History repeats as Farce

Invariably, the rich man gets out of jail, while the penniless gets hanged. Indian prisons are full of such 'criminals'
Hardnews Bureau 

Probes by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) usually follow a predictable pattern. The investigations, initially, hold great promise when the case is handed over to the agency. In between, it generates great excitement when the CBI leaks information against the accused or about the case to a gullible media. In majority of the politically sensitive cases, the last phase sees the agency failing to file its charge sheet within the stipulated time period and is thereby forced to release the accused. 
Such a predictable farce is enacted time and again, thus eroding the credibility of India's premier investigating organisation and also feeding this impression that the CBI can only manipulate, but never convict the rich and powerful. The failure of the agency to book the guilty contributes in picking holes in the resolve of successive governments to have zero tolerance for corruption and crime. 

There is a litany of cases that would lend credence to this allegation. Beginning from the long winding probe into the Bofors Howitzer deal to the infamous Jain Hawala scandal and now to the more recent Telgi counterfeit stamp paper scam, there is evidence of conscious botch up and failure to put evidence on record. The Arushi murder case stands unresolved, after a flurry of goof-ups, arrests and leaked stories, with allegations that some influential people have allegedly sidetracked the probe. 

There are politically sensitive cases like the probe into the demolition of Babri Masjid, the corruption of Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mayawati, among other political heavyweights. The interest of the CBI is shown to wax and wane, political observers' claim, according to their political fortunes. Their case never dies, but never come to an early conclusion also. So when Mulayam Singh Yadav needs to be sorted out politically then the investigation in his disproportionate assets case is speeded up. A similar treatment is meted out to Mayawati, too. 

This does not mean that the charges of corruption levelled against them are not correct; but the conduct of the CBI dilutes the public perception about the gravity of the charge. "The investigation is a political gimmick/conspiracy," is a common refrain.

It is this lack of manifested fairness that opens up CBI to the charge that it is controlled by the party in power. Although the CBI chief was given security of tenure and the agency was made immune from any political interference by husbanding it with the Central Vigilance Commission after the Supreme Court directive in the wake of the Jain Hawala Scandal, but nothing much has been achieved since then. 

The agency has given enough evidence that it can do a great job when they are not mandated to save or prosecute any one, but such cases usually are those that do not have a political or big corporate interest. Many high value cases like the investigation in the Rs 3,200 Harshad Mehta securities scam, or even the counterfeit stamp paper Telgi scam are examples of how the probe was not taken to its logical conclusion. 

Take for instance the securities scam that hit headlines in 1992-93. The CBI booked brokers, bankers, but not businessmen or politicians. The action taken report on the securities scam could not show the end use of the money lost in the scam. The reason for this reluctance was obvious: the agency did not have the spine to trace these riches to some of the business houses who were being represented by the Bombay Bull. There was evidence then that these business houses that were represented by Mehta showed ruddy balance sheets even when there was no increase in sales of their products or any fund infusion. 

In the Telgi scam, too, agencies confined themselves to the prime accused without really looking at all those who benefited from the spurious stamp paper deals. It is common knowledge that bulk of stamp papers were used by real estate companies, but the agency did not vigorously pursue this angle. Instead it got involved in settling IPS cadre issues by implicating officers in line for senior jobs in the agency. 

A senior Mumbai Police official implicated in the scam managed to get an acquittal when CBI failed to find evidence against him. However, by the time he got relief, valuable time was lost and he could not get his next job. Similarly, another Tamil Nadu cadre officer, who had ambitions of working in CBI, was road-blocked in the name of shoddy investigation. 

The carcasses of those who suffered from unfair investigations conducted by CBI are strewn all over the country. Most of those who have got a raw deal are petty bank officials who have been hauled up for extending loans to dubious customers. The big sharks have invariably got away. The 66 per cent successful conviction claimed by CBI has implicated a majority of these bankers and petty government servants who enjoy no immunity from investigations and convictions. Officers above joint secretary level in the government of India benefit from what is termed as "single directive". 

One of the few occasions when the CBI consciously closed cases against those whom it considered it did not have evidence was when Vijay Shankar was the agency's director. He showed the courage to own up in many cases that his organization did not have enough proof and allowed many alleged 'accused' to walk away free. 

As elucidated above, for long, such a lax treatment was largely reserved for big businessmen. Here is an example of profound gratefulness displayed by one. 

This story is old, but surely, it will find endorsement from similar fat cats. Some years ago, a businessman was being investigated by the CBI for providing poor quality products to the government. This businessman befriended all the officers and investigators of CBI so that he was no longer afraid of the consequences of his illegal ways. "Once my fear of being hauled up by CBI lifted, sky was the limit for me to grow," he told his friend. 

Last heard, this London based businessman was trying to install an idol of CBI in his courtyard so that he could it worship every day and thank it for his stupendous growth. 

The purpose of using the CBI in this article to explain the flaws in police investigation and subsequent criminal justice system was to bring to the fore the sorry state of affairs in Indian policing. As a sensitive police officer pointed out to this reporter sometime back, most of those who are arrested in the states for petty crimes get convicted without the police verifying or investigating the allegations. Invariably, the person who has the money gets out of jail, while the penniless gets hanged. Indian prisons are full of such "criminals". 

It is because of these reasons that the Indian police is seen as unjust and insensitive. "Don't blame the police for this. They are untrained in forensics and over-stretched in doing VIP duties. Where is the time for them to investigate a crime," defends a police official from Uttar Pradesh. 

In a country like India, a fair criminal investigation is critical to ensure that people have faith in the country's legal system. Otherwise it would spawn circumstances where there will be no option but Maoists and Phoolan Devis, ending up providing vigilante justice.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2010

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