In Retrospect

CBI: Restoring institutional integrity

Evidently, a systemic rot has tainted the integrity of India’s highest investigating agency – the CBI. The only way forward will be to delink political powers from institutions of justice – to restore credibility and erase any possibility of arm-twisting.

Not long ago, high-profile cases which could not be investigated by other agencies were handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) – who efficiently resolved all concerns. But today, we see a transformed CBI, grabbing headlines for internal squabbles – not of mere petty differences but for deep-rooted conflicts plaguing the highest offices of this very reputable institution. It appears that, over the years, the autonomous credibility of this highest office has been shredded, reduced to a mere political tool, utilised by respective political masters at their times of convenience.

From being the topmost agency of restoring honesty, today, the CBI finds itself under a crisis of faith that has diluted the integrity within its ranks. Recent revelations and actions have only proven a troubling reality – the falling credibility of public institutions. Over the years, despite the Supreme Court's intervention to reform the workings in the CBI, vital questions still linger.

Is their accountability and transparency in the institution? Are the top bosses honest and not acting on the behest of their political masters? Are there no backdoor entries in the appointments of officers in the CBI and, most significantly, has the CBI been able to actually curb corruption?

In 2013, the Supreme Court made a strict observation and stated that the CBI is a caged parrot. Five years hence, the government's drastic step with its corresponding revelations have led many observers to infer that the parrot was more or less dead.

Senior Lawyer Prashant Bhushan says, "The government, through its brazen interference, has attempted to subvert the premier investigating institution of this country. The order of sending Alok Verma on leave and putting Nageswara Rao as an interim director has been actuated for malafide reasons. The chain of events shows that Alok Verma is being victimised for taking action against Rakesh Asthana, a Gujarat cadre officer, and also for entertaining complaints against top functionaries of the present government."

Claiming that the appointment of interim director M Nageswara Rao is illegal, Bhushan explains, "The provisions are apart from the fact that Nageswara Rao's appointment as acting director is bad in law. There is a published online investigation report, which enumerates various lapses and instances of unprofessional conduct on the part of Nageswara Rao which merits further investigation. As per the report, Alok Verma had apparently ordered a discreet inquiry against Rao, when he was posted as Joint Director, Chennai Zone, CBI and had ordered the transfer of the investigation of important cases from Chennai Zone of CBI to the Banking and Securities Fraud Cell of Bangalore."

The central government not only acted on the entire incident but, in an unprecedented step, also raided the headquarters in the wee hours of October 24, 2018. Incumbent director Alok Verma and special director Rakesh Asthana, famously identified as number one and number two, were sent on a long leave until the investigations against them were complete. Not only that, 14 officers from the CBI were transferred by the interim chief Nageswara Rao. Subsequently, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court. The next hearing is slated for November 12.

Providing more detail, Bhushan highlights the judgment that Vineet Narain (1997) had given regarding directions for the selection of the CBI's Director. In line with the directions, a Central Vigilance Commission Act 2003 was sentenced by the Parliament and Section 26 of the CVC Act substituted Section 4 of the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946 (DSPE) and added Section 4(A) and 4(B) which deal with the appointment of the Director as well as terms and conditions of the service of the Director.

The accusations against the incumbent number two also do no good to the reputation of the public agency. Being accused of running an extortion racket in the garb of an investigation, the CBI filed an FIR against Asthana on October 15. The FIR accuses him of receiving Rs 3 crore payoffs for diluting a case against meat exporter Moin Qureshi, who has been undergoing trial in a money laundering case. Charges doubting the integrity of Asthana are not new. In 2017, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court contesting the appointment of Asthana as a special director because of the graft cases that he was embroiled in. The prominent case that was mentioned was the Rs 5,000 crore Sterling Biotech scam, where it was alleged that he had received bribes from the promoters.

The Director, CBI, had furnished a confidential letter dated October, enclosing an unsigned note on Sterling Biotech Ltd and related entities, where the entries in the note referred to Rakesh Asthana. It though did not come in the way of the appointment of Asthana as the special director. It has, however, come back to haunt the Gujarat cadre IPS officer. In a complaint to the Central Vigilance Commission, Asthana alleged that Verma was building a case against him based on entries in a diary recovered by the ED in the Sterling Biotech case. The diary had four cash payment entries, totalling Rs 3.8 crore, against 'RA', which Verma said stood for 'Rakesh Asthana', using it as 'evidence' against him.

