A few good officers

The Supreme Court verdict in the disproportionate assets case should boost the morale of all those who are investigating corrupt public servants

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:46 pm IST

Published - February 16, 2017 12:15 am IST

HISTORIC EVENT: “No one was willing to believe that we had the courage to go into Poes Garden and search ‘Veda Nilayam’.” Jayalalithaa stepping out of her house after her party’s victory in the Tamil Nadu Assembly polls of 2016.

HISTORIC EVENT: “No one was willing to believe that we had the courage to go into Poes Garden and search ‘Veda Nilayam’.” Jayalalithaa stepping out of her house after her party’s victory in the Tamil Nadu Assembly polls of 2016.

My mind goes back 21 years to when I was heading the Tamil Nadu Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC). The DVAC, thanks to former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s hostility, was a somnolent body until then. But once an FIR was registered under the new Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government on the spate of complaints received against the previous Chief Minister and her associates, the directorate sprung to life. However, it required enormous guts to launch raids at appropriate and the most unlikely of places, pick up valuable evidence, and preserve it assiduously for a clinical analysis. I ignored the few threats I received over phone that I should not harm ‘Amma’. I was only surprised that the calls were so few!

 

Displaying propriety

The search of Jayalalithaa’s Poes Garden residence in Chennai was a historic event. No one was willing to believe that we had the courage to go into Poes Garden and search the house, ‘Veda Nilayam’. Here also we observed utmost propriety. On one particular morning, she was arrested by the Crime Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department. It was an action independent of the DVAC and in an entirely different case. It was a move from which I had been kept away. So much for the ‘trust’ I enjoyed under that government. Once I got wind of this, I directed the DVAC investigators to immediately go into Poes Garden for a search because of the apprehension that some elements residing there would destroy valuable evidence. But this too was only after obtaining Jayalalithaa’s consent in writing for a search in her absence and in the presence of her authorised representative. If I remember right, this was done at the City Police Commissioner’s office where she was being held before being lodged in the then Central Prison, overlooking the General Hospital and the Central railway station.

This was the kind of propriety we displayed as the primary investigating agency. Of course, the powers that be were not exactly happy at the extent of courtesy we were extending to Jayalalithaa. In my view, this was the minimum we could do to a former Chief Minister.

 

I was proud we did not go overboard, but maintained commendable sobriety. We scrupulously observed all legal prescriptions in carrying out the investigation. In fact, a few in the then establishment criticised me for being too law-bound and not sufficiently aggressive. I had a wonderful team of knowledgeable and honest investigators, particularly the Chief Investigator, Nallamma Naidu, who was Additional Superintendent of Police, whom I could trust and to whom I could delegate chores without fear of being party to any illegal activity that bordered on unjustifiable overzealousness.

Upright judges and lawyers

I still recall fondly the assistance rendered to me by a remarkably clued-in and honest legal adviser who burnt the midnight oil to prepare a solid case to be presented to the trial court. Venkataraman is no more with us. But his soul would be delighted that he did not labour in vain. Here I should refer also to the tenacity of the Special Public Prosecutor, B.V. Acharya. I don’t know him. But from all accounts he stood up to enormous threats and intimidation. That should be the stuff of which our prosecutors should be made of. Unfortunately, several of this tribe in most of the States do not rise to the responsibility; their only qualification is their proximity to the ruling party. The institution of the Special Prosecutor must be strengthened if we are to bring the guilty in high places to book.

 

In essence, this was an ironclad case rightly upheld by the Bengaluru trial court headed by an upright judge, John Michael D’Cunha. I was thrilled when he endorsed the DVAC case. It required extraordinary ingenuity on the part of the appellate court to turn down such a solid case. I was deeply disappointed, and was worried that all my efforts had been wasted by the most irrational judicial order by the single Karnataka judge, with its strange arithmetic. The Supreme Court has referred to this in no uncertain terms.

The Supreme Court judgement on Tuesday puts paid to the theory that if the disproportion of a ‘public servant’ was just 10% of legally accountable sources, no case was made out against the accused. (It is an entirely different matter that the Karnataka High Court judge got his calculation here wrong.) Also, it confirms that the burden of proving innocence in such a case under the Prevention of Corruption Act rests with the accused, an unusual dilution of a fundamental principle of law, namely that it is the prosecution that has the responsibility to discharge such a burden. Without this facility in law, many of our VIP offenders would go scot-free.

The Jayalalithaa case stands like a beacon to those in the Central Bureau of Investigation and in the vigilance machinery in the States who are investigating corrupt public servants encroaching on and buying up property under various names. It proves that oral evidence can hardly be relied upon in such cases. Very few in possession of valuable evidence are willing to stand by their earlier statements while deposing in court. The reliance therefore is wholly on documentary evidence, and the Jayalalithaa case had this in abundance. This is why increased digitisation of public documents is of absolute importance if we are to rein in rapacious public servants.

It is public opinion that should assert itself now on. This landmark Supreme Court judgment will be in vain otherwise. Simultaneously there should be enough pressure on governments in States to free the Vigilance Directorates of their current shackles. Many of them, including Tamil Nadu, cannot do even a preliminary inquiry against All India Service officers without the government’s nod. I am sorry to say that in recent years it is in these services that dishonesty and rapacity have gone up to despicable heights. Unless erring senior officers are made an example of, we cannot ask their juniors to fall in line.

R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director.

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