In the recent past, the opposition political parties in India have been very vocal in their allegations that the Centre government is misusing agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) for the political vendetta to harm them. It is true that many high profile cases are being actively pursued by these agencies working in tandem for the criminal and economic offences and some offenders indeed feel threatened that their personal and political fiefdom is imperiled due to these actions. However, such allegations are not new and, in fact, the major opposition party which is offering the maximum resistance had used the agency more often to suit their interests and against political adversaries in the past. An irate and anguished Justice RM Lodha of Supreme Court is on record to have denounced the CBI in 2013 as a “caged parrot” and “its master’s voice” in response to what he perceived as a clear evidence of political interference in the working of the elite agency while investigating into the alleged irregularities in allocation of the coalfield licenses to private companies - a scam more often dubbed as “Coalgate” by the national media.
Then many experts had interpreted the Supreme Court judge’s statement as an authoritative vindication to the opposition parties’ complaints that the Congress-led UPA government had been using the investigating agency for years to cover up the wrongdoing, keep mercurial and vacillating coalition allies in line and political opponents at bay. Though the government changed in 2014 but this tag didn’t in spite of the new NDA government and the agency have repeatedly denied such accusations and maintain that investigations made by the CBI are now done in a free, fair and impartial manner as mandated by the law. Notwithstanding this criticism, the Central investigating agency still enjoys high credibility among the public, politicians and judiciary as well and the agency has reputation for investigating many economic offences, complex and heinous crimes and cases of corruption involving high-profile people.
In spite of controversies, the CBI continues to remain a premier investigating agency of repute in India. It traces its history in Delhi Special Police Establishment (DSPE), a Central Government Police force, which was initially raised in 1940s by the British Government of India to investigate bribery and corruption in transactions with the War and Supply Department of India. The DSPE was rechristened as the CBI in 1963 through a Home Ministry resolution dated 1 April 1963 and it is working as an independent body under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, headed by the Director ever since. In the past, it had investigated many crimes of terrorism, murder, kidnapping etc. on government direction and in due course the Supreme Court and High Courts of the country also started assigning investigations to the CBI on the basis of petitions filed by the aggrieved parties.
While in public eyes, the agency still enjoys high credibility but off late some opposition parties have been highly critical and made repeated allegations that the NDA government is misusing it to harass their political adversaries. Such allegations may not necessarily be correct in all cases but it certainly has caused dent in the credibility of the agency. Recently, there was a lot of infighting among the two top officers in the hierarchy of the central agency and this too has considerably eroded the reputation and credibility of the agency. In the present article, the author intends to comprehensively review all such issues in an objective and dispassionate manner.
How True are the Charges of Harassment!
In India, many people join politics with a professed objective of serving the common people and nation but for a majority of them the politics is actually an opportunity to grab power and money. What many of them actually do: they try to amass wealth comprising of both movable and non-movable assets for self and family members in a short time by looting public money, misusing political powers for nepotism and own flatterers while misguiding public in the name of service to the nation. In majority of the cases, even if their irregularities and corrupt practices come-to-the-fore, either action ab initio is not taken or the investigation is hushed up if the person in an influential politicians or his close family or friend. Consequently, during the last several decades the investigations by the police and enforcement agencies against the politicians that reached to their logical conclusion could be counted on fingers.
Perhaps India is the only country where criminal and economic offenders are welcomed and followed like heroes if they are influential people. I recall only a few months back how a Roman Catholic bishop facing serious allegations of repeatedly raping a nun received a rousing welcome in Jalandhar, Punjab by the followers showering rose petals on him after he was released on bail by a Kerala court. I still remember the clout and massive public rally in 1997 in Bihar supporting an influential politician who was arrested in the context of the Fodder scam in the state. While going to jail, he made his own wife as the chief minister of the state whose only known qualification was that she was a traditional housewife and she ruled the state for almost eight years from 1997 to 2005.
