Bengal can’t bar CBI, Centre tells Supreme Court

The power to withhold consent to the agency is not absolute, the Union Government says in its affidavit.

October 22, 2021 12:59 pm | Updated October 23, 2021 07:22 am IST - New Delhi

People from West Bengal taking refuge in Dhubri district of Assam following violence after election results were declared on May 2. File. Photo: Special Arrangement

People from West Bengal taking refuge in Dhubri district of Assam following violence after election results were declared on May 2. File. Photo: Special Arrangement

The Union Government told the Supreme Court that Mamata Banerjee’s government in West Bengal does not have any “absolute” power to keep the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) from investigating crimes inside the State.

The Centre said that “no power, not even the Union government”, has the authority to rattle the autonomy of the premier agency to conduct investigations, especially in the cases of post-poll violence transferred to it by the Calcutta High Court, in which the State Police is under a cloud.

The Union Government, through the Department of Personnel and Training, was responding to a suit filed by the West Bengal Government against the Union of India under Article 131 of the Constitution. The State has challenged the CBI’s jurisdiction to register FIRs and conduct investigations in the State in myriad cases. West Bengal said it had withdrawn “general consent” to the CBI way back in 2018. The State said the CBI’s actions were a direct attack on the federal structure of governance and aimed to harass ruling Trinamool Congress leaders in the State.

The case came up for hearing before a Bench of Justices L. Nageswara Rao and B.R. Gavai on Friday. The Bench said the arguments in the case need to be heard in detail, and posted it for hearing on November 16.

“The suit is filed by proceeding on the basis that the power to withhold consent is absolute. This certainly cannot be so...” the Centre said.

In its affidavit, the Centre, while maintaining that West Bengal’s power to withhold consent to the CBI was far from absolute, accused the latter of “suppressing” information in the apex court that the post-poll violence cases were transferred to the agency by the Calcutta HC.

It said withdrawal of general consent would not stand in the way of constitutional courts entrusting the CBI with the cases “where it is found that the State Police would not effectively conduct a fair and impartial investigation”.

Besides, the CBI was empowered to probe cases concerning any of the Central subjects enumerated in the Union List in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. The affidavit said the alleged crimes under investigation were offences under parliamentary laws.

“All these would be traceable to laws made by Parliament… the State government would neither have competence to use its police force to investigate these offences,” the Centre argued.

The Union’s affidavit referred to 12 cases highlighted by the State. It said these cases also relate to offences of corruption against Central Government employees, etc.

“There are numerous investigations which are being carried out against Central Government employees or have either pan-India impact or impact on more than one State for the purpose of conducting investigation into such offences. It is always desirable and in the larger interest of justice that the Central agency conducts the investigation in such cases,” the Centre said.

It questioned why West Bengal had made the “Union of India” the sole party in the suit before the Supreme Court. “The Union of India has not registered any case in the State of West Bengal, nor has it been investigating any case,” the 61-page affidavit said.

The Centre said West Bengal has “strangely not made CBI a party to the suit”. Suits under Article 131 are filed exclusively in the Supreme Court with regard to disputes between States, or between the Centre and State.

The Centre said that since the Union of India has nothing to do with the affair and since the CBI was an autonomous body not controlled by the Union Government, the suit was misplaced and should be dismissed.

The apex court had issued notice in the suit in early September. The State government, in its plea, has sought a stay of investigation in the FIRs lodged by the CBI.

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