Early Monday morning the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India's top law enforcement agency, raided the homes and offices of NDTV founders Prannoy Roy and Radhika Roy acting on a complaint filed by Sanjay Dutt, the director of Quantum Securities Ltd. The complaint states that Quantum Securities Ltd is a shareholder of NDTV and alleges that RRPR Holding, a company formed by Prannoy and Radhika (which holds their shares in NDTV) along with unknown officials of ICICI Bank Ltd, committed financial crimes which caused a pecuniary loss of over Rs 48 crore to ICICI Bank and calls for an investigation. A copy of the First Information Report registered with the CBI is here.
"This is a blatant political attack on the freedom of the press as sources confirm that under pressure, the CBI has been compelled to file an FIR based on a shoddy complaint by a disgruntled former consultant at NDTV called Sanjay Dutt, who has been making false allegations and filing cases in courts of law with these false allegations. So far, he has not obtained a single order from any of these courts."
The FIR reproduced the complaint, filed verbatim by Quantum Securities Ltd. The complaint is dated 28 April 2017; however, the FIR was registered on 2 June, 2017 and there appears to be nothing more in the FIR apart from the complaint and its annexures. It was filed a day after NDTV anchor Nidhi Razdan asked BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra to leave her programme, during which he accused her channel of having "an agenda".
Strangely though, the CBI had more than a month to investigate the complaint before the registration of the FIR but it appears the agency did little by way of investigation before documenting the alleged crime. Even those basic documents missing from the complaint were not collated before the raids took place. The documents have been alluded to in the complaint itself but stand missing.
These include a Settlement Agreement that RRPR Holdings signed with ICICI Bank to settle a loan granted to the company. The FIR has been registered to investigate offence under the Prevention of Corruption Act,1988 and the public officials involved are 'Bank Officials'. If the CBI is not going to go after the bank officials concerned but after NDTV instead, one wonders how this investigation is being handled.
(Editor's note: The CBI has since issued a clarification that the allegations are "not regarding the default in loan repayment; but relate to the wrongful gain of Rs 48 crore to the promoters — Dr Pranoy Roy, Smt Radhika Roy, M/s RRPR Holdings Pvt Limted and a corresponding wrongful loss to the ICICI Bank arising from their collusion and criminal conspiracy".)
Besides the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, the CBI has no jurisdiction to proceed in this present complaint as the other irregularities mentioned relate to the Banking Regulation Act, 1949, Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002, Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992, Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999 do not fall within it's ambit. The CBI has limited jurisdiction in terms of the Delhi Police Special Establishment Act, 1946. It can only investigate offences under the IPC and and under laws that have been notified under Section 3 of that that act. Except the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 none of the other charges in the complaint relate to matters which are within the jurisdiction or remit of the CBI.
The Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 is designed to allow the CBI to move against the public officials involved in this alleged crime. But the agency, after having determined that employees of ICICI Bank conspired and committed a crime, has let them remain as "unknown bank officials" and instead conducted raids on the Roys.
Last year, the ministry of information and broadcasting ordered NDTV India, the Hindi news channel, off the air for a day in a first of its kind penalty against a news channel for apparently revealing sensitive information during the Pathankot operation. However, this penalty wasn't enforced. But it was levied.
Let's be frank here. For all we know, there may be a legitimate case against NDTV and the Roys, but this government has done very little to establish their bonafides in going ahead with their investigation. Not just the timing of the raid by the CBI, but the fact that there was nothing more than one complaint on which the CBI acted upon before conducting the raid. Lastly, every matter that the CBI had taken note of in its complaint was already public information. As early as 2015, The Caravan ran an article about similar allegations but that did not invite a CBI enquiry. If one goes through the story, the details of the transaction alleged in the CBI FIR, came out much earlier, and as early as 2013 the dealings between RRPR and ICICI were receiving attention of the RBI.
The Caravan had reported that:
"In April 2013, Sanjay Dutt wrote a letter about it to the Reserve Bank of India; the central bank responded the next month saying that the loan "is already receiving our attention." "
Dutt's pleas for an investigation fell on many deaf ears Dutt seems to be a determined soul. In 2016, he moved the Delhi High Court seeking a direction that SEBI investigate his complaints. This is case No. WP (C) 984/2016. The last order on the matter adjourned it for hearing on 27 July, 2017. If one looks at this Writ Petition, you will see that the first complaint with SEBI was filed all the way back in 2013 and since then Dutt has had trouble moving the authorities to take action on his complaint.
All of a sudden though, within just about a month of Dutt asking the CBI, who have razor-thin jurisdiction in this case, he manages to get the CBI to not just register an FIR but conduct full-scale raids that garners national attention with no further information other than his own complaint, which seems surprising given the trouble Quantum has had in the past having agencies act on its complaints it has made regarding irregularities at NDTV. But in hindsight, given the RBI and SEBI are independent by virtue of their statutes and the CBI still comes some modicum under government control, it may not seem that surprising.
The investigation against NDTV looks like an attack on the freedom of the press because that's exactly what it is. Indian journalists have proven time and again that they can go toe to toe with the best in the industry. India still publishes way more newspapers than any other country and is witnessing one of the largest television markets globally. The press and the government is known to indulge in grudging respect for each other and no one would kowtow to each other nor would they demand it.
Across the northern Himalayan Hump, lie our neighbours the Chinese. The strict censorship doesn't allow any newspaper, news channel or online news magazine to publish anything without scrutiny. The press in China is an arm of the state used to achieve its development goals and to work for the "national interest".
India is not as bad as China, but things aren't that great here either. In fact, as a democracy, we should be ashamed of the levels of press freedom here. The Reporters Without Borders for Freedom of Information, ranked India 136 in 2017 in terms of press freedom out of 190 countries. Palestine came in at 135 and it is not exactly the example of a vibrant multicultural democracy. It's a war zone. Afghanistan a state that is under a Taliban insurgency stands at 120. Oman, Qatar, Gulf countries with near absolute monarchies also out rank the world's largest democracy when it comes to freedom of press.
For many, being better than the worst (China), in terms of freedom of the press, should be good enough but it should not be. India, as world's largest democracy, has to aspire to be better than the rest of the world. For in India, the press cannot be an arm of the Indian Sate and a party to the agenda, the press must always be the voice that checks state power. To give people a balanced view of the facts and allow them to make an informed opinion. Even if it means delivering consistent bad news to the government of the day. It is the job of a free press to deliver the news as it is.
If there had to be an investigation into these allegations, this was not the way to go about it at all. There are procedures in place, there has to be more than a complaint that contains old and publicly available information to begin the process of conducting raids.
Updated Date: Jun 07, 2017 16:00 PM