Freeing the CBI
G P JOSHI IN THE INDIAN EXPRESS
The debate on the Lokpal bill has thrown up three propositions about the CBI. One, retain the status quo; two, transfer the control to the Lokpal; and three, make the CBI an independent organisation. The CBI is now governed by an outdated act of World War II vintage, called the Delhi Police Establishment Act, which was enacted in 1946 to regulate the functioning of the Special Police Establishment. Section 4 (1) of this act vests the superintendence of the CBI in the Central government, just as Section 3 of the police act of 1861 vests the control of the state police force in the state government.
Since the word “superintendence” has not been defined in any law, both the Central and state governments have misused police forces to serve their partisan interests. There is a general perception that the CBI, like other police forces in the country, is influenced in its work by political considerations.
Can any government ever think of making the CBI an independent organisation? If one plays the devil’s advocate, one can think of two arguments that the Central government can cite in favour of retaining its control over the CBI. First, any police force, including the CBI, is a part of the executive, and in the Westminster model of governance that we have adopted, the minister concerned is responsible to Parliament for the efficient and honest functioning of his departments. Second, the police, including the CBI, enjoys tremendous powers and it is important for the government to ensure these powers are used judiciously.
While the first argument can be considered valid, the second can be contested. It is true that in a democratic system, police powers need to be controlled to prevent their misuse, but then it has to be realised that controlling the police itself becomes a source of tremendous power that can be misused to serve partisan interests, as has happened so frequently in this country. What is needed is to set up institutions and mechanisms to balance these two requirements.
In the judgment on the hawala case, the Supreme Court tried to make one such attempt. While the court transferred the responsibility of exercising superintendence over the CBI’s functioning from the government to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), it simultaneously held that the concerned minister should be ultimately responsible for its efficient functioning to Parliament. The court maintained that none of the minister’s powers could extend to interfering with the course of investigation and prosecution in any individual case. Investigation is to be governed strictly by the provisions of law.
Unfortunately, the government did not implement the judgment of the SC either in letter or in spirit. The Central Vigilance Commission Act of 2003 derailed the judgment in three important ways. One, it resurrected the Single Directive despite the fact that the court had held it null and void, being bad in law. Two, it did not transfer superintendence to the CVC fully. The CVC Act 2003 prescribed that the CVC shall exercise superintendence not over the CBI but over the Delhi Special Police Establishment (DSPE) only, regarding cases registered under the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988. Third, in exercising superintendence over the organisation, the government did not keep itself within the boundaries as defined in the judgment.
The possibility of misuse of the police by the government of the day has caused concern in other countries too. They have found solutions by developing traditions of good governance and setting up new institutions. The UK seems to have successfully implemented a very subtle distinction between the police as an organisation and policing as a set of activities. While the police as an organisation is the responsibility of the government, policing as a set of functions is the responsibility of the head of the police force. Government’s role is to formulate policies, provide budget, set standards and monitor performance, but it cannot give any operational direction to the police chief. The police acts in some other regions and countries have dealt with this problem by clearly defining the role and responsibilities of the government and the police department. In Queensland in Australia, communication between the minister and the commissioner of police is guided by clear provisions of the police act. Directions from the minister have to be in writing and the commissioner of police is bound to comply with the directions, but keep a record of all correspondence, which is later placed on the floor of the assembly.
In India, there could be mechanisms and institutions that will ensure the CBI’s functional autonomy, as no government will ever agree to relinquish its control over an organisation like the CBI. Also, the Lokpal could have its own independent investigating agency, which need not necessarily be the CBI.
The writer is a former director, Bureau of Police Research & Development, firstname.lastname@example.org