On 14 March, as the counting of votes for the Lok Sabha by-polls in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur constituency were underway, Rajeev Rautela, the area’s district magistrate, became the subject of controversy after preventing the media from reporting the results. After the completion of eight rounds of counting, Gorakhpur’s electoral officers had only intimated the media about the numbers from the first round. The reason for this delay was Rautela—the district magistrate claimed that the election observers had not signed it yet. Later, Rautela not only barred the media from entering the counting area, he forbade the electoral officers from providing updates to the media. This was done despite the fact that the reporters present held valid passes from the election commission—media persons were asked to maintain a distance from the counting area, which had been cordoned off by curtains. The issue began to be reported widely, and opposition leaders who caught wind of it began to protest in the state’s legislative assembly. It soon became evident that the Samajwadi Party was consolidating a lead over the Bharatiya Janata Party in Gorakhpur—the bastion of the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath.
Rautela, who is known to have close relations with Adityanath, is no stranger to controversies. Both Rautela and Adityanath are pahadi Kshatriyas—they hail from Uttarakhand and belong to the Rajput caste. Rautela is a Provincial Civil Service officer—a civil service cadre under the Uttar Pradesh government—from the 1982 batch, who was promoted to the Indian Administrative Services in 2002. Shortly after Adityanath was elected to power in March last year, he appointed Rautela as the district magistrate of Gorakhpur, from where he has been elected a member of parliament five times since 1989. In December last year, while hearing a public interest litigation plea regarding illegal mining, the Allahabad High Court recommended the suspension of the district magistrate for his complicity in the act—yet the state government issued no such order against Rautela.
The facts of the case are these: in 2015, Maqsood, a resident of Rampur district, lodged a PIL in the Allahabad High Court in relation to illegal mining activities along the district’s Koshi River. During the hearing in August that year, the court found that mining activities were being conducted without any necessary licenses, and noted that all “authorities of the district,” including the district magistrate, had “chosen to remain blind spectators to the serious violation of law.” In the same order, the court directed the Rampur district magistrate to “forthwith take steps to put an end to the illegal activities,” and directed the state government to “initiate disciplinary proceedings against whoever is found to be involved in the non-performance of their duties and obligations.”
In December last year, the high court attempted to initiate disciplinary proceedings against two district magistrates, Rakesh Kumar Singh and Rautela, for failing to prevent the illegal mining. In the hearing, a bench comprising the judges DB Bhosale and MK Gupta recommended the suspension of the two district magistrates for renewing the illegal mining license by three years. The court directed the chief secretary to conduct an investigation into the two district magistrates, and scheduled the next hearing for 16 January.
The government has not taken any action against the two officials. The case was last heard by the court on 2 February, by Bhosale and Gupta, but the bench merely expressed its disappointment at the state’s failure to suspend Rautela and Kumar and carry out an investigation against them. The court reportedly expressed displeasure over the chief secretary’s report and ordered for a fresh report. But no other investigation has been carried out against Rautela.
In August last year, Rautela was also at the heart of a controversy concerning the oxygen crisis in the BRD Medical College that lead to the death of 34 children and 18 adults. In mid July, Pushpa Sales—the company that supplied oxygen to the hospital—wrote letters to hospital and government authorities, including Rautela, but he was never held accountable. The district magistrate was never questioned regarding the BRD hospital administration’s failure to investigate into the lapses in its payments to Pushpa Sales.
Instead, the state government abruptly removed Dr Kafeel Khan, the nodal officer at the BRD hospital, whose last-ditch efforts to procure oxygen cylinders had received a lot of attention from the media. In a bizarre twist, Khan was accused of running a private practice; the media began to blame the doctor and the BRD Medical College’s principal for the oxygen crisis. Khan was finally arrested in September. No questions were raised of Rautela, or the fact that the doctor said that he had called the district magistrate regarding the alarming levels of oxygen.
Instead, the state government directed Rautela to conduct a probe into the incident. On the basis of Rautela’s findings, the former principal of BRD Medical College, Rajeev Mishra, his wife Dr Poornima Shukla, the head of the hospital’s anaesthesia department, Dr Satish Kumar, the owner of Pushpa Sales, Manish Bhandari, and four other employees of the medical college were arrested.
Ever since the announcement of the Lok Sabha by-polls for Gorakhpur, the Samajwadi Party has demanded the removal of Rautela as the district’s election officer, and expressed doubts about the possibility of conducting an impartial election in his presence. On 26 February, during a press conference at Gorakhpur, Naresh Uttam, the state head of the party, addressed the party’s concerns with Rautela’s presence during the elections. He said, “An official whom the high court has directed should be removed, when the government is protecting him instead, then you can understand how he is a patron of the government.”
On the polling day on 11 March, the Samajwadi Party claimed that over 100 electronic voting machines were malfunctioning, and questioned the delay in their repairs. Sanjay Kumar Nishad, the father of the Samajwadi Party’s elected candidate from Gorakhpur Praveen Nishad, told me, “Over 100 EVMs were malfunctioning, because of which our supporters and voters were deprived of the opportunity to cast their vote.” He continued, “Wherever we are strong, the EVMs were not working and a lot of time was taken to repair them. In Gorakhpur city, where the BJP is strong, how come the EVMs did not malfunction there?”
After the polling was conducted, the Samajwadi Party also raised questions about the conflicting numbers regarding the voter turnout that had been released by the district administration. The administration appeared to have issued two press releases—initial reports had recorded a 43 percent voter turnout, which was quoted on the election commission’s website as the total percentage of votes casted. But subsequent reports, based on a revised press release by Rautela, the district’s election officer, recorded a turnout of 47.45 percent. After a day, Rautela stated that upon scrutiny, it was found that the voting percentage had gone further up, making it a total of 49.95 percent.
On 14 March, while the counting was underway, the Samajwadi Party raised questions about the fluctuations in the polling percentages.. After Rautela prevented the media from entering the counting area, the Samajwadi Party immediately raised the issue in the state assembly as well, and Uttam filed a formal complaint before the election commission, alleging foul play. The commission denied allegations that the media was being prevented from reporting the counting numbers, noting that the district magistrate Rautela had been personally updating the media personnel after each round of counting.
At the end of the day, the Samajwadi Party’s candidate Pravin Nishad defeated the BJP’s Upendra Dutt Shukla by over 21,000 votes. In September 2017, the Hindi daily Patrika reported that the central government’s Department of Personnel & Training had ordered Rajeev Rautela’s transfer to the Uttarakhand cadre. But the Uttar Pradesh government has been sitting on the file.
Translated from Hindi by Shibangi Sinha Roy.
Manoj Singh is a journalist based in Gorakhpur. He runs the news website Gorakhpur Newsline.