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After years in a 'cage', CBI may have lost its bite

May 11, 2013 12:14 IST

The CBI's feathers were trimmed from the start, its beak trained to give friendly pecks to its masters, says Sunil Sethi

The Supreme Court’s comparison of the Central Bureau of Investigation to a “caged parrot” is both colourful and vivid, but it betrays the notion that the judges have ever kept one in the house.

Anyone who has tamed a bird, trained it, taught it to talk and spoilt it silly as a domestic pet can tell them what will happen if it is un-caged. It is unlikely to fly, or go very far, and will probably return in a few hours for its daily feed and comfort. If it doesn’t, imagine its cruel fate: starved, stoned or devoured by predators outside.

That is the state of the country’s premier investigation agency meant to track crime and corruption. Hasn’t it always been so?

In the early 1990s, in a landmark litigation instituted by activist Vineet Narain, hundreds of bureaucrats and politicians were revealed to have been paid off in the ‘hawala scam’. Diaries seized from the Jain family showed the cash was linked to terrorists in Kashmir.

Narain highlighted the CBI’s incompetence in pursuing the case, and the Supreme Court agreed. It pointed out that due to blanket powers vested in a Special Police Act, even preliminary investigations against senior officials were not possible without the minister’s permission. The politician-bureaucrat nexus was so entrenched that “big-ticket corruption is not covered effectively by the CBI”.

The Supreme Court authorised the Central Vigilance Commission to oversee the CBI but with little result. The case collapsed and was relegated to the pages of history.

A more “sordid saga of many masters and one parrot” (to quote Justice R M Lodha’s fanciful expression) is the CBI’s role in the notorious Bofors scandal, still awaiting a quiet burial since 1986.

It may have cost Rajiv Gandhi an election, but the agency’s stellar performance shines for its unstinting devotion to middleman Ottavio Quattrocchi -- in unfreezing his stash of cash in London accounts, withdrawing Interpol’s Red Corner Notice against him and helping him retire in Argentina.

These are just two infamous examples of the CBI’s large number of unsolved or unsolvable cases; its dubious roles in the recent spectrum and coal allocation investigations hardly require reiteration.

One way of keeping a pet parrot happy is to feed it a delicious diet, coochie-coo it every day and keep its cage in sparkling order. The CBI director’s splendid bungalow on Janpath is a fine example. More spectacular is its new 11-storey Rs 186-crore building in a salubrious part of New Delhi, with a terrace garden, gyms for men and women, a cafe for 500 staffers, a dining room for senior officers, a commemorative museum and a pleasant media lounge.      

If a parrot is tamed over a long period, it loses its bite and the habit of stretching its wings. The CBI’s feathers were trimmed from the start, its beak trained to give friendly pecks to its masters.

This is because the independence of the police is limited, its powers consistently curtailed by the executive. In trying to whip the CBI into shape, the judiciary fails to stress that a policeman is first and foremost a law officer, or in Lord Denning’s words “a justice of the peace”.

Here is how the great British judge, later Law Lord and Master of the Rolls, put it in simple eloquent prose: “I hold it be the duty of the Commissioner of Police … as it is of every constable to enforce the law of the land. He must take steps … so that crimes are detected; and that honest citizens may go about their affairs in peace.”

Arguing that it is every policeman’s right to prosecute, or see that prosecution is brought, he adds, “But in all these things he is not the servant of anyone, save of the law itself. No Minister of the Crown can tell him that he must, or must not… Nor can any police authority tell him so… He is answerable to the law and to the law alone.”

But how can a caged parrot learn to speak like that -- or even those trying to un-cage it?