The present developments in the CBI and the appointment of a new Director provide an opportunity to restore the image of India’s premier investigative agency, and reinstate people’s faith in probity in public life.
These are momentous days for the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s premier investigation agency. Politicians, judiciary, civil servants and average citizens alike look upon the Bureau as a government agency which has the capacity to solve the most complicated crimes and also handle investigation of corruption at high places. All of them also believe that it can deliver goods only if it is allowed to operate with absolute freedom. There is near unanimity also that the CBI does not enjoy the autonomy, it so badly needs, to perform its tasks.
The CBI was born in 1964, the year in which the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) came into being, following the report of the Santhanam Committee on how to combat the malaise of dishonesty in public services. The predecessor to CBI was the Delhi Special Police Establishment (DSPE), which was founded even under the British to look into irregularities in the purchases of the Defence Ministry during the Second World War. To this day the CBI owes its legal existence to the DSPE Act (1946) and does not have a legislation of its own. As a result it suffers from the severe handicap of being recognised only as a police agency and therefore the restrictions imposed by the Criminal Procedure Code (1973). Efforts by successive CBI chiefs and others to get Parliament to enact an exclusive CBI Act which would confer on it adequate legal authority have not succeeded. This omission is attributable to the fear of the political executive that a powerful CBI is a threat to democracy.
Supreme Court Intervenes
The judiciary, especially the Supreme Court of India — the highest court of the land — is conscious of the need to insulate the CBI from political control. It was in this pursuit that in 1997, in the famous Hawala case, it laid down a rigid procedure for the selection and appointment of CBI Director and conferred on him a mandatory two-year tenure. (This writer was the first beneficiary of this salutary ruling). Things went on reasonably smoothly, except for a few hiccups once in a while, until the arrival in recent years of the 2G scam (irregularities in the allocation of spectrum for telecom operators) and Coalgate (illegalities in the allocation of coal mines for use by private industrialists).
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These two massive and momentous investigations were handed over to CBI by the Supreme Court of India. During the course of the CBI enquiries, which led it to look in to the role of people in high places — including those in the Establishment — rumours began to swirl around that the CBI was being bullied into saving some of those who had put their hands into the till. Most damaging was the allegation that in the Coalgate investigation the CBI Chief was personally summoned by the Union Law Minister to have a peak into the agency’s status report to the Court and that he made a few vital changes. When this was brought to the notice of the Court, the latter made a sharp statement which referred to the CBI as a “caged parrot’ in the hands of the executive. This admonition has stuck to the discredit of the CBI till this day.
The latest indictment of the CBI Director for having clandestinely met some persons linked to 2G scam at his house on several occasions is the last nail in the coffin. This was revealed in the public interest litigation by an NGO which categorically charged the Director of trying to help some of the accused in the case. The Director’s defense that he was only trying to find out whether his officers had done the investigation on the current lines has not cut much ice with the Supreme Court. The court ordered its own probe into the allegation through its Special Public Prosecutor (SPP). The latter has convincingly established the veracity of the allegation against the Director.
This in turn led to the court directing the CBI Chief to recuse himself from the investigation. This was a serious ruling that attracted nationwide attention. The current CBI chief has chosen to stay on in the job, although he has less than a fortnight to go before his retirement.
These recent developments have cast more than a shadow on the CBI’s impartiality and integrity. Although the Supreme Court’s order applied specifically to the Director, and the court refrained from going into many facts in the interest of the reputation of the organisation, there is a general view among the public that this could not be dismissed as mere aberration of an individual and that the objective and the professionalism of the whole organisation was suspect. This is rather unfortunate, because it is widely believed that all the actions of the Director were at his own instance and in the teeth of opposition of his key investigators.
Now it will take a long time to undo the damage caused to the Bureau. This is why the choice of a new Chief after the impending retirement of the current Director assumes great significance.
Under a new amendment to the Central Vigilance Act and the DSPE Act, the CBI Director is chosen by a collegium comprising the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Chief Justice of India or a Judge of the Supreme Court of India nominated by him. Officers belonging to three seniormost batches of the Indian Police will come under the zone of consideration. The three criteria set out by the Hawala judgment for this appointment include seniority, length of experience in criminal and anti-corruption investigation and integrity.
I am certain that this collegium of unimpeachable eminence will do a clinical job in identifying the right candidate. In my view the person chosen should not only be competent and honest, he should also be fearless, and not expect any favours from the Executive. He should rise above regional and casteist considerations. The next occupant of this vital post will therefore have a huge responsibility not only to perform but to restore the CBI’s credibility.
But if he does not rise to the occasion and discharge his duties conscientiously, posterity will not forgive him.
(The writer is a former CBI Director.)