Tamil Nadu's top police official and health minister's premises were among 40 places raided by the Central Bureau of Investigation on Wednesday in connection with alleged sale of Gutka in the state even after it was banned in 2013 by the then J Jayalalithaa government.
This is perhaps for the first time the CBI raided a serving police chief of a state.
For Tamil Nadu Health Minister C Vijayabaskar, it was a double whammy as he is already under the scanner of the Income Tax Department, which raided his premises last year.
It was an early morning knock at the residence of Tamil Nadu Director General of Police T K Rajendran, a 1984-batch Indian Police Service officer, when the CBI team presented the search warrant issued by the a special court.
The case pertains to illegal sale of gutka, a concoction of tobacco and 'pan masala' which was banned in Tamil Nadu in 2013, by Jayam Industries.
"The places searched were residential premises of the promoters/directors of the company and other public servants including officials of Sales Tax Department, Customs and Central Excise, Food Safety and Drug Administration Department and jurisdictional police officials," the CBI spokesperson said.
Rajendran was made DGP in 2016 after Ashok Kumar opted out for a voluntary retirement scheme.
Officials claimed that Kumar, a 1982-batch IPS officer, was forced to seek VRS as he had recommended for a CBI probe into the gutka scam.
As the news about the raids spread, clamour for the dismissal of the health minister and the police chief started doing the rounds.
The opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Pattali Makkal Katchi and the Communist Party of India-Marxist sought their resignations or the state governor's intervention to sack them.
DMK president M K Stalin, in a statement, said, 'The searches have brought shame on the state... Vijayabaskar continuing in the cabinet and Rajendran as the head of the police department will turn out to be a blot against people's rule and for the force known for its honesty.'
CPI-M state Secretary K Balakrishnan also demanded that both should be removed from their posts and made to face the probe.
"What respect will people have on police and the government after these raids? This is a very bad situation," he said.
PMK founder S Ramadoss termed the CBI searches as 'appropriate' in order to nail those involved in the scam and asked why the government was 'hesitant' to show the minister the door.
In the operation which started at 7 am, CBI teams swooped down on 35 locations in Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Karnataka, Bengaluru and Andhra Pradesh.
The promoter-directors of Jayam Industries -- A V Madhav Rao, Uma Shankar Gupta and Srinivas Rao -- continued selling MDM brand gutka in the state even after the ban by allegedly influencing officials, politicians and regulatory authorities, the agency officials said.
Jayam Industries had rechristened it to Annamalai Industries to continue the sale.
The CBI, which started the search operation nearly three months after registering an FIR on the instructions of the Madras High Court, also raided former Chennai police commissioner S George, 2009-batch IRS officer in Central Excise R Gulzar Begum, and former All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam MLA from Tiruvallur constituency B V Ramanaa.
The scam came to light on July 8, 2017, when income tax sleuths raided the godown, offices and residences of the company in Tamil Nadu, which had been facing charges of tax evasion to the tune of Rs 250 crore.
During the raids, the income tax department had seized a diary containing names of those who had been allegedly paid by the gutka manufacturers.
The case was sent to the CBI by the Madras High Court in April this year on the plea of a DMK leader.
It is alleged by the petitioner in the Madras High Court while demanding a CBI probe that monthly payments worth over Rs 14 lakh were made to health minister Vijayabaskar while payments in lakhs of rupees were made to officials of Central Excise, Food Safety and Sales Tax department of the state, senior police officials and politicians among others.
This was challenged in the Supreme Court by a Tamil Nadu health official but the apex court sided with the Madras High Court order and asked the CBI to register a case.
The agency had registered the FIR against unidentified officials of the Tamil Nadu government, Central Excise Department and the Food Safety Department in May.
Vijayabaskar termed the raids as political vendetta and vowed to come clean facing the matter legally and politically.
The ruling AIADMK, however, dismissed Opposition calls for resignation or sacking of Vijayabaskar, saying Wednesday's raids were a 'routine' affair done under court direction and that anyone is 'innocent' before law till proven guilty.
Vijayabaskar, in a statement, said that since the raids were carried out by CBI on a court direction following a plea by DMK, he was ready to extend full cooperation to any probe as a 'law-abiding citizen'.
He said he extended full cooperation to the CBI probe on Wednesday and that he has not directly or indirectly met Madhav Rao, the gutka manufacturer.
'Some think that they can finish me from politics by repeatedly spreading baseless charges due to political vendetta," he said. Relying on a Tamil saying, he said only those who perform well will be targeted.
'It is normal for my political rivals to level such charges against me as I am working tirelessly to make the Health department a pioneering one in the country,' he said.
Stating that he had nothing to hide, the minister said he would face this problem legally and politically and come out of it.
The government was taking many steps to implement a 2013 ban on sale of gutka and pan masala, he added.
Meanwhile, DGP Rajendran reportedly met Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami in the wake of the CBI searches at his residence.