So what is the modus operandi if the CBI or Enforcement Directorate takes any action against the politicians linked with any criminal or economic offences? The celebrity leader immediately tries to mobilize his followers and like-minded leaders from other political parties. In turn, they immediately resort to the coercive means like dharna and agitation. The usual predictable nemesis is that the government in power at the Centre or State is blamed for the harassment with political vendetta as the chief motive. All efforts are made to stop or cause hindrance in investigation efforts and put the investigating officers under tremendous psychological pressure. To illustrate this point, the recent CBI raids on certain establishments of a former Haryana Chief Minister may suffice. The case relates to an alleged land scam with mass irregularities in land allotment between 2004 and 2007. While criticizing the CBI raids, a senior Congress politician even threatened the officials that the government was not permanent and they would be held accountable once the government changes. When the same people seek relief from the courts on various pleas, if the court grants any conditional relief, they celebrate it as a moral victory. However, if the court pronouncement is not favourable, they castigate even the apex court.
Recent Political Drama Unfolded in Kolkata
The Sunday, 3rd February 2019 was a remarkably fateful day when a team of CBI officers was stopped from entering the residence of Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar and some of them were forcibly taken to the nearest police station and detained by the local police for a few hours. Ordinarily, various security and investigating agencies are expected to work in tandem with cooperation but what we experienced in Kolkata on Sunday was totally unprecedented when the top West Bengal administration and police interfered to stop and scuttle such efforts of the CBI. The CBI officials had gone there to question the police commissioner in connection with the chit fund scam cases as the police commissioner had not responded favourably to summons and requests made by the CBI. In fact, the Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee herself came in open support of the police commissioner and started dharna at the site projecting the event as a national crisis, breakdown of the Constitutional machinery and threat to the federal structure of the country. A far more ironical feature was that the police commissioner too soon joined the political commotion and sat on dharna along with the Trinmool Congress (TMC) political leaders.
Banerjee had made allegations against the CBI in the past too that it was conducting politically motivated investigation, arrests and raids against the leaders of her party TMC and officers of the state government. As soon as the news spread about the CBI team reaching the police commissioner’s residence in connection with the Saradha and Rose Valley Ponzi scams, Banerjee rushed to the commissioner’s residence, started high level consultation with officials, blamed Modi government at Centre for the CBI raid and sat on dharna. The city was soon taken over by the surcharged and rampaging TMC supporters. The CBI officers were allegedly assaulted, forcibly taken to the police station and released only after clearance from the chief minister. Earlier, in November 2018 the West Bengal government had withdrawn the ‘general consent’ for the CBI thereby lifting their immunity under the relevant laws.
When the Saradha scam came in light in 2013, the Bengal government had constituted a special investigating team (SIT) under Rajeev Kumar and an Inquiry Commissioin under Justice Shyamal Sen to look into the scam. The owner-directors Sudipto Sen and Debjani Mukherjee of the Saradha group were arrested. The Supreme Court of India suspecting alleged political nexus, possible money laundering, inter-state ramifications and regulatory failures directed the CBI in May 2014 to take over all investigation into the Saradha scam and other Ponzi schemes. As more details and TMC politicians’ links to the scam started unfolding, several MPs Kunal Ghosh, Sudip Bandopadhyay, Tapas Pal and state transport minister Madan Mitra were arrested in next few years. As Rajeev Kumar had headed the SIT and had crucial records of the past investigation, the CBI issued three summons to him between August 2017 and March 2018 for questioning as they believed that while handing over the case to CBI, several vital evidences were withheld by him and even some evidences were tampered with. Rajeev Kumar instead of cooperating with the investigation team wrote to the CBI director in October 2017 that he was being politically victimized. Banerjee on several occasions accused the CBI and Modi government for investigations as vendetta politics. When CBI moved the Supreme Court in July 2018 against the non-cooperation of the state government, the apex court asked the agency to approach the High Court which is yet to dispose of the petition.
