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How To Kill An Institution

How To Kill An Institution

It is understandable that the official website of the Central Bureau of Investigations, the CBI, has not been updated in recent weeks.

Events have been unfolding with such rapidity that even seasoned journalists, and perhaps bureaucrats in central government, have been hard pressed to keep track of who is currently who, and what will become of someone else in the ace investigative agency which styles itself as India’s answer to FBI and Scotland Yard.

This at a time when the Narendra Modi government, trudging out the remaining months of its five-year tenure, faces charges of corruption that would make the Bofors scandal of the 1980s, the Coffingate of the Atal Behari Vajpayee era, and the Coalgate and Bandwidth cases of UPA look like chicken feed.

Just as a matter of abundant caution, one must remember that Mr Aloke Verma is the director but not the director, and Rakesh Asthana, the deputy chief he had sacked, is still formally the deputy chief. And both cannot function in the offices to which they were appointed.

Each has accused the other of grave charges of corruption, one crime that was the raison d'etre of the establishing of the agency back in 1941 by the colonial British regime to investigate, if not control, the rampant corruption in the World War II fed economy. As an aside, don’t forget that many a fortune was made supplying perhaps not the highest quality of goods to the government for the Indian soldiers fighting in Europe, ranging from clothing, webbing to flour for the chapattis.

If this is something out of the confusing mirror of an Alice in Blunderland story, there is possibly more to come as an angry Chief Justice berates the CBI officers and their counsels present before him that they have also betrayed his confidence, giving him sensitive documents in a sealed cover while apparently leaking them to select media simultaneously. Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi showed the sealed cover response to senior counsel Fali Nariman – the father of a supreme court brother judge, and worthy of great respect – to show how blatant was the malfeasance. Poor Mr Nariman, well into his eighties, must have blushed inwardly as he was counsel for one of men in the case. He grimly concurred with the chief justice who then promptly put for month end the case he was so keen to hear otherwise.

This writer had some time ago suggested that the Central Bureau of Investigations, which never has been able to rise from the perennial controversies that have dogged the footsteps of its directors across decades, governments and prime ministers, be disbanded together with the other controversial National Investigating Agency, which must be the only one of its kind in the world to have submitted affidavits in courts of law, in the Colonel Purohit terrorism case, that its own earlier affidavits were presented under duress, with political leaders of the time exerting pressure on the agency. Alas perhaps it is already time to look askance at the Chief Vigilance Commissioner and the Lok Pal who too find themselves in recurring controversies.

Crime against the public exchequer and against the statute must be investigated, of course, as also serious murder and rapine, but that would need an entirely new organisation, purged of the evil that has penetrated the current lot. How it will be done, how personnel will be screened and trained for it, and how it will be insulated from the body politic are issues of debate and conjecture. But with the latest revelations in the Supreme Court, it seems likely that pressure will be built up to take a fresh look at these agencies.

With its recruitment policies and systems mostly insulated from political interference by a fiercely guarded Collegiate System, even the Supreme court has not been able to rise above the shadow of doubt of political interference cast on some judges that they have done the bidding of politicians in power. Chief justice Gogoi, then the third in the hierarchy had this summer joined three other senior judges to hold an unprecedented press conference expressing concern at the goings-on in the apex court under the retiring chief justice Dipak Misra.

What then of the Central Bureau of Investigations whose senior officers live and work cheek in jowl with the biggest money making machines and people in the public and private sectors, dealing in everything from something as concrete as coal and oil reserves to something as ephemeral as internet bandwidths which will take a degree in higher physics to understand.

Not surprisingly, the official CBI website has also immortalised the most sarcastic condemnation of the agency written by a former official. Manoje Nath, a retired officer of the Bihar cadre of the Indian Police Service, wrote some time ago of Gopal Krishna Gandhi’s Kohli Memorial Lecture, delivered to CBI officers, referring to a statement that a CBI director “posed a threat to the political class by being a self-directed robot, an instrument of terror, a power centre in its own right”. “Has any director of the CBI ever shown any inclination in that direction? The besetting malady has been their pusillanimity, their reluctance to make a move against the powerful even after being flogged by the courts? The inexorable laws of natural selection favour only those with the right attitude get to the top of the organization; those whose moral compass always points northwards. The system separates the chaff from the wheat and then opts for the chaff. Those who could instil the fear of law in the hearts of the powerful invariably fall by the wayside. It is not the highhandedness of the CBI, or for that matter of any police force that people in high places are worried about. It is about the threat to their privilege.”

“Experience tells us that for long governments have been running on the unstated motto “Dishonesty is the best policy.” Claiming for themselves immunity in the name of policy is the first step.

Manoje Nath said many police officers believe that extermination of terrorists, and criminals are the only policy options in times of crisis. “It so turns out that some of them turn out to be normal peace loving people like you and me. Will the immunity extend to these matters of life and liberty also or shall we limit it to pecuniary losses only? The CBI understands things but the rest of us uninitiated folks have still not divined the gnostic themes spelt out to them from time to time by eminent people.”

A former Home secretary, Mr Madhav Godbole, writing in The Citizen  digital newspaper last week said “the question, in this most unsavoury chapter, is not just of the CBI’s survival as an institution but of the survival of the rule of law itself, which is part of the basic structure of the Constitution.”

“A close scrutiny needs to be made of the way the higher civil services, charged by the Constitution with the running of the administration, have been enslaved by whichever political party has been in power. The protection given to them under the Constitution at the behest of far-sighted Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, has been completely eroded. What has happened in the CBI is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Godbole traces in delectable detail how Indira Gandhi milked the system, in her desire to concentrate all power in her office. She transferred the CBI to the Department of Personnel and Training, as she also took external intelligence out of the Intelligence Bureau under the MHA, and shifted to the Cabinet Secretariat under her own charge. Mr Narendra Modi’s PMO has churned this into the sort of absolute control we now see.

Godbole faults the election process which does not select competent officers, but servile ones who have kept their confidential service files clean. And the fact that the Chief Justice of India is part of the election committee means he is dragged into future controversies too. Can the court damn an officer it has itself elected as the one most fit to fill the post?

Perhaps an equally worrying issue is that two states, not ruled by the BJP or its allies, have said they will bar the CBI sending investigative officers to their territories. Law and order is a state subject alright, but the CBI, like the intelligence agencies has a pan Indian mandate and preventing it from coming to a region in hot chase of a crime will have serious repercussions not just on probity of the concerned state but on the large issue of federalism where states and the centre need to work seamlessly together.

Shankar Sen, arguably one of the most intellectual policemen of his time – he retired as the head of investigations of the National Human Rights Commission – says the CBI may yet be saved perhaps by giving it statutory status, strengthen its functional autonomy and insulate it from extraneous pressures and influences. This, he remands, was the recommendation by the L.P. Singh Reform Committee in 1978 and Parliament Standing Committee on Personnel, Pubic Grievances Law, Justice in 2008 which was against the creation of another anticorruption agency with overlapping of jurisdiction and conflict of interest.

(Published on 26th November 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 48)