The Supreme Court on Wednesday directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to conduct probe into the allegations of physical and sexual abuse of inmates in 16 shelter homes in Bihar which were flagged in a report of Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
The report had highlighted rampant sexual and physical abuse of inmates in several shelter homes in the state.
A bench of Justices Madan B Lokur, S A Nazeer and Deepak Gupta transferred the investigation being conducted by Bihar Police to CBI and dismissed the state government's fervent request not to do so and grant them a week to rectify the problems.
The apex court said the report of TISS, which was given to the Bihar government earlier this year, had raised grave concern about 17 shelter homes in Bihar and the CBI must look into all of them.
Out of these, the case of Muzaffarpur shelter home, where several girls were allegedly raped and sexually abused, is already being investigated by the CBI.
At the outset, the CBI's counsel told the bench that he has taken instructions on whether the agency could probe all these matter.
"The interim director (of CBI) has told me that court number one (of the apex court) has asked him not to take any policy decision. Tomorrow, the CBI case is coming up in court number one," he said.
The CBI counsel was referring to a separate matter that is pending before a bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, in which CBI Director Alok Kumar Verma has challenged the Centre's decision to divest him of his duties and sending him on leave.
The bench headed by Justice Gogoi had earlier directed acting CBI Director M Nageswara Rao not to take major policy decisions.
During the hearing on Wednesday, when the CBI's counsel referred to the order asking acting CBI director not to take any policy decision, Justice Lokur observed, "This does not say that all investigation should stop".
"It (order) does say that he (Rao) will not take any policy decision but that does not mean that all investigation will stop," the bench said, adding that, "tomorrow's matter has nothing to do with this, absolutely nothing".
"You find out if the CBI is ready to take up the investigation. Tell us after five minutes," the bench told the CBI's counsel.
The counsel appearing for Bihar said they have carried out requisite rectifications and investigating officers probing the shelter homes cases have been directed to add stringent provisions, including section 377 (unnatural offences) of the Indian Penal Code, against the accused in some of the matters.
"Can such a direction be issued to the IOs under the law?," the bench asked.
When the state's counsel referred to a provision of the Code of Criminal Procedure to buttress his arguments, the bench observed, "This provision is not applicable here."
When Bihar's counsel said that superior officers could give such a direction to the IOs, the court said, "It will leave more loopholes in the case".
The bench noted in its order that it was not at all satisfied with the contents of the communication sent to IOs directing them to add offences under stringent provisions in these cases.
At this juncture, the CBI's counsel said he has taken instructions from the interim director and "in-principle" the CBI was ready to take up all these cases for investigation.
Bihar's counsel requested that the court should give them one week's time and they would file a status report giving details of all the shelter home cases.
When he said every case should not be sent to CBI, the bench observed, "If state governments does it work properly, then every matter is not required to be sent to the CBI".
Bihar's counsel said that state was acting with "all sincerity" in these cases and court's order transferring these matters to CBI "will eventually cast a doubt" on them.
"Kindly do not pass this order now. Give us one week. We will file a status report. You can go through the status report and then if you will still feel the need to transfer the cases to CBI, then you pass the order," he said.
The court refused to accept the contentions of the state and asked CBI to probe all these cases.
It also made it clear that CBI officers probing shelter home cases in Bihar will not be transferred without its prior permission.
The CBI's counsel also informed the bench that they would file a charge sheet by December 7 in the Muzaffarpur case.
He said since CBI has been asked to investigate all these cases, the interim director has requested that the probe team should be expanded.
The bench allowed the request and granted permission to the interim director to expand the probe team and also asked Bihar government to render all assistance to the agency.
At the fag end of hearing, lawyer Aparna Bhat, assisting the top court as an amicus curiae in the matter, referred to a report of the Centre and said there were 1,028 shelter homes across India where instances of sexual and physical abuse have been reported.
"Do not mix it up with this case," the bench said and posted the matter for hearing on December 12.
The court was hearing a plea seeking lodging of FIRs and court-monitored probe by an independent agency into alleged physical and sexual abuse of inmates in several shelter homes in Bihar.
In the Muzaffarpur shelter home case, an FIR was lodged on May 31 against 11 people following the TISS report.
The probe was later taken over by the CBI and so far, 17 people have been arrested.