Aggrieved with the 3rd February events, the CBI simultaneously moved an application and contempt petition to the Supreme Court on 4th February 2019 against the West Bengal administration and police raising the issue of the “seize” of the CBI office, alleging their efforts to thwart investigation and destruction of evidence into the chit fund scam cases. The Supreme Court sought proof from the CBI in an affidavit against allegations and listed the case for hearing on the following day. After hearing both sides on 5 February 2019, the apex court directed Rajeev Kumar to appear before the CBI and cooperate faithfully to the investigating agency in the matter. The court also directed the CBI not to take any coercive action against the said officer and that the said interrogation should be carried out at a neutral place Shillong, Meghalaya. Simultaneously, the notices were also issued to the West Bengal administration and police to reply to the contempt petition within three weeks.
Banerjee celebrated the Supreme Court judgment as the moral victory of the Bengal government. She told the reporters at the dharna venue that the Supreme Court's order is a victory of the common man, democracy and the Constitution. She held the verdict as absolutely correct saying their case was very strong and they never said that they will not cooperate. She maintained that she sat on a "Save India" dharna against the political vendetta because the latest CBI action was tantamount to stifling the spirit of "Constitution and federalism" in the country and that they shall fight it unitedly. The opposition leaders from various parts of the country extended their support to Banerjee’s dharna politics and some actually joined her at Kolkata. Thus what could have been a cool affair between the CBI and Kolkata police commissioner at his residence in the chit fund scams actually hogged a national limelight thanks to Banerjee’s antics in the election year. The CBI too perhaps erred in so far as taking a large contingent to the Commissioner’s house allowing critics to interpret it as a raid.
Chitfund Scams of Bengal
In April 2013, the Saradha Group scam rocked the nation as a major financial and political scandal in the Eastern India, mainly Bengal, caused by the collapse of a Ponzi scheme run by the Saradha Group, supposedly a consortium of over 200 private companies. Before collapse, the group had allegedly already collected between 1,200 to 4,000 crore according to different estimates from over 1.7 million investors. Following the disclosure, the State Government of West Bengal set up a special investigating team (SIT), an inquiry commission and a corpus of Rs 50 crore to provide relief to the low-income investors from getting bankrupt. The central government through the Income Tax Department and Enforcement Directorate too launched a probe to investigate the Saradha scam and such other Ponzi schemes.
Unhappy with the progress, the Supreme Court of India transferred all investigations into the Saradha scam and other Ponzi schemes in May 2014 through an order to the CBI. As the inquiry progressed, the trail suggested involvement and role of many prominent people including TMC MPs, some of whom were arrested. Allegedly political leaders of TMC and some others had received money from the Saradha group as illegal gratification and the severely affected states were West Bengal, Odisha, Assam, Jharkhand and Tripura. When the scam unfolded and cheques issued by the group to the investors began to bounce, the company head Sudipta Sen reportedly disappeared along with his right-hand woman but both the accomplices were arrested after a cross-country chase in Jammu and Kashmir.
Rose Valley scam was yet another Ponzi scheme and far bigger scam than the Saradha scam. According to the Enforcement Directorate estimates, about Rs 17,520 crore was raised from investors across India by the group while the all India small depositors association put this amount at nearly 60,000 crore. Allegedly the Rose Valley group had floated 27 companies for the chit fund operations while only few of them were actually active and many politicians were bribed to ensure smooth operation of the scam. The chairman of this group Gautam Kundu was arrested in 2015 and about 2,500 known accounts were frozen by the Enforcement Directorate. The TMC MP Tapas Pal, one of the directors in the group, and Bengali film producer Srikant Mohta too was arrested in January 2019 in connection with the duping fraud. A Ponzi scheme is actually a fraudulent practice run by creating an illusion of sustainable business so long as new investors continue to join and most of the old ones do not demand full repayment. The victims are made to believe that profits are coming from the product sales and other means while whatever is returned actually flows from the funds of the more recent investors while the major chunk of the money is already misappropriated.
Some Instances of Taint and Dent on CBI
Moin Qureshi, a meat trader from Uttar Pradesh, and his links with previous CBI directors have been major embarrassment for the elite investigating agency in the recent years. Former CBI Director Ranjit Sinha and his predecessor AP Singh are facing corruption charges relating to their links with Qureshi and cases have been registered against them by none other than the CBI itself during the last two years. Ranjit Sinha is also under scanner for the allegations of "scuttling" and "influencing" probe into the coal block allocation cases by regularly meeting the accused persons. What could be more frustrating and embarrassing for the credibility of the CBI when its top officers are found involved in corrupt practices.
