How a suicide exposed the rot in Karnataka

One month after KAS officer Bheema Nayak’s driver’s death, we go back to find out what really happened.

How a suicide exposed the rot in Karnataka
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The Gowda home in Kadukothanahalli village of Mandya, nearly 100 kilometres from Bengaluru, could be out of a children’s storybook. With its tiled roof, bright yellow walls and a porch that seems like the perfect lookout from which to watch the world go by, it looked inviting and spoke of a level of comfortable prosperity. Just six months ago, the house had been renovated and that freshness still lingered upon its façade. However, there were no traces of festivities once you crossed the threshold. Mahendra Gowda’s head was shorn and each time he looked up, there was a blank panic in his eyes. His father, Chikka Humbala, was a frail figure with an unsmiling, defeated face. His mother, Sakkamma, sat on the floor, her hair askew, still grappling with shock and sadness, tears glittering in her eyes. “He was the one taking care of all of us,” she told Newslaundry. “He was this family’s aadhaar stambha (pillar of support).” 

Sakkamma was talking about her younger son, Ramesh. The 31-year-old man achieved notoriety overnight when on December 6, 2016, the deeply-troubled Ramesh committed suicide and left behind an 11-page suicide note detailing the corruption of his boss, Karnataka Administrative Services (KAS) officer, Bheema Nayak. There’s a reason, perhaps, that Sakkamma felt the loss of Ramesh a little more sharply than the rest of the family. The last time Ramesh visited home from Bengaluru, Sakkamma remembers he looked visibly pale and disturbed. When it was time for him to return, it was decided that he would drop Sakkamma at a wedding that she was to attend and then go on to Bengaluru. When she said goodbye to him that day, she had no idea this was the last time she would see her son alive. 

On the evening of December 4, Ramesh didn’t go to Bengaluru after dropping his mother. Instead, he went to Maddur, 19 kilometres from Kadukhothanahalli, and checked into Samrudh Lodge. Two days later, his dead body was found in Room 14. 

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Samrudh Lodge is a new establishment in Maddur, barely a kilometre from the bus stand, which may be why it caught Ramesh’s eye. He asked for a room. It wasn’t a problem. Only two other rooms were occupied and so Room 14 was happily handed over to Ramesh. There’s nothing remarkable about this room: shiny tiles, a wall painted an almost-radioactive green, a double bed, blue neon tubelights, a window that looked on to a tin shed, a sink and an attached bathroom. 

No one knows why Ramesh picked Maddur as his stop – perhaps it offered a retreat that was close enough for friends Suresh T and Shashi Kumar to visit easily, but far enough to give him some distance from the concerned questions his family were asking him. 

On the afternoon of December 6, Kumar went to meet Ramesh. He knocked, but there was no response. He called, but Ramesh didn’t pick up the phone. Concerned, Kumar called Mahendra, who arrived at the spot within an hour. Mahendra and Kumar got hold of a ladder and set it up outside the window of Room 14 on the first floor. When they climbed up, they saw Ramesh inside the room, lying face down. They then got hold of a long stick and prodded him with it, but his body remained unresponsive. 

It was then that Mahendra and Kumar called the police. Rajanna HC, manager of Samruddha Lodge, told Newslaundry, “The police arrived around 5.30pm and under their supervision, the staff broke the door open.” Rajanna remembered seeing a bottle of alcohol, a bottle of poison and the suicide note on the bedside table, and Ramesh’s lifeless body on the bed. 

India has an alarming track record as far as suicides go, but that isn’t why Ramesh’s death sent ripples of unease through Karnataka and was noted by the regional as well as national media. The reason Ramesh made headlines was his suicide ‘note’, though to call Ramesh’s last words a ‘note’ is unfair. At 11 pages, it’s almost a monograph on special land acquisition officer Bheema Nayak’s many acts and acquisitions of corruption. 

KAS officers don’t hold the most sterling reputation for honesty. As recently as last week, another KAS land acquisition officer, Gayathri N. Nayak, was taken into custody  by the ACB in Mangalore, after she was caught accepting a bribe of Rs 20,000. Even the process by which KAS officers are selected has been the source of controversy. Dr HPS Mythri, a whistleblower, blew the lid off of a scam which involved Karnataka Public Service Commission (KPSC) members demanding bribes from candidates for getting their desired posts. 

However, it’s rare to find as comprehensive a list of misdeeds as what Ramesh provided.

