The appointment of Ranjit Kumar Panchnanda as security adviser to the Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has surprised and upset many in the State.
A 1983 batch IPS officer of West Bengal cadre, Panchnanda has served as Calcutta Police Commissioner until his unceremonious removal in February, 2013.
Panchnanda is known to be a tough, no-nonsense officer whose attempt to arrest some Trinamul Congress activists over the murder of a police officer during clashes in a college election in the Calcutta dock area had then upset West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Later, some of those activists, belonging to Urdu-speaking Muslim community, were arrested after being involved in an espionage ring ferreting out secrets from the Garden Reach Shipbuilding Yard.
The Chief Minister’s decision came in for severe criticism at that time by Governor M Narayanan, a former National Security Adviser and Director of Intelligence Bureau.
Hours after Panchnanda’s transfer, Narayanan criticized the Mamata government’s decision saying, “If the Kolkata Police Commissioner was removed for what happened in the last few days, quite clearly there is something wrong and we need to look into it.”
Banerjee said she was not happy in removing Panchanda, but felt the police had not made arrests in the case on time. “Those who have been named in the FIR should have been arrested whichever part of the world they are in. Why were they not arrested? Because of that I had to take action,” the West Bengal Chief Minister had said.
The Chief Minister’s detractors, specially the BJP, have alleged that Pachnanda was shifted out because he wanted to arrest some members of her party in connection with the policeman’s death.
Panchnanda cut his teeth by his tough handling of the Gorkhaland agitation in West Bengal’s Darjeeling region in the mid-1980s. He barely escaped death in a fierce encounter with Gorkha Volunteer Force activists in 1988, in which the founder general secretary Nabin Tamang was killed.
Tamang had served in his father’s regiment as a soldier and the senior Panchnanda was upset with Tamang’s death.
Panchnanda has served all central forces like the BSF, CRPF, CISF, SPG, CBI and the ITBP before his retirement as DG, National Disaster Relief Force.
His book ‘Terrorists and Response to Terrorists’ Threat’ is well acclaimed.
But Panchnanda has not served in the Northeast and serving in Assam as security advisor will require much catching up to do.
Familiarity with the complex dynamics of Assam, especially at a time when it is caught up in considerable turmoil over the Citizenship Bill and NRC updating, will not be easy.
There are a number of retired IPS or Army officers from Assam, much more familiar with the situation in the State.
Jayanta Narayan Choudhury, a 1978 batch IPS officer of Assam-Meghalaya cadre and who hails from Assam, could have been an obvious choice because of his background as DG, Assam police and DG, National Security Guards, before which he served in senior positions in Intelligence Bureau.
“Not only is Choudhury senior to Panchnanda but also has a greater experience in Assam and a strong intelligence background to go with his police and special forces experience. But possibly he does not have as much clout as Panchnanda in Delhi, which is now important,” said a former Assam police chief , but was not willing to be named.
Former Major General Apurba Kumar Bordoloi or former R&AW special secretary Rana Banerjee (1972 batch Assam cadre IAS ) were also possible choices for the position.
Bordoloi has rich UN peacekeeping experience and has commanded a brigade in Assam at the peak of ULFA insurgency and could have been ideal for counter-insurgency operations using the Unified Command structure. Bordoloi was ideal if strengthening intelligence was a priority.