As an additional director of the CBI who was then appointed as the special director, Asthana has been handling key cases like the Augusta Westland case, Ambulance Scam case, Kingfisher cases, Hassan Ali Khan case, Moin Qureshi case, J P Singh Bribery case, Paramount Airways case, Coal Scam cases, AHD and Bitumen Scam cases of Bihar and Jharkhand. He is also supervising a number of special crime cases which were registered on the orders of courts or on the request of state governments besides cases against Ministers/officials of Delhi Government. These accusations come at a time when there are claims that the CBI was about to begin its investigation into alleged irregularities in the Rafale deal.

Mentioning the flaws in the training and induction process, Shantonu Sen, the former Joint Director of CBI and the author of CBI INSIDER SPEAKS says, "There is a leadership crisis in the CBI today and it is because the top appointments in the CBI are not aware of how the agency functions as they do not have any institutional memory. You had great directors in the past with the likes of D Sen, John Lobo, M G Katre, and S K Datta to name a few. They had worked in the CBI and risen up the ranks. You also had directors like Raghavan, Vijay Rama Rao, Vijay Karan and Anil Sinha – where the credibility of CBI suffered a setback as the officers did not have institutional memory. Today, there are deputed officers from ITBP, CRPF, RPF. No state sends their best officials to the CBI."

At a time when the integrity of CBI's top directors is being questioned, Sen provides an example of John Lobo, who as a director relieved himself from the responsibility of investigating corruption cases during the Emergency as he had worked with Indira Gandhi earlier. Sen also highlights the example of officials like Krishna Lal, Ramender Singh, Gurdas Mal and Jyot Ram who laid emphasis on the training of officers, stating that officers of such calibre are not seen in the CBI anymore.

Despite its present challenges, the central investigating agency has had a glorified past. Sensing a need to investigate the corruption committed during World War II, the special police establishment was formed. The organisation continued even after Independence. In 1963, the then Home Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and D P Kohli, the first director of CBI, not only gave CBI its present name but also increased its functions. There was direct recruitment through the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). The selected candidates were given police training for two years, after which they were taught the art of investigation. It was only after robust training that they officially began working for the CBI.

The process of direct recruitment through UPSC was stopped in 2000. Most officers today are recruited from the state police. There are also officials inducted from ITBP, CRPF and Railway Protection Force. In the highly publicised 2G scam that even led to the falling of the previous government, the CBI could not manage any conviction. In this case, judge O P Sahni was quoted famously saying that he waited for concrete evidence to come and yet, none was presented to him. Other cases included the Jain Hawala scam, Illegal mining in Bellary, Aircel-Maxis deal, Bofors, 2G spectrum and Aarushi-Hemaraj murder case. Presently, there are more than 1,200 posts lying vacant in the CBI.

"Time and again, successive governments have ensured that there are no reforms in the workings of the CBI because it suits their interests. Yes, corruption has set in within the CBI but there must also be focus on institutional credibility, which is diminishing," said Vipul Mudgal, Director of Common Cause, who has been instrumental in filing petitions in the irregularities within the CBI.

Despite the Vineet Narayan judgment case of 1997 and Lokpal Act of 2013, reforms within the CBI will not be completely possible until it is devoid of government control. Various activists including Mudgal claim that this is not an easy process and there has to be a persistent fight to bring in changes.

"From the Prakash Singh case (2006), the Supreme Court has been constantly emphasising that police investigating agencies should truly be independent of government control – yet it has not been followed by the successive governments," says Sanjay Hegde, a senior Supreme Court lawyer.

Close observers mention that the rot in the CBI had set in much earlier, opining that rather than just acting on the individual officers, systemic flaws should be dismantled. A prime emphasis must be on the CBI's autonomy – its close entanglement with the government of the day has tainted its purpose as an unbiased investigating agency. The CBI, its functioning, recruitment and decisionmaking must be entirely delinked from the central government – irrespective of who rules when. For impartiality and justice to prevail, the CBI must be brought under the scope of the objective Supreme Court, much like the FBI in the US.

"Satyamev Jayate is the principle from which most of our officials have never wavered. Even as individual officers may be dishonest, the institution per se has always functioned with integrity. There have been times when our officers have stood up to power. It was because we were functioning under the rule of the land and we had courage and conviction. It is time our officers restore that courage again," said an ex-official of CBI.

For officials to pursue ideals of honesty, political bias must be removed from the CBI. It has historically been an institution of dignity and uncompromising duty – for these ideals to justly reflect in practices, the CBI must not only be delinked from the government of the day but it should also be the greatest critique of the ruling powers – only then can we walk towards building a robust democracy where those with power are emboldened with the parallel practices of unflinching responsibility.

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