Ramesh listed Nayak’s assets, and how the bureaucrat had misused his position to benefit himself and his family. He also claimed close ties between Nayak and former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister and mining baron G Janardhan Reddy. According to Ramesh, Nayak had helped Reddy launder Rs 25 crore of black money for Reddy’s daughter’s opulent wedding, held on November 16, 2016. Nayak had also converted Rs 75 crore for Reddy, Ramesh wrote. 

While rates of commission vary depending on the amount and the reputation of the middleman, the percentage charged by those converting old currency into new ranged between 15 to 20 per cent, in the days immediately following the demonetisation announcement. Exactly what Nayak made from these transactions is still under investigation. However, Ramesh’s suicide letter exposed Nayak and held him responsible for Ramesh’s decision to end his life. 

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For Ramesh’s family, the revelations about Nayak were almost as shocking as the fact that their sole breadwinner was no longer alive. Nayak had been warmly welcomed into the Gowda household in the two years that Ramesh had worked for the KAS officer. The family was deeply grateful to Nayak because until Ramesh had been hired as a driver, the family had been struggling. Their one acre of farmland, which Mahendra still cultivates, wasn’t enough and Ramesh had worked long hours at a factory. Working as Nayak’s driver improved the Gowda family’s fortunes swiftly. Ramesh was able to pay for things like the renovation of their home and Mahendra’s wedding, which Nayak had attended. Sakkamma told Newslaundry how well her grandchildren got along Nayak’s children, who accompanied him to the wedding. She also remembered how Nayak had praised Ramesh to her for being “a hard worker”. Mahendra recalled to Newslaundry, “He [Nayak] said, ‘I will take care of your brother, don’t worry. I will take care of your family and educate your sister’s daughter.”

The Gowdas didn’t seem to know how involved Ramesh was in Nayak’s illegal activities. They did have an inkling, however, when the relationship started to sour. Approximately two months ago, Ramesh told Mahendra, “Mosa madidaru (he cheated me)”, but he didn’t elaborate on this. Mahendra didn’t take him too seriously either, ensconced in the comfortable setup that the family had established since Ramesh started working for Nayak. “I told him to do his work honestly and there’s nothing he must fear,” said Mahendra. 

Today, the family holds Nayak responsible for all their misery. Aside from the complaint that Nayak had not paid Ramesh for the past three months, they also want compensation. An ailing Chikka Humbala told Newslaundry that his son had been “tortured” by his employer. “Bheema Nayak killed my innocent son,” he said. On January 1, 2017, Chikka Humbala Gowda passed away, heaping another tragedy upon his family.

Sakkamma and Mahendra may protest Ramesh’s innocence, but from both his suicide letter as well as the subsequent police investigation, it’s evident he was deeply complicit in Nayak’s extracurricular activities. Following Ramesh’s death, a First Information Report (FIR) was filed on December 6 by Mahendra with Mandya Police under Section 306 (abetment of suicide) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) against Nayak and his other driver Mohammad, both of whom were absconding at the time. 

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Piecing together what may have driven Ramesh to become a whistleblower, sources in Mandya Police said that within a few days, they had figured out “90 per cent” of the case. According to them, Nayak gave Ramesh and Suresh T a consignment of Rs 50 lakh in old currency. This happened some time between November 8, when demonetisation was announced, and November 17. The person who was going to convert money was one Deepak who demanded a commission of 25 per cent. Nayak refused to pay more than 20 per cent and after several rounds of bargaining – which Ramesh and Suresh did on Nayak’s behalf – the deal fell through. The money was then returned to Nayak, but was missing Rs 8 lakh, according to Nayak. 

Nayak evidently believed Ramesh had stolen that missing amount and police sources confirmed that Ramesh and Suresh both received death threats via text messages and phone calls. On November 17, the police believe Ramesh and Suresh were kidnapped and assaulted by Fighter Ravi, a Bengaluru-based cricket bookie. Ruling out foul play, Sonia Narang, Deputy Inspector General (DIG), Criminal Investigation Department (CID) said, “Prima facie, we can say it was a suicide”. However, sources from Mandya police confirmed to Newslaundry that there were healing wounds on Ramesh’s body, which may have been sustained during the earlier assault.

