Beyond a city landmark or the contentious Bobby case of 1983, a legendary Patna cop continues to stay afloat in public memory. Kishore Kunal, former Indian Police Service officer of the 1972 batch, had one such moment yesterday.
A pictorial map — sought to be presented as evidence by one of the Hindu petitioners in the Ayodhya case — was torn up by lawyer Rajeev Dhawan, representing the Muslim petitioners, in the Supreme Court. The Hindu Mahasabha had said the map showed the “exact location of Lord Ram’s birthplace” at the disputed site. The map was from a book written by Kunal titled Ayodhya Revisited.
For people old enough to remember the Patna of the 1980s, Kunal is part of the urban folklore one grew up on. In a way, he became emblematic of how everyday India is a fertile ground for defying “the low public profile” spirit of the civil services and nurturing the heroic elevation of civil servants in public imagination — something I examined in a previous piece.
Kunal outgrew his reputation as the city’s tough cop in the 80s to become different things to different people. Quite significantly, he was known as the man behind the impressive renovation of the Hanuman temple that greets visitors to the city at the railway station, not far from Buddha Smriti Park dedicated to the most famous Patna-watcher, Buddha.
Having attended Patna University, the breeding ground of many civil servants back in the 1970s, Kunal initially served in the Gujarat cadre of the IPS. However, his tryst with civic stardom, to use a term that bureaucratic iconography somehow requires in this country, followed his transfer to the Bihar cadre as the Senior Superintendent of Police in Patna.
Having earned his reputation as a no-nonsense upright cop, Kunal’s tough policing measures in the city were the stuff of frequent press reports. Public adulation followed, aided by anecdotes that went a long way in building an aura around him — not unusual for tough police chiefs in India.
Kunal first became a talking point beyond the state in the wake of the sensational Bobby case of 1983. The case received national and international media coverage because it had the makings of a sex scandal and allegedly involved the high and mighty of Bihar’s political circles. “Bobby” was the nickname of Shwetnisha Rani, a typist in the Bihar Legislative Assembly. Her death under mysterious circumstances had prompted a Patna police probe. Under the leadership of SSP Kunal, the city police had exhumed the hurriedly buried body and concluded it to be a case of murder by poisoning using Malathion, an insecticide, and not a case of suicide as initially assumed.
Bobby was widely believed to have been sexually exploited by powerful politicians, including ministers. The investigation threatened to rock the boat of the Jagannath Mishra-led Congress government in Bihar.
In a June 15, 1983 dispatch from Patna, a national magazine like India Today was clearly seeing the case as that of a determined officer trying to unearth the truth about a mysterious murder with possible political costs for the government of the day. However, it was widely believed that Kunal’s steadfast approach led to unease in power circles and the subsequent handing over of the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation. This and the CBI’s negation of the murder angle were allegedly part of a cover up of a sex scandal that could cause huge embarrassment to the Congress.
Far from denting Kunal’s reputation, the Bobby case elevated it in public perception because, unlike the CBI, Kunal was believed to have resisted political pressure to stand his ground. Decades later, Kishore publicly stood by his line of investigation into the case and reiterated that it was case of murder.
In subsequent years, Kunal’s place as a public figure in the city was cemented by his association with a religious trust that undertook the reconstruction of the iconic Hanuman Mandir, popularly known as Mahavir Mandir, facing the railway station. Converting a modest religious site into an imposing landmark of the city — with many allied traditions of religious discourse and activities — was largely seen as Kunal’s contribution. His close association with religious discourse also elevated his stature as a Sanskrit scholar, something for which he had always shown inclination. The usual speculations abounded, with some attributing his spiritual bent to his wife Anita giving birth to a long-awaited child.
By the late 80s, Kunal had set up a school, Gyan Niketan, with significant presence in the city. At the time, it had to compete with schools like St Michael’s, St Xavier’s and Notre Dame — schools with a long history of fame and aspirational value.
If the 1980s were marked by Kunal’s educational outreach, the 1990s witnessed the temple trust extending its activities to providing health facilities. A general hospital named Mahavir Aarogya Sansthan was set up alongside specialised centres like the Mahavir Cancer Sansthan. Kunal was not visible in their functioning, but his association with the initiatives was very much a part of the public perception of these institutions.
Kunal’s official role in the Ayodhya dispute resolution can be traced back to a central posting in his IPS days. In 1989-90, in the VP Singh-led National Front government, the Ministry of Home Affairs created an Ayodhya cell. The ministry chose Kunal as the officer on special duty to facilitate and coordinate the negotiations between Hindu and Muslim representatives on the Ayodhya issue. The cell continued to work under the prime ministership of Chandra Shekhar in 1990-91.
During the negotiations, the contesting parties — the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Babri Masjid Action Committee — presented their sets of evidence. Kunal studied these submissions before forwarding them to the concerned bodies for further expert examination. After taking an early retirement from the IPS, Kunal then published his own views on the submitted evidence.
His association with Hindu bodies and interest in religious discourse have seen Kunal regularly articulating his views on public platforms. In 2017, there were reports that he could be a party in the apex court when it hears the Ayodhya dispute. A year earlier, he had presented his analysis of the various historical aspects and evidence related to the dispute in the form of a book, Ayodhya Revisited.
This is the book that got caught up in the Supreme Court drama yesterday.
Reacting to Dhawan tearing up the map he had prepared, Kunal told The Times of India that it was the strength of evidence in the map that made Dhawan realise that “if map is handed over to the court, he would lose the case”.
Kunal based the map on what he thinks are five definitive pieces of evidence that a temple existed at Ram Janmasthan: a police complaint filed in 1858, the Latin account of an Austrian Jesuit priest Joseph Tieffenthaler who visited the Awadh region in 1760, a description of the area by Faizabad assistant commissioner P Carnegy in the 1870s, and Francis Buchanan’s survey of the area in 1813-14.
While yesterday’s courtroom drama resurrected Kunal as an important voice awaiting judicial consideration in the Ayodhya dispute, the former policeman never really faded into oblivion in a city that was in his awe three decades ago. The slew of institutions he set up or headed never let that happen.
However, what’s more interesting is the long way he has come from being a student in the history department of Patna University. Historians like RS Sharma and DN Jha were his teachers there. Sharma and Jha were among four historians entrusted by the Babri Masjid Action Committee to examine the evidence submitted by the VHP. The VHP rejected this plan. Meanwhile, Kunal was the Centre’s pointsperson for facilitating the negotiations.
Years later, we can guess what he trusted more: his study, his own analysis, and perhaps his beliefs.