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Independence of CBI: Myth and reality

Last updated on: May 15, 2013 12:57 IST

Without a strong political will the CBI cannot be freed from the government’s control, says Anil Chowdhry

Interestingly, the Central Bureau of Investigation is a ‘war baby’, which has again been drawn into the ‘war zone’, but of a different kind, thanks to our politicians and media.

In 1943, the erstwhile British Rulers of India became aware that a lot of corruption had taken place in the department of war and felt the need to check it. So they passed the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act for investigation of cases against delinquent officials of this department only.

But soon they discovered that the malaise had spread to other departments as well. Therefore, the Act was amended in 1946 to extend its jurisdiction over all employees of the central government.  It was given powers to register an FIR under the relevant sections of the IPC and later the Prevention of Corruption Act (1988) at its police station which exists only on paper. This was done not on the basis of complaints by the public but after a PE (Preliminary Enquiry) established that prima facie an offence of corruption had been committed.

The agency acquired its present name, the Central Bureau of Investigation, only in 1963 on the recommendation of the Santhanam (a Gandhian) committee which went into the entire gamut of corruption in the government and recommended an overhaul of the existing apparatus to combat the menace. 

The issues were also keenly debated in Parliament and outside. The CBI thus took its birth on ‘All Fools Day’ (April 1), 1963, by a resolution of the Government of India.

In its initial years the organisation was widely respected on account of the high calibre and integrity of its directors like D P Kohli, F V Arul and others backed  by the high degree of professionalism of its investigating officers  and inbuilt multi-layered decision making procedures and strict internal vigilance mechanism.

It was also able to maintain a much more impressive track record of securing convictions, as compared to the state anti-corruption bureaus which perform a similar function in respect of the state government employees, largely by being selective in registering offences and the expertise and professionalism of its investigating officers built over years.

Over the years, its charter was expanded to not only investigate cases of bribery against central government employees but also serious fiscal crimes, including hawala transactions, trans-border offences having national security ramifications, anti-terrorism cases etc, thus transgressing into the State List under the Constitution.

In my view, the CBI at present is a troubled organisation on many fronts. Over the years, it has been saddled with investigations of a multitude of  crimes including sensational cases of murders, involving politicians or celebrities, crimes by the underworld without either the statutory and constitutional back-up to define its role and responsibilities, or the matching manpower and forensic resources.

The Central Vigilance Commission, which was meant to provide the oversight and support to the CBI, has also failed to give it the desired direction, or insulate it from governmental interference. The CBI also does not have a cadre of supervisory officers of its own and relies on the tedious and uncertain system of induction of officers through deputation from the state police forces and central police organisations.

Within the government, its control has been shifting from ministry to ministry. Initially it was home, then department of personnel and training. Development of requisite expertise in investigation and prosecution of anti-corruption cases thus became a casualty. The organisation also could not keep itself afloat above the rapid decline of the ethical and moral fabric of our body politic and governance.

The CBI began being treated like a camel in the desert by the government which kept loading it with all kinds of baggage, including a highly questionable tool to bring pressure on its political opponents. One occasionally witnesses the media making a noise over this, but the charade continues.

The rapidly mounting load of investigating terrorism cases would have been the last straw on its back, but fortunately these have been taken away and given to the recently created National Investigating Agency.

It would be unrealistic to expect the demand for investigation of sensational crimes to be handed over to the CBI. After all is said and done, it does enjoy a much higher level of credibility in its investigating skills and impartiality than the state police CIDs. There is considerable loss of precious time by the time the investigation is transferred from the district police to the CID and then under public/ media pressure from the state CID to the CBI. Often, the crucial forensic evidence is lost and the CBI sleuths are hard put build the case.

The infamous Arushi murder case may be cited to illustrate the point I am making. This is indeed a sad state of affairs which deserves the attention of the Bureau of Police Research and Development and the ministry of home affairs.

To reduce the load on the CBI, it is imperative to help the state CIDS to acquire the requisite infrastructure, training and manpower  resources to obtain higher marks from the trial criminal courts in terms of convictions and also retain a semblance of insulation from political and bureaucratic interference. This will be much more difficult to achieve than at the centre. The CBI can and should help in this.

The CBI undoubtedly deserves to be strengthened and given a statutory status without any interference from any quarter to combat the hydra-headed monster of corruption. But, in my view, it should remain focused only on investigation of anti-corruption cases. 

Although many past and present chiefs of CBI will deny this, it would be utterly naïve to believe that the CBI is autonomous and free from controls of the government. There are any number of past, recent and present cases in which the CBI can be seen to be dancing to the tunes, or to  put it in the words of the hon’ble Supreme Court, a caged parrot repeating whatever its masters have tutored it to speak.

I have no doubt that the government sits in the driver’s seat of the CBI with its hand firmly of the gear and foot on the accelerator. Even the bold attempt of the Supreme Court bench headed by the late and highly respected Justice J S Verma to make the CBI free from extraneous pressures of the executive in the famous Vineet Narain case (1996) has not succeeded. What this case was able to achieve was to give the CBI director a fixed tenure of two years and nothing more. The lure of prestigious assignments post-retirement is too strong to resist among the falling standards of probity of our civil services.

The apex court, while hearing the report of the CBI in the coal mining rights allotment case, is once again trying to free the CBI from the shackles of the government to make it a fair and impartial investigating agency. But whether it will succeed is a million-dollar question. The judiciary can only give directions but not take over the executive functions of the government, or the legislative role of Parliament.

The scant respect shown to the Supreme Court’s directives by the central and most of the state governments in 2006 in the much talked about petition for police reform by ShriPrakash Singh is a pointer to the direction we are heading here too.

Without a strong political will the CBI cannot be freed from the government’s control. What we need is an anti-corruption investigating agency with a total hands-off by any executive authority in its investigative work which is a quasi- judicial function.

A strong public movement to compel the political leadership to pass an Act in Parliament to make the CBI independent, in my view, is the only way ahead.

Image: CBI director Ranjit Sinha

Anil Chowdhry, IPS (retired), is a former secretary (internal security), in the Union home ministry

Anil Chowdhry