More recently in October 2018, the agency plunged into another crisis when two top officers - Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana – were removed by the government with a taint of corruption. The current controversy too has a link with the UP meat trader Qureshi and one of his associates has levied with serious charges of kickbacks against both these officers on two separate occasions. In yet another case, a CBI DIG OP Sharma was caught red-handed while accepting a bribe of Rs 10 lakh in 1991 from SK Jain, a money launderer and hawala dealer in New Delhi. In a written reply to Lok Sabha in March 2015, the Minister of State for Personnel intimated that sixteen officers of the CBI had been charged with corruption cases during the past three years inter alia giving progress of such cases.
Every Off and on, allegations are levied against the CBI of taking action as part of the political vendetta on behalf of the ruling party. Such cases were substantively more during the Congress led UPA regimes and now in opposition they are levying similar charges against the BJP led NDA government. The arrest of Amit Shah in Sohrabuddin, a notorious underworld criminal and extortionist with terror links, encounter case in July 2010 is a blatant case of such vendetta. Shah was charged with the murder, extortion and kidnapping among other charges. Later a former DIG submitted in a special court that the CBI also wanted to arrest the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi but it didn’t materialize. Now while the BJP is in power, the CBI probe against Karti Chidambaram and P. Chidambaram in money laundering cases has been much publicized as part of the political vendetta.
The author has no intention to offer any remarks on the merits of these cases and associated allegations but there is a strong possibility that many of these allegations themselves might be politically motivated. It is also a fact that any organization or agency that works under the political influence can neither be truly honest nor can be unbiased in its approach and function. It may be relevant to briefly mention the controversies associated with certain high profile cases that CBI investigated in the past, to appreciate this point.
- The Bofors case rocked the nation in 1980s and 1990s directly implicating the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and it costed him very dearly in the next General Election. In this case, the CBI was found to quietly unfreeze the bank accounts of the Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, one of the main accused in the Bofors scandal. Besides the agency is also known to facilitate Quattrocch’s travel by requesting Interpol to take him off its wanted list in April 2009. In response, the Interpol had withdrawn the red corner notice against the said accused.
- Arrest of terrorists in Kashmir in 1991 also unfolded operations of the hawala brokers allegedly making large-scale payments to the ruling and other politicians. In the same case, a DIG was caught receiving illegal gratification and the case ultimately led to acquittal of the accused persons in the absence of legally tenable evidences.
- The CBI had been accused of working under the influence of the ruling Congress Party in the Sohrabuddin encounter case in Gujarat; Geeta Johri, a Gujarat Cadre IPS officer, allegedly claimed that the CBI was pressuring her to falsely implicate the former Gujarat minister Amit Shah. Later the special CBI court absolved both Amit Shah and Geeta Johri in the absence of any tenable evidence.
- The CBI was publicly perceived as ineffective while investigating the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Allegedly a former CBI joint director later stated that he was asked to go soft on the extradition for the Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson and dilute/drop the charges.
- The UPA government was accused of allocating 2G spectrum to certain corporates at very low prices through corrupt and illegal means. It was only after the Supreme Court intervention that the CBI accelerated the investigations including some high profile arrests.
- In yet another scam of the allocation of the nation’s coal deposits to public and private companies during the UPA regime, the then CBI director in an affidavit in the Supreme Court submitted that the coal-scam status report was shared with the law minister and some Ministry/PMO officials and that about 20% of the original report was changed by the Government. CBI called these changes as minor while the apex court denounced it as serious manipulations.