The evocatively-named Fighter Ravi is not a small-time thug with Kollywood dreams, but an intimidatingly-well networked criminal. He made headlines in 2015 when a cricket betting racket was busted by Alok Kumar, an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer. Considered to be the kingpin of betting in Bengaluru, Kumar alleged he faced resistance from politicians and top police officers when he tried to arrest Fighter Ravi. According to Narang — who is currently supervising the investigation into Ramesh’s suicide — the Rs 50 lakh consignment which Ramesh and Suresh were tasked to exchange actually belonged to Fighter Ravi. This may explain why Ramesh and Suresh were assaulted by Fighter Ravi on November 17. An FIR was filed regarding this incident almost a month later on December 12 at the Ijoor police station in Ramanagara district, six days after Gowda’s death. Narang told Newslaundry that upon questioning Suresh, he revealed that Gowda had discouraged him from filing an FIR saying they “shouldn’t mess with powerful people”.

Fighter Ravi has been interrogated by the CID at least thrice in relation to the investigation into Ramesh’s suicide. The CID has also questioned Channabasavanna Gowda, a gunman who works with BJP’s Bellary Member of Parliament, B Sriramulu. 

Ramesh’s case was transferred to the CID on December 11. That same day, Mandya Police arrested Nayak and Mohammad. Both of them had been hiding out in Nayak’s brother-in-law’s home in CIB Colony, in north Karnataka’s Kalaburagi, ever since the news of Ramesh’s suicide was reported in the media. The police traced Nayak by tracking his mobile phone – the same phone that had been used to make frequent calls to Channabasavanna and Fighter Ravi. 

Sources in Mandya Police said that they got only 20 minutes to interrogate Nayak, who is currently in CID’s custody. In this short time, the police was able to get from Nayak an admission that all of Ramesh’s allegations were true. This was corroborated by CID, which now has Nayak in custody. Nayak’s family consists of his brother, who could not be reached, and two children who are in boarding school.

Speaking to Newslaundry, Narang explained that “sensational cases in which a detailed and deep investigation is needed are handed over to the CID”. She said that the CID investigation has two aspects: to find out who was responsible for Ramesh’s death and to probe the “money trail” mentioned in the suicide note. Nayak’s “disproportionate assets” are being investigated by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), Narang said. Inspector General Dr MA Saleem of the ACB, Karnataka, said that an enquiry has been initiated against Nayak under Section 13(1)(e) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 (disproportionate assets), based on the information provided by Ramesh in his suicide note. Saleem refused to reveal any information about the investigation.

Nayak’s calls to Sriramulu’s gunman and the fact that his connection to Reddy goes back to 2009 – Nayak was tasked with acquiring nearly 1,000 acres of land in Bellary for a project that Reddy, then the Infrastructure Development Minister of Karnataka, was eagerly backing – suggests the bureaucrat knew the state wing of BJP well. Ramesh’s suicide letter says Nayak had political aspirations. He wrote, “Deal was struck to let him [Nayak] contest the Hagaribommanahalli Legislative Assembly Seat in 2018”. Mandya police confirmed that Nayak had been circulating “a resume” in the hope of a ticket, listing his prior postings as a government officer (one of them being as the tehsildar of Bellary).

Ramesh entered this barbed cat’s cradle of politicians, strongmen and bureaucrats as Nayak’s driver and possibly as a man who was open to making a quick buck on the side. It’s hard to say whether Nayak and his relationship broke down because of Ramesh’s ambitions to make more money than was being diverted his way. But from the suicide letter that he wrote, it’s clear that Ramesh didn’t think he could point fingers at Nayak without some of the blame coming his way. Perhaps he didn’t trust the system to support him against Nayak, with his KAS and political connections. Perhaps he feared that the next time, Fighter Ravi wouldn’t let him go as easily as they had on November 17. 

This much is certain: with his suicide letter, Ramesh offered a glimpse into how deeply corruption is rooted in India today and how helpless the pawns in this system are. His surviving family is demanding compensation and the money that they say Nayak owed Ramesh. 

Meanwhile, the Rs 8 lakh that Nayak was allegedly so determined to get back?  It’s still missing.

This story is part of the NL Sena project. It was made possible thanks to Arnab Chatterjee, Rahul Pandey, Narasimha M, Vikas Singh, Subhash Subramanya, S Chattopadhyay, Ameya Apte and other members of the NL Sena. We want to do more such stories and you can help. Be a part of the NL Sena and do your bit to keep news independent and unafraid. Click here. 

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