CBI should be made autonomous to keep out political interference

(Kushal Jeena)

The time has come to get political support to usher in much-awaited reforms in the CBI to allay apprehensions that the it will become powerful if it is made independent. All those who buy this argument obfuscate the truth that an autonomous CBI will not be devoid of accountability.  

In the current form, India’s premier investigating agency (CBI) Central Bureau of Investigation has failed to meet the high standards set out at the time of its inception because successive governments have used it as an instrument to settle scores with their political adversaries. The top brass of the agency has always obliged their masters in the government, because it is dependent on the home ministry its functioning.

The agency has been seeking help from the government to usher some necessary reforms to strengthen its infrastructure. The first reform is to ensure that the CBI operates under a formal, modern legal framework. The politicians cutting across party lines often talk of granting complete autonomy to the CBI so as to allow it to function independently. If they are serious, they should evolve a consensus on the issue and enact a new CBI act that ensures the autonomy of the CBI, while at the same time improve the quality of supervision.

However, no government has done anything so far except having discussion on the functioning of the agency in the Parliament whenever some issue of corruption comes up and CBI probe is demanded. The prominent investigative agency should also be provided administrative protection from political interference. To achieve this, a new act must specify criminal culpability for government interference. The agency has also been demanding that it should be allowed to develop its own cadre of officers who are not affected by deputation and abrupt transfers.

In India the law enforcing agencies act in a manner that they make a lot of noise. In almost all the high-profile cases, the CBI and other agencies do make arrests but also plant sensational stories in the media about the cases and arrested people, but when the cases come to the court all law enforcing agencies including CBI seek further custody of the accused on the ground that more evidence is being gathered. This is the typical way of CBI unfolding all big scandals. As a result, the cases fall through in the court because probe has been sloppy and claims were exaggerated as it happened in the high profile 2G spectrum scam, which CBI had claimed to have cracked whereas the court dismissed CBI’s pleas for want of evidence.

“The public expects the highest standard from CBI both in efficiency and integrity. That faith has to be sustained. The motto of the CBI-Industry, impartiality and integrity; these must always guide your work. Loyalty to duty should come first, at all times and in all circumstances.” said agency’s founding director D P Kohli to his team some 55 years ago. Today what agency is doing is exactly opposite.

Contrary to the government claim, the premier probe agency is not an independent institution because it has to seek the government’s permission to prosecute government officials holding high positions. The Central Bureau of Investigation is India’s elite instrument against crime. It was formed to tackle something specific and was meant to take on menace of corruption in the government as well as private sectors. The networks of the agency are spread over 10 regional zones to deal with all high-profile crime cases and s equipped with all the modern facilities required for the detection and investigation of special crimes. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi led current government had in Parliament claimed that the CBI’s conviction rate was 69.02 percent in 2017. The conviction rate of the agency under this government was 65.1 percent in 2015, and 66.8 percent in 2016, according to government figures shared in the Parliament, which are misleading for being absolute. A former commissioner at the Central Vigilance Commission R Sri Kumar had claimed that the CBI’s conviction rare is as low as 3.96 percent.

“If there are 30 cases of heinous crimes and 70 cases of minor thefts, and you get conviction in 60 cases of theft, it would he sheer deceit to claim a 60 percent rate of success,” said S S Gill, an expert in criminology and author of several books on crime.

The performance of country top probe body could well be judged from the fact that at least 2,300 cases remain unsolved
for over a decade with the agency. It has at least 1,000 cases pending for more than 15 years and 381 cases for more than two decades. The agency has recently updated its performance assessment, and tabulated the list of pending cases up to April 2011. But failed to profile these cases and has not given any reason for the delay in solving the cases.

The statistics available at the agency’s New Delhi based headquarters point out that Delhi has the highest number of cases pending trial — at least 458 for more than 10 years. The breakup is like this: 257 pending cases for 10 to 15 years, 137 for 15 years and 64 for 20 years. West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat follow Delhi with 338, 282, 264 and 156 cases pending respectively for more than 10 years.

The higher-up at the agency has not given any reason for the delay. However, K Madhvan, a former joint director of the CBI said the pile-up happens because influential accused use various tactics to delay the case. This is the reasons why 99 percent cases progress slowly in CBI courts. “The man who had tracked the Bofors and the securities scam cases, however, refused to specify ‘influential people’,” Madhavan said.

The British rulers had set up the CBI, India’s first agency to investigate corruption in 1941. It was then described as special police establishment. It was aimed at probing bribery and corruption in the country during World War II and was part of India’s war department. In 1946 the agency was brought under the home department and its jurisdiction was expanded to investigate corruption in central and state government departments under the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act. It continues to function under same old act. A three-member elite team consisting of the Prime Minister, Leader of Opposition and Chief Justice of India select the head of the CBI and they only have the power to sack him.

The politicians particularly from the ruling class often apply arm-twisting methods on the officials of the agency because it is depending on the home ministry for staffing, since most of its officials come from Indian Police Service and they run the agency. Such officials are also susceptible to the government’s ability to manipulate them, because they are always dependent on the government for their future postings. The dependency of the agency on the state governments for invoking its authority to investigate the cases there is also a great constraint.

Since police is a State subject under the Constitution, and the CBI acts as per the procedure prescribed by the Code of Criminal Procedure, which makes it a police agency, the CBI needs the consent of the State government in question before it can make its presence in that State. This is a cumbersome procedure and has led to some ridiculous situations. The recent incidents in which two states of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal have banned the entry of the officials of the CBI in their respective states without permission, has further complicated the situation.

The chief ministers of the states in question have defended their decision arguing that they have put the ban on the entry of CBI officials because the central government is misusing the agency to falsely implicate its political rivals in cases that hold no ground. The court had in a case granted limited autonomy to the agency still the administrative and financial control rests with the ministry of personnel, thus allowing the government to control the agency directly.

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