As barring exceptions like coal scam where it was revealed in the court that status report was sought and indeed changed by the government, ordinarily political influence and interventions are covertly done and are difficult to establish. But it is a fact that this has causes irreparable damage to the political careers and personal reputation to the leaders like LK advani and PV Narsimha Rao in the past who were implicated by the CBI in hawala case and JMM bribery case respectively but finally absolved in court citing lack of evidence. Then the fact that a large number of middle and junior level CBI officers have been chargesheeted in just three years and successive directors have been under tremendous cloud for corrupt practices in the recent past too speaks in volume against credibility of this agency. Even if corruption cases against the two former directors are finally not proved in the court due to lack of enough cognizable evidence, the undisputed fact that they had been frequently meeting with certain accused personnel and men of doubtful integrity like Moin Qureshi, is beyond any moral and professional ethics. It is the wilingness to manipulate under influence and greed for money of some officers why some critics vehemently equate them with vultures.
Internal Strife in CBI: Big Dent on CBI Image
More than the constant political slander, the image of the CBI took a nose dive in the recent past due to internal strife and wrangling among the top officers. The opposition parties too have not missed the opportunity to play in the troubled water. Apparently, the ongoing feud and open war between now former CBI director Alok Verma and special director Rakesh Asthana was the result of a personal ego battle that led to spilling of many beans including their possible involvement in corruption cases. This rivalry began over a year back immediately after the latter’s appointment in the CBI in October 2017 despite former’s opposition. Both the officers have excellent service record and both were considered outstanding officers as also apparently one time favourites of the PMO. Before being chosen for the CBI job, Verma was serving as the Commissioner, Delhi Police while Asthana was known to have handled several high profile cases like the fodder scam of Bihar, Godhra train burning of 2002, AgustaWestland helicopter bribery, coal scam, and so on.
Though it was going on for long but the infighting of the two officers came in open in July 2018 in connection with a selection committee meeting called by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). Subsequently, both Verma and Asthana got entangled in a bribery allegation with both accusing each other having linkages with the meat dealer Moin Qureshi and Sathish Sana, a Hyderabad based businessman. Consequently, both officers were sent on leave by the Government on 23 October 2018 on the recommendation of the CVC pending inquiry against them. However, Verma moved the Supreme Court to appeal against the government decision. The Supreme Court held the government decision invalid on technical grounds to send Verma on leave that such a decision should have been taken only by the high-powered committee constituted for the purpose. Verma was conditionally reinstated as CBI director in January 2019 with specific direction not to take any major decisions; the Selection Committee comprising of the prime minister, leader of the opposition and nominee of the chief justice of India on the following day decided to remove him from the post of the director CBI in view of the serious charges in the CVC report against him recommending criminal investigation and he was sent to the position of Director General of Fire Safety, Civil Defence and Home Guard.
When the government sent two officers on leave pending inquiry, the Congress party too took a plunge into the controversy by openly coming in support of Alok Verma. They made allegation that the CBI chief was removed by the government because the former was about to register a FIR against the prime minister in the controversial Rafale fighter deal. When the high-powered selection committee met to decide the fate of Verma following his conditional reinstatement, the prime minister and justice AK Sikri were on the same page on pursuing the confidential CVC report and the nature of charges against Verma but the opposition leader Mallikarjun Khadge strongly favoured his retention to the post. Failing to prevail upon the majority view and decision, Khadge gave a dissenting note supporting Verma’s case. According to popular belief, Khadge reportedly held that the CVC report was not sacrosanct and parts of it were not substantiated, hence Verma should have been given a personal hearing.
Khadge is also known to have taken a stand that Verma was sent on forced leave; therefore, he should be given an extension of 77 days, a period for which he was not allowed to attend the office. As for as the knowledge of the author goes based on the government rules and his own experience, such personal hearings are normally allowed to the accused person during any inquiry or investigation, while a selection committee and such other committees largely go by the record and documents available to the members to make their recommendation. When both the feuding officers were sent on leave in October 2018, Khadge had written a strongly worded letter to the prime minister stating that neither he nor the CVC had the authority to intervene with the terms of the service of the CBI director as also in appointing an interim chief of the CBI.
