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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

It takes the courts five years to declare a man innocent and only five minutes to send him to jail without trial

K L Chug I hold no brief for ITC, manufacturers of a product whose chief significance lies in the fact that it causes cancer. Nor do I have much sympathy for the shameful tendency of successive chairmen to wrap themselves in the national flag and sing Jana Gana Mana in an effort to evade jail and blame everything on bad, bad BAT. And I have even less time for Bukhara, the uncomfortable, overprices home of the much-hyped kebab that has led to the downfall of the present ITC management.

Even so, I have to say that I am somewhat alarmed by the distorted replay of V P Singh's raid raj that we are now witnessing. In 1985, when the Raja ran the finance ministry, he had a specific agenda and clear targets. The raids created fear and panic within the business community but at least you had the feeling that there was a firm hand at the helm.

But today, there is no clear sense of direction. I doubt if P Chidambaram is even aware of who is being raided or why. While the Enforcement Directorate and the income tax authorities - both under the finance ministry - have been active, so has the CBI, which has nothing to do with Chidambaram's ministry. And in the present climate where there is broad judicial sanction for any raiding or charge-sheeting activity, no officer need bother to obtain permission from his superiors before locking up a businessman.

The danger with the current raiding frenzy is that it is impossible to keep any kind of check on the raiders. You can't complain to their bosses because they recognise no bosses. And by the time you obtain some kind of judicial redressal, it may well be too late. Such is our legal system that it takes the courts five years to declare a man innocent and only five minutes to send him to jail without trial.

What you have then is a free for all by officers who may well be dedicated but are nevertheless trained only to investigate and make accusations; not to listen to the other side, give anybody the benefit of the doubt, or accept that it is always better to let a few guilty men go scot-free than to lock up and destroy a few innocent ones.

In 1985-86, when V P Singh's raid raj was at its height, you could go and see revenue secretary Vinod Pande and give him your side of the story. You could see the Raja himself. And of course, you could take your version to Rajiv Gandhi - as one or two resourceful industrialists did. If none of that worked, you had the courts which were willing. - in most cases, at least - to grant bail, even if you spent the weekend in jail.

Today, you have none of those avenues; and none of those safeguards.

I don't accept the argument advanced by many businessmen that the raids are bad because they dent investor confidence and kick the Sensex down. Of course, it is unfortunate that the economy should suffer but equally if corruption is rife, then you have to clean up the business sector, regardless of the damage it does to Sensex. To argue otherwise would be to say that businessmen can do what they like as long as the stock market booms - a position that no civilised society can accept.

But three points are worth making:

Swaminathan Aiyar has noted memorably, that a man who steals a loaf of bread and a man who steals $4 million from ITC are both economic offenders. If one goes to jail, why shouldn't the other?

His point is well-taken and derives some of its force from the view held by most journalists that ITC is a corrupt, smug, crookedly-managed company (which may explain why the Enforcement Directorate has found so many sympathetic ears in the media). I suspect however that had Swami said 'a man who steals $ 4 million from Hindustan Lever', the logic would have held but the formulation would have seemed less damning.

The true is that while cases of stealing are relatively straightforward, there are other economic offences which are not so easily categorised.

Every Indian who has gone abroad has probably violated FERA in some small way or the other. As N K Singh, the revenue secretary, admitted in Delhi a week ago, many of the draconian economic laws of an earlier era need to be redrafted.

That process has already begun with the consequence that many actions that were will illegal ten years ago are now entirely legal. Yet a decade earlier, anybody who broke the laws that we have now junked would have been an 'economic offender'.

So, when you are dealing with acts that are illegal one day and entirely legal the next, can you afford to see things in black and white? It is at this stage that the 'stealing' analogy breaks down.

I have written about the right of every citizen to obtain bail before so I won't repeat myself. But if Chandra Swami can be regarded as innocent until prove guilty, then so can K L Chugh.

I'm sure that the judge who denied bail to Jagdish Sapru had his reasons but as a general rule -- without wishing to comment in any way on the specifics of the ITC cases - it is hard to see how a retired person suffering from cancer can pose a huge threat to the intrepid investigators of the Enforcement Directorate if he is denied bail.

It is up to the judiciary to examine the issue of bail and decide whether judges are being unduly harsh in granting bail so infrequently.

But we in the media need to examine our own conduct in the current situation before we point fingers at anybody else.

I have long been concerned about the tendency of newspapers to faithfully reproduce the investigating agencies' accounts of raids without bothering to verify them or to even get the other side of the story. Regardless of who is raided - and regardless of whether the courts ultimately uphold the investigating agencies case - each raid is always said to have 'yielded crores (one crore=10 million)worth of unaccounted income' and 'several incriminating documents' are always seized.

This trend continues but there has been a new, more alarming development: the simultaneous growth of a new trigger-happy brand of officer who is ready to provide 'off-the-record details' of each investigation and of a new details without bothering to verify them.

The beauty of this arrangement is that the CBI/Enforcement Directorate/income tax department can always deny that it disseminated the story when it is shown to be false - after all, the briefing was off the record. And the 'investigative journalist' having got his name on page one with the bogus 'scoop' is least concerned when its exploded - by then, he is busy with another sensational raid.

Last fortnight, all newspapers acted a though there had been a major raid of Premier Automobiles. All that had happened was that an investigation into irregularities at a bank had led the officers to tally its books with Premier's. No case against Premier was established - but you wouldn't know that from reading the papers.

More startling is the case of Runu Ghosh, the hapless telecom official who an eager media have painted as a scarlet woman without bothering to ascertain the truth. One CBI leak had it that 20 Rolex watches were found at her house. This was a total lie but its influence was so pervasive that even the judge asked about the watches while examining her bail application. The CBI can deny all knowledge of this lie - it was never an official statement, just a 'leak'.

As a journalist, I have to say that we are on weak ground when businessmen claim that several of us are no more than public urinals for leaks from investigating officers.

Finally, businessmen are right to be worried about the new raid raj but wrong when they believe industry deserves special protection. The right to bail, to not be judged too harshly and not to be pilloried in the media, are not the prerogative of businessmen.

They are rights of every citizen of India.

Vir Sanghvi

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