Rajastan govt to revisit bill barring probe against public servants

Under fire over the controversial bill that seeks to secure bureaucrats and judges from public scrutiny, chief minister Vasundhara raje Sindia called a meeting of senior ministers at her residence in the evening to ''rethink'' the bill.

The Rajastan government on Monday introduced a bill in the state assembly that sought to bar public scrutiny of public servants, including retired and acting judges.

The bill was to replace The Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Ordinance, 2017, promulgated on 6 September by governor Kalyan Singh. On 7 September, the Rajasthan government passed an executive order that it now wants to enact into law.

The executive order prohibits investigation without prior sanction against ''a judge or a magistrate or a public servant'' for any ''act done by them while acting or purporting to act in the discharge of their official duties''.

This amends Sections 156 and Section 190 of the CrPC, to require prior sanction from the state or the centre, for probing corrupt activities of serving or retired public servants, magistrates and judges.

Under the new law, the media too cannot report on the accusation against such a person until the prosecution gets the go-ahead from the sanctioning authority, which may take up to six months.

This has been widely criticised by opposition parties, legal experts and the media for aiming to protect officials at the cost of accountability and free speech.

Initiating prosecution of senior government officials always required prior sanction from the government and a 'single directive' protected officials of the rank of joint secretary or above from being prosecuted without government approval. This was so because decision-makers required some level of protection to be able to function.

However, the question is whether even a preliminary investigation of such corruption requires sanction, and whether the police or courts can even initiate such a probe when they have clinching evidence against such officials to act upon.

Under the proposed law, the media cannot report on the accusation against such a person until the prosecution gets the go-ahead from the sanctioning authority, which may take up to six months.

The controversial bill seeks to provide immunity from the provisions of section 156 and 190 of the CrPC, which deal with the power of the police to investigate offences, and the power of magistrates to take cognisance and order inquiries.

If the Rajasthan government has its way, all public servants, which also includes the CM and cabinet, will be insulated from investigation for 180 days (after which sanction is assumed to be given).

It may be noted that the Supreme Court invalidated the single directive in 1997 in the Vineet Narain case, and in 2014, it struck down the distinction between senior and junior officials to say that the CBI did not need prior sanction to investigate. It has also held that the procedure with regard to prior sanction must be construed very narrowly, and should ideally be considered at the time of trial, rather than the lodging of the complaint.

The state government says this law will allow officials to function without fear, since these provisions save them from "mental harassment". It claims that most cases against government officials turn out to be baseless and that excessive oversight and suspicion, and the prospect of frivolous complaints can make it harder to take decisions, and make civil servants risk-averse.

Maharashtra has a bill that bars investigation or prosecution without prior sanction. There is also a central bill with amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act, pending since 2013, which includes prior sanction. However, these are yet to be enacted