patel’s lawyer in Srinagar had made this a central plank of his argument as to why the three other persons accompanying Patel – one Amit Pandiya and Jay Sitapara from Gujarat, and Trilok Singh from Rajasthan – were let go while Patel was being detained.
“My client told me that he was accompanied by two more people from Gujarat. Police have also recorded his statement before the magistrate under Section 164. Both were set free by the police,” advocate Rehan Gowhar told the press in Srinagar.
What appears to be more galling is that Patel has managed to reach villages and defence areas close to the Line of Control (LoC). Several pictures on his social media show him against the backdrop of Aman Setu Bridge near the LoC. It is a site where civilian movement is generally restricted.
Scores of observers and commentators have raised a number of questions behind the potential security-related fallout that such a serious neglect could have yielded.
“What was behind his confidence with which he uploaded videos on his Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook handles?” asked Ahmed Ali Fayyaz, a veteran Kashmiri journalist. “Did the requisition of his Z-plus security, hospitality, and protocol flow from the proper secure channels as per the SOP from Delhi and Srinagar or was he provided the same on verbal requests/orders of any unauthorised officer?”
Alleged BJP Links & Inter-State Police Investigations
The nature of his engagement with the officialdom in Kashmir is now subject to elaborate high-level inquiry. There are reports that Patel visited several districts of the Valley where he was courted by senior officials of the administration. At least three deputy magistrates have met him. In Budgam, Patel was accompanied by a tehsildar rank officer during one of his 'field visits'.
While touring Nishat, the site of a famed Mughal garden in Srinagar, Patel was also joined by the media in-charge of the BJP’s Kashmir unit. On Friday, a district commissioner and a senior SP were questioned by the investigators regarding the conman and his activities.
The social media space was awash with sarcastic posts taking a swipe at the J&K administration for having been conned by an alleged BJP man.
“Apparently, four deputy commissioners from Kashmir have met 'Shri Additional Director in the PMO'. One meeting was facilitated by a photojournalist working at the largest newspaper in the Valley,” tweeted Shahid Tantray, a Kashmiri multimedia journalist. “The question remains, what did these district commissioners discuss with him.”
Speaking to The Quint, police sources in J&K described the process of providing security to Central government officials as “complex”.
“It starts with an official communication from the Central government to the respective state or union territory government. Then, the security wing conducts a thorough analysis of the potential threats to the official and determines the appropriate security category,” the source said.
“However, the key question that arises is who sent the official communication to the government, and who provided the security for the official. Was this protocol bypassed or followed?”
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)