August 31, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/CBI Chief Prem Chand Sharma

The Rediff Interview/ P C SharmaThe CBI is not a firing squad

Prem Chand Sharma, acting director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, is yet to be appointed 'regular director' of the central investigation agency. His appointment letter reads: 'director till further orders.'

In his first extensive interview to the media, the self-conscious CBI boss -- a 1966 vintage Indian Police Service from the Assam cadre -- spoke to Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt about the many issues concerning the country's premier investigating agency.

How did you become a policeman?

In 1965, after doing my post graduation in English I was teaching at a college in Ambala (in Haryana). Some of my classmates suggested we sit for the civil services examination. I could not study properly because I was teaching during the day and helping the authorities because war (with Pakistan) had broken out. The colony where I was staying was bombed. It disrupted my preparation. It was a stroke of luck that I cleared the examination.

My father was an agriculturist in my native village, Fateh Gadh near Ambala. My first posting was in Assam. I was an assistant superintendent of police.

When did you join the CBI?

I came to the CBI in 1978 as a superintendent of police and was posted as assistant director of crime records. After four years, the government of Assam insisted I be sent back because of the (separatist) agitation in the state.

In 1982, I went there as deputy inspector general (border and central range). I was asked to detect and deport unauthorised foreigners, mainly Bangladeshis living there. That was a very turbulent period in Assam.

It was a tough time... handling violence, law and order, the election. Assam had one of the best cadres in the country, but policing became little difficult when the agitation started.

Your boss was K P S Gill (who went on to be appointed director general of police, Punjab) at that time, right?

I have worked for the maximum time with Mr Gill. We have had a very long association. He is a great man and the finest police officer in the country. He provided very inspiring leadership. He is very professional. We were on the same wave length on most issues. People who criticise him do not know the man. He is highly secular and certainly not a trigger-happy person. That's a highly misunderstood notion.

In 1984, I came back to the CBI.

How do you look back at your long innings at the CBI?

People should understand the CBI's role has expanded much in the last few years. Earlier, our cases were of small dimensions. Now the nature of cases we handle are of national and international significance. We are dealing with financial fraud of huge dimensions. We are dealing with trans-border crimes and economical offences. When I was first posted in the CBI, it was just an anti-corruption agency. Not so now. Today we are specialised in anti-corruption, financial and special crime like murders and other serious crimes.

What was your most politically sensitive case at the CBI?

Bofors was a very important case. I didn't handle it in the beginning, I handled it much later when I returned to the CBI from my tenure as director general of police, Sikkim. Certainly, the Bofors case had political overtones.

Was it the most sensitive case?

The bank security scam, which we know as the Harshad Mehta case. Moneywise, I will put that scam as number one and after that the Indian Bank case. It was a big fraud involving Rs 17 billion. Recently, one of the absconding accused was arrested in France. He alone cheated Indian Bank to the tune of Rs 4.68 billion. We are now trying to extradite him.

How big is the CBI?

Our strength is about 6,000. We are present in all the states; in some states we have more than one branch. The CBI started as a war department is 1941 as a special task (group). The British found a lot of corruption in the war department. They needed a central agency to deal with malpractices in the war department. Later, they realised there were other departments where vigil was needed too, so it was extended to other ministries. In 1943 an act was passed that extended the jurisdiction of the special task (group).

In 1946, the government realised they should have a proper agency to deal with corruption in India. The Delhi Special Police Establishment Act was passed, even today we derive our legal powers from that act. We are focussed on investigation and there is a higher degree of supervision. The degree of supervision is much higher than any other policing agency.

Is it possible to have some candid views on the CBI?

I am candid. Modernisation has been taken up in a very big way. Today, the CBI is equipped to handle any type of crime. We are computerised and have a unit to deal with cyber crimes.

What are your weaknesses?

I will be very candid. The weakness of the CBI has been that it takes too long to investigate. That is the general criticism. But there are factors behind it. We are not lethargic. We have many dedicated officers. So many cases are entrusted with the CBI, but we never have had the sanctioned strength. That always is a problem. Sometimes, the priority changes. Sometimes we work more on cases where court hearings are on.

Today we have almost launched a tirade against pending cases. Our approach now is that no case should be allowed to remain pending for more than two years. We want to complete an investigation within a year's time. The impact of this will be seen at the end of this year. It's a misconception that the CBI has cases which are 20, 30 years old.

The Bofors case was filed in 1990. Any case where the process of letter rogatory is involved will get delayed. It is not in our hands to expedite those cases.

Would you clarify the report in The Independent, London, which quotes the CBI telling the Swiss authority that it does not have enough material to substantiate charges against the Hindujas?

That particular line has been torn out of context. It's not that we don't have evidence. The very fact that we submitted a chargesheet in the court means it is on the basis of some evidence. The court has taken cognisance of the chargesheet. When does the court take cognisance of a chargesheet? When they find prima facie that there is evidence to support the allegations. That's my answer to the critics.

The Hindujas have repeatedly said the money in their account was for some other deal. After a good deal of investigation, the matter has been placed before the court. Let us wait. Whether we have conclusive evidence or not should now be left to the court.

The media and many politicians believe the CBI caters only to the ruling classes, that it is politicised.

You should not judge the CBI from the pressure it faces. There will be pressure on everybody in government and for that matter in all walks of life. But the question is: How do you deal with it? Are your decisions impartial and objective or do you succumb to those pressures?

It is disheartening to see the CBI functioning in the midst of all this corruption. Don't you feel responsible?

If you think the CBI alone can root out corruption, you are very wrong. We should have a multi-pronged approach. The investigating agency should play the role, the government should implement administrative measures and society should also expose corruption.

But the CBI is not above board. People feel the CBI should be above the rut.

The CBI has to function in the legal framework. It is not that we do not know the truth. But we can't allege loosely. The CBI is not a firing squad. The complaint must come, it has to be verified. It must disclose the criminal offence. Only then do we have the jurisdiction and that too limited. It is limited to central government employees and its departments. The CBI does not have the jurisdiction to take up cases anywhere, against anybody we like.

The CBI is doing nothing against corrupt politicians, that is what the public feels.

The information has to be complete before we can start any proceedings. Then we should have the jurisdiction over that important person. Any politician or public servant who is within the jurisdiction of the state, we can't do anything against them unless the state agrees. At the Centre, whenever information comes to us which discloses the criminal offence we always act.

Can you tell us about the investigation of Cyberspace, the company where the Prime Minister's Office was allegedly connected?

First of all, let me make it clear there is no such thing where the PMO is involved. There are two Johri brothers who set up a consultancy in Lucknow. They then floated a public issue. They didn't do well. They coerced financial institutions, banks and the Unit Trust of India to buy their shares. That's what we are looking into. It was referred to us by a state government notification. Any case has to come from three sources -- state government, central government, Supreme Court or the high courts. The Cyberspace investigation is still on.

What will you leave your mark on?

I told you we are speeding up, we will not allow the cases to linger on at the investigation stage because we are part of the criminal justice system in the country.

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