The widening sinkhole that the coal scam has become claimed its first victim on Wednesday as Additional Solicitor-General Harin Raval resigned for having misled the Supreme Court, while CBI Director Ranjit Sinha?brought the executive and the judiciary to the verge of open confrontation by stating that his agency was not an “autonomous organisation” but part of the government.?
The CBI, which later sought to “clarify” its Director’s remark, came in for criticism earlier in the day when the Supreme Court said?the agency should be insulated from executive interference. “We have to undertake this exercise so that this premier organisation restores its position of impartiality,” Justice R. M. Lodha, heading the Bench, declared.?
Justice Lodha told senior counsel Uday Lalit, appearing for the CBI, “as a premier investigating agency, your action must be to enhance its credibility and impartiality. Independence means not that you [CBI] move with crutches of the Executive. Your action [in sharing the report with Law Minister and two officials] has shaken the independent process. First thing we should do is liberate the CBI from any extraneous consideration and interference so that the investigation is not maligned. This is the prime task. Disturbing events unfolded in this case affects the credibility of the institution. This investigation and henceforth all investigations must be uninfluenced by any extraneous force.”
The Bench rapped the CBI for sharing the draft status report on the coal scam with the Union Law Minister Ashwani Kumar and said suppression of this fact from the court was disturbing.
The three-judge Bench of Justices R.M. Lodha, Madan B. Lokur and Kurian Joseph directed the CBI to file an affidavit by May 6 regarding the changes that were made in the status report, at whose instance the changes were made, and the effect of these changes on the entire investigation.
Justice Lodha made it clear to Senior counsel U. Lalit, appearing for the CBI that “if somebody is sought to be shielded then our reaction will be different. If we find the investigation has been influenced, then the inference is the investigation is farce. The entire investigation would be rendered meaningless.”
Justice Lodha told counsel: “Tell us when the report was filed [in the court], why was it hidden that this report was shared. In the first report on March 12, an assertion was made by the Additional Solicitor-General [Harin Raval] that the contents were not shared. In the report submitted on April 26, you [CBI] have not disclosed anything that the draft has been discussed. Till date, the court has been kept in the dark about what happened. We have no doubt that the government has administrative control over the CBI but it was said before this court in unequivocal terms that this investigation would be independent.”
Justice Lodha observed: “As an investigator you know your role. You are the master. You don’t need to seek instructions. There are serious allegations of criminal conspiracy. Where was the need to share the status report and doesn’t it show erosion of trust? Is there any statute that says that this is how the investigation must be done?”
The Judge said: “In regular work, if there is a shoddy job done by lower investigative rung then we call upon the CBI, but if the CBI is seen to be doing a shoddy job and is being partial then what do we do? Does this not amount to suppression? Can you tell me in law whether the Law Minister can call for the report? Look carefully into the CBI Manual and guidelines, etc., and tells us whether status report with regard to the ongoing investigation can be shared.”
Attorney General G.E. Vahanvati, appearing for the Centre, shared the sentiments of the court and said he fully agreed with the observations that the CBI should function independently. He said that “on January 24, the court put a question to me with regard to the power of the Centre on mines, then ...some issues with investigation. The CBI said we can’t put it on affidavit, we will put it in sealed cover. I never had a copy of the draft report. I made no changes. Then when the sealed cover was opened there was a para which resulted in a pointed question. I still don’t have a copy.”
Pointing out that there was complete breach of the guidelines framed in the Vineet Narain judgment, viz that the CBI must be insulated from political influence, Justice Lodha asked counsel Prashant Bhushan, counsel Manoharlal Sharma to address the court on the implications of the Vineet Narain judgment, in which power had been given to the Minister concerned to give policy directions and the power to call for information regarding the progress of the cases.”
Justice Lodha said “it is really more serious issue as even today. The CBI is not out of control of political and executive bosses. When investigation pertains to government officials and when such information is shared, this will frustrate the very independence of the investigation. It is not that justice has to be done but it should seem to have been done. Similarly, investigation should not be only be impartial but it should seem to have been impartial. Had it not been asserted by the ASG that the draft report was not shared, everything would have been pushed under the carpet".
Expressing his anguish Justice Lodha observed “How do you proceed? There is intrusion from every direction. Intrusion is from right, intrusion is from left and intrusion is from above, intrusion is from below. This intrusion was deliberate., We have to insulate the CBI from political and any other types of interferences. We have to undertake this exercise so that this premier organisation restores its position of impartiality."
When Justice Lodha observed that prima facie the CBI investigation showed objectivity, Mr. Bhushan disputed this and said there were efforts to shield some of them. He said “the Central Vigilance Commission can at least be asked to direct the CBI to show the final report. If the CVC feels there are a few things left out and if there are things not done then it can ask the CBI to change the Investigating officer. The reason why the CVC can interfere is because of this administrative control. The CBI Director who has statutory status can be pressurised by promising post retirement jobs etc. It is through this they [government] manage to control the CBI.”
Mr. Bhushan said “companies are trying to operationalise and then they can say so much investment is being done. Every delay will lend them the contention of equity.” He wanted the court to appoint a retired judge and police officer of impeccable integrity to overlook the investigation.Mr. Sharma argued that there should be no politics involved in the investigation and the truth should come out. He wanted a stay on the allocations already made. The bench directed the matter to be listed for hearing on May 8 with a direction to the CBI to file its affidavit on May 6.