Southern comfort after judicial rebuke
While making a stinging criticism that shook the credibility of the government and put a big question mark on its intentions over the Coalgate investigations, the Supreme Court on Wednesday hauled up the CBI, its political “masters” — who tend to treat it like a “caged parrot” — and senior officials of the Coal Ministry and the PMO. But, it gave a breather to the embattled Law Minister for the time being.
Letting known its intense displeasure over the government’s interference in the Coalgate probe/status report, a three-member Supreme Court bench headed by Justice R M Lodha asked the government to make an effort to come out with a law, before July 10, to insulate CBI from “external influence and intrusion”.
So, the breather the government and its incumbent Law Minister Ashwani Kumar have translates to only two interim months and no more. What is really damaging for the government is that, delivering the significant order after a three-hour long hearing, the Supreme Court said, “The heart of the (status) report was changed on suggestions of government officials.’’
This was in an apparent reference to CBI Director Ranjit Sinha’s affidavit, submitted to the court on May 6, stating that deletions were carried out in the status report at the instance of officials of the PMO and Coal Ministry regarding the “non-existence of a system” on allocation of coal blocks without “specific weightage/points”. As the Coalgate investigation was supposed to focus on the ad-hoc allocation of coal blocks to private firms, allegedly at a huge loss to the national exchequer, the deletion virtually knocked off the core element of the probe. Therefore, the court said, the “whole direction” of the probe has changed. This is why the apex court pulled up the CBI for acting like a “caged parrot speaking in its master’s voice” and said it should stand up to all “pulls and pressures” and not share its probe with anyone, including the Law Minister. In this case, Ashwani Kumar. “The CBI must know how to stand up against all pulls and pressures of the government and its officials,’’ the court said. The apex court also categorically directed the CBI not to share any report pertaining to the investigation in the coal block allocation scam with any official or minister other than those in its 33-member investigation team and the CBI Director. In this case, Ranjit Sinha.
Giving another significant direction, the SC asked the Centre and the CBI to immediately repatriate DIG Ravi Kant Mishra, the investigating officer in the coal blocks allocation case who was recently shifted to Intelligence Bureau.
Also hauling up Joint Secretaries of the PMO and the Coal Ministry Shatrughna Singh and A K Bhalla for meeting CBI officials and suggesting changes in the report, the bench said, “These two gentlemen visit the CBI office and they were shown the draft reports on March 6. They go back and on March 7, come back and say changes have to be done in two paragraphs... It’s a sordid saga that there are many masters and one parrot.”
The bench went on to observe, “The job of the CBI is not to interact with government officials but to carry out interrogation to find out the truth.” The court noted that the CBI Director and the investigating team should have denied the two joint secretaries access to the probe report. “Does it not subvert the integrity of the investigation if changes are brought in the status report on suggestion of Law Minister and government officers,” the bench asked the CBI. This being the context, the court said it will consider various aspects, including setting up of a Special Investigation Team to look after the probe into the coal blocks allocation scam. It also asked the CBI Director to make sure that its reports on Coalgate is not made available to any person, including the Law Minister, other Union Ministers, law officers, CBI counsel and department of prosecution of CBI.
Attorney General G E Vahanvati stuck to his earlier stand that he “neither asked, nor got’’ the CBI’s report on coal scam. “My meeting with CBI officials took place only on suggestions of the Law Minister,” he reiterated, in contradiction to Kumar’s position outside court.