Why the CBI's Coalgate affidavit could be a watershed

Both the Union Law Minister and the CBI Director are in a soup. This is of  their own making. They seem to have underestimated the prowess of the Supreme Court and the alertness of the news media.

A scoop by the latter told the rest of the world that the Minister and the CBI Chief had conferred in preparing a status report to the Court in the so-called Coalgate case monitored by the latter.

Even in a normal case that is not under the scrutiny of the Supreme Court such a meeting of minds would have been improper. This is because, at least on paper, an investigating agency does its work on its own. Its master is the Criminal Procedure Code (Cr.PC) and no one else. In a situation where, because of the gravity of the matter into which a probe under the Code had begun, the apex court feels it should ensure that all that is done by the investigator is strictly in accordance with the law and there is no deviance because the accused persons are those in high places of authority, the need for independence is all the greater.

In this scenario, there is no scope for the CBI to get into a conference with others, however innocuous the occasion might be. This is where both the Minister and the civil servant seem to have erred. This is unfortunate because both are distinguished personalities, chosen to hold their respective offices on merit. Incidentally, Ranjit Sinha, the DCBI, is the senior-most IPS officer in the country and had no reason to feel obliged to the government.

 Why the CBIs Coalgate affidavit could be a watershed

Will the CBI director's admission before the apex court bring about much needed changes? Image courtesy: Ibnlive

Ranjit Sinha’s affidavit, one demanded by the Court, says it all. The alleged meeting between him and the Law Minister was no fiction. It did take place. A status report in the Coalgate case was in fact shared by the Director “as desired” by the Minister. This was sacrilege because the Court had been led to believe that there was no such sharing. The other player is said to be an official of the PMO, who also had a peek at the CBI’s report in question. There are several points in debate, the most important of which is whether the Law Minister made any significant alterations to the draft report shown to him by the CBI.

There is one laughable and speculative claim that the Minister had made only cosmetic changes in language. This has been seized upon by some in the Opposition who quip that the CBI’s felicity with the English language was not all that mean to require a Minister’s deft hand to make it comprehensible to the Honourable Court.

This is no light matter where an obviously weak affidavit by the principal investigative agency could be accepted without demur by the Supreme Court. There is one joke doing the rounds, that the affidavit suppresses more than what it reveals. This may not be fair to the CBI considering the fact that whatever it says by way of truth is likely to offend the higher echelons of government.

The issue is aggravated by the alleged presence at the infamous meeting held by the Law Minister of two principal Law Officers of the Government of India. At least one of them was said to have been present in Court when the matter came up before the relevant Bench. His omission to tell the Court that the code of conduct expected of all those under scrutiny had already been breached is also highlighted by some as sacrilege.

This is the backdrop against which the Supreme Court will take up the issue once more on the 30 April. It is anybody’s guess what the Court will do on that day. It may not exactly be amused by the CBI’s admission, however honest it may be. I expect it to go beyond the alleged tampering of a document that was meant only for the eyes of the highest court of the land, and lay down ground rules for the future.

From this perspective the whole episode should be a blessing in disguise for the much-harassed CBI. Having filed an affidavit which is described to be an affront to the government’s overlordship, I expect the organization to scrupulously ward off in future the government’s efforts to dictate how it should conduct its affairs in matters of investigation.

This would be a great gain from which the CBI’s image is bound to improve over years. No CBI Chief may hereafter need to bend or crawl before the South or North Block. Of course some in authority could be mean by denying the organization support in terms of infrastructure. But such pettiness can be sorted out with the help of an enlightened Prime Minister. I concede that in order to gain the trust of the courts and the nation the CBI on its part will have to strive to hone its professional skills. That would come if the CBI has good leadership and it starts believing that its operational autonomy will never be breached on narrow political considerations.

(The writer is a former CBI Director.)

Updated Date: Apr 27, 2013 17:50:22 IST



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