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CBI: A white elephant?

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On October 21, Maharashtra joined Rajasthan and West Bengal in declaring that the central probe agency wasn’t welcome into the states anymore. That doesn’t add to its credibility.

By Sujit Bhar

What is the purpose of the existence of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)? As per its own website: “It is an elite force playing a major role in preservation of values in public life and in ensuring the health of the national economy. It is also the nodal police agency in India which coordinates investigation on behalf of Interpol member countries.”

One gets several conflicting opinions from this. Is it an agency investigating financial crimes? The Enforcement Directorate (ED), one thought, had that mandate. How does the CBI ensure the health of the economy? Isn’t that the mandate of the finance ministry and the RBI?

Then there is the more understandable mandate, which says: “It (the CBI) is also the nodal police agency in India which coordinates investigation on behalf of Interpol member countries.” That makes sense as an agency that can link Indian investigations with international cartels or rackets. That makes it a link agency. If so, what is it doing investigating the death of an Indian film actor? But we should let that pass.

The other mandate has a vague definition: “…preservation of values in public life”. That would normally mean tracking and punishing corruption within government agencies and in high office. That is also assuming that there is no political interference in the actions of the agency. One need not comment on that for obvious reasons.

What about crimes within the country that happen across state borders? We need to go from the basics here. First, law and order is a state subject. Crimes within the states have been, for long, handled by several agencies within the state, such as the detective department, the intelligence branch, the CID, and more. The CBI, one believes, should act almost as an adjunct, primarily aiming at corruption at high levels, which the smaller agencies might not be able to reach.

Then why is it involved in Bollywood and with small starlets who were not even known faces before the Sushant Singh Rajput death case broke?

Is the CBI known for its neutrality? Definitely not.

So, if one sits down to eliminate the CBI’s very presence from one’s mind and also accepts that police reforms have been implemented in full as per the Supreme Court’s orders and guidelines, does that make the country any poorer?

For national emergencies and matters of national security, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) is an able body. Do we need the CBI at all? If it has to exist at all accepting that state police departments have been turned into political hotbeds, comprising only yes men why should the CBI exist with legally truncated powers? 

This problem is a mirror of what happens in legislation. Indian legislators will throw a new piece of legislation at a problem, without even sitting down to examine if existing laws could have helped with amendments. New problems such as cyber crime are understandable. But legislation that creates a new agency just because the last agency had been besmirched by political interference and corruption, or enacting a new law because loopholes in the last one had been badly misused by politicians, are useless acts. The nation just ends up spending valuable resources.

Back to the CBI. One now sees three states of the country which have refused entry to the agency’s sleuths, all legally. On October 21, Maharashtra joined Rajasthan and West Bengal in declaring that CBI sleuths aren’t welcome in those states anymore.

The process was legal. The states just withdrew their “general consent” to the CBI to operate within the jurisdiction of the states. This means that the central agency will no more be able to enter and probe incidents and crimes within the states’ borders.

The process is legal, but the decision is political, and the CBI has been shunted into a corner. It has two options. It can approach the state government for permission on a case-to-case basis, or it can approach the Supreme Court or the Bombay High Court. The courts have the power to let the CBI sleuths in.

But the overall image of the CBI is so tarnished and its credibility is at such a low that few would want to believe its seriousness and proclamation of neutrality.

Forget the “a caged parrot speaking in its master’s voice” quote regarding the agency, or a later act in which the agency just changed the “look out notice” issued for Vijay Mallya from detaining him to just reporting his travels (that allowed him to escape to London), the high hopes with which it was set up have come crumbling down.

People tried to cure its ailments. As former Union Home Secretary Madhav Godbole has written: “In 1978, the committee appointed, under the chairmanship of LP Singh, the then union home secretary, had made wide-ranging recommendations to improve the CBI’s working. As is the usual practice in such cases, the report was consigned to the archives.

“This was followed by the recommendations of the Estimates Committee of Parliament (1991-92). The Committee had urged that a clear cut policy should be laid down stating the purpose of CBI’s functioning and had suggested a legislation defining its charter. The Committee was firmly of the view that unless the CBI was given a statutory status and well defined legal powers to investigate cases which have ramifications in states, its effectiveness would decline substantially and steeply.”

That does sound so much like the autonomy demanded by the police forces of the country and sounds so much like the reform recommendations etched out in decrees from the Supreme Court that have been thrown into dustbins of history.

Why should the public pay for the maintenance of a huge, white, chained elephant that tries to spend its time and resources chasing starlets at the behest of its political masters? Why should the public pay for a “national” investigative agency that can be denied permission even to enter a state’s border by the latter’s government? What is its “national” character, anyway?

While the state governments use their state forces to effect, the centre uses the CBI and such other agencies to strike back. Was this the purpose of setting up such humongous organisations?

Police reforms would have been cheaper, more efficient, more responsive and with more people with their ears to the ground, seeking answers that often lie in tight, local zones. There has to be an understanding that the CBI is not an all cure pill for evils that plague our society. The CBI has done some exposés, for sure, but case-for-case, it has failed in more.

And what is the success rate of the CBI? As per the probe agency, it was 65.6 percent in 2005, 72.9 percent in 2006, 67.7 percent in 2007 and 64.4 percent in 2009. Then there are later “numbers” and this was told to the Lok Sabha in 2017 which said that the rate of convictions was at 69.02 percent in 2014, 65.1 percent in 2015 and 66.8 percent in 2016. So the CBI is a highly successful agency, right? Wrong.

These numbers are misleading. According to a published article, these numbers have been analysed in a book, Curbing Corruption in Asian Countries: An Impossible Dream? by Jon ST Quah. The author quotes an Indian writer, SS Gill, saying (this is a quote from the article): “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 be sheer deceit to claim a 60 percent rate of success.”

The CBI’s success (conviction) rate in big cases is a shade under 4 percent (3.96 percent, according to one source).

The CBI was not instituted to catch petty thieves, even if it has. That’s not why people pay their taxes. It was built with bigger dreams, dreams that now lie shattered, just like the institution itself.

It is time to decide its fate. For good.

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