West Bengal suit against CBI probes maintainable: Supreme Court

Supreme Court Bench said West Bengal’s suit raises important questions on the wider ramifications regarding federalism

Updated - July 11, 2024 03:29 am IST

Published - July 10, 2024 11:08 am IST - NEW DELHI

A Bench led by Justice BR Gavai refused to accept the Union’s  preliminary objections to the suit, including that the Union did not control the CBI. File

A Bench led by Justice BR Gavai refused to accept the Union’s preliminary objections to the suit, including that the Union did not control the CBI. File | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

The Supreme Court on July 10 upheld the maintainability of a suit filed by the State of West Bengal accusing the Union Government accusing the Centre of “constitutional overreach” and violation of federalism by unilaterally employing the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) without the State’s prior consent.

A Bench led by Justice B.R. Gavai and Sandeep Mehta refused to accept the Union government’s preliminary objections that it was wrongly made a defendant in the suit as it did not control the CBI, which was an “independent agency”.

“The very establishment, exercise of powers, extension of jurisdiction, the superintendence of the DSPE [Act], all vest with the Government of India,” Justice Gavai, who authored the verdict, concluded.

‘Centre superintends CBI’

The judgment noted that the Union government was “vitally concerned” with the CBI, saying that this was plainly evident from the fact that only offences notified by the Centre could be investigated by the CBI under the Delhi Special Police Establishment (DSPE) Act, the statute which governs the premier probe agency.

“Under Section 4 of the DSPE Act, except the offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act, in which the superintendence will be with the Central Vigilance Commission, the superintendence of the DSPE in all other matters would vest with the Central government,” Justice Gavai noted.

The court went on to remind the Centre that the DSPE Act mandated prior consent of the State government to a CBI probe within its jurisdiction.

Justice Gavai, however, clarified that these observations were only made to meet the preliminary objections raised by the Union government. They will have no bearing on the merits of the suit.

“The suit shall proceed in accordance with law on its own merits,” Justice Gavai wrote. The Bench set August 13 as the date for hearing framing issues with regard to West Bengal’s suit.

Federalism at stake

The Centre, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, had earlier contended that the CBI too could not be made a defendant in the suit as the agency was not the ‘Government of India’. Original suits filed directly in the Supreme Court under Article 131 of the Constitution exclusively deal with disputes involving the Union and the States, Mr. Mehta had reasoned.

The law officer had pressed the court to dismiss the West Bengal suit on these preliminary grounds without going into its merits.

However, the Bench on Wednesday said the suit raised “serious questions concerning the wider ramifications of federalism”.

Without State consent

West Bengal, represented by senior advocate Kapil Sibal, had made specific contentions that the CBI had acted on the Centre’s directions. West Bengal had withdrawn its general consent to CBI investigations way back on November 16, 2018. Nevertheless, the CBI, with the blessings of the Centre, had gone on to register 12 cases in West Bengal without obtaining the State government’s consent. This had prompted the State to approach the top court with a suit, Mr. Sibal had explained.

Another Bench of the Supreme Court is tackling a similar question of law related to the State of Tamil Nadu in the case of Ankit Tiwari, an Enforcement Directorate officer against whom the Tamil Nadu Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption had launched a criminal prosecution for bribery. 

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