Incidentally, when Alok Verma had been selected as the CBI director in January 2017, Khadge as part of the selection committee had given a dissenting note against Verma on that occasion. His main objection was that the incumbent did not have the requisite experience of handling anti-corruption investigations which is required for handling the CBI. Following Alok Verma’s removal, the high-powered selection committee of the Prime Minister Modi, CJI Ranjan Gogoi and opposition leader Khadge met again in early February 2019 to appoint the new CBI director. The committee recommended the appointment of 1983 batch IPS officer Rishi Kumar Shukla with a 2-1 vote wherein the prime minister and CJI favoured him on seniority-cum-fitness with requisite experience. Khadge once again opposed his candidature and gave a dissenting note stating that the officer did not have requisite experience in investigating anti-corruption cases. He inter alia remarked that seniority cannot be the only criteria for appointment to a critical post like CBI director and prior experience of having served in the CBI should also be considered seriously. Reportedly, Khadge suggested his own panel of three officers in which 1984 batch IPS officer S. Javeed Ahmad fitted the bill most.
In the past, a lot has been debated and written about the grant of real autonomy to the CBI with no political interference. At least two past directors have been frank and vocal in media conceding that the agency has worked under the political influence irrespective of which party was in power. Former director Joginder Singh once opined that the political class will never grant independence to the CBI and that he was forced out after refusing to back off from an investigation against the chief minister of Bihar in 1990s. In fact, it is not the political influence only, many officers willingly act in complicity with the political leadership in the hope of seeking more lucrative benefits and assignments post-retirement. The recent in-fighting and consequent mud-slinging suggested how CBI has defied almost two decades of reform. When two top officers started serious allegations against each other, some people opined that the CBI has transformed from being a caged parrot to a wild vulture citing several instances of past where the CBI had acted under political influence to harm even innocent people.
There cannot be more suitable and balanced representative selection committee of the active members of the government, legislature and judiciary as is the composition now for the selection of the CBI director. Two political members are expected to leave behind their political leanings and differences in objectively assessing and recommending suitable candidate with consensus. It is strange that the opposition leader of a national party as a crucial member in the high-powered selection committee opposes the candidature of an officer for the post of the CBI director on flimsy grounds and then fights tooth and nails to retain the same officer with consequential benefits in CBI when the committee considers shifting of the same officer on serious charges of corruption pending inquiry. Then he again puts his dissent in the selection of the new CBI director where CJI himself votes for the prospective candidate with prime minister without any reservation. If the leader of the opposition cannot delink himself from his perceived political interests and leanings, there is no rationale in retaining him in such a committee which is expected to purely act on merit and objective consideration. Instead, a retired and respectable citizen of repute from other walks of life with no political leanings could be considered.
We must remember that the officers of CBI are not from a different planet. They are from within us and many of them have similar human strength and weaknesses, and prone to public exposure and influence. Therefore, expecting an unusually high moral and professional values, efficiency and competence from CBI officers may be farcical and illusory expectations. However, the officers chosen for CBI are usually of unblemished record, well-known integrity and proven competence; hence they are professionally expected to deliver well provided there is no political influence and outside interference. Notwithstanding there is no guarantee that any future director will end up any better. The political drama that took place shaking all the three organs of the Indian democracy on just sending the officer on leave when the serious allegations of corruption came in light, any suggestion for granting the constitutional status or more personal immunity and powers to the CBI director need careful handling. Already the office of the director has enough power with little accountability and the country cannot afford to have any Frankstein’s monster.
The CBI derives most of its power from the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946. The agency is put under the Department of Personnel and the Central government maintains that the CBI has adequate functional autonomy. The Supreme Court too has intervened from time to time to bring in more reforms in the working of the CBI. In the past, suggestions were also made in some quarters to give constitutional status to the CBI to make it effective in handling corruption cases; however, no such proposal is under consideration for now. In a verdict in November 2013, the Gauhati High Court had declared CBI as an unconstitutional body with no legal sanctity; the verdict was, however, stayed by the Supreme Court. Taking the advantage of the beating of the CBI image during the recent controversies, the chief ministers of the states like West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh have withdrawn CBI’s powers to investigate cases in these states and some others may follow suit with similar political agenda in future. Let the CBI be saved from any tags like 'caged parrot' or 'wild vulture'. Notwithstanding all issues, this is one Central agency that still gives hope; hence the Central government must timely evolve an appropriate law for the CBI applicable uniformly through the length and breadth of the country.