Trouble in CBI started during Emergency; blame decline on political interference, unjustified expansion of CVC jurisdiction

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) owes its origin to the Special Police Establishment, constituted by the British government in 1941, which was substituted by the Delhi Special Police Establishment (DSPE) Act, 1946. Although the CBI came into existence on 1 April, 1963, through a Government of India resolution, its investigative and jurisdiction powers are governed by the DSPE Act even today.

The decision to create the premier central investigation agency was taken by the then home minister Lal Bahadur Shastri on the recommendations of the Committee on Anti-Corruption headed by Member of Parliament K Santhanam. As home minister and subsequently the prime minister, Shastri took bold decisions, making even powerful politicians quit on the basis of inquiry reports rather than conviction in a court of law.

Under Shastri’s stewardship, solid foundations were laid to make the CBI a trustworthy and efficient investigating agency. He brought officers of high integrity and commitment into the agency. Soon, the CBI acquired a high degree of reputation and won the public’s confidence due to its integrity and impartiality. More than judicial enquiry, demands for CBI investigation grew.

Sadly, the image of the agency seems to be in tatters today. Decidedly, the CBI is facing its worst crisis. Undoubtedly, the decline has been gradual.

The first setback came in the Rajiv Gandhi era with the Single Directive in 1985-86, requiring the CBI to take prior permission of the ministry/department concerned before initiating an inquiry against ‘decision-making-level officers’.

 Trouble in CBI started during Emergency; blame decline on political interference, unjustified expansion of CVC jurisdiction

File photo of demonstrators protesting near the CBI building in Mumbai. Reuters

In the Vineet Narain case verdict on 18 December, 1997, the Supreme Court, apart from upholding the integrity of the CBI, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and the Enforcement Directorate, quashed the Single Directive as unconstitutional. But the political class brought the directive back in the CVC Act of 2003, which was set aside again by the court. But not to leave the matter at that, the corruption law was amended in the last Monsoon Session of Parliament requiring the CBI to take prior approval for initiating investigation against all categories of government servants. In legal terms, this has been a deadly blow to the agency. The earlier it is done away with, the better would it be for the fight against corruption.

Politically, the CBI faced challenges in the years preceding and during the Emergency when Sanjay Gandhi, a law unto himself, called the shots. The organisation’s problems got compounded with some other agencies conducting searches and raids in its name.

The Rajiv-era started well with his ‘Mr Clean’ image, but he soon got embroiled in the Bofors scam. The agency breathed fresh air under the VP Singh government, but his tenure did not last long. The CBI faced, to put it bluntly, horrible times under the Chandrashekhar and the Narasimha Rao governments, with the likes of Chandraswami calling the shots.

The writer, during his second term in the CBI, was thrown out of the agency unceremoniously for the second time for standing up to interference in investigative work. This time, even the Supreme Court failed to provide relief to him in his long legal battle to save his honour and the CBI’s integrity.

Shockingly, what is happening now has never happened before. Yes, the CBI had faced ups and down earlier, as well. Not very long ago, the Supreme Court, justifiably or otherwise, had called the CBI a “caged parrot”. But never before had the rift between the director and the special director been in public eye like this before. Never before had the agency registered a case of corruption against its own special director for alleged acceptance of bribe amounting to crores from someone under investigation, with the officer dashing out a written complaint to the cabinet secretary and making allegations of corruption and conspiracy against the director.

The genesis of the present crisis can be traced back to little over two years when former director Anil Sinha, from the Bihar cadre, was set to retire. A tried and tested officer, special director RK Dutta, who was on the verge of being promoted, was shunted out as special secretary in Ministry of Home Affairs in November 2016. Dutta’s Karnataka cadre came to his rescue by taking him back as DG, state police.

In December 2016, the then-additional director Rakesh Asthana, who had been working with Dutta for years, was appointed interim director. This set off quite an avoidable controversy in matters of further promotion as No. 2 and No. 1 in the organisation. The result is for all of us to see today.

The situation would not have gone out of control had the government intervened at the time and taken the matter in its own hands. But it is hamstrung by something of its own creation by way of the role and jurisdiction given to the CVC under some provisions of the CVC Act. Undoubtedly, the Act provided some valuable safeguards to the agency, but it also created some impediments. It vested in the CVC the ‘superintendence’ of the Delhi Police Establishment (and thus the CBI) in relation to investigation of cases under Prevention of Corruption Act. For the remaining areas, the Act left the ‘superintendence’ to the government. So the ‘superintendence’ over the CBI is shared between the CVC and the government—an absurd proposition indeed. The present crisis owes a lot to this diarchic arrangement in the CVC Act.

The current trouble within the CBI began soon after Alok Verma, who had never been with the CBI, was appointed director on 1 February, 2017, instead of Dutta. While the feud between Verma and Asthana was escalating quite rapidly in full public view, neither the CVC nor the government acted in any worthwhile manner.

After the registration of a corruption case against the special director on 15 October, when the government did intervene, it did so in the clumsiest way. In what looked like a midnight ‘coup’, in the intervening night of 23 and 24 October, Verma and Asthana were ‘relieved’ of their duties, the prestigious headquarters of the agency put under seige and joint director M Nageshwara Rao made interim director. He landed at the CBI office at midnight to take charge and reshuffled several officers of the rank of joint director, DIG, SP and deputy SP. Superintendents of police, including the Investigating Officer looking into the case of corruption against the special director and the joint director supervising the case, were shunted out. Some of the orders were issued by the CVC, which is beyond its jurisdiction.

Verma appealed to the Supreme Court against his relieving orders. Asthana had already moved the Delhi High Court in the corruption case against him and others. In an interim order on 26 October, the Supreme Court asked the CVC to complete its probe against Verma within two weeks with former apex court judge Justice AK Patnaik to supervise the probe.

The Supreme Court also restrained Rao from taking any major policy decisions till hearing of the case on 12 November. The Delhi High Court ordered status quo in the case against Asthana.

Restoring the CBI’s credibility requires some deeper thought. The agency still functions under the DSPE Act. The CVC Act was passed following the verdict in the Vineet Narain case. In 2014, came the Lokpal Act. Both these Acts partly deal with the powers and functions of the CBI, which, however, does not have an act of its own till date.

The Estimates Committee of the Parliament (1991-92) under Jaswant Singh had recommended that the CBI be given statutory status and have legal powers to investigate cases with inter-state ramifications. It had observed that unless this was done, the effectiveness of the organisation would “decline substantially and rapidly”— the words are proving prophetic in the light of the current crisis.

Some solution lies in creation of a Lokpal. But the political class, across the table, has little urgency. Thanks to Anna Hazare’s movement, the Lokpal Act is in place for more than five years now—but is not yet in position.

The writer is a former joint director of the CBI, who retired as the DG, Bureau of Police Research and Development. He is now a member of the national executive, Janata Dal (U).

Updated Date: Nov 07, 2018 10:20:56 IST