Within a week, the CBI has been pulled up twice, once by Bombay High Court and then, by Supreme Court. This has put a question mark on its partisan role when handling politically motivated cases
By Ajith Pillai
It was indeed a harrowing Independence Day week for the CBI when its lack of autonomy came into focus. First, on August 11, the Bombay High Court rejected its plea for custodial interrogation of activist couple Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, in a Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) violation case.
While granting anticipatory bail to them, Justice Mridula Bhatkar made some critical observations on a citizen’s right to dissent in a democracy and why it should not be held against him.
“A citizen may conduct social activities and may have a different point of view, which may not be liked by the government. However, in a democratic state, a citizen may have his or her point of view,” the judge said, puncturing the CBI plea and underlining the fact that it is the duty of the state to protect the democratic right to dissent.
The CBI had argued that custodial interrogation was necessary because of the serious nature of the charges against Setalvad-Anand. The CBI’s case was that Sabrang Communications and Publishing Pvt Ltd (SCPPL), run by the activist couple, received funds to the tune of $ 2,90,000 from the US-based Ford Foundation in violation of FCRA to carry out anti-national activities and for fomenting communal tension.
But lawyers representing the couple alleged that they were being targeted because several convictions following the 2002 Gujarat riots were made with the assistance of documents made available to the courts by the Sabrang Trust. They argued that the probe against the couple, initiated after the NDA came to power, was instituted for that reason and was politically motivated.
The case against Teesta and Anand is far from over. The CBI in its plea had said that allowing the couple to be free during the investigation would constitute a security risk. Additional Solicitor-General Anil Singh, who appeared for the agency, cited a letter of the Gujarat government, which said that SCPPL was a “proxy organization” cultivated by Ford Foundation with “some long-term plan”. He contended that the Foundation was “stoking religious tensions” and keeping the “2002 riot incidents alive”.
The court’s observations on whether activism of this kind, which fails to find favor with the government of the day, impinges on the sovereignty of the nation were revealing. “Prima facie, I am unable to find any threat to the sovereignty and integrity of the state or a threat to its security or economic interest,” Justice Bhatkar noted, while rejecting CBI’s plea that the couple were “agents” working at the behest of vested foreign interests.
The court also observed that it had to study the prosecution’s plea in an objective and dispassionate manner. “If the prosecution says it is a snake, the court has to distinguish if it is a snake or a rope. Even if it is a snake, the court has to further see if it is a poisonous or a non-poisonous snake. And even then if it is a poisonous snake, the court has to decide if it can be fatal,” Justice Bhatkar said in her order.
A day after the Bombay High Court rejection, the CBI received another rap on its knuckles; this time from the Supreme Court. A three-judge bench questioned the CBI’s motives for contesting the anticipatory bail of former telecom minister Dayanidhi Maran. “Political vendetta and other things should not come in. There may be people who want to fix him (Maran). There are all sorts of things going on in politics,” the bench reportedly observed.
Maran is being investigated for telephone misuse when he was a minister. An FIR registered in 2013 alleged that he installed 300 high speed BSNL lines in his house in Chennai, which were used commercially by the family-owned Sun TV network. The telephone misuse amounted to a loss of `1.70 crore to the exchequer. “It is a case of telephone misuse. Why do you want to arrest him? Why do you want him in jail…. Is there some other purpose to arrest him? The CBI should not arrest people for political vendetta,” the bench observed and stayed Maran’s arrest till the case was disposed off.
The bench also had some tough posers for the CBI. “In the NRHM (National Rural Health Mission) scam in Uttar Pradesh, `8,000 crore of public money has been siphoned off. But not a single arrest. And here you want to arrest for `1 crore in phone bills. Are you trying to get him?” it asked.
These observations put a question mark on the CBI’s partisan role when handling politically motivated cases. Does the agency, as has been alleged in the past, selectively act at the bidding of its political masters or does it really assess a case on its merits alone?