Coalgate: SC once again seeks autonomy for 'caged parrot' CBI

The Supreme Court, hearing a case on the Central Bureau of Investigation showing its preliminary probe report on the coal block allocation scandal to senior government officials before presenting it to the court, today called the country's premier investigative agency a "caged parrot speaking in its master's voice".

Supreme CourtA the three-judge bench headed by Justice R M Lodha, which took up the nine-page affidavit filed by CBI director Ranjit Sinha in relation to the case, came down heavily on the CBI and the government for having discussed the status report before presenting it to the court.

At an earlier hearing on 30 April, the same bench had said that the CBI must be liberated from political interference.

Sinha, in his two-page affidavit filed in the apex court, had said that the agency's status report on the 'coalgate' investigation was "shared" with law minister Ashwani Kumar and senior officials of Prime Minister's Office and the coal ministry "as desired by them".

The apex court said that sharing of information with the government about the probe into the scam has "shaken the entire process" and CBI need not take instructions from "political masters" on its probe.

Sinha had subsequently defended himself before the media by saying the CBI was not autonomous. "I am a part of the government. I am not an autonomous body. I have not shown it to any outside person. I have shown it to the law minister of the country. I will inform the Supreme Court about any situation arising out of that,'' he said last week.

The Supreme Court today also overruled the CBI's order to replace the officer heading the probe and directed that Deputy Inspector General Ravi Kant be brought back to head the coalgate investigation. He was transferred to the Intelligence Bureau in March.

"It's a sordid saga that there are many masters. The CBI has become a police force and is in the administrative control of the central government. CBI investigations have to be independent," the court observed.

The bench asked the government to give an undertaking that the CBI would be made impartial.

"If a law is in the offing which would protect the CBI's impartial investigations, we will not pass any orders, but if there is no such move, then we will step in," the court observed.

It came down heavily on the government saying that even 15 years after the Vineet Narayan judgment, the "situation in the country has become much worse as far as CBI autonomy is concerned.

The court was referring to a case filed by journalist Vineet Narain in the 1990s relating to the hawala scandal of the time. The CBI was widely criticised when its prosecutions collapsed, and the Supreme Court directed among other things that the CBI should be subject to the supervision of the Central Vigilance Commission.

''What is the CBI? Is it a collaborator or an investigator?" the court asked today.

The bench slammed attorney general G E Vahanvati, former additional solicitor general Harin Raval and officials of the Prime Minister's Office and the coal ministry, with whom the CBI admitted sharing details of the report.

"How on earth could the joint secretaries of the PMO and the coal ministry attend the meeting, see the report and suggest changes to it?" the court asked.

"It pains us to see the credibility of the CBI getting affected. The CBI is doing a collaborative probe. The job of the CBI is to interrogate and not interact with government," the irate judges said.

Vahanvati, who was in the courtroom, however passed the buck to law minister Ashwani Kumar. "My meeting with CBI officials took place only on the suggestion of the law minister," he told the court.