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Former CBI Director R C Sharma tells Aditi Phadnis that friends in the IAS and the IPS give the agency’s directors and officers more trouble than politicians
You were the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in 1997-98. You have headed the CBI under multiple prime ministers (PMs). You would be the best person to answer this question: Why is the CBI considered a plaything of PMs — using it the way they think fit?
I don’t think this is factually accurate. It is true I saw several PMs during my tenure in the CBI — not just as director, but also as an officer. The CBI doesn’t report to the PM; it reports to courts. I am quite old school, so I do not hesitate in saying the old times when meeting ministers and the PM was a taboo for CBI officers were better times. We were always told meeting them would be familiarity and any familiarity could lead to gain.
So, if a PM called you, you wouldn’t go?
I wouldn’t say that. How can you ignore a call from the PM of India? But, Indian PMs are highly intelligent individuals; they don’t call people of our stature, they get others to do it.
Let me give you an example. I had just been appointed the CBI director by Mr I K Gujral. I found Mr Gujral would not talk to me freely. He would always say, “Let us go to the lawn...” On one occasion, I was asked to see him soon after I was appointed. During a family function on Race Course Road, I was around Mr Gujral when his brother Satish came and hugged me. He asked the PM, “Don’t you know him?” Then, he asked me, “What are you doing here?”
“I have been appointed the CBI director,” I told him. He turned to the PM and said, “You have appointed this man? You’ve lost your head!”
Mr Gujral and his family knew me. But, he told me later, “I wanted to keep a distance from you. I did not want our relationship to be exploited or misused.”
Mr H D Deve Gowda used to talk to me very freely. Chandra Shekhar also talked to me, but he was always critical of the CBI.
Mr P V Narasimha Rao kept his distance from the CBI. But no PM ever rang me up. Others would call on the PM’s behalf. C M Ibrahim called officers on Mr Gowda’s behalf. Mr Gujral had N N Vora; but he called me only to discuss official matters.
In fact, the opposite is true. I told my colleagues — in a number of cases — the decision would be that of the CBI director. So, they had the power to do exactly what was correct. That was so in the Uphaar fire case.
Actually, in the CBI, I have found that friends in the IAS (Indian Administrative Service) and IPS (Indian Police Service) give you more trouble than the politicians.
During your tenure, the case against L K Advani and others named in the Jain diaries case, supposedly about Hawala operations, was on. A lower court had framed the chargesheet. It said diary entries maintained by Jain revealed Rs 65.5 crore had been paid to 115 people from 1988-91. Of this, Rs 53.5 crore was found to be illegally transferred to India via hawala channels.
This is a very difficult topic. Vijaya Rama Rao and then Joginder Singh were the CBI directors, and then I took charge. The courts were convinced the CBI was being reduced from an independent investigative agency to a body subservient to the political leadership. There was a lot of pressure. To that was added the pressure from the media. Rao was afraid of what the courts would say. Junior officers were forced to go to the courts every day. The then Chief Justice J S Verma was monitoring the case.
But, didn’t the high court finally drop all charges? Everyone was acquitted. So, the CBI committed a monstrous wrong, presumably under instructions, and tried to frame innocent persons...
You should ask those who were monitoring the case in the court and examining the evidence. The Chief Justice monitored the case and the high court quashed it.
But, the lives of Advani and others changed forever...
That is so with every public servant who is accused of corruption.
So, the CBI is a black box — one goes in it innocent but comes out guilty, irrespective of whether or not he is guilty?
I found if I sent a case for an opinion to the law ministry — and we did this frequently to get a second opinion — it went through some significant changes when it came back.
You were with the CBI, though not as director, when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated...
Yes, I attended the first meeting when we got the news. We were under intense pressure to announce the name of an officer who would head the enquiry. The home secretary called for a list of names. Unfortunately, in the CBI at that time, we had no Tamil-speaking officer. So, another list was made and I was informed that the officer had been selected.
The implication being that the officer was selected for his linguistics rather than investigative capabilities...
He had already been selected.
From then, let us cut to 2012. The PM has said he wants corporate bribery to be investigated. How feasible is it, given the CBI’s capacities?
Technology is now so advanced that any agency can do it. The CBI doesn’t have to be the agency; it could be the fraud squad in the ministry of finance or the Enforcement Directorate.
The PM has also asked the CBI to get experts, if the agency thinks it lacks expertise. Do you think outsourcing investigation is a good idea?
When we were investigating the Harshad Mehta stock market scam, we found it was difficult to find officers who could understand the stock market. So, we called in people from the forensic divisions of banks. I will admit the Harshad Mehta case was beyond our capability. Other areas of investigation also suffered a deficit.
My regret is despite all this, we registered 43 cases. Two exclusive judges heard the case, but it still took years to finalise it. Not only the CBI, but other areas of investigation also lag. We called on the expertise of officers in public sector banks. We did not go to the private sector. That would be a first.
What is the CBI’s strongest and the weakest point?
Its strongest point is the tradition of probity and simplicity. Which organisation tells its officers?: “Mr Sharma, you are wearing an expensive watch. What will people say?” There were strict rules about drinking, you did not do it openly. I cannot recall a single CBI party where drinks were served. The weakest point is the acute shortage of good officers. In the states, in their cadres, IPS officers are like feudal lords. Here the salary is the same, you have next to no powers and the temptations are so many.
You are attending a conference on private sector security. Is it strange for a person who has served the government all his life?
Not at all. Twenty five years ago, I met the commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, Sir Robert Mark. He told me: “The police can’t protect all civilians. The private sector has to do it. This will be a big source of employment.” It was after that, that I accepted the chairmanship of the International Institute of Security and Safety Management.
The government should consider outsourcing some non-sensitive areas like traffic management, guarding railway stations, airports and regulating entry and exits. Technology is advanced and we should put it to use.