The Caged Bureau of Investigation

The Caged Bureau of Investigation

September 17, 2013

The controversies over CBI's handling of politically sensitive cases such as Mulayam Singh Yadav's disproportionate assets (DA), Coal scam and Railway Board appointments scam have prompted a group of eminent citizens to ask whether the agency "really deserves autonomy and whether its head should have an assured tenure of two years".

The healthiest of societies are those with no fear of investigation. Where the act of probing is imbued with such an impersonal halo that the consequences are accepted as just. Institutions do this best. In India, there is the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), created in 1963 as an agency to fight corruption and criminalisation of politics. Forty-seven years later, corruption and criminalisation of politics are still the big challenges. The CBI, meanwhile, has moved from the untouchable to the doubted. If we were to look for the butterfly that would flap its wings and trigger changes in today’s India, it would have to be the CBI. The polity would then know fear. We would know justice.

Legally, the CBI is “an attached office” of the Ministry of Personnel that comes directly under the Prime Minister. It draws its powers from a resolution created under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act of 1946. Under the Act, the CBI can act on its own in Union Territories, but needs the permission of the States to investigate any public servant in their jurisdiction. The CBI cannot file a Special Leave Petition (SLP) on its own and needs to take permission from the Ministry of Law. An SLP means you take special permission to be heard in appeal against a High Court or tribunal verdict.

For instance, a CBI-designated court exonerated former Railways Minister Lalu Prasad in a disproportionate assets case. The CBI says it has a strong case against him, but the law ministry did now allow the CBI to appeal. Also, the CBI cannot initiate investigations against a government officer of the rank of Joint Secretary and above without the concurrence of the Central government. There are more than 30 such applications with the government.

Even for prosecution, the CBI will have to seek the permission of the Central government. A CBI officer cannot go out of India for investigations without the permission of the Central government. Investigators need to travel in today’s world, even if only to track black money or unaccounted money in foreign banks.

In a famous case, the CBI needed to chase Ottavio Quattrocchi, once the prime accused in the Bofors case. The law ministry recommended closure of the case, because the investigations could not be completed. Quattrocchi went free.

The CBI has been used by political parties of all colours, whenever they were in power at Centre, to serve their own political interests. Here are some high-profile instances of how the CBI has been used as a “caged parrot”:

Coal Scam

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court slammed the Government of India for political interference into the probe of coal scam, in which none other than the Prime Minister’s Ofice is involved. The Supreme Court observed that the law ministry had changed the heart of the CBI report on the coal scam probe. "The CBI has become the state's parrot. Only screaming, repeating the master's voice," Judge R M Lodha said. You can read all about the coal scam here.

Mayawati DA Case

The CBI filed a disproportionate assets case against Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, whose net worth had multiplied from 1 crore in 2003 to 50 crore in 2007. The sleuths also listed several properties, including benamis, belonging to Mayawati. The CBI claims it is ready to prosecute, but it has not filed any chargesheet to date. On 28 April 2010, Mayawati saved the UPA government with her party support against a cut motion in Parliament. Within a week, Income Tax authorities gave her a clean chit in the assets case.

CBI has been misused by all parties. It should be free from political interference

– Sharad Yadav, JD(U)

Mulayam DA Case

With less than a year left for Lok Sabha elections, the CBI is all set to give a reprieve to Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and his chief minister son Akhilesh Yadav in the disproportionate assets case after the monsoon session of Parliament.

In its status report in 2007, CBI had alleged that the Yadav family owned disproportionate assets worth Rs 2.63 crore, saying they acquired assets worth Rs 4.41 crore between 1993 and 2005 though they had income of Rs 6.23 crore and an expenditure of Rs 4.45 crore in this period.

In July, the agency's investigation team had said the case be closed but CBI director Ranjit Sinha asked for re-investigation. Now, a final decision has been taken and the case would be closed, said sources.

Though I have great respect for CBI as an institution, the way they are being used for political purposes and also unnecessarily made to create problems in every state to control political parties and state governments, is not acceptable. It proves that CBI now stands for 'Congress Bureau of Investigation

– Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal

Lalu DA Case

Since 2004, the CBI abandoned years of inquiry and allowed the UPA government to manipulate facts to favour Lalu Prasad and wife Rabri Devi in the disproportionate assets case. In 2006, a CBI-designated court acquitted the couple. After the acquittal, the CBI did not appeal in the High Court. Later, the CBI gave up its claims against the couple, rubbished its original arguments, and went on to support Lalu.

St. Kitts forgery case

Former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, along with minister KK Tewary, godman Chandraswami and his secretary KN Aggarwal were accused of forging documents showing that Ajeya Singh had opened a bank account in the First Trust Corporation Bank in St Kitts and deposited $21 million in 1989, making his father VP Singh its beneficiary. The alleged intent was to tarnish VP Singh’s image. However, the CBI formally charged Rao only after his term as PM expired in 1996. Later, the court acquitted him due to lack of evidence. All the other accused were eventually acquitted.

CBI should not be subject to anyone’s interference, control, etc. It needs to be independent

– Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Congress

Barak Missile Scam

The Barak Missile Scandal is a case of alleged defence corruption relating to the purchase of Barak 1 Missile Systems by India from Israel. The case is currently under investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation, and several people including the Samata Party ex-treasurer R.K. Jain have been arrested. The CBI registered an FIR against George Fernandes in 2006. However, he claimed the scientific adviser to the defence minister, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, had cleared the deal. The CBI alleged kickbacks worth 2 crore were paid. Why didn’t the CBI question George Fernandes for two years after filing the FIR in 2006?

Parting Thought

While there is political unanimity that the CBI should be free of government control, there seems to be little consensus on the mechanism to achieve this. For a smooth and healthy democracy, the investigative agency should be set free from its cage of political interference.

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